Pamela Booker’s Electrifying Commencement Address, Fall 2015
When the graduating students of the fall Undergraduate Program (residency option 2) asked Faculty member Pamela Booker to be their commencement speaker, everyone knew it would be a special address. But we didn’t know it was going to be THIS profound.
Read the transcript below:
Where’s Your Tree?
Goddard College Commencement Address by Pamela Booker, UGP Faculty
20 September 2015
I was excited when Ah-Keisha McCants invited me on behalf of her graduating class to share this special occasion with you and then to learn that Wellness and Justice would be the residency’s driving themes. Yet I was also reticent about whether I’d be able to be here with your class today and certainly never planned to return to the faculty. Why? Because my life is unpredictable anymore for the ways that my body, my mind, my entire sense of being, knowing, doing—Goddard precepts—have conspired against me. It was a punishing summer for me, as many of you know, surviving an inexplicable car accident that subsequently took my buddy’s life, my dad, and now continuing to heal along with my mom from indelible physical and emotional wounds and loss. My life is also magical and absurd and fills me with profound gratitude. I am honored then, to be here among proud families, friends, my dear colleagues, and, of course, YOU, our amazing graduates. By being here, I am reminded that wellness, justice, love, remain integral designs of my life.
When thinking about wellness and justice, my spirit moved me to consider our more recent disturbing events that inform the loss of Black civilian lives at the hands of police and the devastating wounds that each loss produces. With that, one of Shakespeare’s more controversial plays, The Merchant of Venice came to mind. (In part, because of how themes of violence and capitalism continue to fuel one another.) At the start, we are introduced to a vengeful merchant, “Shylock,” who is determined to extract a pound of flesh for a loan that can’t be repaid. In the same script, complexly flawed, but intriguing for those very reasons, Portia, the wealthy heiress, resorts to an impassioned plea to save the life of her lover, (who owes Shylock the money) with an iconic soliloquy known as the “Quality of Mercy.” Her argument serves as an effective plot device to settle a life-threatening conflict and by extension also helps restore a community’s sense of compassion. Portia begins, “The quality of mercy is not strain’d/ It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven/ Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest; It blesseth him that gives and him that takes…”
This was one of the first soliloquies that I memorized in high school. It now fills me with terrific sadness in the realization that Shakespeare’s 17th century case for mercy as a “quality” valued by a civilized society and in the preservation of our humanity, is something we still hunger for more than ever as a modern people. Mercy is a powerful tool and only the most nobly intentioned within a society have the courage to act with it beyond theory or a beautifully spoken literary device. One contemporary example lives in the work of civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson, who testifies in his book, Just Mercy, as to how a merciful legal act can save an innocent life on death row.
Admittedly, this is not the emotional milieu we expect to discuss in the more celebratory space of commencement—is it? Well…but then it is a Goddard commencement. A year ago, we navigated the disputed call to brilliant resistance and charitable activism from alum, Mumia Abu Jamal. On this afternoon, I am honored to follow in his vision of an equitable, healthy, just society, along with that of my esteemed colleague Arisa White, who rocked the house last fall with her call to “bounce” your way into the world with staccato and her sense of meticulously stylized inspiration. I stand in awe of them both for their courage, minds, words, and hearts.
August 9 marked the one-year anniversary of Michael Brown’s untimely, violent death in Ferguson, Missouri. We all recall the details of that maddening tragedy. This young man’s legacy underpins the beginning of a now globally popular mime known as BlackLivesMatter. To my alarm, the list of transgressions and victims grows and grows. More recent names that captured my attention include 28 year-old Sandra Bland, who in Houston, TX, was, according to police reports following her disputed suicide while in lockup, “a loudmouth” who dared to question an authority-figure. Then there’s Freddie Gray. “Oh, Baltimore ain’t it hard, ain’t it hard, just to live,” sang Nina Simone. This summer in Philadelphia, I saw the stirring documentary by Dream Hampton, Treasure: From Tragedy to Trans-Justice that investigates the gruesome death of a Detroit-based transwoman known as Treasure Hillard, where police staged an illegal drug sting operation and then threatened to imprison her “as a man” if she didn’t cooperate.
These are not acts of a merciful society but rather what I term, our “marvelous injustices”— Shakespearean in the immensity of the cruelties, and the forfeitures of a nation that is not wholly convinced of the worth of every body’s lives. In turn, we are left like Shylock, wanting to extract pounds of flesh again and again.
Even as I have not crossed paths with any of these victims, their families, or communities in which they lived, I imbibe their suffering. I am disturbed further by the suffering experienced by the perpetrators. Their pain weighs heavily on me too, albeit for a different set of reasons and solutions that require more time and compassion. Yet despite how deplorable the injustices committed are and the persons and conditions that spurred them may remain, my hope is that you, our graduates, will return us in your own way, on your own terms to that place of mercy that is more than illusory or wishful thinking. These times demand heartfelt, constructively enacted, organizing principles that are more palpable than structural racism and the advanced polemics that disrupts higher consciousness, moral decency, and good sense.
You are tired, I know, from exhaustive research required of the Senior Study that you’ve labored over the past semesters. Still, I implore you, do not become sluggish in your effort to know and to know more. In your post-Baccalaureate or pre-Graduate school pursuits, take the time to browse or read the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. (No, really, I mean it!) Pay special attention to the 2nd, 14th, and 15th amendments. Study them to discern how our prankster/gangster politicians use entrenched laws as mechanisms that split, cause rifts, conquer, divide, and disenfranchise with ease. But then, because you are critical thinking and creatively practicing, reasonable people, for the fun of it, read any or every word scribed by James Baldwin, W.E.B. DuBois, Audre Lorde, Norm Chomsky, Cherríe Moraga, Toni Cade Bambara, Angela Davis, and Howard Zinn. Whew—for starters! Remember also to seek out younger activist-scholar scribes Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Roxanne Gay, Ta Nehisi Coates, and the founders of Blacklivesmatters, Alicia Garza, Opal Tomei and Patrisse Cullers. And finally, re-read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter from your 21st century sensibility, to study how the environment made for nasty dispositions in those early settlers, and to nuance the moral hypocrisies of religion, xenophobia, sexuality and gender that founded this country, seen for example, in the damning of single motherhood that carries forward today.
But for the real knowledge that builds on the bridges of the thinkers I’ve named —read what your own luminous classmates have written — on intersections of science, sustainability, race, gender, politics, art, as critical dialogues and the imagined, scintillating literary narratives, “fictions and factions,” called poems, novels, memoir, scripts, and eloquently rendered in music, song, dance, and visual media. Each of you through your interdisciplinary endeavors addresses with self-possession and collectively arrives at not so many exact answers, rather searing expressions of—wellness, justice, mercy. Love.
Years ago, as a young person in my early twenties, I found myself in the company of the renowned opera vocalist, Jessye Norman, when I was on staff at the Philadelphia Orchestra. She sings with sensuous, commanding beauty and exquisiteness. Her speaking voice was similarly terrifying and sublime when she asked me “What is it that you do HERE young lady?” Of course, I thought she was asking me about my day job, but decades beyond, I grasp her question as something reposeful, something more. Miss Norman’s question was bigger than me then, and remains so now.
So I move it forward, by posing her question to you, my beloveds, with the urgency of our times. What is it that you do HERE? Moreover, because your HERE has been Goddard College in the pastoral valleys of Vermont, allow me to tweak my question ever so slightly to ask—What is it that you PLANTED here? We are after all, breathing air among the country’s most vibrant flora, organic foods, and maple-producing trees. Have you learned to grow your tree, to taste of life’s sweetness when the bitter no long satiates your soul? Are you exercising self-care is another necessary question because, as Ah-Keisha offered during her presentation, “self-care is really a revolutionary act.” Are you exhausted from loving the difficult, the different, from maintaining peace and cooperative spirit? Do you know the quality of your mercy and your neighbors? If not, where’s your tree? What’s the quality of your seed? Are you planting deeply sustaining roots or are yours questionably elusive? Are you cultivating divine soil that in toiling becomes vibrant, rich, nutrient? Where’s your tree? How have you planted your conviction, your outrage, your activism, your fierceness, your anger, your genius? Where’s your tree?
Where’s your tree my white allies when your black friends, teaching colleagues, neighbors, that you brag about loving, respecting and working with are evaluated unethically, paid less, repeatedly sanctioned as “loud mouths? ” Where’s your tree when your LGBT friends, and stranger’s children are slayed in the streets of this country—not as something read on your social media pop-ups or watched on CNN—but as real, deserving human lives shot down on a city street, a mall, or a neighborhood playground? Where’s your tree? And to that, what do any of us do when a gorgeous lion and other endangered animal species are shot for game on reservations designed to protect them? Where’s your tree?—not to hide behind, not to cast shade, but to be used as an instrument for change or at the very least a worthy metaphor that reveals nature’s intelligence, perhaps your own and more as Dr. King reasoned, distinguishes the content of your character.
Graduates, in this resplendent moment in which we are gathered to celebrate your accomplishments, it is also one of significant transition from the sheltered, privileged landscape that is our dear Goddard. That said, I wanted to leave you with not just my words, but to gift each of you with a symbolic packet of seeds. Do with them as you, please. Emerge from your space, trust that your trees, your knowledge, your hearts will grow open, deep and wild; that you have planted yourselves HERE justly and with an enduring mercy. I know that you have.
Blacklivesmatter. By planting our actions forward, we honor this vital call through small acts that demonstrate each life is grown sacredly.
Pamela Booker, UGP Faculty