Author’s program note. I knew I would go to Harvard Commencement this year after I read a disconcerting article in The Boston Globe some months ago. It cited the opposition of certain alumni to having Miss Oprah Winfrey as this year’s principal speaker and honorary degree recipient, Harvard’s chief honor. Their argument went something like this, some of it overt, some (the ugliest)
She wasn’t up to Harvard standards, she was not a woman of education, not a woman of merit, and most important, NOKD, “Not our kind, dear.” As these words, written and implied, rolled out, I knew in my bones that come hell or high water, I would be present, in full regalia, to honor the lady and what I knew would be her message of hope, inspiration and empowerment.
And so yesterday, on the unexpectedly hottest day of the year, I went back to Harvard, on the day of my own 43rd graduation anniversary… to show solidarity, support, good manners and discerning judgement. And no one cheered her more loudly and with greater sincerity than I did… for I recognized that this was not merely an event to honor a single woman, no matter how deserving of such honor. But far more important to honor the sisterhood and their gentle revolution, an epochal event that changed the world and liberated not just women but men, too, for the liberation of women has certainly meant the liberation of men, though not all such have recognized this yet.
Before I go on I want to take this opportunity to introduce you to the principal players in yesterday’s production. First, there is Mr. Aime’ and Mrs. Mercedes Joseph, born in Haiti, two of the principal reasons why my life works so well and smoothly. I took them to Commencement to thank them, to show them an aspect of Americana they would not otherwise see, and, frankly, because it is easy to trip and fall amidst the undulations of such a huge crowd… and their support was very useful indeed.
Drew Gilpin Faust, President of Harvard University, Lincoln Professor of History.
Sandra Demson, ’58, distinguished attorney in Canada, veteran of the revolution.
Diane Neal Emmons, Ed.M., an old friend rediscovered, another soldier for the cause, her weapons of choice her wit, ebullience, and an optimism that will not waver, despite the provocations life throws at each of us, delighting to see what we will make of them.
As a social scientist, student of the material world in all its manifestations, I should not believe in such matters as destiny, providence, or kismet. Should not. But when a day arranges itself as felicitously as yesterday’s did, the right things happening in just the right order, one is forced to consider the inconvenient notion that something other than random chance is present, “inconvenient” because unpredictable, though that doesn’t necessarily mean bad. Yesterday’s serendipities were anything but…
Since I arrived at Harvard in the fall of 1969, I have passed through the great Class of 1877 Gate thousands of times. But when I passed through it yesterday I was patted down by a female security officer. It is a sign of our times, a blip that tells us the world has changed, and not for the better. Once inside a recollection from “Gone With The Wind” came to mind. It was at the beginning of the film, where the newly engaged couple, Ashley and Melanie, stand on the balcony of Twelve Oaks and look out at their world of grace, luxury and privilege, a world they love, threatened with destruction whether the South wins or not.
I stood for a moment, just next to the president’s office in Massachusetts Hall and looked at the vibrant scene before me. It, too, is challenged, roiled by even positive change… I was determined to see, determined to remember what I saw this day and what was part of me: class marshals in top hat and cut-away; their female counterparts wearing bright red rosettes with bright smiles to match; academic gowns from every renowned and prestigious university on Earth; new graduates wearing the most desirable costume of all, their unflinching youth. They would shortly sing “Gaudeamus igitur, Juvenes dum sumus” (Let us rejoice while we are young.) They would not understand… but the alumni before them would… for the words, once just lyrics of a well-known song, gather their profound meaning with every passing year in an exercise we call wisdom and which we cannot approach unmoved.
Rubbing for luck.
Every alumnus becomes perforce a guide when escorting guests to Commencement, and so, hobbling, I lead the Josephs to the statue of John Harvard, the Founder. Only it isn’t. There are no extant images of the man whose gift of books, lavish as all gifts to Harvard should be, launched the greatest educational establishment on Earth (1636).
What to do? Improvise! And thus a suitably attractive young man of noble countenance from the class of 1884 was invited to pose for the famous statue by Daniel Chester French. It stands in the center of the Yard, the faceless Founder facing eternity in the body of flawless youth. Both have thereby been immortalized, and this is perhaps why one is advised to rub the shoe for luck… for seizing eternity is certainly worth the doing. This is something every Harvard student knows.
When you talk of The President in Cambridge, you mean the President of Harvard. It was my privilege to share a few minutes conversation with the current occupant yesterday, Drew Gilpin Faust, president since 2007. An historian herself, she is a person of history; the first woman to lead Harvard. Let me tell you this: she is well and truly on her way to becoming one of the most respected and beloved leaders of this historic institution and thus one of the great benefactors of the Great Republic and the wider world beyond, for Harvard is universal now and forever more.
When you think of President Faust think of what has happened to and in the world since her historic appointment. You will then understand she has presided over six turbulent years, years when even Fortress Harvard knew anxiety. If she never did another thing, she would find an honorable place in Harvard’s story. But at just 65, she is in her prime… ready to do battle for the light. What will she do? Here’s a clue to one of her projects…
In her remarks yesterday she drove home one essential point; that the impending massive cuts in federal research funding are short sighted, self destructive, ill advised in every way. Research is what gives us the improvements we desire; slicing any part of it gives us less. Does this make sense?
President Faust will ensure Harvard’s clout is used to avoid this folly. And she has my support in doing so. Just as she will always have my support in any and all endeavors to strengthen the liberal arts and humanities, always the great beating heart of Harvard.
“Is this seat taken?”
There were just three seats left in about the fourth row, and I knew we should grab them. But first I needed a positive response to the question asked through the ages: Is this seat taken? And so I came to meet a new friend, Sandra Demson, Class of ’58. She had come to participate in the 55th Reunion of the Harvard and Radcliffe Classes of 1958. I introduced myself and in just a minute or two we were chatting like a house afire, discovering one person after another we knew and had in common. Harvard meetings are like that.
However, the most important aspect of our conversation concerned my questions to Sandra about the differences she discerned in the situation of Radcliffe students in 1958 and the position of women undergraduates today. And here a pleasant afternoon’s smooth conversation became more than chat, an insight into history, something she wanted to tell… and I very much wanted to hear.
You see, Sandra Demson, smart, attractive, charming, was part of the generation which placed every aspect and feature at the foot of Man… and lived to regret it, like so many other women who not only discovered father didn’t know best; they discovered that father knew hardly anything at all… and this made for many problems, ructions, and difficulties, especially when Man continued to insist upon a superiority he clearly did not possess.
And so Sandra, like every “good woman” of her age and outlook learned to carry on, bite her tongue, and somehow keep the faith alive, that better days, and lasting love, too, would come to her. And, in due course, “this too shall pass” passed… And God granted her marital love, peace, and the easy, “woman of the world” manners which we have all erred in not insisting our young successors should have and which she graciously shared with me on this sweltering day.
It was Sandra Demson who looked at Oprah and said, “She’s nervous. She’s trembling”… No wonder. A poor black girl from the Deep South,had by dint of unceasing work, determination and an attitude of “must” not just “can” do had scaled the heights into the very citadel of American prestige. There she was, physically smaller than her outsized television presence, quivering just a bit but the crowed roared for her… and so the lady of embracements, hugs and love, was soon awash in the huzzas which must have been heard blocks away. In a very real sense, Oprah Winfrey had come home, and she was greeted accordingly.
When the tumult ebbed a bit, Oprah began. Soon, just in passing, she mentioned a tune she loved. I looked it up when I got home and immediately understood her better as well as why she’d referenced it, holding it close, a security blanket. It is “We’ll understand it better bye and bye”. Written by Charles Albert Tindley (1851-1933), an ex-slave and “the Father of Gospel Music”, it is a rousing, barn stormer of a song, the lyrical equivalent of Oprah herself. Go now to any search engine and listen carefully…”We are tossed and driven/ on the restless sea of time… We will understand it better bye and bye.” I prefer the inimitable version by Mahalia Jackson. Listening to this mistress of godly soul, you can believe, deep in your heart, that better times will come as they came to Oprah Winfrey.
Then Oprah told us how they came to her, what she learned, what she had to do… and what she had to share with others. She spoke, like a female Polonius, of being true to thyself, of living your own life, not the life assigned to you or allowed by others. She spoke of the commitment one must make, the unceasing focus one must maintain. And she spoke of what must be done in the inevitable days when troubles come and one faces the reality of dread and defeat. This was not mere eloquence, though the lady excels at eloquence. It was not mere rhetoric, though the lady’s rhetoric is notable… no, indeed. Instead she was speaking from what the world knows as her great heart… so motivational, so inspirational, so uplifting that along with her massive crowd of the eminent, learned and well connected, I was on my feet, not just cheering, but shouting approbation and encouragement… yes, Oprah had come home…. and for the lady who loves there was ample love
My day was, I thought, over and completely successful. Aime’ and Mercedes Joseph had given support. President Faust impressed and reassured. Sandra Demson gave charm and friendship. Oprah gave the formula not merely for success, but how to conquer failure. It was enough, more than enough, but there was more….
Leaving the Tercentenary Theatre, Oprah whisked away by the omnipresent security, I saw a face I knew so well… and it was Diane (always pronounced Dee-On), Diane Neal Emmons. And so serendipity continued, unpredictability its metier, for here was a long-lost friend, benefactor when I was a penurious graduate student, forty years ago, success in the future, but when? Diane and her legendary hospitality helped make waiting bearable. This time she invited me to her home for the 4th of July celebrations when the known world gathers in her front yard to extol the Great Republic. I may even go… for there is a story there… and I want to be the one who tells it, for only thus will we “understand it better bye and bye…”
Oprah Winfrey turned me on to “Understand It Better Bye and Bye.” It is easy to see why she liked it. It is upbeat, toe-tapping, praise God music, written by the Rev. Dr. Charles Albert Tindley (1851-1933). You’ll enjoy it. Play it whenever the world and you are at odds.