May 2012 Graduate Commencement Remarks

Kwame Dawes

Dr. Kwame Dawes, Professor of English and Glenna Luschei Editor of Prairie Schooner, delivered these remarks for the graduate commencement ceremony on May 4, 2012.

Born at the Right Time: A Reflection

Me and my buddies are travelling people
We like to go down to restaurant row
Spend those euro dollars
All the way from Washington to Tokyo
I see them in the airport lounge
Upon their mother's breasts
They follow me with open eyes
Their uninvited guests.

Never been lonely
Never been lied to
Never had to scuffle in fear
Nothing denied to
Born at the instant
Church bells chime
The whole whispering
Born at the right time.

Paul Simon's meditative and catchy song is a complicated and sometimes contradictory commentary about the American in the world. On one hand, there is the hopeful chorus that declares that he was "born at the right time". And yet this man who was born at the right time, he and his friends find themselves to be world consumers, estranged from the rest of the world even as they enjoy the privilege of being from a powerful place of influence in the world. They are "the uninvited guests" in so many places.

In one of the half time ads in this year's Super Bowl, Clint Eastwood offers optimism. "Its half time, America, and our second half's about to begin." The implication, of course, is that we, those of us who are charged to lead America through this second half, are born at the right time. But there is a hint of panic — a need to assure ourselves that we are now at the right time to continue to be great. "All that matters now is what's ahead". Of course, if now is half time, American decline is to be expected in another three hundred years, not a long time from now in the larger scheme of empire.

By most standards you who sit before me now belong to a very elite and important cadre of people. You represent a tiny percent of the larger population. You have achieved an educational level that we are told constitutes the necessary backbone of our country. You have been assured that despite the job market, you will do better with your degree that someone who does not have that degree. It is therefore easy to enjoy this heady sense of achievement, uniqueness and, you might admit, power.

But you also know, if you have been paying attention and if you are being honest, that despite your hard work, in many ways your success has had as much to do with the circumstances of your birth — the geography, the political system, the century, your parents — as it has had to do with your hard work. The fact is that for many of you sitting here, it can be fairly safely said that you have been born at a time when things have opened up for you in ways that they would not have had you been born fifty years ago. If you are a woman, you understand this, if you are a Native American, you understand this, and if you are an African American you understand this.

You know, too, that one of the curious truths about graduate school is that while a degree confers on you the stamp of your heightened intellectual prowess, for most of you, your ability to walk across the stage today has been an confirmation of the importance of stamina, dogged stamina to just get the thing done.

I even venture to say that for the vast majority of you, this is merely the beginning of your intellectual achievement. Indeed, this is the time when you can start to really contribute to thought, make your knowledge work for the good of the wider world. Getting your degree has taught you how to stay with something, now you can really start doing the work you want to do, the work you need to do.

But what Paul Simon reminds us of is that with this privilege of birth at the right time, comes a tremendous amount of opportunity and responsibility. It is not helpful to be those friends who engage with the wider world only superficially and in ways that meet only their needs. You have access to knowledge now, you know the world better, and if you don't you are without excuse. Your contributions to your field and to the wider world of understanding can be enhanced by your willingness to view yourself as part of a remarkable global community that, through dialog, through communication, can strengthen itself, and can improve conditions for others.

I have three basic lessons I have learned as someone who walked across the stage to receive a degree, lessons that have helped me to first accept and embrace being born at the right time, and to then take advantage of the opportunities that this fact offered me.

Firstly, I decided to make my career around my passion. I did not want to arrive at age fifty, tired of my job, sick of the work I was doing and longing for retirement. I wanted to be full of hunger and passion when I had to do the hard work. I carved out a career around a passion: Reggae music. It is a sophisticated career, one that meets all the demands of my professional life, but one that continues to drive my passion for study.

Secondly, I took a great leap and determined to allow myself, for at least one short period in my life, to understand myself as a part of a global world, and to be prepared to step out of my usual idea of home and face the inevitable sense of feeling completely ignorant, by trying to learn something that I did not know before. The Ph.D. is a heady degree — you are supposed to be an expert on something. You can build a silo of knowledge — limited, esoteric and safe — where you are kind of queen of the world. There is nothing more unsettling than to open yourself to the possibility of ignorance again. But doing a graduate degree taught me that I could become an expert in something else if I applied the systems of knowledge acquisition I have learned doing my degree. So I have opened myself to become an expert on other things by first opening myself to be ignorant once again.

Thirdly, I arrived at the conclusion that a moral imperative must guide the way I face this life and this world. Simon's song may have been slightly cynical about the perfection of being born at the right time — no one lying to me, no one abusing or hurting me, no sense of isolation and abandonment, never been denied of anything, and somehow my arrival being heralded by the universe of church bells. That may not have been my circumstance — but it is a beautiful circumstance. My moral imperative is therefore to try to be instrumental in making the times right for those who are coming after me, whether they be my students, or the children of my students, or my children or the children of those who I may influence.

Ultimately the truism is that we make of our times and our place in that time what it is going to be. We can make it right. If we pay attention to the challenges as opportunities, then we can understand that we have a role to play in trying to correct the problems in those times. If we regard those things that may fill us with fear or anxiety as things that allow us to overcome the fears through action, then we might recognize that somehow, we were born for a time like this, and that indeed, the declaration that we are born at the right time is aspirational — it is a challenge that we can choose to embrace or that we can walk away from. I hope you choose to embrace it.