On May 30, 2018, I had the honor and privilege to speak at The Graduate Center’s Commencement. The full text of the speech is underneath the acknowledgements, and the boldfaced text link to essays and articles that I had thought about in preparation for these remarks.
Acknowledgements: For more information about efforts to make CUNY more accessible to low-income and middle-income people of color in New York City, please read CUNY Rising’s Students’ Bill of Rights and their white paper. You can also learn more about their work on Twitter and on the Professional Staff Congress CUNY website. You can, as well, read and follow the work of The Free University of NYC.
Special thanks to Melissa Phruksachart, Conor Tomás Reed, Michael Shelichach for reading drafts of the speech. When I was drafting the piece, Reed College’s undergraduates Maya Arigala and K.G. Alarcon read alongside me. We read and discussed Conor Tomás Reed’s “Treasures that Prevail: Adrienne Rich, the SEEK Program, and Social Movements at the City College of New York, 1968-1972,” June Jordan’s “Black Studies: Bringing Back the Person,” Roderick Ferguson’s The Reorder of Things, Sylvia Wynter’s “No Humans Involved: An Open Letter to My Colleagues,” Sara Ahmed’s On Being Included, Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and Craig Steven Wilder’s Ebony and Ivy. I appreciate Grace and Maya for helping me work through the ideas that appear in the speech and “Where We Can Breathe Independently Together” for AAWW’s The Margins.
Congratulations to the class of 2018 and to our loved ones who gather here today to celebrate our achievements as a community. It is an honor and privilege to be here.
My fellow graduates: We learned from stellar advisors and mentors. In working with each other, we created spaces and events that sustained conversations born from our seminar discussions. Above all, our education at The Graduate Center grounded our studies in the realities and vitality of public education. We became teacher-scholars.
Because so many of us taught while we pursued our doctoral studies, our work at The Graduate Center dialogued with the education of CUNY’s undergraduate student body. I want to highlight our doctoral studies’ relationship to working-class people of color at CUNY and, more specifically, connect our work to what poet-activist-teacher June Jordan called “the symbol, and the fact, of City College.”
I am from the composite undergraduate student body that makes up CUNY. Many are from families who are relatively new to this country. Many are from families who have been here for centuries yet continue to confront inequality and forms of un-freedom in a world that privileges profit over human life. “I can’t breathe” articulates the challenges set before us. You and I are learning to raise ourselves up in these times, and the history of CUNY reminds us: There is power in people transforming themselves in the face of violence and erasure.
Let me begin with my understanding of the promise of CUNY as an organic relationship: I was a lecturer at the same time and campus where one of my sisters was an undergraduate. We were at City College, where in 1969 Black and Puerto Rican students demanded that the college be a reflection of New York City’s public schools. My younger sister saw me try to balance teaching with my doctoral studies. I saw her square work with school. Some of her friends were students in my classroom. At the same time, we read The Black Jacobins and heard from our peers about Palestinian struggles. Later on, I taught at CUNY’s Queens College, where my other younger sister attended as an undergraduate.
I am the first in my family to acquire a B.A. but I am hardly the first to struggle with the language and habits of an unfamiliar place. My mother immigrated, for instance, when she was eighteen and made Manhattan’s Chinatown her first home in the US. At eighteen I attended CUNY’S Hunter College, which was originally a women’s college for training teachers. I was naïve then to think that I was the first in my family to pursue a B.A.; I learned that one of my uncles briefly attended City College in the 80s. I didn’t know then that members of my family had been or would become students on the sister campuses of CUNY. Through my family and time teaching at City College, I learned that CUNY’s foundational promise to be free was not just a matter of money but also a commitment to communal wealth. To be free, to be liberated, stems from mutual recognition of our differences as we independently struggle to lift ourselves from the conditions that bind us.
My fellow graduates: We benefitted from and contributed to CUNY’s promise and power. Our Ph.D.s are part of this institution that spans five city boroughs, which are also homes to various communities who raise themselves on their own terms. Their lives are linked with our academic milestones. This is remarkable, and we must remain committed to that organic relationship. Through our teaching and learning with this city’s communities, we have dialogued with the hopes and desires of the people whom CUNY serves. This is our fortune and our reason to celebrate tonight and every day.
Rather than rehearse the familiar stories associated with the state of public higher education — all of which reflect the domestic and global wars waged against people and the environment we live in — I’ll conclude with an image that symbolizes the power in people behind CUNY.
The image: a red door, painted on it a black fist gripping a pencil. Many times I passed this door in the North Academic building at City College, usually running from my own coursework, or eagerly walking to meet my sister for a coffee break. The door was the entrance to the Morales/ Shakur Student and Community Center. Named after two revolutionaries—the former fought for Puerto Rican independence, the latter fought for Black liberation—the center was created in 1989 by an occupation of students and community members fighting against tuition hikes. The space became a center for organizing, “know-your-rights” training, student advising, and it provided food and babysitting services to the communities surrounding the campus. That space was removed and replaced in 2013 with a Careers Center.
Years ago, I rushed past that door. I did not recognize that the Morales/Shakur Center was built on this conviction: We are learning to raise ourselves by writing our independence and future. But I am realizing that this image of the door has lodged itself in me. I share this image with you today because the ability to make a living, to have access to care, and to enjoy the right to well-being are indeed under attack. For many, our current political moment is a rude awakening; for many, these struggles have been long-standing.
When I taught a class at the College of Staten Island, only a handful of students knew that Eric Garner was murdered in their borough. Even our physical proximity to the struggles of others does not necessarily mean we will or are willing to recognize them. Unfinished, difficult work is here and ahead.
I was physically closer to the Morales/Shakur Center’s door years ago, but I am opening to this fact: that door at City College represented a defiant commitment to enacting change. To my mind the door now figures as the dream in concrete social transformation. As people who serve the people, we will, I hope, raise ourselves with the dreams enacted at CUNY— to resist private comfort and individual profit from these dreams, and to commit ourselves to the people we’ve encountered at CUNY, students and staff. The red door with the black fist calls for action that will write our future. It calls us to dream boldly through our demands and to materialize a world where we can all breathe independently together.
Thank you, fellow graduates, and to the people behind CUNY, those who patiently, anonymously, generously worked to insist that our shared education be accessible and collective liberation be possible. Good luck to us all.