Poet Elizabeth Alexander delivers the Baccalaureate address, "In the Noise and Whip of the Whirlwind." (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)
Following is the text of the address "In the Noise and Whip of the Whirlwind" by Elizabeth Alexander, writer and president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, delivered at Stanford University’s Baccalaureate celebration on June 16, 2018.
Good morning, Stanford community, graduates and loved ones. It is my honor to be here on this beautiful day, in this beautiful place, to share some thoughts with you at this crucial juncture in your lives. I am grateful to Jane Shaw for inviting me on behalf of your community.
I come to you as a poet, having lived my life by and through the word. To me, being a poet does not only mean making poems. It also means being attuned and reverent to the power of words, distilled, precise words in the form of poems but also analogously as soul exchange. I give you my essential self in these exact words, bone-true. Being a poet also means believing that the collective that is sometimes represented by the griot or bard. There is the individual, painstaking and lonely labor and pursuit of artistry, but art is always for somebody, somebodies. Art speaks out of community, in that we all come from communities, and provides words or images or sounds that will be of use. Poems guide, enlighten, disturb, surprise, spur, soothe, enrich, ravish, and bedevil me. When I am far from art, I am not a whole person. A part of me is shut down, not fully alive nor fully perceiving, black and white rather than in living color, monotonal rather than polyrhythmic. Many things are true at once in art as in life. Contradictions coexist in art, even as form is resolved and made felicitous. When we are in the presence of art we are multi-dimensional and enlarged.
The world is spinning and turning, and I continue to believe that precision with the word is spirit work that will help us through the whirlwind. That is the news I come bearing. This meditation is in four parts.
1. The Whirlwind
The title, "In the noise and whip of the whirlwind," comes from my guiding light poet, Gwendolyn Brooks, bard of the South Side of Chicago, American genius of the 20th century. It is from her poem "The Second Sermon on the Warpland," published in 1968.
The late 1960s are an interesting point of comparison to today, another time when the country was riven by internal conflicts and questions which foreground how we might respond to or engage in what Brooks called the whirlwind. Here is some of the poem:
The Second Sermon on the Warpland
This is the urgency: Live!
and have your blooming in the noise of the whirlwind.
. . . .
All about are the cold places,
all about are the pushmen and jeopardy, theftall about are the stormers and scramblers, but
what must our Season be, which starts from Fear?
Live and go out.
medicate the whirlwind.
. . . .
It is lonesome, yes. For we are the last of the loud.
Conduct your blooming in the noise and whip of the whirlwind.
"Conduct your blooming in the noise and whip of the whirlwind." The world you graduates not only enter but are already in is filled with beauty and possibility but also with violence, condoned hatred, and injustice. Who is going to win this battle? I choose and believe in light and love. I know you do too. But it is not enough just to hope for it. It is not enough to wish for justice. It is not enough to hope that people will do right. If we value it, we must stand for it, and fight for it. Now that can look many different ways but what if all of you, all of us here, described ourselves as justice warriors, each in her own way? What if we consciously measured our actions large and small by the questions, Is this generous’ Is this fair? Is this just? Is this kind?
Let’s parse a bit of Brooks’s language. "Define and medicate the whirlwind": Our actions medicate the whirlwind, improve the health of the infirmities of the polis, if we follow Brooks’s exhortation. "Conduct": an organized and mindful action a way a group is brought into harmony. Another side of the word, conduct, behavior that is structured and hopefully admirable. "Your blooming": the word itself opens up and expands possibility. When you say blooming your mouth rounds and prepares for song, for elevated words. "In the noise": Undifferentiated sound that is not symphonic, sound that covers other sounds, the sounds you need to listen for pleasure or instruction. "And whip": The whip of the wind, sharp and punishing the historical shadow of flagellation, a violence that specific, which needs to be not only withstood but countered. "The whirlwind": That word is written by a Midwestern poet of the prairies, who understands the power of that vortex and can lift people away. She knows it is a word of great consequence and force that we encounter many times in the Bible. We can stand in it, but how can we withstand it?
As Brooks says, you cannot straddle the whirlwind. We are in it, you are in it. How will you stand and withstand when you face injustice, the poem asks, and I ask you.
The poet, writer, teacher and activist June Jordan, who lived from 1936 to 2002, is another of my touchstones I want to invoke for us today. She published more critical prose than any other African-American woman writer in the 20th century, as well as plays, anthologies, children’s books, and the tough-minded memoir, Soldier. She did much of her work later in her life in the Bay Area, with her Poetry for the People workshop which opened the walls of the university to people in the Bay Area interested in the liberatory possibilities of poetry.
One of the things I have always loved about Jordan is that she was fundamentally a fighter, a comrade, a stand up and be counted kind of woman. And yet so many of her poems are love poems of the tenderest variety, and poems of exaltation. In her epistemology, love exists on the same force field as struggle. In political contexts, she would ask these crucial questions: Where is the love? Do you know what you are fighting for as well as what you are fighting against? She wrote, "I am saying that the ultimate connection cannot be the enemy. The ultimate connection must be the need that we find between us. It is not only who you are, in other words, but what we can do for each other that will determine the connection." (219) It was love, in her unsentimental vision, that could blaze a path through a world where violence is a commonplace. It is not paradoxical that love should inform and guide our struggles and battles. She said we must remember, it is not just what we are fighting against. It is what we are saying yes to. Where is the love, she asked, the informs our political struggle?
2. Wedding Picture
The chuppah, which many of you know is the canopy carried in a Jewish wedding, symbolizes shelter for the newlyweds but also the open door of the home they are about to create. It is sometimes open to the sky to symbolize the stars that will be the many children we hope the couple will welcome to the world and the nearness of God, sanctifying the union. The sides of the chuppah are always open, which lets in light and air but also people, so that the home of the newlyweds is shared, their love is shared, the pot of stone soup is shared, invoking Abraham’s welcome tent in the desert. Let your house be wide open, and open on all sides to welcome wayfarers.
This story come from an Eritrean Orthodox Christian and American Orthodox Jewish wedding held last weekend in New York City. The Eritreans came from all over the globe where war and conflict scattered them in this past two generations - Scotland, France, England, Switzerland, Kenya, and from all over the country: Dallas, Virginia, Seattle, San Jose, Oakland. The women came in their traditional white dresses and shawls called netsela; the men were elegant and grave in their dark Western suits. One of my sons bore the chuppah, the wine glass was smashed, the Jewish family linked arms and danced in a circle swirling faster and faster, the Eritreans also danced a circle dance called guila; the Jewish men hoisted my niece high on a chair; the Eritreans ululated in the temple.
It was a complex, beautiful day. Centuries of tradition and ritual came together. Some things were left behind. Not everyone was fully happy with how it was done, though everyone was happy for the couple’s love and happiness.
This wedding happened because war scattered African families as the Holocaust had scattered Jewish families a few generations before and they all made themselves anew in their new space. My side is the Eritrean side, though I am not Eritrean, my late husband was, and this was the niece who became my daughter when she came to America at 15 to live with us because renewing war made it impossible for her to stay where she was, and her mother said to me, she is your daughter now, while I was pregnant with what I thought was my first child. So life goes on, and families expand, and the blessings and responsibilities of beings come your way.
Critical thinking develops when you go outside of your comfort zone, outside of the known, when you eat a different bread than the one you grew up with. Challah, chapati, hot-water cornbread, pita, injera, baguette - how wonderful to eat a different bread, a differently-spiced meal. How wonderful to sleep next to someone who might be dreaming in a different language from your own.
Here is the wedding photo I want to describe to you which is the encompassing emblem of the day for me: Picture my 10-year-old great-nephew Maxie, who is Scottish and Eritrean, lives in Aberdeen, Scotland, and traveled to see his auntie get married. In the photograph he is wearing a kilt in the plaid of his father’s clan, and atop his head is a tartan yarmulke made specially for the occasion for him to wear into the temple. He has the sweetest shy smile you have ever seen. This is the beauty of diaspora, of cultural-crossing, of human exchange, of not knowing what is around the corner, of making life anew and something new after disruption. I think he may literally be the only Scottish Eritrean boy with a tartan yarmulke in the whole wide world. But surely he is not the last.
3. My Refugee
Allow me to continue to speak to you personally, for the poet’s way is to make from what we know best, our lives, or self, something that might be useful to others. The wedding photo is mine to offer, because of the man I married. These people, this family this country this culture, Eritrea, came into my life because there was a war and it created refugees and one of them who ended up in the United States in New Haven, Connecticut, was my husband. More on his story in a moment.
Every day the conversation around who "belongs" in America gets uglier and uglier. New invective seems to sprout overnight and poison the air with mis-characterization of human beings and a distorted and exclusionary idea of what America is. Immigrants and refugees of the black and brown variety have been painted as a perpetual burden, unwanted people who sneak in, take, and contribute nothing, abundant evidence to the contrary.
A refugee is technically a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster. What do you picture when you hear the word "refugee"- What are we being asked to picture as we listen to the constant description of America as a bounded and unwelcoming place, a house with doors and windows locked shut?
I often wonder what would it look like if one day everyone "came out" as refugees, or as Americans whose lives were shaped by refugees. I read the latest questionnaire of how the government might decide about who to let in, with its measurements of high income and Nobel prizes. I took the quiz and discovered that one refugee would never have made it into this country: Ficre Ghebreyesus, my late husband, the refugee I married.
My refugee came from Eritrea, a small country in East Africa, in the mid-1980s, after decades of an independence war and a scourge called the Red Terror. He fled death squads, hid from soldiers when they broke into his home, saw classmates disappeared. This was the norm for every family he knew. At 16 his mother sent him away to save his life. He journeyed to Sudan on foot, then Italy, then Germany, from there, to the United States, landing in New Haven, Connecticut.
His full name was Ficremariam Ghebreyesus. He changed it to Ficre Ghebreyesus. In Italy he was called Marco. I do not know what he was called in Germany. In the United states he was called Freddy by the Chinese owner of the local herb store, who was named Li-biao, and who most of New Haven called "Bill." He was called "Fiore" by New Haven Italian-Americans, holding on to their own mother tongues in a new space.
Here is what he did when he came to the United States: He worked, always at least three not particularly enjoyable jobs at a time, multiple bus trips, long and lonely nights, working. And then he made friends. And then he became part of his community. And then, with his family, he built and enriched that community.
People came from our Eritrean family at different moments of war and conflict, variously documented and not. The last wave came after the Ethiopian-Eritrean border war in 1998, when some family members were rounded up from their jobs because they were Eritrean and put in jail. Some settled just a few miles from here, to Oakland. Family members came through, family members and friends took care of each other and got them on their feet.
He considered himself African American, and African, Eritrean, East African, Asmarino, human. He lived in all of those identities. My refugee had read more books than anyone I knew, spoke seven languages, started a restaurant that fed a community for years, made 882 paintings that will soon be shown in a museum, knew how to make things and fix things and stretch a stone soup to feed a village. He became a U.S. citizen, and we went to the ceremony in the New Haven courthouse and I saw, in the world that was there, the premise and promise of America. I thought about the phrase, "radical welcome."
My refugee lived with anxiety that never let him - though he was the most joyful man anyone who knew him ever knew - that after 9/11, when brown people and people with "funny sounding" last names were being rounded up, he would break into an anxious sweat at some point most days, worried somehow that he was no longer secure in what was now his country, America. That he might be separated from me, and from his beloved boys.
My refugee once sat on a tree stump in the back yard of the house that we would buy, so far from where he grew up, and said, "Baby, it may sound funny but this feels like Africa to me."
My sister-in-law, a refugee from Ethiopia, made a new life from scratch before her husband and remaining child at home could join her. She left everything behind - home, car, furnishings, jewelry. A few things eventually made their way back to her in the years to come through neighbors’ friends of friends. She’d get a call to meet a plane at JFK and a package of something precious would come: spices, fabric, a packet of documents. The best was when her small wheeled coffee table came, with compartments for coffee cups, and a small rug made of artificial grass. She did the sacred Eritrean coffee ceremony with her own things and for a moment was no longer a refugee but was a woman at home, performing the rituals she had performed all her life. I am home now, she said, as she poured us cup after cup of that eternal coffee. She has since passed away. It was her daughter who just got married.
For what is the meaning of life, after all, than coffee and tea and talk with loved ones?
What is home, to a refugee?
I never took home for granted. I made home. But it never occurred to me that I might not have my home. I remember once talking to my sister-in-law as I set the table for an extended family Sunday lunch with my embroidered linen napkins and my grandmother’s silver. "I had pretty things too," she said.
"I don’t want the children to be refuges," my husband would say, and we’d share a dark, knowing laugh, "but I do want them to know what we refugees know: that you can make your life from scratch. I want the children to have the strength and wile of survivors."
"We refugees," he said, by which he meant, we refugees who survive.
My refugee died suddenly, a few days after his 50th birthday, from cardiac arrest. We’d thought he was completely healthy. Several doctors separately said to me they were not surprised to hear he was a refugee. More than one cardiologist said to me, the heart is a metaphor and the heart is real. Sustained strain can break the heart. People who walk to freedom often carry that strain for the rest of their lives, invisible, but ever-present.
Yes, he was mine and so now I sing his song. But he was also no different from so many other refugees who have to leave their homes, nor am I any different from the millions of people who fell in love and made family and community in America. People with names that some make little effort to pronounce who continue to build America, unique, and I pray, resilient. My refugee’s presence in my life reminds me of the limits and dangers of nationalism everywhere, that lives and families can be torn apart for generation with nationalism run amok, and that in the words of W. H. Auden we must love one another or die.
And in the story of my refugee is the simple lesson that we are impoverished if we remain strangers to each other and that what has made this country unique and beautiful is that in this country is the world. Dehumanizing others , though it can result and has resulted in the near-annihilation of people and peoples, is actually far more corrosive in the smallness of soul it leaves the dehumanizer.
My refugee left this earth too early and so it is my job to tell his American story. And I offer this story to you all today to say, Will you build homes with open sides that welcome wayfarers in your lives?
As we conclude, I invite you to think back on your favorite children’s books, the ones that have stayed with you, because often in that profound literature there are lessons that can be useful to you when you are grown. I still cry at Amos and Boris, and its simple story of an unlikely friendship between a small mouse and a very large whale. Or also from William Steig, Brave Irene, of an intrepid girl who set out alone in a snowstorm to help her ailing mother. Or Margaret Wise Brown’s Little Fur Family, and the inner life of the small brown fur creature of indeterminate species who went off on his own in the life of the mind he found in the wild but always returned home to his safe family, and the song s his parents sang him as he went to sleep.
Like Frederick, the little mouse you may remember from the children’s book of that name, who gathered stories while his mouse companions harvested corn for the winter. When it was cold and gray and the harvested food was scarce, it was Frederick who got the community through with stories, invocation of the warmth and color of spring and summer that would shine the spirit light that would move them through the long dark winter days. That book was published in 1967, right on time for me but more importantly, in a time when the country was riven with civil rights struggles, the seemingly intractable war in Vietnam, a society was changing, the same time that Brooks published her "Second Sermon."
Looking back, I see that Frederick was asking, why do we need art? What is work? What is the role of the artist in a community? What does she have to offer that is not of clear material value?
"I am gathering words," Fredrick said. "For the winter days are long and many, and we’ll run out of things to say."
Frederick, why don’t you work, the mice asked.
"I do work," said Frederick. "I gather sun rays for the cold dark winter days."
"I gather colors, for winter is grey."
As Frederick spoke of the sun the mice began to feel warmer. He was the poet of his community. The community needed what he brought, even if it might have seemed abstract and unpractical.
What do you bring to your community? What are your unique gifts’ How do you open the door and build communities with different strengths and no predetermination?
Because I am a mother, and right now my sons are just a few years behind you, studying in college, and because I am a lifelong educator of young people your age, though I know you have a commencement address tomorrow I have to share these mother thoughts with you to finish.
Always live multi-generationally. Make sure you keep regular, meaningful contact with children and with elders so you are always living on the continuum of life. Our own particular spot on the timeline is only a spot, and all your living and decisions will better informed if you are in the midst of people on either side of you.
Always share what you have. Never hoard anything. As with your food, so with everything, which is to say, eat with openness and curiosity, and when you eat, share. Don’t count your food.
Learn another language if you haven’t already.
Walk significantly every day. Nothing else will set your mind straight and keep your health in place better.
When you say goodbye to people, look them in the eye and wait until they are out of sight before you turn from them.
Take care with your words for it is with them that you offer each other your souls.
Build houses with open doors and windows.
Conduct your blooming in the noise and whip of the whirlwind. Lead with love. I cannot wait to see what you will do.