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Ford Center for the Fine Arts

Commencement Address by Natasha Trethewey

19th Poet Laureate of the United States

Good morning, members of the Knox College Community, President Amott, trustees, faculty, parents, and the graduating Class of 2014.  It's a great pleasure and honor to address you today in the birthplace of Carl Sandburg, a great poet of the people whose democratic vistas have compelled us to see the possibility of justice in the world.

I have visited this lovely place once before, but it is, more importantly, the history of Knox College, the commitment to abolition, to social justice, woven into its founding that makes my return today feel like a kind of homecoming. For that, I am grateful and, also, because I did not attend my own college graduation, I am grateful to share this day with you. I know that I missed out on something important, something I might have carried with me as a memory of a momentous day, a sense of triumph over difficult odds and a way to mark an important milestone that, at some moments, seemed I might never reach. Some of you have faced difficult odds thus far in your lives. Perhaps having to work while pursuing your studies, or dealing with an illness or disability, or serving as a caregiver for a family member. Many of you will have not, and, for that blessing, I am thankful and wish for you that it always be so. For all of you graduating today, I wish a smooth and lucky passage. 

This is a time of year I love, perhaps second only to the beginning of a new academic year; that first inkling of autumn in the air, the way the sharp pages of a newly acquired book or even the musty scent of an old one, suggests to me the endless possibilities for learning, for pursuing knowledge not only for my work as a poet, but also for the sheer pleasure of it. I love this time of year differently. I anticipate some time to rest, the brief respite of a few days vacation in the warmer months, so that I can begin again with renewed enthusiasm my life's work. But I also anticipate the reckoning again with my difficult past. You are perhaps feeling something quite different, perhaps relief to have completed this part of your education or melancholy at moving on from this stage in your life, excitement about the opportunities before you, or anxiety in these difficult times about the uncertain future. No doubt you've given this some serious thought.  Although my own passage was not smooth, I can still see in it a measure of luck. 

When I was a graduating senior, I had already experienced the most traumatic event of my life and had to overcome that hardship. In my freshman year, my mother was killed, gunned down in a parking lot by her second husband, her then ex-husband, a troubled Vietnam veteran with a history of mental illness. For the rest of my time in college, I was grieving. When I wasn't grieving, I was trying to carry on with my extracurricular activities, holding down a part time job and socializing with my friends. I was not doing much studying and only showing up in my classes enough to earn a gentlewoman's C average. I couldn't focus on school work, and I didn't know enough to forgive myself that fact and seek some kind of counseling that would have perhaps helped me contend with my grief and perform better at my studies.

I'd been an English major from the time I arrived at the university, but during those school years, I shopped around taking all sorts of classes and thinking I might change my major. I never did, though, not only because I liked literature in high school but also because I think I'd become complacent and not as invested in my education as I needed to be. It was my default choice. I can see now that I was lucky to be getting a liberal arts education that allowed me to explore a lot of different types of courses, as well as being offered a more concentrated education in a particular subject.

So many of my classmates seemed to know exactly what they were doing and why. And I envy that. I still do. I often wonder now what would be different about my life and career had I decided to become a history major. But I was without direction, a sampler, and fortunate that many of those courses I studied, I tried out if only for a semester, sustained my scattered attention in ways that I could not have anticipated.

Two of them stand out to me now. Perhaps you can already look back and recognize what course, academic experience, or faculty member has made what will be a lasting impact on your life. Back then, I could not see how what I was learning would give shape and purpose to my life, let alone a kind of redemption.

In the spring of my freshman year, the spring I lost my mother, I was taking an American History course. On the first day of class, the professor asked us to write down on note cards the names of our hometowns. Now, this was in the 1980s, before the ease of research on the Internet, so what the professor did is even more impressive to me as I look back on it now. We, too, were on the quarter system, and the next day when we came back to class, he introduced each of us by describing some significant historical events that had taken place at our hometowns.

Because my hometown was out of state, I sat there waiting for him to get to me, certain he couldn't have much to say about where I'd come from, a little town on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. But he did know something. And as I listened, I began to see myself as part of a larger history. Not just my personal history, but also geographical, cultural, social, political, and economic history that connected me to other people and that had already helped to shape me, to make me who I was.

From that one class, I took away a seed that grew in me the first real inklings of myself as a historical being. Not someone outside of history or adrift in it, but someone with a past that was older and more significant than my 19 years on Earth. I did not know then what that would mean to me years later when I finally had found my calling as a poet, deeply interested in writing about the intersections and contentions between personal and public history and about justice. Nor did I consider the ways in which I was on my way to being part of an educated and informed citizenry, who could fully participate in the ongoing shaping of my nation.

Within a few months of that second day of class, my mother would be dead, and I would find myself asking the question, more profoundly than I ever had before: How has this world as it now exists come to be what it is? At the moment, the question was no longer what we ask in our studies in general, not the usual way we ask how and why are things, but now a life and death matter. It had an immediacy that was bound to the fact of my being and whether I would survive and flourish or merely survive in the world I'd been given.

The other class was a food science course I took in my senior year. It was only a two credit course, but it was one of the most memorable of my college experience. We studied everything from the FDA and the USDA guidelines about the various grades of meat, food processing, labeling, and safety, to food-borne illnesses. In one assignment, in order to learn how to recognize which bacteria in food preparation had caused a particular illness, we had to solve cases in which we were like detectives, following the clues as the sleuth does in a mystery novel.

Until then, I had not known how much I could be drawn to a kind of scientific research, to investigation, to puzzling out using primary evidence the answer to some practical question affecting our lives. Nor did I realize that there were connections between a course like this one and my shock and disgust and pleasure upon reading in high school Upton Sinclair's 1906 novel, The Jungle, that details some of the early horrors of the meat packing industry in Chicago and the regulations that it spurred. Nor could I see that taken altogether, these courses and my English major were preparing me for the moment that I'd recognize what it was I had been meant to do, that it involved literature, not only reading it, but writing it and that the writing of it would involve an engagement with history, society, and culture, a curiosity that fostered a desire to do research, to go beyond disciplinary boundaries, to make my way in the world, not just in spite of certain setbacks, but building upon them. Those lessons that hardships and limitations, no matter what they are, can teach us.

Without realizing it, I'd been given the tools and the opportunity to think critically, to grapple with difficult knowledge, and to question assumptions and perceived notions about things. I had begun to ask more pointedly than ever before: How the world as it is now exists come to be what it is and what is my place in it? Questions that formed the scaffolding of a life built upon being consciously historical.  

Most of my other courses those years are a blur to me, now part of what seems like intuitive knowledge but is, as the best intuition is, the result of prolonged tuition. And in many ways, this is perhaps the best part of a liberal arts education. I was not studying to be a writer, but everything I studied has helped me become one, to answer my calling.

Today marks the day that you too have done that preliminary work, whether you are yet fully aware of it or not, and it is to be celebrated now and in the years to come as you continue to build upon the sound foundation of your excellent education. But this is not a time for complacency. In her essay "Resisting Amnesia," poet Adrienne Rich reminds us that one does indeed have a choice to become consciously historical. That is, a person who tries from memory and connectedness against amnesia and nostalgia. One who tries to describe her or his journeys. "Historical amnesia," she wrote, "is starvation of the imagination that no ongoing pursuit of knowledge can survive."

It was in that pursuit of knowledge that I was lucky enough to ensure my survival through what would not be a smooth passage. When I think back on those years, I have a momentary sense of terror that I might not have made it to where I am now, might not have survived personal tragedy and found a calling, a way to live in the world that continues to challenge and reward me beyond the necessary and pleasurable material comforts. And I can say without a doubt that my education, seemingly haphazard, and often blindly gained, saved me. It gave me a means of understanding my place in the world, a way to contend with history, law, and society, my role and rights as a citizen. A way to grapple with the political, societal, and socioeconomic context of the historical moment in which my mother was murdered.

Even now, it is hard to say that word. But I am a writer, and therefore, I am in the business of saying things precisely and of choosing to be consciously historical. Some people go blindly about their lives letting others decide the kind of world we're going to live in. Your education is a privilege that not everyone is able to attain and therefore, you have a greater responsibility as the educated citizenry to enter as the poet Robert Penn Warren put it, the world of action and liability. That is the necessity now, more than ever for historical awareness, civic duty, and social responsibility. To be truly educated is to resist the easy certainties of deeply ingrained and unexamined ideologies of soundbites and cliches in favor of an ongoing pursuit of knowledge, of truth, no matter how uncomfortable it makes you.

There are countless ways to enter that world of action and liability, to answer your own calling, in a way that will benefit not only yourselves and your loved ones, but can also serve the greater good. One of the things I love most about my calling, poetry, is that across time and space, it shows us not that we are different, but how we are alike. It connects us through the intimacy of a single voice speaking across the distances and through empathy to the lives of others, showing us a way to know ourselves in the mirror of someone else's experience. And, it allows us to say exactly, precisely, what we mean and to mean something else, perhaps even more important, at the same time.        

So, in closing, I'd like to read you a lovely poem by Richard Wilbur. It offers a fitting metaphor for this occasion, as you embark on writing the next chapter of your life's story. It's called "The Writer."

In her room at the prow of the house
Where light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden,
My daughter is writing a story.

I pause in the stairwell, hearing
From her shut door a commotion of typewriter-keys
Like a chain hauled over a gunwale.

Young as she is, the stuff
Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy:
I wish her a lucky passage.

But now it is she who pauses,
As if to reject my thought and its easy figure.
A stillness greatens, in which

The whole house seems to be thinking,
And then she is at it again with a bunched clamor
Of strokes, and again is silent.

I remember the dazed starling
Which was trapped in that very room, two years ago;
How we stole in, lifted a sash

And retreated, not to affright it;
And how for a helpless hour, through the crack of the door,
We watched the sleek, wild, dark

And iridescent creature
Batter against the brilliance, drop like a glove
To the hard floor, or the desktop,

And wait then, humped and bloody,
For the wits to try it again; and how our spirits
Rose when, suddenly sure,

It lifted off from a chair-back,
Beating a smooth course for the right window
And clearing the sill of the world.

It is always a matter, my darling,
Of life or death, as I had forgotten. I wish
What I wished you before, but harder.

How true, the sentiments of the poem, the stuff of our lives a great cargo, some of it heavy. The work, often difficult at times to clear the sill of the world in our pursuits. The way our lives are always a matter of life or death. Out of the stuff of my life and the gifts of a liberal arts education, I've found a way to live in the world that could nurture my soul, and, I like to think, the souls of others. There are myriad ways to do that. What will yours be? How lucky you are today to be poised before the sill of the world on the cusp of so much to come. I wish what I wished you before, but harder. Congratulations.

Watch her Commencement address on YouTube.

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Printed on Friday, December 1, 2023