On Community and Intellectual Inquiry: Address to the Class of 2020, October 25, 2016.
This speech was the introduction to a school-wide event attended by Steinhardt's new freshman and transter students and was followed by a faculty discussion of Between the World and Me.
We have asked you to read Between the World and Me, a book that describes the experience of Ta-Nehisi Coates, a writer and public intellectual, who has said in interviews that his mission in life is to confront racism. The book is framed as a personal conversation, a letter to a son who is growing up in America in this very tumultuous time.
We know there are many different American narratives about racism. Some slants are more positive than others. We can see that from the mid-20th century until now that we have made significant progress toward civil rights and expanded opportunity. In 1954, the court case, Brown vs. Board of Education, declared state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students to be unconstitutional. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a landmark case that outlawed discrimination in the workplace, forced integration in the schools, and enhanced voting rights. The progress has been far from smooth and uncontested, but there has been progress. The bedrock of America society is the idea that “all men were created equal,” and, of course, we know that our founding fathers were all straight white men.
There is an opposing narrative, too, and this is the subject of Between the World and Me. Throughout the country today, K-12 education is still segregated not by law, but by residential and income status. We have mass levels of incarceration of black men, racial profiling, as well as reactions at the state level against affirmative action and voting rights. African Americans, in particular, remain the targets of racially motivated violence.
Between the World and Me speaks to an essential question: How do parents prepare children to face the challenges in a world that takes one step forward and sometimes two steps back? In this book, racism is the central, intractable problem that the author must discuss with his son before sending him out into the world.
To frame your understanding of this book, Dean Carey has asked us to speak a little about home, how we find home, and how we learn to live in the world despite difference and intolerance.
For me, for many of us, home is this very room we are sitting in today. It is the University, the world of ideas and knowledge: NYU. I have chosen affirmatively to live in this academic setting, a place that values dialogue and diversity; a place where difference is largely respected.
If you came to our New Student Welcome in September, you heard a bit about my story – about education being the door to opportunity for my family.
I told you that education was the critical factor that improved our standard of living. You learned that my father was the first generation in my family – farm laborers and servants - to go to college. I was able to go because I got the “poor boy’s scholarship,” which gave students from working class neighborhoods a chance to attend Oxford. During those undergraduate years I often felt less than and not equal to others. I felt out of place - a poor kid surrounded by rich kids.
That feeling of the world being stacked against me, wouldn’t be something you would necessarily guess. We tend to make assumptions about people when in fact we are all shaped by a myriad of complex experiences. You look at me and maybe you see white male privilege. But for a critical period of my life I was the “out of place ‘poor kid.’” I was also “the out of place, gay kid” struggling to come to terms with my sexuality.
For the past 16 years, I have been exposed to yet a further, and very thought-provoking, reality – my husband is a Chinese American who grew up in conservative Pittsburgh and Orange County, California. I have seen firsthand the multi-generational dynamic, the immigrant story, the intra-ethnic dynamic of Chinese and other Asian people, all layered on top of a changing socioeconomic reality and sexual identity.
In this book, Ta-Nehisi Coates describes the transformative power that education had for him, how he came to find his place in the world and a community of like-minded people who valued questioning and scholarship and intellectual inquiry.
From the time of its founding, NYU has strived for inclusion. Our founders set out expressly to educate not a privileged few, but instead ambitious, talented young men and women from all classes and backgrounds.
NYU Steinhardt was founded in 1890 as The School of Pedagogy, and that year we welcomed our first class of 214 students, including a significant number of women. (So before women had the right to vote, we admitted them as our students.) Our first graduating class in our Masters of Pedagogy Class in 1891 had 12 students. Three of those students were African American women– and that was 15 years after the end of the Civil War.
Steinhardt’s three African American women graduates were public school teachers who would become influential voices in the “free kindergarten for colored children” movement at the turn of the 20th century.
But before they were known for their contributions to the education community, they were known simply as our “black women graduates,” and this was because the newspapers were surprised to see them on stage at the Metropolitan Opera House collecting their diplomas with their classmates.
Henrietta Cordelia Ray was one of our graduates, and, this is how she was described in The New York Sun, the local newspaper of the time:
“She is a full-blooded negress, who is about as clever a woman as there is in the school.”
Henrietta Cordelia Ray was a public school teacher whose poem for Lincoln was read at a special tribute in Washington, D.C. in 1876. She was the author of two books and one was a memoir about her father, the Reverend Charles Bennett Ray, a prominent abolitionist and founder and editor of a weekly newspaper called, The Colored American.
But The New York Sun described this accomplished woman simply by her skin color, and it’s this racial profiling is at the heart of the book that we have come here to discuss today.
It gives me pride to think that Henrietta Cordelia Ray found a sense of belonging and opportunity here, at NYU, 125 years ago.
Equity, diversity, and advocacy is in the Steinhardt DNA; it has been the culture of our school since our founding. We certainly have a far from unblemished record – but that constant aspirational belief that we can do better is also for me at the heart of the university.
Last month we inaugurated our 16th president at NYU, Andy Hamilton, and in his address, he quoted this passage from Between the World and Me.
“We meant well. We tried our best. ‘Good intention’ is a hall pass through history, a sleeping pill that ensures the Dream.”
This reminds us that our actions must be matched by a change in culture, outlook, understanding, and respect.
Our conversation today is an important one and a difficult one. It comes at a crucial time of change, and we welcome our speakers who are here to bring their perspectives on our common humanity.