Distributed May 26, 2003
News Service Contact: Kristen Cole
Senior Oration: “We’ve Been Warmed by Fires We Didn’t Build”
Onyekachukwu Iloabachie of Queens, N.Y., delivered an oration titled “We’ve Been Warmed by Fires We Didn’t Build” during Brown’s 235th Commencement. Iloabachie addressed her classmates Monday, May 26, 2003, at 10:30 a.m. in the Meeting House of the First Baptist Church in America. The text of her address follows. [Return to release 02-132]
We’ve been warmed by fires we didn’t build.
This was the theme of Black History Month 2003 at Brown University, but this is not something for only black people, or people of color to remember. We have all been warmed by fires we didn’t build. These have been fires of progress. Although some of us definitely struggled more than others to get to Brown and to warm ourselves by the fire, none of us would be here today, and none of us would be graduating today if it weren’t for the hard work, perseverance, and determination of people before us. These people responsible may or may not be anyone we know personally. I know that my mother and father worked very hard to get me here, but I also know that there were Brown alumni and staff members that held protests and demonstrations in the 1960s and ’70s so that decades later, I could graduate with pride with a degree from this institution. Each one of us sitting here today is indebted to someone else for allowing us the opportunity to succeed at Brown.
The fires that I speak of are not solely the ones that are related to Brown. We have been warmed by the fires built by some very influential people in the history of this country as well as across the globe. There are those who faced attack dogs, the brutality of various police officers, and uncertain jail time to make sure these luxuries are afforded to everyone seated here today. There are brave men and women who have joined the armed forces, ready to die for the luxuries we enjoy in this country. There are those who labor sixteen hours a day for extremely meager pay in developing countries all over the world so that you and I can wear the clothes that cover our bodies, the shoes we have on our feet, and the jewelry that adorns our wrists, ears and necks.
We’ve been warmed by fires we didn’t build.
To me, the point of graduating is to go out into the world and find a place for ourselves, where we can contribute something to others and give back. These fires will go out if you and I do not feed them with more wood. We do not all have to join the Peace Corps or teach in an underserved school if that does not interest us, but at the same time, we cannot take our degrees and go off to our corporate jobs and our various graduate schools and just take, take, take. The same way people made room for us to succeed is the same way in which we must all turn around and help those behind us to succeed. It is our job as Brown graduates and the newest members of the “real world” to make sure we maintain the fires of equality and justice so that those behind us can be warmed by them. I do not speak only of the fires at Brown, but of the fires in our hometowns and communities, in our nation, and the rest of the world. We are a part of a greater global community that has started many fires for us, but what have we done to return the favor? As we graduate and start a new chapter in our lives, we must remember our degrees do not only belong to us; they belong to those who paved the way for our success, and they also belong to those who will follow in our footsteps. We must help to build more fires not only for the future generations in our families, but for the future generations in the United States and the rest of the world.
Okay, so how do we do this? How has Brown prepared us for this challenge?
We need to understand how much power our degrees will carry once we leave here. We will be placed into situations where just because of where we attended college, we will have a greater chance of speaking our minds, being heard, and being respected. This may or may not be fair, but we can use it to our advantage. We can use the friendships and connections we’ve made here to help our family members or childhood friends better themselves or make their lives easier. We can use our education to speak out against injustices we see, whether at work, at school, or in our neighborhoods. We can help those people who are not considered “as smart” or “as capable” find their own voices and be heard. Graduating from Brown has given us certain advantages that will go to waste if we don’t use it in positive ways. Anytime we extend ourselves and help one another, we keep the flames of progress burning.
At times this will be very difficult to do, especially when we come against direct opposition. There are people out there who do not necessarily want things to be fair and have no interest in helping others, probably because at some point they forgot they too have been warmed by fires they did not build. One of the unique things about Brown is the fact that it encourages independence and originality. There is no core curriculum, leaving us free to determine our course load. Because of this, my friend was able to avoid what I like to call “real” classes, namely math and science. I remember sophomore year when she would always go to bed at a reasonable hour, while I would spend many nights at the CIT wondering why exactly it was important for me to know how to use two carbon molecules to form an ester. Fun times. If there isn’t a concentration listed, you can form your own. You can even form your own club if you want to. This semester, the West African Student Organization was founded, all because one person had a dream and built a fire. Therefore, it is not new to any of us to step up and accept a challenge. It is not new for us to create our own paths and to be the first person to do something. We must not lose our sense of self and become a part of the crowd once we leave these gates. If the fires start to die, we are going to have to keep them going, even if there is no one to help us.
Brown is by no means perfect, and I’m sure many of us at one time, have complained that we talk issues to death and don’t necessarily act. While this may be true at times, I can tell you that the luxury of discussion does not exist as much in the outside world. During sophomore year when the David Horowitz ad was printed in the BDH, there was a lot of anger, frustration and hostility among Brown students, regardless of what side of the issue we supported. In a different environment, these feelings could have manifested themselves in a far more destructive way. But what did we do? We talked about it. We had a school wide panel, and we talked it out. Even though I didn’t feel better instantly, I appreciated the fact that we made an attempt to address the issues. It’s hard, though. When we leave these gates, who is going to want to have a panel at work or at graduate school anytime there is drama? It’s not going to happen, but the take home message is to make sure our voices are heard wherever we find ourselves. The world is by no means perfect, and in some respects is much less perfect than Brown ever was. But we have to keep talking things out, keeping letting our voices and the voices of others be heard.
As we leave Brown this afternoon and start the next phase of our lives, we have a responsibility to pay homage to those who came before us and keep the fires of progress and change burning for those who will come after. In a way when we, the class of 2003, graduate, our families, our friends and supporters all graduate. Congratulations to the best class Brown has ever seen, and good luck to us all.