The News Service
The 236th Commencement Senior Orations
Russell A. Baruffi Jr.: “Speaking to the Past”
Russell A. Baruffi Jr. of Vineland, N.J., and Marian Thorpe of Spokane, Wash., delivered the Class of 2004 senior orations during Brown’s 236th Commencement, Monday, May 31, 2004, at 10:30 a.m. in the First Baptist Church in America. The text of Baruffi’s oration follows here.
When walking from the Main Green to the Ratty, you pass by the John Carter Brown Library, whose stone wall stares out onto George Street. In engraved lettering, the wall proclaims, “Speak to the Past, and It Shall Teach Thee.” When I first read it, I thought, “Who are they kidding? That makes no sense.” I wondered, “Why not listen to the past? Or why not speak about the past?” Well, four years later, I have some ideas. The fact that it says “speak to the past” compels a certain audacity – it says that we mere mortals must engage in a dialogue with the timeless. “Speak to” frames the past as active, as alive. You can listen to anything – to the wind, music, your car engine – but to speak to something, it has to hear you. The past is alive and it is listening. So today I speak to the past, to our past, to the past that we are just now creating, and to a past far older – a past witnessed by bricks and elm trees, whose eyes see all stories forgotten, untold, and buried.
If the completion of our education leaves us with anything, it leaves us with a debt...
So I had my loan exit meeting recently. For those of you who don’t know, if you take out loans to pay for Brown, they sit you down for a final little chat. Now you’ve spent four years learning and experiencing and flourishing and frolicking amongst friendly, supportive advisors and professors. But then, in response to a polite, seemingly innocuous e-mail, you find yourself at the loan exit meeting. And when you walk in, the door slams behind you and they say, “Look. You’re in debt. If you don’t pay us back, we’re going to hunt you down. Were going to find you, and when we do, we’ll lock you in the basement of the Rock with all rodents and the other loan defaulters.” And you get all freaked out because you don’t even have a job.
But I am not going to talk about college loans today. My point is about this debt idea – broadly and seriously conceived.
Story. Instead of 2004, it was the spring of 1930 in Providence, and a ship pulled into the harbor to unload before passing on to Ellis Island. The ship bore my grandfather, a 10-year-old immigrant named Dominic, to a new continent. As he stood on the decks and stared from the rails of the freighter, he saw Providence, and perhaps he saw the University on the hill, this Baptist church, perhaps he even heard the bagpipes cry for the Class of 1930. The elms and the bricks of this ancient institution bore silent witness to the tension between two stories. The story upon the hill, rich in privilege, access and establishment, and the story that took its birth pangs on the decks of the freighter, where this wide-eyed 10-year-old stumbled empty-handed, into a new world.
Since the last time my grandfather set eyes on Providence, much has changed. The skyline grown, the Berlin Wall risen and fallen, a World War begun and ended. Most personally, here I stand, the first person in my family to go to college, and I’m graduating within earshot of my grandfather’s first glimpses of the American continent.
I want to use this geographic coincidence to posit an idea about debt – and the idea is that our graduation today is not our accomplishment. That rather, it is a gift, and as a gift, it is the accomplishment of scores of people who got us here – not just our parents and grandparents. The people I am talking about opened opportunities. For all of us, education is a gift from generations of activists that fought for the importance of inclusion, what bell hooks calls education as the practice of freedom. They pushed boundaries a little farther in our families, nations, communities; they created a little more breathing room, a broader definition of what it means to be human.
We’ve accrued debts of all sorts to people that we know and don’t know, famous and infamous, stories you’ve heard and stories that have never been told. These are the people who forced open doors, who banged on the gates of the Ivory Tower and pushed and climbed, stepping on the shoulders of those who had come before them so they could climb toward the window when no one would open the door. It is to these people, to this past, we are in debt.
Their work is not done. We do not live in the equal democracy that we idealize. Opportunity continues to be exclusive enterprise. We live in a society that is a work in progress – and the pursuit of democracy has always been subversive. Always. It has never been popular. It gets a lot of rhetoric, people like to talk about liking democracy – but in practice, historically, the equal citizenship that democracy demands has been vehemently resisted.
Opponents of equal rights harassed and threatened and attacked the Montgomery Bus Boycotters. People said that women meeting at Seneca Falls Convention were motivated by “Lust and Immorality.” They called workers pushing for living wages “Godless Communists.” They justified opposition to the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v Board of Education by calling it undemocratic “Judicial Activism!” Today – same gender-couples who love each other enough to get married? They call them “Anti-family Anarchists.”
Today the Patriot Act allows the U.S. Department of Justice to jail non-citizens indefinitely, based on suspicion without criminal charges and without access to legal counsel or trial, and Americans who question this erosion of due process rights are called “unpatriotic.”
The fight for democracy is and has always been a subversive struggle.
Amidst this flurry of congratulations and celebrations and questions, it is easy to believe that we own the accomplishment of graduation. After all the problem sets, the coffee binges, all the late-night bells at the Rock, we might think that this celebration is entirely ours. But perhaps only these elm trees know the debt we carry, how we stand on the shoulders and backs and bones of sacrifice. They know who laid down, who we had to stand on to climb in the window.
My grandfather returns to Providence today for the first time in 74 years to watch me graduate from Brown. This distance from the harbor to the hill is a distance that he has covered, not me.
And as I am personally heir to that journey, we are all heirs to generations of activism and rights-consciousness and the fierce dedication to ideals, fought consistently against governments and often an electorate intent on the status quo.
Those generations leave behind changes and legacies. It’s not what they learned; it’s what they taught us. It’s not what they earned, it’s what they built.
So how are we to pay this debt? What are we going to leave? What are we going to build? And what are we going to teach?
Our accomplishments wait for us. This education is the tool that we are given to make those accomplishments real. If the Class of 2040 graduates into a world where the ideals of equality, human dignity, and the individual pursuit of divinity in all its forms are more tangible – less rhetoric, more reality – that we may deem to be our accomplishment.
Today we sit in a building on a hill in a nation that is drenched in a glorious and terrible history. “Speak to the Past and it Shall Teach Thee.” The past lives. It is us. It is now. We are the past of tomorrow, and the judgment of history is merciless.
So go. Commence. Subvert. Teach. Build. If we do not carry forward the burden of change, surely, we drop it. May we know this history and know our place in it, and may we be sufficiently brave to stand to pay these debts and to accept our responsibility as educated citizens.
Brown University Class of 2004, Good Morning!
A public policy concentrator, Russell A. Baruffi Jr. has been a writing and rhetoric fellow and BOLT leader at Brown. He will bike across the country this summer to raise funds for Habitat for Humanity, Providence chapter. Baruffi is the son of Marie and Russell Baruffi Sr. of Vineland, N.J.