The News Service
The 237th Commencement Senior Orations
Joshua Isaiah Wilson: “Dreams, Diversity and Dixie”
Graduating seniors Sage Xaxua Morgan-Hubbard of Hyattsville, Md., and Joshua Isaiah Wilson of Haleyville, Ala., delivered the Class of 2005 senior orations during Brown’s 237th Commencement, Sunday, May 29, 2005, at 12:20 p.m. in the First Baptist Church in America. The text of Wilson’s oration follows here. (Return to news release 04-140; see also Sage Morgan-Hubbard’s oration.)
When I was 9 years old, my daddy stopped in the middle of our chores in the hayfields of rural Alabama. He pulled out a handkerchief and wiped the sweat that was dripping from his chin. He stuck his shovel into the ground and wrapped the thick and cracked leather mitts that were his hands around the lever end of the shovel.
We gazed across the hay fields, pausing to admire the cattle seeking shade in the old barn, and the dragonflies fussing around the cattails along the banks of the catfish pond. Before he began to speak, my father took a deep breath then exhaled suddenly and deliberately from his mouth.
His speeches are like the last brown leaves of fall blowing in a crisp breeze; they are slow coming and unadorned, but as sure and steady as the seasons change.
“You know son,” he said as he folded his handkerchief, “I grew up in a two-room shack with dirt floors and no electricity. Owning this little house and farm is my dream come true. But I know that this ain’t your dream, and that’s fine by me and your Mama.”
He said that if I had faith and worked long and hard enough, one day I could go to college and do whatever it is I wanted to do.
When I turned 16, I went to work on another man’s ranch.
Daddy sold salvaged mobile home supplies for a living, and I decided that I’d rather shovel manure and bail hay all day than deal with the public.
Mama cried because of the nosebleeds I would get from my allergic reactions to the hay fields. She begged me to quit when she saw my callused palms crack and bleed from the hard farm labor. Mama cried again when she saw the burns on my arms that I got carrying the freshly blow-torched fence posts that were so hot they blistered me even through my shirt.
But Daddy would never make me quit.
Right before I left that farm for Brown, my father’s hands gripped tightly on my shoulders. He told me that I was the man he had prayed I would become. He looked me in the eyes and said, “Son, go chase your dreams.”
Sitting in a freshman writing class at Brown, I didn’t feel like the typical Brown student. I didn’t know what the typical Brown student was like; I just knew that I was not one of them.
I knew about raising cattle, not post-modernism. I knew me some football, not feminism. I knew the Old Testament by heart, but nothing about Judaism. In church I sang soulful southern black gospel side-by-side with my Mama and sister, but the concept of Mass was completely foreign to me. I grew up surrounded by beauty, but I knew nothing of art.
My classmates were certainly not first-generation college students, I assumed. And Christian farm boys from poor and rural regions in Alabama seemed a bit underrepresented as I looked around the room.
Rarely is there a freshman who wants to stand out in his or her first college class, and as we went around the room giving short introductions of ourselves, I was no exception.
But I quickly learned that by simply saying “I’m from Alabama” with a Southern drawl deeper than the catfish beds along the banks of the Tennessee River, I could spark wonder and amazement in the hearts of Brunonians.
However, I walked out of the classroom that day wondering how many IQ points were deducted from me on account of my accent.
When I came to Brown, I did not know exactly what I was seeking.
After my freshman yea, I remember sitting in the living room with my mama sipping sweet tea and going over the year. We talked about the usual things – my classes, culture shock, my friends, what it was like to move from the merciless summers of the Alabama hayfields to the biting winters of New England, and the funny white stuff that falls out of the sky when it gets cold.
[We talked] about sliding in the mud of the courtyard of Keeney Quad during a rain storm in the spring ... about attending a Chinese New Year celebration, lighting candles at Hanukkah and the Jewish Torah study that I attended ... about how much money everyone seemed to have ... about BDH columns and guest speakers ... and, of course, about how fascinating people found my accent.
Then, my mama asked me what I had learned.
I told her that for me, Brown is about challenges and changes. It is about speaking out for what you believe and sitting down to allow yourself to be enlightened by the perspectives of others.
A TA once told me that I had single-handedly destroyed his stereotype against Southerners – a prejudice he didn’t even know he had until he met me. Likewise, some of my opinions have changed, while others have been strengthened through the thoughtful reevaluation that resulted from the well-articulated views of others.
Brunonians are always eager to talk politics, and I found myself both learning from them and teaching them. I leaned that no amount of wealth can buy a person class ... that conservatives do not have a monopoly on morality ... that everything liberals label as “progressive” is not necessarily an improvement.
I saw how hypocritical it was for conservatives to seek federal intervention on the issue of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts, but then plead for states’ rights on the issue of the Ten Commandments Monument in the Supreme Court Building in my home state of Alabama.
Likewise, I saw the hypocrisy in liberals crying for states’ rights on the issue of same-sex marriage but demanding federal intervention to remove the monument in my beloved Alabama.
I learned that if I was going to be a good Christian, I need to model my life – or at least try – directly after Jesus Christ, not after everyone claiming to be a Christian.
I told my mama about seeing myself, my upbringing, and my familiar Southern surroundings in a different light – how I had found a new love and appreciation for Alabama.
Daddy had begun to call me “Dr. Wilson” and “Professor,” but curiously enough, I had never felt so much like a cowboy as I did when I was surrounded by the concrete pastures and fields of asphalt inhabited by big American SUV’s in New England. I missed Daddy saying grace over dinner that always included Mama’s cornbread cooked in an antique black skillet. I had almost forgotten how relaxing it is drifting off to sleep to the sound of crickets serenading in the yard.
I never thought I’d miss a Saturday spent mowing our sprawling yard and weed-trimming around the pecan, cherry, peach and fig trees, but lemonade just doesn’t quite taste the same when you haven’t earned it with a few hours of sweat.
I guess the old saying is right, “You can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy.”
Before I left Alabama a few months ago to come back for my final semester, my father once again stood in front of me... hands grasping my shoulders, and eyes connected to my own. Mama was standing beside me squeezing my right hand with both of her hands. She was in tears, as is her custom any time her baby has to leave home again.
“Just four more months,” Daddy said, “and you’ll have done something else that nobody here has ever done before. Look what God has done for you, and how He’s blessed your effort. Me and your mama, we don’t have any education, and we don’t know anybody.
“You are the son of the junkdealer down here on this farm, in the middle of nowhere, in Alabama, 10 miles from a stop light. You’ve gone farther and will continue to go father than we ever knew a person could go. Me and your mama live through you, and our dreams are coming true.”
As Mama was planting probably the twentieth kiss on my cheek that she had given me in the last two minutes, Daddy finished his short speech by telling me once again how proud he was of me.
Today I stand before you no longer a naïve freshman trying to blend into the crowd, but a confident and seasoned graduate – proud of who I am, where I have been, and with a head full of new dreams.
I stand before you today, a typical Brown student.
As you walk through the Van Wickle Gates for the second and final time, I know you will be consumed with the same eager anticipation that you had when you first arrived at Brown. It is my sincere hope that you will not leave here only with an education from the best university in the world, but also with a head full of new dreams that were birthed, directed and focused by your Brown experience.
Sir Isaac Newton said, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
Today, I see my father and my precious mother in the audience and I and I realize that I have accomplished my dreams by standing on their dreams.
Daddy, thank you for believing in me and teaching me how to be a hard worker. Mama, thank you for encouraging me and teaching me how to love. Most of all, I thank the One who saw fit to prosper me despite my inadequacy, to use me despite my hypocrisy, and to love me even when I failed to love in return. I thank the One whom this University and this church were founded to honor, the heavenly father Jesus Christ. Surely He has given me beauty for my ashes.
Fellow members of the Class of 2005, please do not forget on this day that your dream came true to thank those upon whose shoulders you have stood.