Public / Human: 2021 Public Humanities Commencement Toast

February 1, 2022

The following is the transcript of the Commencement toast given by Matt Branch A.M. ‘21, for the Public Humanities Commencement Celebration on April 30, 2021. In addition to being a graduating member of the class of 2021, Matt is the Associate Director of Student Activities at Brown, where he supports students in extracurricular programming and events. He is an educator, an artists administrator, and a cultural strategist working at Brown University and with Black South West Network, a race-equity non-profit based in Bristol, United Kingdom. You can reach him at [email protected].

The toast has been lightly edited for the blog format.

As members of the Public Humanities program we are often asked “What is public humanities?”  and “What makes it different from regular humanities or public engagement?”

I’m a part-time student and a super, super, super, senior (having taken 5 academic years to complete the program). One thing I have observed in my years here and in my interactions with dozens of Public Humanities students, Center staff, and faculty is that Public Humanities is distinguished from other forms of Humanities by being dependent on relationships with other people. We can’t and won’t do our work in a void, a closed lab or with solitudinal research. To engage in public humanities means centering the audiences that we serve. Whether we work with students, or visitors, researchers, or children, what draws us together is that we leverage humanities and cultural heritage disciplines and methodologies in service of others and of a better world. To be a public human means to be collaborative and operate from an ethic of relationality in our work.

The concept of Sankofa, that comes to us from the Akan people of Ghana, feels relevant to this charge:  Sankofa teaches us to take what is good from the past into the present so that we may create a better future through the benevolent use of knowledge.  It is also quite useful to engage with what was bad in the past.  At the Center for Public Humanities it is quite easy to look to the past in all of its complexities.  As many of you know, our program is housed in a building that was built by families whose fortunes had links to the slave trade; Brown University is named for one of those very same families. What does it mean for me, a black person whose enslaved ancestors could have built the Center for Public Humanities,or other buildings at Brown, to engage with Public Humanities work in this setting? What does it mean for my Native classmates whose land was stolen or for women or Jewish classmates who were unable to attend Brown for the first 100 years of the school's history?  At Brown, the past is a visible and constant reminder and sits alongside the present these histories have birthed.

Even the concepts of Public and Human have a charged history. Enslaved people lived their lives in public and were not granted access to private space or the right to privacy but even as they lived in public they were denied participation in the public sphere.  And many of us graduating today have experience with being placed outside of the category and protection of the term human, either historically or presently-- because of our race, religion, gender and gender identity, immigration status and a host of other identity markers. 

So what then does it mean for me to be a Public Human, (the term we use to refer to Public Humanities students)? What does it mean for us to be publicly human? For me, being publicly human means speaking truth to power and recognizing that to acknowledge us as fully and completely human means reckoning with and addressing colonial pasts and presents; This is something I have learned from and seen modeled in the work and activism of my fellow graduates.   It also means being humanely public as well as publicly human-- surfacing the humanity of others, lifting as we climb, and raising up silenced narratives and hidden histories.  This is our call as public humanists, to engage honestly and meaningfully with the past in order to create a better future. Those who are graduating today have and will continue to take on this charge.  

In this spirit of lineage, and on behalf of my fellow graduates, I’d like to thank our ancestors, who dreamed us into existence and through whose labor and love we are here today. I’d like to thank our elders, including our parents and family who created us, and along with our professors, the Center staff, teachers, and mentors have helped guide us to be more publicly human and more humanely public. I’d also like to thank our siblings, our cousins, friends, and co-workers, and our cohort of Public Humanities graduates who we have learned with, been in solidarity with, and who have held a mirror up to us in times of trouble and uncertainty, reminding us who we are. 

There is a teaching that comes from the Haida nation that states “We do not inherit the land from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.” It is with this spirit that I’d like to also thank and acknowledge our successors, including rising second-years and the incoming class to whom we pass the torch of humane, justice focused humanities.   

And lastly, I invite us to think about our relationship to space, a key concept in black and indigenous decolonial frameworks.  Our relationships with space are very important, especially as we go on to work with various types of institutions.  I encourage myself and my fellow graduates to make space for ourselves-- to give ourselves grace as we encounter challenges and frustrations; to make space for others, especially those who don’t have access to the spaces we inhabit. At the same time, I want to remind us to take space-- for most of us who are graduating today, the academic and professional spaces we have and will inhabit were not designed to accommodate us in all of our complexities, identities, our fires, dreams and visions for a better world.  Continue to stretch those notions of space as you have done in your time here at Brown. Use the tools we’ve acquired here for good. Dismantle the Master’s house. Collaborate. Dream something beautiful. Build something wonderful. And remember that there has to be humanity for there to be Public Humanities.  Now, this is a long way to explain what Public Humanities is but I’ve learned that like our students, Public Humanities is not easily encompassed in tidy categories and cannot easily be summarized.

It is an immense honor to graduate alongside this incredible set of students. Please join me in raising a glass to the Public Humanities Class of 2021--to our triumphs and lessons, our publicity and our humanity.