PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — For Africana studies concentrator Naomi Chasek-Macfoy, Brown’s 250th Commencement offered the chance to pay homage to another major milestone: the 50th anniversary of the 1968 Black Student Walkout, where 65 African American students at Brown risked their academic futures to protest their underrepresentation and demand support. Here is the text of her senior oration, delivered to her fellow graduates on Sunday, May 27, in full:
"On December 5, 1968, black students at Brown and Pembroke walked off campus. They chose to act in protest of conditions for black students and the low percentage of black enrollment at this University. Unsure if they would ever return, they camped in the basement of nearby Congdon Street Baptist Church until a provisional agreement was reached. The walkout was the culmination of more than six months of dedicated work to raise the profile of black concerns. It was led by black women at Pembroke. The first official petitions were submitted to the administration on May 16, 1968 — almost exactly 50 years ago today.
The black students who walked off campus took an enormous risk and did so with tremendous conviction. In protest of conditions they could no longer tolerate, they chose to relinquish their identities as students with no guarantee that a return would even be possible. They risked their degrees and their academic futures on a commitment to justice, fair treatment and black empowerment.
VIDEO: "Walking Out, 50 Years Later"
Their central demand was this: that the University increase black enrollment to 11 percent — the percentage of black people in the U.S. population nationally. At the time, black enrollment was less than 2 percent.
As we began the fall of 2017, black students made up only 6.8 percent of our student body. I invite every one of us here today to recognize the 50-year anniversary of this activism and the hard work yet to come.
As a result of the walkout, both the Department of Africana Studies and the Third World Transition Program (TWTP) were founded. Today I will become a graduate in Africana studies, and I have participated in TWTP each of my four years at Brown, first as a participant and later as a staff member. Through an oral tradition of history-telling, TWTP taught me about 1968 before I even began classes here.
Nineteen sixty-eight. At the beginning of September for each of the past three years, I have stood in front of 200 first-years at TWTP, three black women alongside me, and recited that date. Each of the past three years, I have participated in this ritual of knowledge-sharing. The history of 1968 has been woven throughout my time at Brown.
The student protesters in 1968 told hard truths about this community. In a letter to the president, they wrote: “We cannot afford to be quiet any longer. Brown is a stifling, frustrating, degrading place for black students. This situation is especially intolerable in a university which professes to be a bulwark of American liberalism.” These words illuminate an often disregarded experience of student life at Brown, one that some of us assembled today know intimately. Their words continue to resonate across the decades.
Because of the visionary work of these black women and so many others, as Brown students, we are the bearers not only of a history of truth-seeking, but of a history of truth-telling as well. In telling their story, the black student activists in 1968 exposed deep-rooted problems at this University. They refused to accept the terms of existence presented by an institution built using the enslaved labor of their ancestors. Brown was never designed to accommodate them as students. They remained, in the words of feminist scholar Sara Ahmed, “maladjusted to injustice.” And so must we all. As black lesbian feminist poet Audre Lorde reminds us, our silence will never be a protection.
Even as we speak out, we must be listeners, too. We must listen closely to those who are being told to sit down and be quiet, like the 1968 student protesters. And we must listen to those who do not have academic training or an Ivy League degree. This is especially important for people who do not experience marginalization and oppression personally, but rather benefit from them.
Nineteen sixty-eight. This is just the beginning. In 1975 and 1985, students held protests over many of the same concerns regarding racism and the legacy of colonialism at Brown. My classmates of color know that today, many of the same conditions remain. Over the past five years, students of color and allies have protested racist actions on this campus frequently. Many in attendance today will remember protests against a lecture by NYPD Chief Ray Kelly in 2013 and against anti-indigenous op-eds in the Brown Daily Herald in 2015. Like the 1968 protests, these actions were daring and produced some meaningful change. After the protests in 2015, Fall Weekend was renamed Indigenous People’s Day. Yet today, we continue to occupy traditional Narragansett and Wampanoag land. Students of color know that this story is ongoing. History and this story beckon and demand that we act, not because the story is past, but because it continues.
Nineteen sixty-eight marked the end of my summer, and the beginning of my academic year. It is the sound of my own recommitment to unapologetically work against oppression and in pursuit of justice.
Today, at the beginning of the summer, rather than the end, I tell this story as a means of reflecting on our years at Brown and the signposts that have brought each of us to this moment. I urge everyone here today to think deeply about the rituals and stories that have nurtured your commitments — to knowledge, to justice, to truth-seeking and to truth-telling.
For me, this is one of those stories. It is a proud and serious one. It speaks to the pervasiveness of inequality and oppression both in our society and at Brown, even on a joyful day like today. I, myself, am Jewish, and in our custom, we break glasses at weddings. The celebratory and the somber are inextricably intertwined. Each allows for the existence of the other. So let us celebrate and reflect together.
Today we walk out the Van Wickle Gates not to disassociate ourselves from this University, but with the privilege and responsibility of carrying its name forward. In doing so, we rejoice in having completed our degrees. But our work is not yet done. We can look to the trailblazing black women of 1968 as guides and examples. They refused to accept an oppressive status quo.
Their actions leave us with a charge: to live each day with an unwavering commitment to ending the structures of power that oppress. As we walk out, their determination to imagine a world free of white supremacy, and in which the most marginalized among us can thrive, must walk with us."