Black Convocation Address

Author name
Henry Washington, Class of 2017, Majors: African-American Studies & Literature

To you who have been bought and paid for; to you whose skin has been kissed by nature’s sun and enamored in melanous glory; to you whose intellectual fortitude is matched only by the imaginativeness of your conscious and subconscious minds, how y’all doin? My name is Henry Washington, I am a member of the class of 2017, and I am this year’s Black Student Alliance President.

Now, let me warn you that I am a literary analyst by training, so I’m about to take you on a brief journey. When I sat down to gather some thoughts to share with you all today, I immediately began to ponder the world of narrative. I think stories are such useful mediums through which to convey meanings. My pondering led me to the age-old story about “the old lady who lived in a shoe,” and if you will just bear with me as I explore my brief literary and cultural interpretation of the nursery rhyme, I suspect that the old lady’s narrative actually holds treasure for this current moment in American race relations.

Over the past few weeks or so, I have been preoccupied with assessing the extent of racial progress. Sure, there are no more public “colored only” signs, but the reality is that the social formations that made possible the shackling of enslaved bodies yesterday are the very social formations that allow for the handcuffing of criminalized black bodies today. And when I think about that, its kind of petrifying, for the rationale which subjected black people to enslavement is very much alive today—it’s in the passion with which we defend the Confederate institution using a mask of cultural memory. I’m probably reachin’, but I would like to posit the shoe as representative of the old woman’s marginalized identity. She must live in it. Subsequently, I believe that as I imagine that old lady’s possibilities in that shoe, her marginal identity, I can be empowered in my own thinking about possibility. Ultimately I want to feel less of a kind of way about the misgivings of the historical promise of equality of which I have YET to reap full benefit.
Allow me to recount for you...
“There was an old lady who lived in a shoe.
She had so many children, she didn’t know what to do.
She gave them some broth without any bread,
then whipped them all soundly and put them to bed.”

My initial fascination with this rhyme as I pondered it last night was how quickly the speaker seems to pass judgment. He’s like look, y’all this lady was so poor she lived in a shoe. And I can just the hear rumors about her baby daddies and how none of them pay child support. I’m joking, but what I’m trying to call attention to the fact that we can actually infer from the speaker’s gaze the fact that the woman’s very identity was disruptive to her society’s norms—her poorness, her woman-ness, her single-ness. The old lady in the shoe is actually reminiscent of the modern trope ‘welfare queen’ created in an effort to perpetuate the oppression and marginalization of black women. True to that association, I am reminded, then, of the disruptionality of black identity throughout American history—the racial reconciliation for which we are always somehow made responsible and the times, even in my own personal experience, when the racialized judgments imposed upon my character were marginalizing and offensive.

My experience assures me that our supposed post-racial moment is densely packed with legal, social, and political contradictions. Consider the fact that white households continue to carry 20 times the wealth of black households. Consider the fact that African-Americans WHO use drugs at remarkably similar rates to whites comprise 57% of the prisoners in state penitentiaries for drug offenses. Consider the fact that nooses continue to be hung on university plazas and you’ll be reminded that systematic oppression still only offers black Americans shoes in which to build their social and political realities. The old lady must live in a shoe because no homes exist for her (I mean this literally and figuratively); there are merely insufficient, degenerate, dysfunctional, and boundaried shoe spaces. Social and political outcomes, as illustrated by this allegory, ARE disproportionate, and anyone who wishes to argue this point is WRONG. I think of the ‘shoes’ of my black experience here at Duke—the aggressive Eurocentrism, the group members in yo Bio class who refuse to let you contribute to lab reports for fear that you will prove their suspicions of your intellectual incompetence, some administrative entities who seem to lack a basic understanding of, or respect for, racial complexity. And yet, just as the old lady in her shoe, the public imagination rejects historical context, faulting US—the people in the freakin’ shoe—for our socio-political plights. I’m over it.

I want desperately, in my work with BSA, in my work with the Durham community, and in the conversations about race that I’m apart of daily, to begin the work of unknotting the laces of structural inequality that keep this shoe of marginalization in tact. I want the same for this community. This work requires wokeness, for I must be well acquainted wit the shoe I’m dealing with. Owing to my hero Audre Lorde, the master’s shoe polish will never scuff the master’s loafer. In my living, I want to revise and resolve the nursery rhyme so that it honors the triumphs of a history of black struggle and compels that fight to continue in the direction of equality. That struggle is, after all, why we’re all here at Duke and why we’re in this room tonight. We have been bought and paid for, but it’s high time we demanded the warranty.

I mean this as much more than a structural critique of our beloved old institution; I mean this as a call to action for my brothers and sisters of African descent. I implore you to celebrate your blackness whenever and wherever you can—embracing your disruptionality. I implore you to embrace community and to build it further, across professional schools, across majors, across graduate/undergraduate boundaries, inside and outside the gates of Duke, and even across racial lines. Finally, I implore you to ever honor the struggle of those who came before. We must honor their legacy by continuing their fight.

All I really need is a shoe crew.