Renaissance Men With A Social Conscience
NSO Address, August 20, 2008
On behalf of the board of trustees, a distinguished faculty, a staff eager to serve you and a body of alumni who love this school, I welcome each and every one of our new students and their families to Morehouse College.
Well, you are finally here. And, college life is finally beginning. You all have your stories of arrival. And, in a few short years, you will have your stories of departure. Shakespeare offers words for such moments, ‘All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts…” I wish that I could hear all of your stories of entrance.
At this time of the school year, I like to share my own narrative of arrival at Morehouse thirty seven years ago. I arrived by Greyhound bus with my mother two days before registration. My father didn’t make the trip as he labored to pay for the very expensive tuition of $3,000. The morning of registration, my mother and I took a taxi from Paschal’s Hotel to Graves Hall. When I saw the long line of brothers attempting to register there, I told Mom to leave me on Fair Street, a short distance from the gate, so none of the brothers would see her escorting me to the entrance. I wore a shirt and tie and carried a green Samsonite briefcase given by the proud members of my local church. I was Mr. Morehouse; I had the mystique and a bag of chips. By the way, the sight of men of Morehouse standing in line has given rise to a bad joke about how Morehouse Men are truly outstanding…that is, out standing in line to register, eat, or pay a bill. I trust that you have not had to spend an unreasonable amount of time out standing in a line. And, while it may be only small comfort, be assured that enduring that process is part of a bonding ritual that you share with all true Morehouse men. I digress.
Years later, an uncle told me that my mother called him in tears as she returned home alone. She had just left her boy at Morehouse. My uncle interrupted her and said, “Dorothy, listen to what you just said. You left a son at Morehouse College. Some mothers are crying today because they have left their sons in jail. And some have left their sons in a morgue. But you have left a son at Morehouse.” She says that those simple, honest words transformed her sacrifice into an investment, and her tears of grief into tears of pride.
So, my first words to parents are, ‘Leave your sons, grandsons and young men at Morehouse and be proud of what you have accomplished. Although it may be difficult and painful to separate, do it for his sake. You’re leaving him in good hands. He will mature into a Morehouse Man, and the world will be a better place.
The second word is for you young men of Morehouse. I am proud of you. You passed the tests of life and the academy, you resisted the temptation to surrender to mediocrity, and you avoided the depredations of violence, drugs, and self-hatred. You have made many good choices to be here. And, you have earned the seat you now occupy.
Gentlemen, you are here to join the ancient and noble conversation between great teachers and great students. When you gather in a classroom with faculty next week, you will evoke the historic gatherings of teachers and students throughout all time. Jesus and his disciples; Socrates and his pupils; Moses and his followers; Prophet Muhammad and his fellow believers; Confucius and his seekers; and Einstein and his students. They were all in the same business we practice at Morehouse: the business of teaching and learning. I urge you to treasure the great conversations you are about to have.
Also, I hope you will appreciate the inextricability of the Morehouse mystique and the Morehouse Man. What is that mystique? I have tried to translate it into terms more comprehensible to the public, and this is what I have come up with: It’s that distinctive and mysterious bond between good men who strengthen one another when we’re together and sustain us when we’re apart. It is captured in rituals and rhetoric, architecture and habits. Whatever it is, it has been cultivated in our 16,000 graduates and gives rise to the expression, “You can tell a Morehouse Man, but…you can’t tell him much.” You will learn more about this phenomenon as you matriculate.
More important, when asked “What is a Morehouse Man?” I like to respond this way. The Morehouse Man is a Renaissance man with a social conscience. A Renaissance man is one who is a citizen of the world. He is acquainted with the great conversations in science and the humanities; acquainted with the languages and cultures of the world; at home in every culture; widely read and widely traveled; capable of adapting to every environment; and able to raise the level of class and sophistication of the company he keeps.
‘Renaissance’ is an interesting word. It means ‘rebirth.’ Amidst the difficult days of racial injustice during the early 20th century, there emerged in Harlem, New York, a group of men and women who began to document and celebrate the strengths, beauty, intelligence and spirit of their people. That cultural phenomenon came to be known as the Harlem Renaissance. That era gave the world Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson and Zora Neale Hurston. They gave us sophisticated explorations of black life and culture that revealed our genius and unleashed pride and self efficacy among the masses.
Today, we are calling for the Renaissance of all men, especially men of color. Morehouse will be on the front line of that renewal movement. As Renaissance Men nurtured at Morehouse, you will have the opportunity to inject new energy and hope into communities that desperately await a Renaissance. They are communities that time and opportunity have bypassed. Communities where “70 percent of boys who enroll in the 9th grade will not graduate four years later with their peers” (Schott Foundation, 2004); communities where the number of boys who fall behind in third grade become the basis for calculating the number of prison cells that will be needed a decade later; communities where few people celebrate academic excellence, personal sacrifice and moral integrity.
The Renaissance man is there to add value and serve others. That is the social conscience—that inner, moral compass—that makes us sensitive to injustice and compels us to attempt to relieve the suffering of others.
Allow me to expand for a moment on what I mean by Morehouse students becoming Renaissance men with a social conscience. There are five characteristics that I wish to hold above your heads along with the crown you will someday wear. I want each of you to memorize these five pillars of our renaissance.
- First, I invite you as men of Morehouse, Renaissance men in the making, to become Well read. Well read students possess a breadth of knowledge and sophistication in contrast to the parochialism of those who specialize too soon in their intellectual careers. Well read men should be acquainted with the classic texts, issues, and questions within both the sciences and humanities. I want your bookshelves to reflect your diversity of interest. For there we should find physics and philosophy next to finance and poetry. When you are well read, you will have something valuable to contribute to any conversation.
- Second, I want you to become Well traveled. Well read and well traveled students who have been reared in the United States must travel to other countries in North America and beyond in order to experience the essential “decentering” that comes from leaving home and looking back to assess and understand one’s origins. We are blessed to have many international students who know this and can assist the rest of us. The Ghanaian scholar Kofi Opoku says, “Do not say that your mother’s stew is the best in the world if you have never left your village.” Travel to the edges of the world and take the Morehouse banner with you. Stand on the Great Wall of China as you study globalization and send us a text message saying, “Morehouse is here.” Venture to the most isolated islands of French Polynesia to examine water quality and send us a postcard stamped “Morehouse is in Bora Bora.” And if you venture to Mars, please do not place a collect call to your favorite dean. Just plant our maroon and white flag on the red planet. Get out of your parent’s house and out of Morehouse to see the world.
- Third, I want each of you to become Well spoken. Well read, well traveled, well spoken Renaissance men always have something valuable to say. Equally important, I want you to say it well. You will develop the capacity to express yourselves with precision, grace and style, both verbally and in writing. So please, in this week of orientation, lose the phrase from your vocabulary, “Yo, yo, you know what I’m saying?” No! We don’t know what you’re saying. That’s why you’ve come here to learn to put those complex emotions and ideas into elegant words. And when you become good, as good as the men who performed and challenged us last night, you’ll be able to talk the sugar out of a sweet roll without touching the crust. Aristotle called that ‘the art of rhetoric.’
- Fourth, I want you to be Well dressed. Well read, well traveled, well spoken and well dressed. Brothers, these are awesome traits when combined. As a prestigious college that produces leaders, we have an obligation to inform and guide you regarding how best to present yourselves in public. We want you to make the right first impression. And, whether you like it not, people see you coming down the street or corridor before they meet you and hear your brilliant and charming conversation. So, brothers, there is a time and a place for everything. With love and respect I say to you, college classes, offices, the cafeteria and chapel are not the place for hats. Nor do we wish to see you in trousers sagging below your waistline. No do-rags. No pajamas in the classroom. If you must wear that costume, please limit it to your room. But, when you enter the public to represent Morehouse, please look like the future decision makers, servant leaders and power brokers that you are. You are men of Morehouse. You are better than that. We will be watching and expecting class from you.
- Finally, I want you to become Well balanced. Morehouse teaches us to possess healthy minds that reside within healthy bodies governed by healthy values. Remember that phrase, healthy minds inside healthy bodies governed by healthy values. This affirms the importance of a well rounded existence built upon the wise allocation of time and effort. To everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under the sun. A time for relaxation and a time (a lot of time) for study; a time for sports and recreation and a time for worship and spiritual nourishment. Dr. DuBois said that university should be a place for “hard work and hard play.” Last night, a beloved Morehouse mother urged us to take seriously the issue of suicide awareness. We share and respect her pain and we have and will continue to strengthen our programs in this and in many other areas that present challenges to all college students today.
Gentlemen, as you become Renaissance men with a social conscience, the college has a few expectations of you.
We will be most disappointed if we hear of a single instance of violence on this campus.
We will be disappointed if we learn of a single instance of disrespect toward a woman in our community.
We will be outraged to learn that you have sought to harm someone who is different in race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or national origin. Their difference is an opportunity for you to learn and to grow wiser.
We are Morehouse, and we will not tolerate profanity in the public square.
We strive for a drug free campus, and a weapons free environment. Contrary to what you may have interpreted from recent news reports, we do not support lowering the drinking age but think that we should join the societal debate about healthy lifestyles.
Morehouse is special because we project high expectations; we practice group mentoring (we will get into your business if you cross the line); we promote holistic development (head, hand and heart) and we inspire you to become leaders. So, look the part. Act the part. Talk the talk. Walk the walk.
Brothers, I wish I could convey how special you are to us and to the world. You are the envy of the world. You are the answer to the ancestors’ prayers. You are the pride of the village and the hope of the nation. The gleam in a proud father’s eye and the heartbeat of a mother.
And, while we’re engaged in a week of heavy self congratulation and pardonable pride, let us never forget the virtue of humility. Those who wish to become greatest among you must be willing to serve others. Remember last night’s message. We started in a basement (Springfield Baptist Church) but we ended up on a high and holy hill.
As I conclude, I’d like to share with you a battle cry that I’d like to use from time to time. It is based on the idea that we are Morehouse and we are here to serve the least advantaged members of the community. Service was a driving force of our founders and continues to be an integral part of the Morehouse College mission.
So, men of the class of 2012, please stand.
When you say this, I want you to roar so loud that an African lion in the Serengeti will pause because he has heard the roar of a crouching tiger.
Your ‘House, at your service.