On Monday, May 23, 2016 I was honored to deliver the 2016 Graduate Student Address at Lehigh’s 148th Commencement Ceremony. The subject of my talk was Purpose, Possibility, and Love. As I thought about what message I wanted to share with my fellow graduates and our families, I wondered about the other black women who walked this path before me. With the help of Professors Jenna Lay and Betsy Fifer, I was able to piece together the brief history of the two phenomenal black doctoral students who pursued the English degree. Only Ronald Williams graduated from the program, in the 1970s. I was shocked to learn that Nancy Cho Barrett passed away in 2003 after passing her exams with distinction. With this information heavy on my heart, I prepared a talk that I hoped would honor Nancy’s memory and acknowledge the significance of my role as the first African American Woman English PhD Graduate from Lehigh. The following is the address I wrote, followed by the video footage that begins at 38:00.
Purpose, Possibility, and Love
Thank you President Simon for that wonderful introduction. First, I give honor to God. I also want to thank the English Department, Africana Studies Program, and Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies Program.
There are a few people I need to acknowledge at the outset because without them I would not be here in this moment. To my parents Reginald Samuel Waller Sr. and Valerie Diane Waller who sowed into me a spirit of fearlessness and determination, I love and appreciate you. To Reggie, Camille, Little Reggie, and my entire Peterson family, I love you so much. Thank you for loving me as is. To my sister Sam, in 2000 they didn’t think our speech about our struggle as black Nursing students was suited for our Florence Nightingale ceremony. We cried from the sting of rejection and the pain of not being seen. But today, I claim this moment and this space for us. Thank you to my incredible committee Professors Elizabeth Dolan, Seth Moglen, Mary Foltz, and Monica Miller. Also Professors Imaani El-Burki and Hugo Ceron-Anaya. Finally, I thank my two incredible children James Braxton Peterson III and Breanna Moné Peterson and my amazing husband Dr. James Braxton Peterson. You all are everything to me and I thank you for all of your love and support.
I am incredibly honored to stand before you this morning to deliver the 2016 graduate student address. I want to express my sincere gratitude to everyone who nominated me, especially soon-to-be English PhD candidate Cynthia Estremera and my son whose words helped shape this speech.
Class of 2016, Congratulations, We Made It!! I want you to take a minute and think about where you started, whether it was your first year as an undergrad or your first year of graduate school. Lehigh was a place of possibility. A testing ground that promised to provide life long lessons. Think about where you are now, how hard you’ve worked, how much you’ve accomplished, and how much you’ve overcome. The last few years have challenged us to confront our biases, stand together as a community, and show not only ourselves, but the world that we demand justice and equality for all of our Lehigh family members. We have grown and Lehigh, as we see it now, is still a place of possibility and promise where we can make history and change lives. I stand before you as the First African American Woman to earn an English PhD here at Lehigh. And I am only the second black person to complete the program. I want to thank Ronald Williams who graduated in the ‘70s for paving the way for me. Born in Barbados, his academic excellence and desire for success allowed him to be the president of two universities, vice-president of the College Board and an accomplished author. I want to acknowledge Nancy Barrett who was also an exceptional Senior Teaching Fellow and PhD candidate in the English Department. Born in South Korea, Nancy received her BA from Morgan State and her MA in English from Lehigh. Nancy entered the PhD program in 2000 and passed her exams with distinction. She passed away unexpectedly December 22, 2003 before she was able to complete the program. I am standing here in this moment as a result of Ron and Nancy’s accomplishments. However, two black doctoral graduates separated by three decades is not enough. Today, I ask that all of the graduate programs reaffirm their commitment to Lehigh’s mandate to adequately reflect the beautiful diversity of our world.
We are all here because of the sacrifice and love shown to us. And the way to honor that is to love ourselves. Not a narcissistic, self-centered love, but an agape, god-like love that calls us to honor our spirits, our minds and our bodies. Maya Angelou says “Love is that condition in the human spirit so profound that it allows me to survive, and better than that, to thrive with passion, compassion, and style”. I urge you this morning, as you reflect on all that you have accomplished here at Lehigh, to also take time to love on yourself; to affirm your own strength and fortitude; to boldly proclaim that you reached the goal you set for yourself; and to prioritize your own happiness. Hold fast to this moment and recall it often, especially when others challenge your ideas and you begin to doubt yourself. Remember how great you are, full of possibility and overflowing with promise. Take the time to love yourself always and in all ways.
And finally, to all my black and brown women graduates, we are not the mules of the world. Ntozake Shange said, “I found God in myself, and I loved her, I loved her fiercely.” Embrace all of your intelligence, beauty and black girl magic but above all Love yourself first and deeply.
Class of 2016, we were made for this moment. Now let’s get in formation!
Dr. Belinda Monique Waller-Peterson
Assistant Professor of English, Multi-Ethnic Literature at Moravian College
Nancy Cho Barrett