N/B: I delivered this blog as a speech at a pep rally at Clark Atlanta University on Friday, March 21, 2014. Please note that I have made some modifications for clarification and corrections relative to syntax and content, and the last three paragraphs were not spoken at that event due to time constraints.
There’s nothing magical about being the first Miss Clark Atlanta University. From time to time, I receive calls from the Alumni Director at Clark Atlanta about attending an event or Miss Clark Atlanta University (Miss CAU) artifacts; most recently she called about my dress and my sash. Twenty-five years ago, my dress was made by an Atlanta clothing designer named Hollis who permitted me to model his clothes. I believe that I returned my dress to him after the coronation. And, if I recall correctly, my sash was quite homemade. The letters on the sash were enhanced if not made with glue and glitter; over the years the glitter fell away and the sash, unfortunately, lost its glitter and glam. What I experienced as the first Miss Clark Atlanta University was probably not the same as what today’s Miss Clark Atlanta and her court have experienced. My campaign for the homecoming queen was supported by many, including my sorority sisters, our official fraternity brothers, and many others who empowered me to be the first Miss CAU. In light of these calls, I remembered that my dress and the accessories that went along with it were not sponsored or maintained by the university. Back then, we had a lot of room to present ourselves as we really wanted to, which is not to say that the current Miss CAU or other Miss CAUs have not had such latitude, but, my sense is that being Miss CAU is much more structured today than it was back then.
Much of life and life’s accomplishments are about timing and being in the right place at the right time. Succeeding in life is not a mystery and it is not magic. There is no need to spiritualize or mystify our experiences here on earth. We are who we are because of human effort and action (and that includes our inaction or what we do not do on behalf of others and the environment). As far as African-American or black culture is concerned, there have been many “firsts,” but some of the firsts among us consciously gave their all and risked nearly everything in the process. There was Ida B. Wells-Barnett, W.E.B. DuBois, James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, Lorraine Hansberry, Thurgood Marshall, Patricia Roberts Harris, Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Abbey Lincoln, Shirley Chisholm, Alice Walker, bell hooks and many others who were first among us to blaze a trail in this nation. On other hand, being first, perhaps like being “the first” in your family to attend college, is not necessarily synonymous with progress, success or risk-taking. One can be “the first” in the family to go to college, but that does not mean that one will graduate or go on to do great, unimaginable things. And, being black, first and in a visible position does not necessarily mean that what one is doing will be of benefit to black people and to people in general, let’s take United States Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, for example. Whose interests does he support from the bench? Which institutions make progress because of his being there? Is Justice Thomas really that conscious about what he is doing? I don’t think so. Every person who achieves something in life does not operate with a critical (and thus historical) consciousness.
Likewise, it was not until years later, after I had graduated from Clark Atlanta University and as I was well into my adult life that I gained a critical consciousness of what it meant for me to be the first Miss Clark Atlanta. Maybe it took me awhile because I was not the first person in my family to go to college. By the time I went away to college, both of my parents had college degrees and they were gainfully employed in a way that my family did not suffer for much of anything (up until a point). Not all black people lived or live in “the hood.” And, contrary to popular belief, there is a portion of the African-American population in the U.S. that has toiled and gained a comfortable middle-class existence since the early to mid-twentieth century. There’s nothing wrong with that, in and of itself. In fact, I honor and respect the sacrifices that my parents made so that I could have a different upbringing than they. That I have more options today than they did does not mean that I am better or better off than they were, but it does suggest or indicate that I perceive and know life from a different historical point of view or standpoint. Whatever the reason, twenty-five years ago I did not think that being the first Miss Clark Atlanta, and being chosen by my peers to be in that position would mean that much down the line. I did not realize that I was making history. On the one hand, I took the opportunity seriously, but I did not have a critical understanding (the kind of critical understanding that the Rev. Dr. Mark Tyler talked about in yesterday’s Convocation) of the meaning that my being Miss CAU would have to me and to others twenty-five years later, a quarter of a century later. Back then, I had much more learning and growing to do.
A quarter of a century from now I might be dead, but you, where will you be in a quarter of a century? Who will you be in a quarter of a century? These are the questions that you will be faced with in the very near future, and if you have not taken the time to wrestle with these questions now, then I guarantee you that you WILL be asking yourself these questions in the years to come. Soon, you will be asking yourself, Who am I? What is my mission? What passions will I live out on the stage that is life? And indeed, there will be some event, some idea, some circumstance, like perhaps being a homecoming queen, or the first in your family to earn a graduate degree, or a professional basketball player, or a well-respected scientist, or a world-renowned poet, or the president of your class, or a university president, or a conscious observer and participant of life…there will be some position in life that causes you or prompts you to wrestle with your identity and your purpose in life. Hopefully, you will settle these questions for yourself before you don’t have the opportunity to ask them any longer in the world that we know.
What I have learned or gleaned about being Miss CAU over the years is this:
First, most of the time we do not know when we are making history or charting new ground as it is happening or in progress. Being a trailblazer or a pioneer or a history-maker is often something that we come to realize after-the-fact. Twenty-five years ago, I did not think that being the first Miss CAU would mean much to anybody besides me and my classmates. Today, I know much more about myself and my identity as a black woman committed to freedom and I am committed to fighting for freedom and for standing up for myself and for others which I often do via my writing and public speaking. Being Miss CAU, where I was called up on to represent myself and others, and, speaking up for myself and others had something to do with shaping that understanding.
The second thing that I have learned is that often the people we are to become isn’t readily apparent until we have been through some things, including the difficult times in life. More times than not, it is not until we experience a major change like unemployment, or the birth of a baby, or the experience of a love (bad, good or ugly), or a mid-life crisis, a car repossession, a job promotion, or chronic illness, or something that happens to to us to give us a brand new start in life that we learn, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that “joy and pain” like “sunshine and rain” are normal parts of life.
My greatest, most memorable moments in life are grounded in this dialectic; in this back-and-forth movement between the good, the bad and the ugly. These are the ups and downs of life and I have learned, really learned, from them to love first myself and then others because of this dialectic. This grappling, better yet, my internal conversation with the realities in life is what brings me to an understanding of who I am at the end of each and every day. And because of these experiences, I have a better understanding of where I am going, where I want to go and most of all, I know how I want to get there. At some point in all of this movement, I came to the embrace of my own rhythm, and that is how I try to live my life: to the beat of my own drum.
And this is something that I hope that you will find: your own rhythm. You may not find it here at Clark Atlanta, but as you make your way through life, through the ebb-and-flow of life, I hope that you will take it upon yourself to discern the way that you must take and the tools that you will need to get there. Having a good set of tools, social skills and critical thinking will make your journey rich and deep and full of many options, possibilities, and new horizons that I may never see. What I am saying is that I hope that your options will be greater than mine. But, much of what you experience in terms of options will be determined by the work that my generation and your generation endeavor to do in the name of freedom, because where there are fewer freedoms, there are fewer options. And thus, to experience greater freedom and to perceive of greater options in life, I must and you must commit yourselves to fighting, yes, fighting for freedom because believe it or not, there are and there will be persons, institutions and philosophies that have the power to limit and perhaps take away your freedom.
Twenty-five years ago I could not have imagined the woman than I have become. I could not have imagined how important my life and journey would be to me and to others, not simply as a college homecoming queen, but as a symbol of success and a freedom-fighter not just for women, but for all people. Twenty-five years ago, I thought I would end up as an attorney, but when I arrived at law school all of that changed. My life went in an entirely different direction, but as a result of listening to myself and living the life that I wanted to live, in spite of the plans that others had for me, including my parents. And, despite my naivete in achieving my new-found dreams and goals apart from law school, I went on from that point one day and one degree at a time towards being a greater, better me and on to blazing a trail that only I could blaze.
Twenty-five years ago, I didn’t have the confidence in myself to think as I think today, but I do today and that confidence is felt as power, a power that I never dreamed of having. And thus, I leave you with a quote from one my favorite trailblazers, a symbol of success for me who was one of the first black women to chip away at the exclusive hold that whites held over science fiction. Her name is Octavia Butler and she died suddenly in 2006 (which is why I say I may not be here in 25 years; we don’t know the day or the hour, right?). Something Ms. Butler wrote in her acclaimed books, Parable of the Sower and Parable of Talents, via the story of a woman character she named Lauren Olamina touched me deeply at a time when I needed it most, and because of reading Octavia Butler’s novels I realized that we should never underestimate the power of the pen. It is one of the most powerful weapons within our reach and one that many black people have used consistently all over this world to fight oppression in the name of freedom. Along with Butler’s insightful imagination, her character Lauren Olamina said this:
All that you touch you change
All that you change changes you
The only lasting truth is change
God is change.
Today, in closing, I want to say to you, keep on striving and struggling for your freedom. First you must struggle for your personal freedom, then for the freedom of others for as Nelson Mandela once said, “Together we are strong.” And more than anything, never, ever underestimate the power that is within you, which is the power to change and therefore the power to change reality, including the reality for yourself and others, because, in the words of the great Octavia Butler, one of the most prolific change-agents of the late twentieth century, who ushered me into the twenty-first, “Change is the only lasting truth.”
© 2014 annalise fonza, Ph.D.