My mom is 74 years old. Next year will be her last year as a professor at Valparaiso University.
She just gave a speech to much of the freshman class at Valparaiso University. It was an honor that she was asked. And it was a great opportunity to share decades of earned wisdom.
Her speech was on cultivating empathy through the narrative arts.
I agree with her that globalization and technology require us to expand our circle of empathy beyond the family, the tribe, and the state – to people who live in far away lands, speak different languages, and see the world in completely different ways.
My favorite part of her speech was when she described studying British literature as undergraduate student in India.
At the time, studying British literature was higher status than studying Indian literature. So she read the British cannon, which is dominated by white men.
From My Mother’s Speech
“I grew up in post-colonial India. The British left India in 1947, but they continued to control the minds of many of us in formidable ways. The term for this is mental colonization. Not a good thing.
But I must admit that I have very mixed feelings about this mental colonization that I experienced, chiefly because this mental colonization helped me to cultivate my empathy through reading narratives of the other. Let me explain.
So, here I was, reading about dancing daffodils that fill the landscape in Wordsworth’s poem of that name, without having seen any daffodils. To feel the joy of Wordsworth at the dancing of daffodils in spring I had to exercise my imagination. Of course, this went beyond flowers and leaves. I had to learn to experience the reality of the characters in Shakespeare, in Dickens and Thackery, and whatever I studied in my courses … this helped me to develop empathy. “
There is so much nuance and complexity in this reflection. To have mixed feelings about your oppressor means you have the power to see them as humans; that you are not consumed by outrage.
If you feel their poetry about their native flowers, you have kept your own humanity in seeing theirs.
My mother also talked about my deceased father in her speech:
“One of my favorite courses I have taught here was one team taught with my late husband who was an Africanist. It focused on African politics and literature. We called it the African Experience, by adding literature, it qualified as an experience. Something similar remains my endeavor in all I teach. I want to push my students to walk in the shoes of Indian, Chinese, African American, and Caribbean characters.”
My father played a unique role in the mostly white town where we grew up. He was a black academic who was connected to the university elites in our city. In Valparaiso, Indiana, most African-Americans in the town were middle class or poor.
Through my father, others were able to access power. He was the connection between Valparaiso’ mostly white university and its only black church.
In 2006, my dad received Martin Luther King, Jr. Day award recipient for his work on race relations at Valparaiso University.
One of his colleagues noted: “Much of what he did early on laid the groundwork for where we are with diversity issues today.”
As I think about the next couple decades of my life, I hope I can live out both of these lessons.
It is so important to strive to see the humanity in others and to expand who has access to power.
In their own ways, both my parents were able to do this in the town where we grew up. And at the university they called home for decades.