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Sunn m'Cheaux, Faculty Keynote Speech

Harvard Affinity Celebrations Recognizing Black Graduates 2024

Peace. First and foremost, thank you to Harvard Office for Equity, Diversity, Inclusion & Belonging, Harvard Affinity Celebrations Recognizing Black Graduates, and The Student Advisory Committee not only for inviting me to be your faculty speaker, but also noting my, quote, “strong commitment to social justice in issues related, but not limited to race, class, and education,” end quote. I am particularly pleased and proud of that quote because it feels affirming that you may have received the safety in spaces that I have tried to provide you in my seven years here at Harvard, whether in my classroom, anywhere else on campus, or online. I am also taking it as a sign that you are not expecting the old “Do not go gently into that good night” from me. “What will your verse be?” The “Carpe diem” speech and the like. No shade. All wonderful quotes, but platitudes that, frankly, may ring hollow, considering the sobering truths that we have witnessed in recent months up to this moment. Your moment. In many ways, a moment of truth, wherein truth has transcended from a moment to a movement. 
In this, your senior year, we have seen streams of obscene scenes across the screens of our smart devices of unconscionable brutality perpetrated against Palestinian innocents by the apartheid state of Israel with the banking and bombs of its accomplice, the United States. Here and around the world, students, faculty, and alumni organized and mobilized resistance movements to fight our own institutions’ facilitation of the dehumanization of Palestinian people. In a cold twist of irony, using technology as a tool of Palestinian liberation was made possible by a conflict “blood” mineral, cobalt, that contributes to the dehumanization and decimation of millions, and millions more Congolese people. Cobalt is in our cars, appliances, laptops, smart watches, Fitbits, CT scans, our children’s toys... clawed out of the rugged earth by the bare hands of enslaved Congolese children, women, and men.  
Cobalt has made the Democratic Republic of the Congo one of the richest countries in the world with its people being amongst the poorest, subjected to atrocities and genocide backed by the usual suspects, Israel, the United States, and insert your fave tech company here among others. Speaking of which, like many of you, I use my social media platforms of a near million followers to fight the good fight, ironically, across multiple apps owned by rapacious tech companies that suppress our advocacy and suspend our accounts while they profit from our conscientious content. Politically, we rightly reject voting for “the lesser of two evils,” while being forced to utilize the “necessary evil” of the oppressors' products to fight the oppressors. If it feels as though we have been cross contaminated in this capitalist conundrum, remember that venom is a primary ingredient in the creation of antivenom... Sometimes, so goes anti-capitalism.

Alas, I am exceedingly glad to be here with you to celebrate your achievement that is more than an academic feat but a rite of passage that some of your classmates are forced to fight to not be denied for demanding Harvard’s divestment from death and destruction. A decision by way of a bad faith compromise that broke with prior student protest precedent and established a Palestinian exception here. 50-billion-dollar coffer, but what is Harvard’s word worth when it comes to protecting the people who are supposed to be the reason this institution even exists... You? 

We have seen this betrayal of trust playout in even more draconian fashion at other institutions of higher learning from Columbia University to UCLA. During the UC Irvine arrest of tenured professor, Dr. Tiffany Willoughby-Herard, she was asked if she was concerned that defending her pro-Palestinian students’ right to assemble and protest would impact her employment at the university. Dr. Willoughby-Herard retorted, “What job do I have if my students have no future?!” Her words struck like thunder in my head, and echoed in my heart, where my commitment to protect and serve you resides. As your educators, not executives, your plight is our purpose, but we must model the truth and transparency that we are tasked to inspire in you.  
It is in that spirit that I stand before you today, right here, right now in real-time, and share with you that I am gutted... Heart-broken by the loss of loved ones for whom I grieve dearly and deeply. Some I lost to death, others to life, both leaving me at times feeling lost in search of solace. Like in the old African-American spiritual, ‘Sinner Man,’ I ran to the sea and the sea was boiling. I ran through the trees and the trees were falling. I ran to the rock, and the rock cried out, “No hiding place.” Yet, still trying to fight the good fight, I became ashamed of my pain. Did I have the right to lick my own wounds emotionally at a time in the world when so many other people are being wounded mortally? 

Do I? Do you? 

Do we get to worry about how we are going to make a living when the people of Haiti are just trying to make it, living? Do we get to wallow in self-pity over a significant breakup with lovers, friends, or family, as families in South Sudan are broken up by bullets? Do we get to struggle with despondency, depression, childhood trauma, self-doubt, self-harm, bereavement, social anxieties, eating disorders, and so forth while Palestinian infants starve to death in a man-made famine executed by ruthless Zionist overlords, and those Palestinian parents still have the unbroken, boundless faith to cradle their loved ones’ skin and bones and bags of body parts, crying, "Allahu Akbar" (God is greatest)? 

Yes. Yes, we do. 

We are all but human beings being human. These are all part of the human condition from where our capacity for empathy springs. It is the thing that separates projection from connection when addressing the plights of others. Whether it is personal or in protest, acolyte or activist, altruistic action without empathy is performative, even if to some material extent it is effective. Empathy is a mustard seed, one of life’s little mercies, ties that bind us together. We cannot achieve liberation by alienation from one another. It is what we do and who we are when we all we got. 
There is something obscenely macabre about oppressed people being pitted against one another and reduced to set trippin’ over whose oppression is worthy of attention while our respective oppressors continue to ransack our resources and lay waste to our lives. Let us not construct hierarchies within the ranks of our resistance that place the pretense of purity over integrity and create a lower rung of cannon fodder to take the fall while the leaders lavish in the limelight. A movement for equity that is not egalitarian is part of the problem it purports itself to solve. Sometimes, we make bad decisions with the best of intentions. 

How rabble rousing is anything one yells into a megaphone to deaf people who cannot hear the words or see one's lips to read them? Are we seeking signing translators? Are our encampments or events accessible to mobility devices, or are we facilitating digital encampments for those who cannot be physically present? Are we using inclusive language to rally support, knowing that not everyone can “stand up,” “speak up,” or even raise a fist in solidarity, but they are no less invested. We are friends indeed with diverse needs... Let us do what we can to meet them.

Like Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, the friends of Job who were so distraught with grief at the sight of Job’s excruciating suffering that, after tearing at themselves in agony, knowing that they could not free their friend from his tribulation, they resigned to simply sitting silently on the ground with him for seven days and nights. That was all they could do, and Job was consoled. So much of being there for others in need is being there. Your presence is a present, a gift, to the world. Even amid Israel raining US bombs upon them, Palestinian people posted a message of gratitude to student protestors abroad because your resistance, persistence, and presence here was felt by them there.  
I hope this speech does not age well. One day, I hope everything I have said about these issues and events becomes irrelevant because the issues and events have long since become the past. Unlike the words of Malcolm X [about the Palestinian, Sudanese, and Congolese causes] in 1964 that, unfortunately, still apply today in 2024. I hope my words are only timely, not timeless, because all the innocents currently being murdered by way of malnutrition in crimes against their humanity are fed by the fruit of labor for their liberation. You are tomorrow’s thought leaders today. I hope that you know that you are wonderful and powerful in all that you do, and that you cannot do it all alone. No one can do everything, but anyone can do something. Together we can do the right thing. All power to the people all around the world. Weoutchea. Peace.


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