Contention simmers at Hampshire graduation

  • Student speaker Xavier Torres de Janon addresses those gathered for the Hampshire College commencement ceremony Saturday in Amherst. Dan Little/For the Recorder

  • Student moderators Gabrielle Garcia and Kwasi Tré speak during the Hampshire College commencement ceremony Saturday in Amherst. Dan Little/For The Recorder

For The Recorder
Sunday, May 15, 2016

AMHERST — Though the sun was shining as 3,200 smiling people gathered for Hampshire College’s commencement ceremonies on Saturday, an angry undercurrent raged within the tent that held most of them.

Unrest had plagued the campus in the weeks leading up to graduation as students questioned money spent on green buildings like the new R.W. Kern Center and pushed back on what they consider a culture of racism, and “silence and victim blaming” surrounding sexual assault.

And no one swept any of that under the rug Saturday.

Student speaker Xavier Torres de Janon, elected by his classmates, started his speech with a content warning of “mild to heavy cursing.”

“Hold onto your caps, DIVS and racist uncles,” he said.

Torres has been involved in recent protests and said people of color and “gender non-conforming bodies” are silenced at Hampshire College and beyond.

“They are dehumanized by our world and our campus,” he said.

Torres was issued a disciplinary sanction last week for promoting civil disruption on campus. The sanction, he said, put into question his ability to speak before them at Saturday’s commencement.

“Did y’all really think it would be that easy to get rid of me?” he asked, to cheers from the students.

Torres had few kind words for the college, referencing what he termed its “heartless frivolity,” its racism and what he referred to as its harboring of rapists. He urged his peers to hold their middle fingers high in response.

“I would lie if I said Hampshire College has treated me well,” he said. “If you haven’t been able to tell, I’m a staunch critic of Hampshire College. But that’s because I have loved it.”

Torres urged his peers to rally against a “mainstream that is boring and oppressive,” and referred to presidential candidate Donald Trump as “the big, rich, white elephant” in the living rooms of America.

“It’s not that we are not ready for the world,” he said. “It’s that the world is not ready for us”

Gaye Hill, chairwoman of the board of trustees, asserted that the college community will move forward together.

“By facing the challenges before us, we will lead the change to make Hampshire and the world a better place,” she said.

Flags waved gently in the breeze and dogs slept on the ground still soggy from the previous day’s rain. Tufts of dandelion floated in the air, tickling noses and inducing a chorus of sneezes.

Liza Neal, alumna and director of spiritual life, had kicked off the ceremony with words of healing.

“We are broken open because we care,” said Neal before launching into a peaceful hymn.

College President Jonathan Lash, 70, was unsure he’d make it to the ceremony — he said he has had four surgeries on his back in the past few weeks — but stood before the campus community, expressing remorse for his absence over the tumultuous past few weeks.

The same care that’s healed him in recent weeks is the same care, he said, that is the backbone of the college.

“We at Hampshire are a community in which caring is essential,” he said. “Students care, that’s why I love you. That’s why I have hope.”

As to the protests on campus, he said “the tradition continues,” referencing how alumni jumped in to join student activists on campus during recent protests.

Revolutionary times

Student moderators Gabrielle Garcia and Kwasi Tré said, typically, a moderator’s role in the ceremony is to provide some comic relief, but the pair promised there would be no boom boxes on stage this year.

“We really wanna be a little bit serious,” said Garcia, adding she wants to “affirm those voices we’ve heard,” in recent weeks.

Garcia praised the recent activism organized by the student group Decolonize Media Collective to shouts from the back of the tent.

‘Yeah, DMC, I see you!” she said.

Garcia, who is black and Puerto Rican, talked about how social systems hide racism. She referred to the gentrification of her home in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and how people of color now find themselves at the forefront of the fight against what she called a racist, capitalist system.

“Liberalism had a child called multiculturalism,” she said. “And all of a sudden we’re at the front.”

Keynote speaker

The ceremony’s keynote speaker, Reina Gossett — writer, artist and activist-in-residence at Barnard College’s Center for Research on Women — was chosen at the last minute, on May 2, to speak Saturday, after opposition to Lash’s first choice arose.

Having gotten to know Dr. Emily Wong of Massachusetts General Hospital during hospital visits, Lash had asked Wong to speak, but rescinded the invitation after hearing dissent from the graduating class.

Keynote speakers are traditionally chosen by the students at Hampshire College.

Faculty, in consultation with students and staff, chose Gossett because her life and activism connect with issues raised by students involving racism, transphobia and sexual violence, the college announced when it made the change.

Gossett praised students for how they “daily dismantle” evidence of “white supremacy and capitalism.”

“Baldwin scholars are threatened while millions go to shiny, new buildings,” said Gossett with a nod to the neighboring Kern Center.

The Baldwin Scholar program seeks out promising young people of color and pays for a five-year degree program at the college at a price of $60,000 per year. The program typically enrolls approximately 10 students a year, but this graduating class is asking for more investment in the program.

Gossett acknowledged students’ “emotional and material” exhaustion, encouraging suppressed voices in the crowd to embrace their opportunity to be nobody. Capitalism, she said, “cares about the somebody” — a “high-contrast image easily seen from a distance.”

“There’s power in that word, nobody,” she said, adding that it enables the invisible to fight undercover against the grain.

But life, she said, often will require graduates to be somebody worth hiring or otherwise acknowledging.

“This speech is about double-Dutching your way through contradictions,” she said.

Then — at least for a moment — 320 members of the graduating class of 2016 were “somebodies” as they strolled across the stage to retrieve their degrees.

Amanda Drane can be
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