Morning Prayers speech by Lumumba Babushe Seegars '09, Ph.D Student in Organizational Behavior, GSAS and HBS; Resident Tutor, Kirkland House
There have been many articles written about who “we” are as Americans, how “we” coastal elites need to get to know more people in rural America, and how “we” are a nation of immigrants. This morning, I want to ask a question: Who is this “we?” Many of the uses of “we,” are well-intentioned, and some of them are useful, passionate reminders of our nation’s promise to vulnerable people around the world.
I see this “we” everywhere, and I am both fascinated and puzzled by it. I once read David Brooks write about America’s return to national greatness and he asks, “Are we still the purpose-driven experiment Lincoln described and Emma Lazarus wrote about: assigned by providence to spread democracy and prosperity; to welcome the stranger; to be brother and sister to the whole human race; and to look after one another because we are all important in this common project?” And I wondered to myself, when were my ancestors welcomed as brothers and sisters here as equally important members in this project? Why, then, was I harassed at 1am by police officers outside of Indianapolis? Who is this we?
When I hear people describe that coastal elites don’t understand people in rural America, I try to figure out who I talk to multiple times a week on the phone when I’m talking to my parents who live in rural South Carolina. And I remember my first semester of graduate school: crying during my first therapy session because I felt acutely aware of my family’s economic problems, and I did not know what more I could do to help. I think about the money I send home monthly and the change of tone in my dad’s voice when he has to ask for more. And I think about how scared I was when my mom had a stroke last Fall, and I wondered how long it would take them to get to the hospital. So I try to understand why living in Cambridge seems to divorce me from comprehending the health and economic plight of people in rural America. Who is this we?
When I think about the phrase, we are a nation of Immigrants,” I am proud and fired up to fight for people who want to come here, especially those who are fleeing violence and unfathomable poverty. But I am also reminded that our history of immigration does not include my history as the descendent of human cargo, sold as livestock to build this country’s wealth through free, brutal labor. And I look at my skin and think that I also might be the descendent of an immigrant, but maybe the property owning type who did not mind intimacy with his own property, which had no power to consent. Who is this we?
I say all this not to merely point out differences for the sake of being provocative, but rather to talk about the benefit of complicating appeals toward simplistic narratives. It is easy to rush to find points of similarity in order to build bridges. A bridge is quite useful; however, it is meaningful so long as it helps you to connect to somewhere you want to be. If that bridge requires you to pass over where it is you want to be, then it becomes an obstacle. The rush to simply coalesce around universalistic narratives of who we are can erase the narratives of groups who have been marginalized historically. We build bridges with the resources supplied by those who control capital. But, if we are trying to build bridges that take us toward equality, toward understanding, toward this dream, then we have to consider what we are connecting and who we are glossing over. The singular focus on similarities often falls prey to connecting sides of the same divide, and individuals and groups remain worlds apart from those who live on the other side of the river, where the schools don’t have the same resources, where communities are policed differently, where the water might not be safe, where grocery stores don’t exist.
A focus on similarities while also emphasizing different lived experiences allows for meaningful, deep, and continuous engagement. Bridges that connect differences and engage differences create greater abundance. I encourage you today to think of who you mean when you say “we.” Who you mean when you say “we” at Harvard. When you say “we” in Cambridge. When you say “we” among friends. Who is your we?