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The Commencement Story and the Rhymes of History

James Peterson

More often than not, the commencement address is designed to be a sanitized rhetorical moment. Graduation speeches are not often written to make incisive interventions, despite the many ways that commencement speakers intone their words. A commencement signals a new beginning or a new start for graduates as they take their hard-earned degrees and begin the journey of professional trials and tribulations. Commencements are also ceremonial affairs, designed to celebrate achievement. Recently, storyteller and documentary historian Ken Burns realized these assignments and more at his address to 2024 graduates at Brandeis University.

Dr. James B. PetersonDr. James B. PetersonCommencements are promising moments in the lives of university communities and in the memories of the families who attend to witness the accomplishments of their graduates. But this season of commencement proceedings has been different. In a moment when there has been a chilling effect on (free) speech across college campuses; where protests have been met with militarized responses and no small amount of breathless – bordering on hysterical – media coverage, the commencement address – 2024 – has become fraught with anxiety.

Commencement speeches have been a higher education tradition in the U.S. since the early 19th Century. The origins of these addresses date back to the establishment of American universities, where graduation ceremonies served as both a rite of passage and a public demonstration of the institution's educational values. Initially, these speeches were often delivered by faculty members or notable figures within the academic community.

Over time, commencement addresses have evolved. Contemporary graduations often feature prominent public figures, politicians, authors, and celebrities. These speakers signal a broader societal interest in these ceremonies. The themes of commencement speeches have remained relatively consistent, focusing on the future, personal and professional growth, and the responsibilities of citizenship. Speakers often aim to inspire and challenge graduates to think critically about their roles in society.

In this moment and with this history of commencement addresses in tow, Ken Burns’ words at Brandeis make a potent intervention. He deliberately dispensed with his documentarian neutrality and corralled his audience, and by extension, all of us, to consider the stakes and the state of discourse in an existentially critical juncture of this American experiment. For Burns, part of his journey as a storyteller and documenter of history has been to be “on the lookout” for the rhymes of history. According to Burns (via Mark Twain), history does not repeat itself so much as it rhymes with itself. Burns argues that identifying this poetry within history is one way to identify the power of our history to shape and inform the complexities of our contemporary malaise.

Burns tells us that the pursuit of happiness “happens . . . in the lifelong learning and perpetual improvement” offered at institutions of higher learning. He cites Abraham Lincoln at length, underscoring his “fundamental optimism” and the historical fact that he presided over the U.S.’ “near national suicide.” Burns leans into the contradictions of our nation’s history and concludes that:

“the isolation of those two oceans has also helped to incubate habits and patterns less beneficial to us: our devotion to money and guns and conspiracies, our certainty about everything, our stubborn insistence on our own exceptionalism blinding us to that which needs repair, especially with regard to race and ethnicity. Our preoccupation with always making the other wrong at an individual as well as a global level.”

Then Burns turns to novelist Richard Powers, who claims that the best arguments and/or the best arguers in the world will never change a person’s point of view. Only stories can do that. And with that, Burns presents a gauntlet for contemporary American public and political discourse. As we remain hopelessly locked into binaries – red vs. blue; white vs. black; democracy vs. autocracy; and us vs. them – we remain committed to cultivating the seeds of our own deconstruction. But for Burns, it is the power of story – the radical act of telling stories and/or reading stories and/or hearing and listening to stories – that might save us and begin the long project of deconstructing the binaries that bind us.

This is a simple assertion made at a ceremonial moment during a commencement address delivered during complex times. But nothing is simple about story. Stories help all of us make sense of the world. You could argue that there is no better way to understand the lived experiences of people than to read the stories written about them – fiction and non-fiction. Stories require an agreement between the teller and the told that supersedes any agreements made between interlocutors engaged in debate or argument.

U.S. history rhymes more than we are willing to wrestle with at any given moment. Genocide enacted upon the American Indians rhymes with the institution of chattel slavery which rhymes with the Prison Industrial Complex. The repeal of Roe v. Wade rhymes with denying women the right to vote which rhymes with the entire history of our nation’s gender divide. The rampant income inequality of the early 20th Century rhymes with the income inequality of the early 21st Century.

But our resistance movements rhyme as well. The Underground Railroad rhymes with the women’s suffrage movement which rhymes with the Civil Rights Movement which rhymes with the Labor movement which rhymes with the LGBTQ rights movement. These movements have incredible stories of resistance with heroes that have left indelible impressions on our nation’s history. Compelling characters, powerful plots, universal themes, and narrative/storytelling techniques all work together to give the reader/listener an emotionally impactful experience – an experience that can change minds.

When the history of resistance rhymes, we need storytellers to reveal the schemes and laud the lyrical acrobatics of our national challenges in an unending search for the solutions that too often elude them – the solutions that too often elude us.

Dr. James B. Peterson is founder of Hip Hop Scholars, an organization devoted to developing the educational potential of Hip Hop. He is the author of Hip Hop Headphones: A Scholar's Critical Playlist.

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