Playwright and MacArthur Genius Anna Deavere Smith portrayed several prominent Barnard alumnae during her keynote address to the Barnard College class of 2007 at Commencement ceremonies on Tuesday.
Weaving together monologues spoken in the voices of educational philosopher Maxine Greene, BC '38, anthropologist Margaret Mead, BC '29, and poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, who did preparatory work at Barnard, Smith spoke about the tense relationship between activism and art.
"I find my freedom in resisting," Smith said in Greene's raspy, New York accent, using the phrase "wide-awakeness" to encourage careful noticing and observant spirits in the graduates.
Smith echoed the thoughts of student speaker Julia Turshen, who shared her experience reading Gertrude Stein in Barnard professor Margaret Vandenburg's modernism class. Turshen, who described herself as "uptight" when she came to Barnard, discovered that "big changes can be made through small gestures," as exemplified best by the difference between the words "and" and "or" in Stein's poetry.
Many of the speakers touched on the relationship between art and activism, focusing especially on the role of women in that relationship.
"Women are expected to shrink, to fade into the wallpaper," said Eman Bataineh, president of the Barnard student body. "I had a problem with that. So did Barnard. ... Barnard taught me to take up as much space as possible."
Senior class president Puja Kapadia, who received the Frank Gilbert Bryson Prize at the Commencement ceremony, agreed. "Barnard has helped me find my voice as a woman," she said.
Students and professors presented the Barnard Medal of Distinction to writer Joan Didion, columnist Nicholas Kristof, former Bryn Mawr President Mary Patterson McPherson, Harlem doctor Muriel Petioni, and Smith. Students presented their senior gift of $35,000 to go toward financial aid and a mosaic in honor of Camille Boquet, a member of the class of 2007 who passed away in 2005.
President Judith Shapiro, whose speech at Commencement this year comes in the shadow of her announcement that she will resign in the cpring of 2008, quoted the philosopher Hillel, who asked: "If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? If I am only for myself, then who am I? And If not now, when?"
"Don't postpone, ... but now is by definition a moving target," Schapiro said. "So addressing Hillel's question is a lifelong challenge."