Today, Dean Avis Hinkson announced in an email that Anne-Marie Slaughter, president and CEO of civic enterprise New America and author of the recently published book, Unfinished Business, would be the commencement speaker for the Barnard class of 2016. The email went on to say that the Barnard Medal of Distinction recipients include Sister Simone Campbell, attorney, lobbyist, and leader for social justice; Shafi Goldwasser, computer scientist and winner of the prestigious A.M. Turing Award; and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, internationally acclaimed author. The three medal recipients will be onstage during Commencement but will not speak.
This past fall, Barnard's Student Government Association released a survey to the senior class that requested input for choosing the commencement speaker for the class of 2016. The top 25 nominations up for vote were posted on the Barnard 2016 Class Council Facebook page, and SGA was kind enough to send the final top nominations to the administration for consideration. While Slaughter, Campbell, and Goldwasser were not on the list, Adichie was. In fact, many of the finalists were women of color, including Sonia Sotomayor, Mindy Kaling, and Beyoncé.
Adichie is an internationally acclaimed author of multiple works including Purple Hibiscus and Americanah. She is also an ex-medical school student, MacArthur Fellow, poet, novelist, and perhaps one of the most influential female voices in today's cultural, social, and political global schema. If Barnard can have Adichie onstage to receive a medal, why not have her speak?
On the petition I created this morning, one signatory wrote: "I'm completely baffled by the fact that seniors were invited to vote for our speaker and that one of the women we chose will be at graduation but will not be speaking. Why ask who we want to speak if you won't be taking this into account?"
In the fall, Barnard's senior class was buzzing with the opportunity to be able to have a say in the $250,000 ceremony that will be the culmination of our collective Barnard experience and the beginning our lives as bold, beautiful Barnard alumni.
Unfortunately, the Barnard administration failed to take our input into account this year. In the past 10 years, Barnard has featured only two women of color as commencement speakers: Leymah Gbowee in 2013 and Anna Deavere Smith in 2007. Five of these speakers have been politicians or businesswomen.
Last year, Samantha Power, the current United States ambassador to the UN, addressed the senior class in a speech that emphasized the tangibility of "doing it all." As a diplomat, lawyer, professor, writer, graduate of Harvard and Yale, and mother of two children, Power is a modern career woman who makes "having it all" look easy and possible. Power embodies the kind of person whom all Barnard graduates should aspire to become—or, at least, what the Barnard administration would like for them to become.
But I, as well as many of my peers, have a different understanding of this Barnard ideal. From my experiences in classes and various student organizations, Barnard has been a place for me to cultivate a multifaceted conception of intersectional, inclusive feminism. This particular version of feminism is not represented by those who sit on boards of Fortune 500 corporations or those who hold government positions. Instead, it's represented by women who illustrate resilience and overcome adversity under everyday circumstances. Women who can express themselves through caretaking within the home, or women who demonstrate strength through hard labor. These are women whose stories are not told. For me, Adichie is one of the few writers in our age who puts these women at the forefront.
Most of the answers in the petition (which has now gained over 200 signatories) cited reasons why students believe our graduating class should be addressed by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. One signatory says, "I would prefer my commencement speaker to be someone who preaches a feminism like mine—one that is intersectional and inclusive to its core. I believe that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie fits that description more than Anne-Marie Slaughter." Most of the answers express resentment at the Barnard administration's brand of white corporate feminism, made manifest in the commencement speaker decision: "I think the having it all' discussion is really constrained to upper middle class, white, heterosexual women, and I'm not sure someone who's made her fame on it would be the best person to address the whole Barnard senior class," said one. Another wrote, "I want a break from this corporate push."
Adichie's works have been seminal in creating my own conception of the multifarious ways women should be represented in today's vibrant social, cultural, and political climate. The Barnard administration needs to take advantage of this opportunity to be forthright and progressive by honoring the voices of the Barnard graduates whom this ceremony is meant to celebrate and featuring Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie as the most prominent voice in this year's ceremony.
A signatory summed up the situation valiantly: "As a woman of color, I am incredibly disappointed (but sadly not surprised by) the administration's selection of a commencement speaker whose corporate white feminism will alienate a large segment of the senior class. This is particularly disappointing because one of the world's most respected black authors and feminist writers will be on stage, but silent."
The author is a Barnard College senior majoring in history and Middle Eastern studies. She is also the chair of the Student Governing Board.
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