Banah Ghadbian gave the valedictory address at Spelman College’s 128th Commencement. Ghadbian and her mother were refugees from Syria who eventually made their way to Arkansas. In her speech, Ghadbian acknowledged the southern hospitality and the southern hostility that she and her mother predictably found there. Spelman became Ghadbian’s choice because she wanted to cultivate the freedom of speech that her mother nurtured in her daughter even while in a context of lethal suppression.
Without sentimentality and with great sincerity, Ghadbian thanked the grounds crew for beautifying the campus; the cafeteria workers who prepared meals; the security staff for making her feel protected; the faculty who helped discipline her mind and encourage her growth; the friends who helped her compose her address; and of course, she thanked her mother. Too, Ghadbian called attention to the needs of those still seeking refuge from war, those persecuted for exercising freedom of speech, and the conditions prompting young people to change lethal systems of domination.
Several weeks ago, I attended a conference where a distinguished Harvard Professor based his keynote address on a lithograph of immigrants coming to America through Ellis Island. Banah Ghadbian’s address underscores why “prestigious schools” and “distinguished scholars” are descriptions–titles, not Truths. Ghadbian’s lithograph captured the plight of those drowning in the Mediterranean Sea; those immigrants being met with the viciousness of US anti-immigration policies; and the frustration and defiance of those black folk who are refusing to allow their homeland to discard them as though they were the nation’s civic trash. It’s unfortunate that major media outlets in the US fixate so much on the “sage advice” that celebrities offer college graduates during this season. If I had a vote, Banah Ghadbian’s valedictory address would be featured on the front page of The New York Times.