Capacity to Make History
This is my first trip to Africa, the first official visit by a sitting Harvard president, and I hope the first of many, for me and for my successors. It is a historic visit for Harvard, and it’s long overdue.
It is a long journey here, a journey that gives me new perspective on a nation I care deeply about — a nation colonized by the Dutch and the British, a nation once mired in injustice, a nation whose independence and freedom have inspired the world; a nation of complex racial and ethnic heritage, whose aspirations and transcendent achievements defy the legacies of oppression that still challenge its progress; it’s a nation whose people could once only imagine the day that their president might have an indigenous African heritage, and for whom that day came.
I refer, of course, to both our nations. As Robert Kennedy reminded us, when he said something like this at Cape Town in 1966, our nations have traveled two separate roads, with very different histories of transformation. But we also recognize that in those stories lies a common struggle for liberation, for universal rights before the law, and for human dignity against the evils of slavery and apartheid. And so if the journey from the United States to South Africa is a long one in miles, it is for countless Americans a very short one in emotional resonance. I am one of those Americans.
I have spent most of my life studying the history of the American South, and the long, slow struggle of American society toward greater freedom. African history, as part of that story, is central to my life as a scholar and to my understanding of who I am — born and raised in the segregated state of Virginia, where Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal,” yet himself at the same time owned slaves; where, during my childhood, the United States senator from my home county urged that Virginia close its public schools rather than integrate them. Harvard, too, has shared in that past — with lives lost among students and faculty in our Civil War. And also Harvard has shared through its own struggle, over four centuries, to open the University to all students of merit, no matter what their backgrounds. For us, like you, widening access to education is a fundamental commitment. And so it is deeply meaningful for me today, personally and as the president of Harvard, to affirm the bonds that for more than half a century have linked Harvard to South Africa, and this continent — and to pledge to you our long-term commitment to extend those bonds. To learn from you as we hope you learn from us, and together create a more collaborative future.
That is why I want to speak today about education. About the role of education as a force for liberation in both of our societies. Think of the countless examples. I think of the prisoners on Robben Island, routinely denied postgraduate study, until they were permitted, at last to have books and journals even though those too were often prohibited. And yet they struggled, they learned, they studied. And they used that education as a foundation for the freedom movement they built when they were released.
Think of American freedmen who, after centuries of being denied literacy in slavery, made schooling a centerpiece in the exercise of their hard-won freedom. As one former slave put it in the 1860s, “What would the best soil produce without cultivation? We want to get wisdom. That is all we need. Let us get that and we are made for time and eternity.” Think of the thousands of schoolchildren who marched to Cape Town’s City Hall this September, politely demanding libraries, classrooms, and, as one ninth-grader said, “more information and knowledge.” Think of W.E.B. Du Bois, Harvard’s first black Ph.D., who proclaimed, “Of all the civil rights that the world has struggled for, for five thousand years, the right to learn is undoubtedly the most fundamental.” Du Bois had to struggle for his own education and in 1891 finally persuaded a scholarship committee that there was a black person worthy of sending to graduate school. “I find men willing to help me use my hands …” he wrote, “but I never found a man willing to help me get a Harvard Ph.D.” Finally, that changed.
But change is neither immediate nor total. For each moment of exhilarating transformation there are a thousand daily realities, traveling a slower road, far behind our ideals. There is a reason that we still call our “Reconstruction” after the American Civil War an “unfinished revolution.” It took the United States 100 years to ensure black Americans the right to vote, and to begin to create integrated schools. And we still have vast inequities. In South Africa, I know that 1994 can seem like a very long time ago.
“Like life,” as Martin Luther King put it, “… racial understanding” and I would add, all understanding, “is not something that we find but something that we must create … in persistent trying, perpetual experimentation, persevering togetherness