Jessye Norman: Strive to Live Artfully

May 23, 2016

Communications Staff

Banner of "Oberlin" spelled in the shapes of squirrels

Legendary soprano Jessye Norman made her debut at age 23. She has starred in leading opera houses, concert halls, and music festivals throughout Europe, North America, and three other continents, and she has forged a prolific recording career with more than 40 albums and five Grammy Awards to her credit.

A transcript of her address to the class of 2016 follows.

“I am of the opinion that life belongs to the community and as long as I live, I shall do for it whatever I can. Life is no small candle to me, but is rather a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for a moment, and I wish to make it burn as brightly as possible before passing it on to future generations.”

I greet you today with the words of George Bernard Shaw. I would imagine that many of you recognized the quote. A guideline for life, perhaps?

A happy good morning to you, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters; President Krislov, deans, trustees, and other administrators of Oberlin College; all the assistants and others who administer the administrators; faculty with tenure, faculty without tenure; parents, family members, and anyone else who helped to pay the bills; spouses, and children of graduates; lovers and ex-lovers (you know who you are); staff members who cooked and cleaned all these semesters for the class of 2016; in other words, all who have helped to create this glorious day!

But most of all, my greetings to you, the graduates. You, who are about to end one stage of life and embark upon another, with our hopes and hearts at your side. Congratulations one and all!

We are gathered together as one diverse family this morning to honor this passage with you. I wish to address you as a family, a whole, because I fear we are too often separated into groups that celebrate only one part of ourselves and we need to experience this day, together.

I would like to speak to your contributions as a whole, because I find we are too often treated as though work with our bodies were less important than work with our minds, or our heads, more significant than our hearts.

If you and I were sitting here in any era other than this widely modern one, we would rest on chairs or stools made by hand, each one a little different from the other, each one a unique expression of human creativity. We would wear woven clothing and carved jewelry that would be a part of a communal tradition, yet individually unique.

We would celebrate with food and drink which would be creations in themselves, taken from vessels that would be objects of art, as well as utensils for everyday use. We would surely be singing and dancing together.

We would be living artfully, without trying.

Albert Einstein, and surely no commencement remarks can be complete without at least one quote from the great man, stated, “When I examine myself and my method of thought, I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing knowledge.”

Creativity. Fantasy. Now if Einstein felt this way, I would encourage you, the class of 2016—with all the training and hard work that have gone into your being here today—to raise your hands to the sky and rejoice in your own fantasies, your own creative spirits!

You see, creativity equals self-knowledge. This knowledge can lead to wisdom and wisdom, to the understanding of others, and this understanding undoubtedly leads to tolerance.

My point here is that in your chosen fields of endeavor and your good fortune in having prepared for “what is next in your life” at a school renowned for its early understanding of the word tolerance and its implementation of this understanding in offering women and those of African ancestry the opportunity for study, growth, development and the then-unusual participation in the society of the learned and the caring – that this makes you qualified more than some, to help to lead this world out of its malaise. You have the tools.

Celebrate your own creativity, celebrate its wisdom, celebrate all that is possible. Celebrate the fact that you know already that extending yourselves beyond these magic gates of high, high education into the near and present depths of those places in our communities where we find formal education hardly existent at all, poverty rampant and need nearly overwhelming. You have given of yourselves, your time, and your hearts. What wonders you have wrought already—you are admired and cherished for your consciousness of your world and I know that you will not abandon your compassion and indeed the very necessity that you have to be a full participant in the community that might ultimately become your home. A complete citizen.

I rest assured that you will not leave this grace by the side of the road while on your way to writing a really good book, preparing the groundwork for the care, yes, the cure for some chronic disease. You will not be daunted by the terrible amounts of despair and struggle in our world.

Remember, please, the title of a song I learned to sing in Sunday school in Augusta, Georgia, “Brighten the Corner Where You Are,” meaning there is no real reason to think that you must cross two oceans in order to find those who require a helping hand, a lift up in spirit; children who need parenting, or neighborhoods lacking in the very things that should display our humanity. Brighten the corner where you are.

I do not doubt for a moment that your hearts and caring envelope continents away from your immediate communities. You are full citizens of this planet; of course, your thoughts and actions march globally, too.

Someone said that public service—this offering of our ‘better selves’ – is the dues we pay for the privilege of life. Here at Oberlin, dear graduates, your dues paying is more than up-to-date, and I thank you.

Allow me to ask as you do: Should homelessness even exist in the richest nation on this earth? Should anyone be hungry in this world of plenty?

Your dreams are big and inclusive and enriched by the power of a word that has real meaning for you: L O V E. You care and offer your actions to those whose possibilities and powers are less than yours. And still I remind you, dear graduates, with all that is before you, that you decide to strive to live artfully. It is simpler than you think and is not to be left only to those classmates of yours who have chosen the arts and humanities as their fields of study and proficiency.

You see, art brings us together as a family because it is an individual expression of universal human experience. It comes from that part of us that is without fear, prejudice, malice, or any of the other things that we create in order to separate ourselves one from the other. Art makes each of us whole by insisting the we use all of our senses, our heads and our hearts, that we express with our bodies, our voices, our hands, as well as with our minds.

Your sophisticated, educated selves may look with a questioning eye on that thing you feel when singing a Bach cantata in the church choir, or that opera role on a world stage somewhere, or playing your violin from a chair in the orchestra of your wildest hopes, or simply penning the perfect haiku at the birth of your child.

But I encourage you to accept, my friends, that these feelings of boundless joy, peace, and serenity represent the very music of your soul. The art of your spirit. You are living artfully. Listening, enjoying, nurturing, caressing, loving, and yes, sharing the blessings of it all. This natural high that emerges from within your deepest self. Your soul’s music.

In Arthur O’Shaughnessy’s single poem, which he called “Ode,” he wrote in his praise of artists everywhere:

“We are the music-makers, And we are the dreamers of dreams, Wandering by lone sea-breakers And sitting by desolate streams... On whom the pale moon gleams: Yet, we are the movers and shakers Of the world forever, it seems.”

What a thought. Creative spirits, the movers and shakers of the world. Where could this all lead?

You might come across the notion that an awakened spirit, this ability to express yourselves that you have honed and brought to a beautiful level of perfection here at Oberlin could well be the real meaning of life—that the exploration of your own imagination might just be your real life’s work. Fantasy, thought, creativity!

Please listen to words by an unknown author that arrived in my mailbox recently and which I offer to you, dear graduates, as a road map for the grand passage that you make today.

“On the surface of the world right now there is war and violence and things seem dark. But calmly and quietly, at the same time, something else is happening. Underground, an inner revolution is taking place and certain ones of us are being called to a higher light. It is a silent revolution from the inside out.

“We are slowly creating a new world with the power of our minds and hearts. We follow with passion and joy our spiritual intelligence. We are dropping soft love bombs when no one is looking… poems… hugs… music… photography… movies…kind words… smiles… dance… beautiful graphic art… random acts of kindness.

“We each express ourselves in our own ways, with our own gifts and talents. Yes, be the change that you want to see in this world… this is the motto that fills our hearts. We know it is the only way to real transformation.

“We know that quietly and humbly we have the power of all the oceans combined. Our work is slow and meticulous, like the formation of the mountains...and yet, with this opening of the spirit self, entire tectonic plates shall be moved in the centuries to come. This intelligence of the heart is embedded in the timeless evolutionary pulse of all human beings.

“Be the change you want to see in this world. No one can do it for you. The door is open… all are welcome.”

Just imagine finding such a gift in your inbox. The intelligence of the heart. Change this world with the power of heart and mind.

And I would add: to enlighten ourselves and our world further through the limitless power of gratitude.

Gratitude for the history, the legacy of this great institution which are surely the envy of those schools for which the wisdom of inclusion and outreach arrived a good deal later in their thinking and actions. You have every reason in the world to be proud of this legacy of yours. This history.

I feel extraordinarily privileged to have been invited to share in this history and I offer my gratitude to you.

It is important to know out loud from where we have come, on whose broad and strong shoulders it is our honor as well as a privilege to stand.

Just three of the events in history for which my thankfulness knows no bounds…

It happens that Carnegie Hall opened its doors on the fifth of May 1891 and has just celebrated its 125th anniversary. A year after this opening season in 1891, that prized stage would be graced by the presence in performance of an African American, Sissieretta Jones—a voice so pure and beautiful that hers was compared most favorably to the reigning European soprano of the day, Adelina Patti. History, inclusion.

But then you had the Daughters of the American Revolution in Washington, D.C. who, decades after this stunning debut by Sissieretta Jones at Carnegie Hall, did not see fit to have the great Marian Anderson to sing on the concert stage of the era, Constitution Hall, which they owned, and which they still own to this day.

It took the sheer will and determination of Eleanor Roosevelt, who might have had a word with her husband, to turn this slight, this sign of prejudice and intolerance, into an historical moment—something that can be referred to easily as America’s first protest concert, by a woman whose art and demeanor offered only serenity, her deep faith and humility. Marian Anderson, Easter Sunday 1939, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Not singing for a few thousand but for tens of thousands surrounding the area and the reflecting pool. And the very first words out of that splendid throat on that day, “My country ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.” Her graciousness, my gratitude.

The wonderful Ossie Davis happened to have been a freshman student at Howard University at that time and I had the grand privilege of having him tell me of this momentous occasion—that it was a cool morning, but as the crowds were so huge, all tight together, he said, we kept warm and happy.

The Metropolitan Opera House would need still more time for its wisdom of inclusion to make an appearance. It was not until 1955 that an African American appeared on that stage in a leading role. Again, Marian Anderson would be the one to open the door and turn on the lights so that those of us who would be privileged to follow in her wake, would be able see our paths more clearly. I have no doubts at all as to whose shoulders it is my great honor to stand.

With that short history lesson for some of you, events of the past which show us how far we have come, I trust you are inspired to set about making your own history, your own special mark in this world. A world that is just waiting for and needing your passion and your humanity, as we have yet so much further to go.

Be excited to continue and enlarge upon all that life and learning here have offered you, and be vigilant in your aspirations for yourself and for your country. Vote!!

And lastly may I ask of you and of today’s momentous occasion, that you take your academic diploma under one arm and with your other hand outstretched; offer to all comers the teachings of your heart and mind, this music of your soul. And imagine, if you will, the harmony that this could bring to our world.

I thank you.

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