Oberlin College and Conservatory take great pride in the many quality events that take place here every year. There are so many lectures, performances, concerts, recitals, symposia, films, exhibitions, panel discussions, and other events that it is almost overwhelming. As I always tell our students, you have to pick and choose.
When I talk to students, faculty, staff, or alumni, it seems that everyone has a favorite event. More often than not it took place in Finney Chapel. Those of you who attended the Special Convocation with James McBride ’79 and the Good Lord Bird Band in Finney on March 5 chose what many of us believe was one of the very best Convocations since President Dye created the series. I’m obviously not a neutral observer. But I believe that this event could only take place at Oberlin.
The evening was magical, thought-provoking, and uplifting. From start to finish, it was an astonishing, free-flowing blend of music, literature, history, religion, and warm, personal reminiscence. James McBride channeled the essence of Oberlin by brilliantly interspersing selected readings from his latest novel, The Good Lord Bird, winner of the 2013 National Book Award for Fiction, with gospel songs performed with his band and also with students from the conservatory.
The novel tells the story of the abolitionist zealot John Brown through the eyes of a 10-year-old slave boy who is kidnapped in Kansas by Brown, who believes the child is a girl. The Good Lord Bird Band included pianist Adam Faulk, who graduated from Oberlin in 2002 with a degree in jazz piano performance.
Since earning his degree in musical composition from the conservatory, James McBride has had a remarkable, multifaceted career, excelling at journalism, fiction writing, screenwriting, and composing and performing music.
Mr. McBride’s life in letters is even more distinguished. He earned a master’s in journalism at Columbia University and went on to write his best-selling autobiography, The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother. The book tells the story of his life with his widowed mother who reared 12 children under difficult circumstances. It is a classic that has been read by millions across the globe.
Over the course of the evening in Finney Chapel, James spoke from the heart about his experiences as a student, about what studying at Oberlin has meant in his life, and about why this place is so special. I thought I would share a few of his thoughts and observations.
He began by saying, “I’m always nervous when coming back [to Oberlin], because I feel like I’m coming to see my family and my friends, and I want to do well.”
Mr. McBride went on to say that he wasn’t a great student when he was at Oberlin, and didn’t take advantage of things here other than going abroad to study. “That was the smartest thing I did,” he said.
“I learned my love of history here at Oberlin,” he said. “I wasn’t much of a writer here. But I took one course in history. It was taught by the late Geoffrey Blodgett. And when I heard him talk about Abraham Lincoln, I felt like I was at the movies. It was just incredible. History came to life for me, and I developed a lifelong love. That’s one of the things that happen here at Oberlin. You develop a lifelong love of things that are beyond what you thought you might. They come together in an amalgam of things. It might be books. It might be music. It might be technology. But that thirst for learning is what I learned here, and I loved history.”
That love of history is evident in all James McBride’s books. It eventually led him to Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, where he became fascinated with John Brown’s attack on the U.S. arsenal there with 19 men on October 16, 1859. Three of them were Oberlinians: John A. Copeland, Lewis Sheridan Leary, and Shields Green (a runaway slave). Leary died of a wound received in the raid. Copeland and Green were hanged on December 16, 1859.
At the Convocation, James talked about the events which led up to the Day of Solidarity on March 4, 2013, and how we at Oberlin and in our society need to continue talking about issues of race, class, bias, and equality. But he urged us to be healthy skeptics rather than cynics, and to discuss tough issues using reason, facts, and evidence. Our discussions, he said, should be with open minds and hearts.
Speaking to our students, he said “Nobody can be a better you than you. That’s really the story that you are here to learn how to tell. And you are learning it at a place that is special. Oberlin might have its problems. But when you leave here, you are part of an army of righteousness, an army of goodness.”
All I can say, is amen, and thank you, thank you, thank you James McBride, the Good Lord Bird Band, and all the students who sang and played on a night for the ages.
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