Jamaica Kincaid to humanities grads: 'Don't be afraid to wonder who you are'

Photo/Justin Knight

Jamaica Kincaid

At the Division of Humanities diploma ceremony, the diversity of the 200 undergraduate and graduate students, who came to Brandeis from across the country and the world—and their fields of study—which ranged from comparative literature to medieval and renaissance studies to women’s and gender studies, was clearly on display.

Brandeis President Frederick M. Lawrence offered opening remarks, praising graduates for their pursuit and study of literature, history and various areas of study that seek to answer what it means to be human.

“You have labored hard in fields that are all too undervalued in times that we all wish to find our way,” Lawrence said. “I think all of you, undergraduates, graduates and Ph.D. students, understand that we make a world through arts, poetry, literature. You have studied, built and contributed to this understanding in your fields.”

Jamaica Kincaid provided the diploma ceremony address. A world-renowned writer, essayist and poet whose work draws from experiences about race, gender and loss, Kincaid offered the students a poem entitled “The Best.” The prose described a utopia in which there is no pain or suffering and where prejudices cease to exist. Kincaid playfully stated that the world her poem depicted could never exist, though she concluded her remarks by tasking graduates with nevertheless trying to make society better and living a full life.

“This is what I wish for you, and with all sincerity I say this: you must try to have a wonderful life,” said Kincaid, who received an honorary degree during Brandeis’ 64th Commencement Exercises. “Most important of all, don’t ever be afraid or ashamed to wonder who you are—who you really are—and why it is you are here right now.”

During the student addresses, Isabel Ballan ’15, Belisi Gillespie MA ’15 and Zev Eleff Ph.D. ’15 each offered their thoughts on the importance of the humanities. Ballan, drawing from literary masterpieces such as the “Archaic Torso of Apollo” and Homer’s “Iliad,” spoke about the wonder and possibility of words and their power on the individual.

“We bring ourselves to the world,” Ballan said. “Sometimes that contact can be so close and so intimate that what otherwise could be seen as an objectification of a subject becomes a form of deep empathy and passion. Once an observation like this takes place, there is no turning back. We are tied to this world, this life and the people in it.”

Professors from each area of study awarded degrees to graduates following the student addresses. At the conclusion, Leonard C. Muellner, who will become a professor emeritus in classical studies, addressed the graduating students. Muellner, an expert on Greek and Latin literature, also drew from Homer as he offered his congratulations and emphasized the importance of studying the humanities. 

“First and foremost, study the humanities because it’s fun,” Muellner said. “To the wise person, the whole world is his humbler, his political and social leader. And there, we have a good reason, to study the humanities.” 

Categories: Alumni, Humanities and Social Sciences, Student Life

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