Leader Abrams Receives Honorary Doctorate of Laws, Spelman College
Remarks as delivered by Stacey Abrams, Georgia House Minority Leader, upon receiving an honorary doctorate from her alma mater, Spelman College.
To President Campbell. To my President Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole. To the Board of Trustees, including former trustee Alan McDaniel and his wife Sally McDaniel. To the graduating Class of 2017. To the faculty and staff that makes them possible. Good morning. And the Classes of 2018, 2019, and 2020, looking down and longing on their caps and gowns – it’s coming, I promise. I also want to acknowledge my Spelman sisters who are here with me today. If you will stand, Camille Johnson, Ashley Robinson, Latricia Hinson, Salena Jegede. And my actual sisters, Judge Leslie Abrams, the first African-American to be federal judge in the state of Georgia – first African-American woman to be a federal judge in the state of Georgia. And my sister, Dr. Audrey Jeanine Abrams Mclean. Last night I had the privilege of having my brother, one of my brothers, Richard Abrams, here. There are a lot of us, so we have to come in shifts. But none of us would be here without the most extraordinary parents God has ever given any family and that is my parents Robert and Carolyn Abrams – the Reverends Robert and Carolyn Abrams.
I’ve been thinking a lot about origin stories lately, about how things come to be. The intrigue of origin stories isn’t new and it does not belong to Marvel Comics. Every culture, every religion, every person grapples with where we begin.
My origin story at Spelman was a little bit rocky. I got here because my mother tricked me into coming. I stayed because I met Johnnetta Cole and I saw Morehouse College. It happens. But that’s the story for another day and a different book.
But part of my origin story is the myth of the major. I had several during my tenure at Spelman College. I majored in physics and philosophy, I majored in theatre, I flirted with chemistry, dabbled in history, wrote by English, and finally Johnnetta Cole and Dean Freddie Hill said, “You have no idea what you are doing; stop coming.” Dean Hill made me write a paper. And Dr. Desiree Pedescleaux and Dr. Davis and Dr. Meadows helped me think through what I wanted to be. Because despite what I thought I wanted, with each of the majors that I picked, I didn’t know where my story was leading. I didn’t understand where my origins had me going. But then I thought back to my family. To growing up in southern Mississippi in what my mother referred to as “Genteel Poverty”– we had no money but we watched PBS and read books. That poverty that shaped who I was and how I thought about government, how I thought about society, how I thought about who I could be – And I wrote a paper that led me to becoming Spelman’s first independent major. Basically that was, “I have no idea what I’m going to do so I’m going to do a few things and hopefully you will let me out.” And it worked.
But Founders Day is about the celebration of Spelman’s origin story. About Sophia B. Packard and Harriet E. Giles. About Frank Quarles in a basement in a church. Just a little past slavery’s ending days. But more than their transformative investment in that which will become our Alma Mater, I am humbled by the story of 11 women and girls who gather in that basement to become the first Spelman women. These women had been defined by their origins in terrible and horrific ways. First as chattel and then as freed slaves. As though the juxtaposition of freedom and slavery can ever truly be justified or explained. But in that basement, gathered around the fire of new knowledge, these women wrote their own origin stories, their own beginnings. They refused to let origin dictate their ambition and they begat thousands of women who call themselves Spelman women today.
As I said, I’m born of two people who are in their own ways the result of retelling your origin story. My parents grew up in segregated, impoverished Mississippi in the 1950s. As my dad likes to say, he “grew up on the wrong side of the tracks. But my mom grew up on the wrong side of the wrong side of the tracks.” But my father is the first man in his family to attend college and my mother is the only one of her siblings to finish high school. She not only finished high school as valedictorian, but she went onto college and to hold two master’s degrees. My dad didn’t want to be left out so he got one too. But my parents’ origins were written by legal segregation, by a law that said they were seperate and, my God, they were not equal. By a malignant neglect of their nation of origin – a country founded on freedom that forgot what freedom meant. Yet they refused to allow their beginnings to dictate who they would become or what they could accomplish. And in a single generation, my parents produced two PhDs, two attorneys, a social worker, and a young man who is gonna figure it out one day.
Not bad for an origin story. And I stand here today rewriting my own story, with a pen handed to me by a Reverend Robert and Carolyn Abrams, by Spelman College, and by the women and some men who shaped my future. I stand here in defiance of what my mother called our “genteel poverty”. Because my mother and my father and my family and Spelman College taught me that where you begin does not dictate your ambition and where you will end.
I come to this podium with a very interesting title. My title is Minority Leader. Yet another dichotomy. A binary that seems to suggest that there is no way you can be one and the other. But Spelman College exists because it produces Minority Leaders. Because there is no dichotomy in the name. It is a test and a testament to who we are and whose we are. There is power in the role. The power to lift up those who see themselves as to low. Because when you’ve been a minority you know where to look and that’s not always up, sometimes its down. When you’ve been a minority you understand that the fact that you know more than the person beside you may be ignored because of the color of your skin or the extra X in your chromosomes. There is power in the ability to stand up and declare yourself able to silence stereotypes. So I found out that there is no dichotomy in the title Minority Leader. Because being Minority Leader means that I am responsible for defying expectations. That I don’t have to change who I am to be what I will be. That my hair can be processed, twisted, tied up, braided, or just left to hang out and do whatever it wants does not diminish my ability to lead a generation and to lead a community and to lead change. The fact that our skin can range in hue from ivory to ebony means that we understand the entirety of humanity not just one little spec. We defy expectations because we come here. And we learn. And we lift up those around us. And we remember that outside of Spelman’s gates are women and men who need our help. And we make certain that we spend every day serving those folks. My parents taught us that no matter how little you have there is always someone with less and it is your job to serve that person. Not out of obligation but out of necessity. Because if you are Minority Leader, the only the only way to win is to make yourselves the majority. I’m a minority leader because my parents and my family and my Spelman taught me to strive for more. To understand that I could have prosperity not poverty. That I could have success, not just survival. And that I could be a mayor or a president or maybe even the governor of Georgia.
But what is at stake for you when you walk through these halls, when you leave this campus, when you go into a world that is not ready for you? What is at stake is that we are the solution to the ills of our society, to the redlining and gentrification that happens all around us, to the scourge of poverty and the ignominy of mass incarceration, to pay inequity and religious discrimination and bigotry that is practiced by the highest offices in our land. We are responsible for solving those ills because we know the solution. Because we know what to do. First we have to speak up. Say “Speak Up.” [crowd shouts: SPEAK UP] We have to use social media as more than an echo chamber and a place to see ourselves. We have to be willing to speak truth to power and tell the stories of those who don’t have an internet connection, who don’t have a smartphone, but have stories that need to be told. We have to do what? We have to... [SPEAK UP]. We have to stand out. Say “Stand Out.” [STAND OUT] We have to run for office or run a company or run a campaign or sometimes just run our mouths until people listen. Because when you speak up you must stand out because if you don’t stand out someone is going to stand on you. So what are we going to do? We’re gonna first do what [SPEAK UP] and then we’re gonna [STAND OUT] and then we’re going to spark change. Say “Spark Change.” [SPARK CHANGE] We are the generation. We are the women. The women of Sophia B. Packard and Harriet E. Giles. We are the women of the original 11. We are the women who will make America great, who will make the nation greater than the small imaginations of those who swear they know what they’re doing. We are the ones who will write new origin stories and tell new tales about who we are and whose we are and why we’re better than anybody could imagine. Because my Spelman sisters, my Spelman sisters, we are the progeny of greatness. We are cloaked in the skins of African women who refuse to allow their humanity to be denied by slave owners or Jim Crow or grotesque bigotry. We refuse to allow ourselves to be defined by low expectations or stupid stereotypes. We are the product of grace and the inheritor of a mighty obligation that teaches us daily to rewrite our stories. To own our futures without hesitation but with the understanding that we will be the women who save our nation and change our world. I am honored to get this degree today because it proves I’m doing something right, even just a little bit. I’m honored to get this degree because I get to come back to my Spelman College and I get to see extraordinary women bear witness and offer testimony. Because we leave Spelman day – we go back to our dorms, we go off campus, we go into the world after you graduate. But we leave Spelman lifted by the legacy of those 11 women, driven by the memory of where we begin, but more than anything, most profoundly, responsible for the world we will make.
Thank you Spelman College.