Dear Sweet Briar Family,
As the protests over the death of George Floyd roll over the nation, I have been exchanging emails with anguished students. The horrific killing of Mr. Floyd, coming on the heels of the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, has shocked them, as it has all of us.
Most of our students were not even born when Rodney King was savagely beaten by four Los Angeles policemen – three of them white – which led to many days of rioting. I remember them, as do many members of the Sweet Briar family, as if it were yesterday, but it was twenty-nine years ago. Many of us also remember the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., as if it were yesterday, but it was fifty-two years ago. They are permanent and significant markers in our lives, filling our remaining days with sorrow and regrets.
When Martin Luther King was assassinated, Robert F. Kennedy jumped on the back of a flatbed truck to deliver the terrible news to the stunned crowd in Indianapolis. For the first time in public, he spoke of his brother’s assassination at the hands of another white man. And he recited lines by Aeschylus, his favorite dramatist, to a crowd that could not be consoled.
Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
until, in our own despair,
against our will,
through the awful grace of God.
In the last twenty-nine years, not to mention in the last fifty-two, we have witnessed real progress in civil rights – in a formal sense. But as we recall with sadness the cadence in Robert Kennedy’s voice as he recited Aeschylus, we have to wonder: where, in our despair and pain, is the wisdom? How much longer before it lands upon our hearts? Why the tiring recurrence of the same, in the needless deaths of black Americans?
“Against our will,” says Aeschylus, comes wisdom to us. There is nothing about this wisdom that comes easily – it will not come simply from a sanctimonious statement from a college president, or another expression of outrage, or another resolve to stand together and heal the divide. Wisdom comes against our will.
Sweet Briar’s own history, complex and difficult, is a case in point. Before it was a college, this beautiful place that we love was a plantation, some of its buildings built stone by stone by people who were enslaved. They worked the land, served the people who owned them, and are buried on its grounds. Some of their descendants still work at Sweet Briar.
When founded over one hundred years ago, Sweet Briar was a college for white women, often from wealth and privilege. Eventually, it became a college open to all women of talent, regardless of their social and economic strata and the color of their skin. Some of these changes were made against the prevailing views of the time, but still they came, with all the inconvenience that comes with truth as it must be accepted.
Last spring I taught a course that examined the founding principles of our nation. In visiting Mount Vernon, Monticello, and Montpelier – the respective homes of Washington, Jefferson, and Madison – the students were constantly confronted with the truths that were multiple and contradictory: the “self-evident” truth that “all men are created equal,” and the inconvenient truth that some were not, and have never been, equal. These presidents, who helped found a nation based on the principles of liberty and equality, owned hundreds of enslaved people who worked their plantations. The students struggled with the contradiction – and in the end they acquired a kind of wisdom that only comes against our will and its desire for comfort.
The purpose of liberal arts education is not to provide intellectual comfort, but to take it away. If we are restless and upset, it is because the challenges that we face are enormous. In the midst of inequality, injustice, and now a pandemic to boot, I know in my heart of hearts that we have our answers – and they reside in all the students who have written me in the last few days. They have the courage to confront the inconvenient truths that are all around us. We expect no less from them, and we at Sweet Briar march united with them.