Our own Professor Angelou received this year countless awards and recognitions in addition to her presentation at the inauguration. One was as Citizen Diplomat of the Year from the National Council of International Visitors—an organization that fosters citizen visits around the world. My wife and I were in Washington to see her receive this honor along with a host of distinguished people, including another famous Arkansan, former Senator William J. Fulbright, who was honorary chairman of the event.
As you might expect from such a gathering, people were there from many tribes and nations. It was a collection of the varieties of the human species from ports-of-call around the globe. When the program concluded, Professor Angelou was presented with her award, and she came to the microphone to acknowledge it. She did something I have never witnessed in all my years of attending banquets.
She spoke not a word. Instead, she broke into song—the pure unaccompanied human voice. She sang one song, then another, then another, and so on it went. Even more remarkable, each song was in a different language. Each was of a different mode and mood. Without understanding the words, we could tell from the singing of songs celebrated facets of the experiences of differing people, of alien cultures, some represented in her cosmopolitan audience.
When she ended her singing, her first spoken words expressed the message of her singing in what I later learned to be a line from one of her poems. She said, “We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.”
That was the theme of the singing. The words from unknown tongues. The tunes were unfamiliar. But the music—Dear Graduates—the music, was human and universal. As I sat there in what was a moment of enlightenment, I knew that I had been given my charge to you from the mouth of our singer and poet: “We are more alike than we are unalike,” and perhaps an even more important message, we can all call each other “friend.”
We can sing each other’s songs and tell each other’s stories. Despite differences in culture, language, race, sex and politics, there is a universal humanity, and there is in our commonality the hope for human community here and around the world. On this day of commencing, there is no message from Wake Forest to its alumni-to-be more urgent than to summon your faith and our commitment to overcoming the barriers of differences and division toward the building of the human community.
This you will recognize as the motto of the University on the seal of your diploma: ProHumanitate. This motto knows no boundaries of race, class, culture, sex or nation. You are called to be sons and daughters in the human family.
This faith in your institution’s motto will not be easy to sustain. Voices everywhere are urging a different message—we are more unalike than we are alike. They tell us that the differences among us—differences of race, sex, religion or nation—are fundamental and ultimate. In our separate groups, we are strangers, rivals or enemies, not friends. Thus, we cannot sing each other’s songs; we cannot tell the stories of another group with sympathy and understanding. There is no music of humanity. There are only our separate songs, and discord is the theme.
Because we are the children of Adam and Eve—cast from every earthly paradise—these disciplines of division can always point to evidence of their cynical creed. Tragic events in the former Soviet Union and its satellite states remind us that hate is strong. The end of totalitarianism has brought not freedom but anarchy. Ancient hatreds are unleashing acts of unspeakable cruelty.
Here at home, the gospel of division and difference is dividing this body politic into adversarial groups lacking faith in the democratic process or shared values as the basis of public institutions. The apostles of difference, of unlikeness, believe that our humanity is exhaustively defined by those special features that separate us into human groups. Being of one race or another, one sex or religion or another, marks a border that humans can never cross. We are strangers to human experience other than our own. The historian, Arthur Schlesinger, said that we remembered the pluribus on our coins but have forgotten the unum.
As graduates of Wake Forest University, you inherit the influence of three vital intellectual and spiritual traditions: the Judeo-Christian heritage, the belief in liberal education, and political democracy. These are unifying ideals. They express belief in our common creation and moral equality under God and our capacity to be so educated in common that we could govern ourselves in freedom. Liberal education from its beginnings meant education for freedom and education for enlightened citizenship.
There are not unique ideas and ideals locked in libraries and museums to be studied and admired. They are living realities, carried into the world through your lives and the lives of those you will teach, as you all will teach each day you live. These ideals are yours to build or to destroy, and to pass on to your children as your legacy to them and to their children. These ideals are under attack from those who have no belief in the ideal of a community embracing all humanity. They may believe that society as such is oppression or that human groups are such that they must inevitably war with each other for scarce resources.
You will be tempted to lose faith in the possibility of such a universal community. You will hear passionate appeals to the divisions of tribe, clan and family that mark us. When you are tempted by loss of faith in the ideals of Pro Humanitate, I hope that you may recall the poet’s message:
The name of this poem is “Human Family.”1 On your diploma it reads Pro Humanitate. May this creed guide you to lives of service and accomplishment as Wake Forest this day bestows its name and its ideals upon you for your care and keeping.
1 Maya Angelou, “Human Family,” in I Shall Not Be Moved (New York: Random House, 1990).