April 12, 2010
Ralph D. Abernathy Auditorium – Alabama State University
Naomi Tutu strides to the stage. She wears her African dress. Bright colors. The colors of courage, the colors of the Earth.
Naomi Tutu is the keynote speaker of the 4th Robert and Jean Graetz Symposium on Human Rights and Reconciliation presented by the National Center for the Study of Civil Rights and African-American Culture and hosted at Alabama State University.
“The Beloved Community: Yesterday a Dream, Today a Hope, Tomorrow a Reality” is the theme of this year’s event. Tutu immediately points out that the last part (to make the dream that today is a hope a reality tomorrow) relies on us. And she talks about the possibility of the reality of a “beloved community,” an idea so dear to Martin Luther King Jr., his dream of love and solidarity, the dream of Heaven on Earth.
“We won’t answer hate with hate,” she firmly says. Tutu’s message is also one of love. Raised in apartheid South Africa, daughter of activist, Nobel Peace Prize Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Tutu shares with the audience memories of childhood and hard-earned lessons.
“My parents had us children pray for our government every night,” she says emphasizing every single word in a way (as I will soon find out) characteristically hers.
Then, to further emphasize her point, Tutu shares an African proverb with us. First, she says it in her specific African language, then she translates it into English: “a person is a person only through other people.”
“Those who oppress, oppress themselves, the Tutus kept repeatedly to their offspring.
And Naomi, admittedly, couldn’t help but being skeptical. “Growing up,” she repeats, “I just could not see it. What I was seeing was… the whites were having a wonderful life! They had big houses, pools, their neighborhoods were nice and clean…But then my parents would say. ‘Believe you me: they are oppressed.’”
Their oppression was fear. They didn’t have much time to enjoy the privilege, she claims.
“We Black South Africans fought our oppression. White South Africans fought to maintain their oppression…with repression, killings, imprisonments. So, in a sense, they were doubly oppressed.”
That’s also why, she continues, the ones who have withstood abuse (like Black South Africans) “have been called to stand up to the voices of hate (…) to use our actions, our gifts, to stand for justice. To be those who remind our country, and the world, that a person is a person only through other people.”
She also acknowledges the inevitability of the beloved community, of living together in a pluralistic society. Because a community based on exclusion and discrimination, like the one the Tea Party people are advocating cannot last.
During the Q&A session, Tutu answers a few questions, grounding once again her beliefs in traditional wisdom.
In reference to personal attacks, she mentions the teachings of her grandfather who used to say: ‘raise the level of your argument instead of the level of your voice.”
She also reclaims the importance and beauty of diversity and the necessity of acknowledging it.
“I can’t stand when people say ‘I don’t see difference,’” Naomi says referring to people of different complexions. (…) “My mother is an avid gardener…Try to tell her that ‘you don’t see difference’ after she has worked on her yard for hours, planting new flowers, adjusting the flowers to make them look pretty.”
People in the audience appreciate the amusing metaphor and smile.
“We have to be the ones that show that true communities, strong communities, lasting communities are the ones that recognize differences as gifts.”