Amherst Magazine

Critical Players

By Emily Gold Boutilier

Jeffrey Wright '87


Jeffrey Wright ’87 won a Tony Award for his Broadway performance in Angels in America and Golden Globe and Emmy awards for his supporting role in the HBO adaptation of that play. He starred in Basquiat in 1996 and in Syriana, with George Clooney and Matt Damon, in 2005. But when Wright delivered the annual DeMott Lecture during New Student Orientation this year, he talked little about his day job. Instead, he focused on Africa.

Wright is working to create new models of sustainable development in Africa and to raise awareness of how the diamond trade has fueled civil wars and rebel conflicts on the continent. At Wright’s request, members of the Class of ’11 devoted part of their summer to reading Adam Hochschild’s 1998 bestseller, King Leopold’s Ghost, about exploitation in colonial Africa.

Speaking inside Johnson Chapel, Wright described his first visit to Sierra Leone in 2001, after a ceasefire had been declared in the nation’s bloody civil war. “Guns and checkpoints and tensions were everywhere,” he said. In Freetown, Wright came across the capital city’s famous Cotton Tree, said to have been growing when a group of freed American slaves first settled there. Wright noticed birds perched atop the tree: they were vultures. “While the vultures prey on the dead,” Wright told the Class of ’11, “Africa’s history brims with characters who prey on the living.”

Wright warned against the perception that mere encouragement and aid from the West will spur Africans to a better future. “Miracles can happen with but your smallest pocket change, we’re told to believe,” Wright said. “Even in attempting good works—and I believe most people are earnest in their attempts—we risk condescending.”

Calling on the first-years to be “critical players in the world community,” Wright also talked about the Amherst community—specifically, the friendships he forged during his own freshman year. “Because you are here, this place is now complete,” Wright told the first-years. “So dig deep, remain wide-eyed, debate ferociously; laugh, as we did, often. Absolutely crush Williams at every opportunity. Thrive. Shine. Enjoy.”

Photo: Samuel Masinter '04