Opening Convocation 2006: “To Honor Gerald Penny”

President Anthony W. Marx

Anthony W. Marx
President of Amherst College
Johnson Chapel
Monday, September 4, 2006

A generation ago, a young man came to this great college in pursuit of learning and fellowship. He was African American, he was from New Orleans, his father was a mailman, and his name was Gerald Penny. He took at face value this college’s offer to include him, though the college had not yet adequately focused on the challenges of inclusion.

Americans of African descent had been coming to Amherst a long time, admirably from our first days, when Edward Jones, Class of 1826, was one of the nation’s first African-American college graduates. Charles Hamilton Houston, of the Class of 1915, was the legal architect of U.S. school desegregation, mentor to Thurgood Marshall. Judge William H. Hastie, Class of 1925, was the first African-American federal judge. Dr. Charles Drew, Class of 1926, established the first Red Cross blood bank.

We know that some of these men gained their Amherst education at the price of indignities. There was a time when, if a white and an African-American student wanted to room together, the dean required written permission from the white student’s parents. Showing a bias all too common at the time, the college behaved as if all was well so long as blacks and others from outside the nation’s then dominant culture acted as if they agreed to the protocols of that culture here.

When Gerald Penny, Class of 1977, arrived here, possibly he hadn’t yet learned when to accept and when to object to any such protocols. Or perhaps he was quick to emulate, taking in all too easily that New England stoicism that can hold it a matter of character to keep mute about what might be seen as weaknesses. Having been invited into this college, esteemed for its teaching, he might reasonably have assumed that such an experienced institution would ask nothing of its students that they could not do. We do not know.

It is evident that, when Penny arrived in the fall of 1973, he did not fully comprehend the challenges of his position here. Nor, apparently, did the college.

And so when, in a letter at the start of that first semester, the college asked each incoming freshman to pass a test at swimming, it did not inquire whether each student had learned this skill. All were simply asked to enter the waters.

Confronted by this apparent rule, Gerald Penny entered the college pool. Perhaps any student in his position would have. But then so few students came from backgrounds that did not include swimming.

We do not know what he thought would save him. Making his way, as all freshmen do, through the intense swirl of people and events in those first days on campus, perhaps Gerald Penny heard this request to swim as just one more strange expectation he must try to fulfill. Perhaps, entering the pool, he believed the intelligence and persistence that had gained him admission to Amherst would also enable him, somehow, to make his way through water where, though he could see bottom, he could not, to his terror, touch it. Perhaps he believed his own courage and strength— which, until that moment, had been his allies—would yet carry him, and continue to save him.

But they could not. After a valiant couple of laps, in the deep end of the college pool on that day, in the presence of comrades who did not comprehend what they were seeing, Gerald Penny drowned.

In the words of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., “There is no future for a people who deny their past.”

Looking back today, I offer to you that, had we tried to be more aware, Gerald Penny might now be alive. I offer to you that this community must continue to confront how Gerald Penny, tragically, was swallowed in the waters of our ignorance.

Because we are an institution dedicated to learning, we do not hide this story from ourselves or from others. We choose, rather, to commemorate it, so that we might ever learn from it. We claim this valiant young man as part of our history. We dare to honor his memory in the Gerald Penny ’77 Black Cultural Center in the Octagon.

The college has come far since that devastating afternoon. We have grown more skilled at achieving a community of diverse heritages, homes, races, ethnicities, interests and talents. We come to thrive on learning from each other.

This goal influences our teaching of you, our future leaders. But it also depends on the example we set as an institution. To the degree we realize the largest possible ideal of community, we inspire our society.

As we celebrate our advance toward this mission, we continue to inquire into ways that we have not completed it. Having grown in consideration and compassion, we must still examine assumptions we make that may hurt people, to see what we may yet learn.

Let us then comprehend Gerald Penny’s death at Amherst. It has been my experience that in confronting what has discomfited, frightened or grieved us, we learn the most. And if this institution is to be honest, to serve learning, then you and we must each engage our histories.

My message to you is this: the fact that we are not all the same is not a merely pleasant aspect of this college; it is an essential strength. We select and gather differences purposefully, and at some expense, precisely to build that strength. We build it because we learn more than if we were or behaved as if we were all the same.

That, my friends, is just one reason why you must not ignore each other’s differences. Athletes can teach camaraderie and discipline. Artists teach beauty and comprehension. Volunteers can teach compassion and citizenship. Amherst is committed to expanding in all these fronts. But you are each here not just to contribute to the mix in any one way, nor to serve the college, but to serve your own education, together.

Informed by this carefully selected array of talent, experiences and views, you are here to grow as moral leaders.

Amid our ever more globally tied society, the college invests ever more in each of you for that reason. Even for those of you whose families are paying the full price of Amherst, the college invests almost as much of its own funds in you as your family does.

To maximize your learning is a priority of this institution. To meet this priority, your teachers strive to work with your differences. We recognize that college is, by design, a time of great change for each of you. It is a time when your individual qualities evolve and sharpen as each of you steps closer toward that self-definition you will enact in the world beyond.

Your teachers will not, therefore, simply assume that you are to automatically adapt yourself to any fictional “norm.” Any such assumption would deny the benefit of your distinctiveness. It can also do harm.

For example, you all learn in different ways, by virtue of both your predispositions and the different emphases of the more than 360 schools that the Class of 2010 attended. Diverse opportunities mean diverse kinds of preparation. But your teachers here enjoy learning how you learn—which also changes rapidly. We embrace the responsibility of working with each of you, recognizing that we all have strengths and weaknesses.

Of course, members of the Class of 2010, by enrolling here, you also have accepted a responsibility. Be honest about where you need instruction as well as recognition. That is what you’re here for.

Then, as you advance, remember too, that college is not about getting comfortable. Rather, you must make the most of the differences among you. To quote the author James Baldwin, “The paradox of education is precisely this: that as one begins to become conscious, one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated. . . . To ask questions of the universe, and then learn to live with those questions, is the way he achieves his own identity.” That idea, of a moral education, lies at the heart of our traditions.

Therefore, students, as you move to achieve your identity, I urge you to be open, to challenge each other, and to be respectful. It is in this spirit of honest discovery that we scorn to be diminished by any intolerance of each other’s questions, whether such bigotry is shown by men toward women, whites toward African Americans, Latinos or Asians, non-athletes toward athletes, straights toward gays, liberals toward conservatives, rich toward poor, or any of these in reverse.

Because we are a small college, we can more safely reveal to one another our ignorance. In that scale, we can ask each other hard questions. But even in a small community, issues of privilege can remain hard to discuss. Many are taken aback by the possessions or vacations that others appear lucky enough to take for granted. Those who have overcome disadvantages may wonder if anyone can understand that struggle, and those who have grown up in material comfort may wonder what the appropriate response to such struggles is. Again, if we ignore such contrasts, we do not learn and may hurt.

Class of 2010, these responsibilities you bear toward each other go to the core of your academic work, as well. If you play only to your strengths, shying from any possible misstep for fear of endangering your academic record, please be aware that such a choice may be read as a signal of your timidity, a cover for a fear to develop yet new strengths. You will live with such decisions for the rest of your lives, so choose what is interesting, not what comes easily.

And, as you may already suspect, not all of the expectations that you bring to Amherst may be satisfied. Not all candidates will play first string or be in the starting lineup. Having succeeded at high school and been admitted here doesn’t by itself mean everyone who aspires to be a doctor will find the pre-med requirements easy to meet. If as educators we pretend otherwise, we fail you. If you pretend otherwise, declining to accept support in one area or to give support in another, you fail yourselves. Look for undiscovered talents and interests to propel you in new directions.

We owe it to the memory of Gerald Penny, as well as to each other, to express ourselves honestly, especially when we are uncertain. Class of ’10, when you are uncertain is when you are least likely to know who else in the room eagerly awaits the answer to your question. There is no tranquil way past such uncertainty. Further, the tempests of this world—of our global differences, as well as our differences here at the college—must inspire each of you. My friends, the secret is that your differences are also your best gift to each other.

That is the understanding to which Gerald Penny’s sacrifice leads us: Each one of us, for our own sakes, is called to create a community of differences consciously, mindful of what we each can do and not yet have learned.

You are called to create such a community intentionally, not because I ask you to, not from vaguely assumed obligation. Rather, you are called to bring your identity to bear on this community so that each of you can develop into a whole human being.

You bring Amherst College to life, not by assimilating or by segregating yourself, but by embracing fully the vigorous, varied ways that each of you is composing yourself here.

Learning to appreciate, even to prefer, this vibrant diversity, we set the terms for a lifetime. Our conscious diversity at Amherst also serves our society, for we hear many voices in the world now crying for just such conscious appreciation. We must exemplify it.

Class of 2010, how to build community on the basis of diversity is the pre-eminent challenge of our world and our time. If we don’t do it at Amherst, we’ll find it only harder to beyond here.

I confess my own ignorance of all the ways to meet this challenge fully. But in this fortunate and talented small college, we have some guideposts. Let the painful but powerful memory of Gerald Penny move us to establish yet more. Do not let the college demand that you or any of your peers swim where you cannot. The waters are deep. Knowing this, make inquiry of one another; identify yourselves to one another. Asking for and giving help are first acts of leadership.

Class of 2010, let yourselves be renewed, here at Amherst College, as you embrace this paradox: that you reach your fullest potential by engaging with those you find to be most different from you; that as you strive toward your individual identity, you must question, as Baldwin said, and take in the answer you learn from the larger community of which you are a part.

That is how we achieve, not just the appearance, but the practice of a diverse community of vivid individuals. Not when we pass each other by, but as we come forward to one another. In questioning and thereby coming to appreciate more deeply each other, you bring this place alive. And, in the bargain, you become a morally fulfilled human being.

And so, in memory of Gerald Penny, I pray that it might become second nature, for each of you, to be open and challenging—even as you look to be changed by your encounters here. It then will become second nature openly to engage and respectfully to challenge the world beyond this campus.

Joyously, we receive each of you here. With great hope, great excitement, we welcome your questions, that you may study and help to re-create the world beyond.

Together, let us arise from the waters, ready for our tasks. Welcome to Amherst.