Amir Hall '17 speaking at Commencement

One evening after school, Amir Denzel Hall ’17 fell asleep in the back seat of the car among bags of groceries, his parents up front. Back home, his father carried him inside in one arm, grocery bag in the other. “My baby tired?” he asked, tucking his son into bed as his mother watched from the doorway. Hall was 14.

“Where did you come from? How did you arrive?” Hall asked the assembled seniors on commencement morning, quoting the poet Bhanu Kapil. Hall’s own answer: “my father’s arms, my mother’s gaze and the comfort of their sheets.”

Hall—the elected class speaker—had asked some of his classmates that same question, and they gave him various answers: “my mother’s womb”; Abuja, Nigeria; Columbia, Md.; a public school in Cleveland. 

“Ten years down the line, when someone asks, ‘Where do you come from?,’ Amherst College will be added to the long list of places we name,” he said, looking out onto the quad, where 5,000 people had gathered to celebrate the 478 graduating seniors. “When
someone asks, ‘How did you arrive?,’ hopefully you will remember the people you met here who helped carry you along the way.”

Hall described his relationship with Rhonda Cobham-Sander, the Emily C. Jordan Folger Professor of Black Studies and English, who “has been at every corner and crossroad,” providing advice, comfort and home-cooked meals. He also talked about the 2015 student protests on campus, citing them as an example of students “who carry each other and this campus in significant ways.”

And he described how, in his junior year, the Amherst community supported him through one of the most difficult times in his life: the death of his father.

Of his classmates, Hall said, “These are the people who will stand at your wedding altars, and come to your book-signings. They will text with you through boring meetings at work. They will attend your future graduations and spoil your children. They will be here for you.”

As classmates applauded for him, Hall returned to his seat for President Biddy Martin’s address, which also focused on friendship.

Commencement 2017

In a world too full of “serial monologues, talking heads endlessly repeating themselves and hate-filled rants,” she urged the class to “practice forms of friendship that match the complexity of the world.”

Broaden the meaning of the word friendship, she advised: “It can’t just be about seeking comfort, or about gravitating towards those who are familiar to us or with whom we already agree. It needs to encompass relationships of respect, understanding and even affection between people who differ—and working together in good faith across those differences towards solutions to the complex problems we face.”

This “harder form of friendship,” she said, “can also be the most rewarding. It is certainly the most necessary right now.”

Also necessary, she said, is the liberal arts—“the form of education best suited to uncertainty and change,” because it fosters intellectual versatility and problem-solving.

“Its purpose is to promote freedom of thought,” Martin said, “and the disciplined and dogged pursuit of truth.” 


The Honorees

Amherst awarded honorary doctorates to six people.

  • Yanira Castro ’93, a dance, performance, theater and visual artist, and founder of the collaborative group a canary torsi
  • Steven Chu (in absentia), former secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy and winner of the 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics
  • William Cronon, an environmental historian and author and a professor at the University of Wisconsin
  • Esther Duflo, an MIT professor and award-winning poverty economics researcher
  • Barrett J. Rollins ’74, the pioneering chief scientific officer and faculty dean for academic affairs at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and a professor at Harvard Medical School
  • Peter J. Rubinstein ’64, director of Jewish community and the Bronfman Center for Jewish Life at 92Y in New York City and Newsweek-recognized “influential rabbi”