PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — The complete remarks of Kevin Gover, director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian, as delivered at Brown University's 2016 Baccalaureate Ceremony on Saturday, May 28, 2016:
Thank you for this opportunity, President Paxson and Reverend Nelson.
Congratulations to the Class of 2016. I’ve had a chance to meet only a few of you, but I was immediately intimidated by your awesome achievements and your amazing personal stories. And I have to say, seeing you here today and hearing just a little bit about what you have accomplished already makes me really glad that I got through college before they raised the bar.
So, listen: You’re going to make history. There’s just no doubt about it. You will do things that have never been done before. I suspect you already have the sense that your generation has some important work to do. But what you may not have thought about is how you’re going to remake history. And by that I mean that you and your contemporaries will literally decide what our history is. You will decide what we will remember and honor from our past, and what we will regret and perhaps forget.
Now, remaking history is an ongoing process, and every generation does it. A couple of examples: When I was a kid, General George Armstrong Custer was a cultural hero of the United States. Hollywood icons made movies about his heroism and sacrifice. Everybody my age knew about Custer and his courageous last stand against Sioux and Cheyenne troops. But somewhere along the way, we have collectively decided that maybe Custer was not a hero, at least in his fights with the Indians.
WATCH VIDEO: Baccalaureate Speaker Kevin Gover
Another example is Christopher Columbus. When I was a kid, I learned a little song about him, a song about how Columbus “sailed the ocean blue… to find this land for me and you.” When I got older, I learned that there was more to know about Columbus, that he was was a slaver, a killer. Now we do know about Columbus, and again we are deciding collectively that perhaps we should not be celebrating Columbus Day. I was very pleased to see that Brown has joined the institutions and communities that now celebrate Indigenous People’s Day.
These are not small matters. Back in the 1960s, during my childhood, the American history that was agreed upon was that American history began when Columbus discovered the New World, two entire continents of undeveloped wilderness, populated only by a few wandering hunter-gatherers whose elimination was in equal parts necessary, dangerous and tragic.
I never learned anything in my public school education that made me proud of my Native American ancestors. Like all of you, I knew I was a smart kid, but the Indians I was learning about in school seemed dumb, primitive. The racial messages that I took from my schooling were so powerful. I knew I was an Indian, but I literally wondered whether the reason I was smart was that my mother was white.
Fortunately, I had parents who helped me understand, and of course I got the opportunity to study at one of the world’s great universities and realized that these American origin stories that I was learning had arisen from some very old and very wrong ideas about culture, religion and race.
And now I work at the Smithsonian, the largest museum complex in the world, and I have as a mission to bring about the day when no little kid, regardless of background, who learns the history of our country, will ever feel the way I did. This becomes particular because my wife, Ann Marie, and I just gained a new grandson… Like his older brother and sister, he is Comanche and Pawnee. He is English and Scots-Irish. He is Korean. He is African-American, and he is Wampanoag. I want him to know about all of his ancestors, and I want him to revel in it and accept it and be grateful for all of it.
With your help, we can make an American history that is introspective, inclusive and rigorously honest. And if we do that, I believe we will find that this new history is amazing, far more than the anodyne narratives that are still being taught in our schools.
So let’s consider a few of our American origin myths. These are the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. So they say as much about how we think about ourselves as they tell us about how we think of our ancestors. Some of our favorite origin stories have Indians in them: pilgrims, Plymouth, and the first Thanksgiving, the Jamestown colony and Pocahontas, Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery and Sacajawea, and the Trail of Tears.
As Americans, we continually revisit our origin stories. Historians are constantly giving us more information to work with. We then sift this information through our modern sensibilities, and we decide again just what our history is. As our nation changes, our stories change.
This is important work, and we should do it well. And if we are to do it well, we really must strive to know what the heck we are talking about when we are discussing American history. Unlike, say, the presidential candidate who made clear this week that he thinks it’s funny to mock a United States senator by calling her “Pocahontas.”
Now you all are about the right age to have grown up on the Disney movie “Pocahontas,” the imaginary Pocahontas who rescued John Smith, and she wore a buckskin cocktail dress and talked to her animal friends.
Of course, that’s an imaginary Pocahontas. The real Pocahontas was a child. She was 11 years old when the Jamestown Colony was founded. She was kidnapped and held for ransom by the English. She eventually married and became Rebecca Rolfe. She had a child, Thomas Rolfe, and sadly she died only a few years later in England at the age of 22.
Now, Pocahontas left us a weird legacy that tells us something important about our country. It turns out that many of Virginia’s first families labored mightily to establish that they were descended from Thomas Rolfe and Pocahontas because she was, after all, a princess. She was royalty in the eyes of the English. Four of our first six U.S. presidents were from Virginia. So these first families in Virginia somehow thought it made them more American to establish themselves as descendants of Pocahontas.
Now this became problematic a couple of centuries later. Virginia was of course very much a part of Jim Crow. And in the 1920s, they were refining their Jim Crow laws. Now under Virginia law, there were only two kinds of people: there were white people and there were colored people, and if you were not entirely white, you were colored. Needless to say, colored people enjoyed fewer rights, privileges and opportunities than white people. And this was a policy that rose directly out of ideas like to avoid miscegenation, to literally practice eugenics. This was a policy of one of our important states. They were reforming their laws in the 1920s to make them a little tougher. And they realized that because they had included Native Americans in the colored category and because they had adopted the so-called “one-drop rule,” that no matter how far in the past your Native American or African-American ancestry was, you were still colored. And they realized they had just turned colored many of the first families of Virginia who had established themselves, by their own admission, as descendants of Pocahontas.
Well, this was unacceptable, and so they immediately enacted a new law that said, “Well if you’re only one 16th or less Indian, then you too can be white.” This was known as the Pocahontas exception.
Fast forward again to a woman named Mildred. Mildred was a descendant of the Rappahannock Indians, but she did not qualify for the Pocahontas exception, because she was also African-American. She fell in love with a man named Richard Loving. The Lovings were arrested for living together as wife and husband under Virginia’s miscegenation laws. But they decided to fight it, and a few years later in 1967, the Supreme Court heard their case and invalidated the prohibition on interracial marriage in Virginia.
Now that’s a great story.
That’s an American story, an epic, a love story, a heroic journey towards a more perfect union.
And in a way, a personal one for me, because it means that my wife, Anne Marie, and I can live unmolested in the Commonwealth of Virginia, where only 50 years ago the law said that she is white and I am colored, and we may not love one other.
This is a story which, to paraphrase the great James Baldwin, is as long and as large, as terrible and as beautiful, as American history, and America herself.
The stories we tell must from now on be about all of us, and in this work we must not settle for simple constructs. It is not about heroes and villains. And we should not seek to erase those of whom we disapprove. We can find something to dislike in all of our noteworthy historical figures, but we should not let our dislikes blind us to their merits. We must, instead, be humble in our opinions and our judgments about history, about politics and policy, even about art and science.
I know that’s going to be hard for some of you because you’re young, strong, smart and good-looking. So why should you be humble? Here’s why: You may know a lot, but what you know is dwarfed by what you do not know. And I’m sorry to say, it gets worse. Because I know the more I learn, the more I can see how much I have not learned. And I remember being wrong once. Remember that time I was wrong?
About 15 years ago, my teenage son asked me if the United States would ever have an African-American president. Well, I answered confidently, “Sure. Not in my lifetime. But, yeah, that’s going to happen someday.” I’ve never been so happy to be so wrong about something that I genuinely believed.
So I know that 50 years from now some smart college kid is going to read something I’ve written or said and think, “Look at what this fool said. How could he possibly believe that?” Now that I think about it, some of you may be thinking that right now. But that’s ok, so long as you always hold open the real possibility that you, too, are wrong
So that’s it.
Your parents, your professors, your colleagues, they are so proud of you. They love you. And they trust you. We will be leaving this world to you in due course, and we are counting on you to make a good world for our grandchildren and our great grandchildren, and for all of our descendants. So, Class of 2016, congratulations. Now go change the world!