Friday, June 8, 2012

Commencing along in Claremont

Following is my column which appeared in Wednesday’s Claremont Courier. I will add that Cameron Munter’s mother has long been active in the Claremont Quaker meeting where I’m a member.


Something revolutionary happened here last month.

Angela Davis was in Claremont. More specifically, the famous - or infamous - black, radical academic and activist was back in Claremont lecturing. Even more specifically, she was in the honored position of being the main speaker at Pitzer College’s graduation.

When I first heard that Ms. Davis was giving the commencement address at Pitzer, I wasn’t at all surprised. I thought, “Natch!” After all, Pitzer is well-known as the most liberal of the Claremont colleges, at least, and for proudly being pretty out there in terms of activism. But, as I was reminded during the bright Saturday morning ceremony, this was more than Pitzer being Pitzer, with the graduates choosing a provocative speaker; Ms. Davis speaking there was the triumphant closing of a circle and, in a sense, a sweet, victorious homecoming.

I knew that Ms. Davis had taught at the colleges, but I had forgotten just how controversial the appointment, made by the joint black studies department, was. I didn’t know that Ms. Davis accepted the position before it could be withdrawn and that the classes were essentially held in secret. The classes were scheduled on Friday evenings and Saturdays in different locations which the students had to swear not to divulge.

It was 1974, and Ms. Davis had been fired - twice - by U.C.L.A for her controversial views, her Communist sympathies and her activism. She had also been accused of murder, only to have the charge dropped. Ronald Reagan, who was then governor and an U.C regent, vowed that she would never again teach in California.

So Claremont was a refuge for Ms. Davis. Not only that, it rebooted her teaching career. Most ironically, she ended up holding a distinguished professorship for many years at U.C Santa Cruz. And Pitzer College President Laura Trombley said during the graduation that she is welcome to come and teach at the college anytime.

Such making a victory out of a defeat was one of Ms. Davis’ theme during her address. So was freedom and how it demands that we share our knowledge and talents. After asking the graduates to “look at all the men, women and trans-people around you,” she quoted author Toni Morrison, saying, “The function of freedom is to free someone else.”

And aren’t such turn-arounds and reaching out what Claremont is about? Isn’t it this revolutionary activity that puts Claremont on the map?

Angela Davis wasn’t the only one here talking revolution last month. There were many revolutions going on in Claremont, as there are every Spring, with thousands of students graduating from Pitzer and the other colleges.

This is what Claremont is known for, after all. Millions of people have come here over the years to learn and to grow, to find out who they are and perhaps, yes, reboot. Each Spring, we see the results, displayed with all the majestic regalia and pomp and circumstance, with a flurry of commencement exercises, as all these people are sent off into their lives and into the world with their new knowledge and inspiration.

Not bad for Claremont. “Claremont,” as student speaker Benjamin Tumin pronounced with some disdain the next morning at Pomona College’s graduation. To him, if not to all his fellow students, Claremont is, as he said, “nice retirement town.”

But, as was evident at Pomona College’s commencement, the colleges aren’t the only thing in Claremont producing revolutions. Growing up in Claremont can be revolutionary. Proof of this was Cameron Munter, the main speaker and a honorary degree recipient.

Mr. Munter didn’t attend one of the Claremont colleges but was raised here - he gave a Mother’s Day’s shout-out to his mother, Helen-Jeane, who, along with his father, Leonard, was in the audience and still lives in Claremont - and became a foreign diplomat, serving most recently in Pakistan.

Such a job is definitely not for the faint of heart. Much hope and faith is required. Mr. Munter said that a good preparation for this was growing up in Claremont, “a sun-dappled place where peace and all was possible.”

He talked about spending hours wandering around the college campuses as a kid. He also recalled his fellow Claremont High schoolers building a huge statue on top of Bridges Auditorium and adding the name Zappa, as in Frank, to the composers listed on the facade.

There are plenty of these sorts of memories of growing up in Claremont. There are plenty who have these memories. Some are still living here, and many are living far away and all over. They are all changing the world, whether in big ways or in tiny ways, and some of that is because they have these memories of growing up in Claremont.

Put all of these together with all of the students who come from all over to the colleges here and that’s a lot of lives, a lot of revolutions, shaped by Claremont. We see this, as we do every year, with the graduations, both at the colleges last month and with our high school students this month.

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