A Speech

Composed in My Head but not Delivered during Meeting for Worship to Honor Carolina Friends School’s 50th Birthday.

A certain word has been on my mind since last night, when I had a conversation with Hallie and Dave, who are here today with their daughter, Eliza, whom I adore. And then it came to mind again when I walked into the Center building this morning and saw the risers and lights — a performance space, basically — and then heard Nicky Kitchen play so beautifully. The setting reminded me that, although I have no documentation to prove it, in 1989, during the musical Working, which is a musical about sticking it to the man, or wanting to stick it to the man, and which I understand is just about to be performed again in this building under the direction of my former classmate, Brad McDevitt — during a performance, in the role of a steelworker, I became the first person to stand under lights in this building, in front of an audience, and say the word “fuck.”

And I may have just become the second. I don’t know why you’re all tittering! This word is spelled p-h-o-c and is French for “seal,” as my wife, who lived in France for most of a decade and is sitting next to me now, can tell you.

Well, of course that’s not the spelling I’m using, and we all know why that word makes us uncomfortable. There’s a wonderful anecdote told by John Cheever in the introduction to his collected short stories. He describes how his editor at The New Yorker, Harold Ross, discovered that Cheever would jump nearly out of his seat every time Ross used that word; so Ross would keep using it just to watch Cheever jump.

In other words, the effect I got with that word was intended. It made a lot of you jump, figuratively or literally. I think part of the reason why this word still has the power to do that is that we don’t quite know what it means or where it came from. It certainly does not stand for “Fornication Under the Crown of the King,” which a spurious etymology. It might have been Old German or Old Norse for “strike” or something like that, but we really don’t know, and so we don’t know, rationally, why the word strikes us the way it does. So this word is radical in the truest sense of the word: it is its own root, and it could mean anything, including the worst thing we could think of, which we can never bring ourselves to do. The word substitutes for whatever that worst thing is at any given moment. This is its power.

Its radical quality is why the word is still on my mind, because as we observe Carolina Friends School’s 50th birthday, and as I listen to Jim’s history of the school and its environment, I’m thinking of CFS’s radical origins. As a student here, I was steeped in the school’s peaceable philosophy; later, as a teacher, I was charged with passing it on to the middle-schoolers I taught. And what I always tried to stay aware of, and am reminded of today, is that, although the pedagogical engine of CFS has long run on flower-power, and although it rightly preaches peace, love and understanding, and although it celebrates the light in everyone — although it is in short a hippy-dippy place, for lack of a better phrase; I mean, this was a school where you could take batik, for credit — despite all of this swords-into-ploughshares, granola-bar goodness, CFS was founded as a fierce resistance movement, in radical opposition to its time.

It’s easy, fifty years on, to see that the segregated South, the Jim Crow South of the early 1960s, was a blatantly unjust, hideously inhumane culture — so easy that we have managed to quarantine most of its wrongs in the history books we give our students to read. We see so clearly that barring people from using certain water fountains or sitting in certain seats on the bus — or hanging them in public without trials — because of the color of their skin is almost barbarically narrowminded. We see this so clearly that we don’t even see it. Racial justice is the pane of glass through which most of life is observed — not all of it, of course. We live in a world that is still sometimes deeply racist, as Ferguson proves, as Walter Scott in Charleston proves, as Eric Garner in Staten Island proves.

But isn’t it true that these seem like tragic exceptions now? Awful ones, to be sure, ones that warn of a flicker of evil, but fires we have the moral, political, legal and cultural means to extinguish. In the late fifties, we did not. Racial hatred was institutional, not exceptional, and often quite nonviolent. The worst oppression is what does not burn in sight but smolders unseen — oppression that’s daily, ordinary, habitual, almost banal: water fountains, bus rides, ballparks, and schools. CFS began as a challenge to this kind of oppression. It stared the dominant culture in the face and said: This is not the mold we want to fit into, nor our children to fit into.

But rather than try to break this mold, which no small community, which CFS is, can realistically hope to do, the Klopfers and their cohort built their own mold. And they said, anyone who wants to come and join us in this resistance to authority, this stance against the norm, is welcome. And they staked their property on it. In America, where property has always been our cultural and political god, that is about as radical as you can get.

The famous Schopenhauer quote tells us that truth goes through three stages: first it is ridiculed, then it is violently opposed, and then it is accepted as self-evident. The truth CFS was telling 50 years ago, that we are all created equal, is now mostly accepted as self-evident, although we must still fight for this equality every day.

And there are other truths that haven’t been spoken yet. They probably seem ordinary, the norm, everyday; maybe we don’t really even think of them much because we are so entrenched in them — we don’t recognize how darkly we look through the glass. But there are wrongs all around us that have to be combated. The charter of CFS — what it tasks all of us with — was and still is this: Where we see something that is unjust, cruel or morally profane, we must stand up to this cussedness and say, in the noblest sense, Fuck This.

To Eliza and all of our students, I will say: I hope you will use this word appropriately, necessarily. To everyone else here, and to myself, on this day that marks a half-century of CFS, I assign this mission: to do more than just utter this word; that is, having once uttered it, make change; and, most importantly, having made that change, devote ourselves to the work of sustaining it.

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