Senior Oration – Camry Wilborn (’16)

Today’s Spring Break coverage of Senior Orations features the work of Camry Wilborn (’16).

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On the Wake Forest Admissions page there is a section referring to Pro Humanitate. It reads:

It’s not about you. It’s about us, and the greater meaning of what it means to be human. Our motto, Pro Humanitate (For Humanity), is a calling to use our knowledge, talents and compassion to better the lives of others. It can mean donating time and resources to our communities or simply a lifelong commitment to pursuing our best self. No matter your personal interpretation, it’s an opportunity to leave the world better than we found it.

And although it is on the admissions page, I did not actually encounter the phrase “Pro Humanitate” until I had begun attending the school. It was probably during one of those dragging sessions during freshman orientation. You know, one of the many, many that we’re required to go to. This philosophy however, was nothing new. Since I was a little girl, I was groomed to embody Pro Humanitate. I watched in amazement as my mother gave of everything: money, time, herself. And she watched her mother do the same. They never complained, just kept giving, and giving, and giving.

My entire experience as a black woman has consisted of being regularly told, it’s not about you. See the humanity in others. Fight for others. Be superwoman. Never be empty. It’s not about you.

The dilemma in being told it’s not about you arises when a group is not included in the “collective us”. Historically and currently speaking, black women are the bloody lambs sacrificed by the gods of white supremacy and patriarchy. I remember the first time I was exposed to the horrific truth of the feminist movement, which I, as a feminist, had idealized. That horrific truth is that feminism itself was whitewashed. Black women were not included. I enrolled in an Intro to Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies course, which would later become my second major. In learning about the feminist movement, starting with the first wave, I became aware of the ways in which black women were persuaded to fight for the greater good as a part of the suffrage movement, though the suffrage movement barely fought for them.

The exclusion did not end there. My thirst for knowledge around my racial identity led me to see firsthand the exclusion black women feel in relation to movements surrounding race. The Civil Rights Movement is often credited to two black men: Martin and Malcolm. Depending on where you fall on the radical totem, you are likely to choose one over the other. It wasn’t until I joined a book club sponsored by the Anna Julia Cooper Center that I learned about the influence that Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hammer and Daisy Bates have had.

I noticed a pattern. Despite black women being excluded, they continue to embody Pro Humanitate–they see and serve humanity. You see, to be black and woman means to constantly see the humanity in others, while people refuse to see yours. It means that you are not included in the collective us. Even if you’re respected, you are labeled as a queen, goddess–everything else except human. But when we place ourselves at the center of our stories, it’s self-indulgent. This is what I know to be Pro Humaniate—to serve. History validates it and the world affirms it. I am here to serve others. It’s not about me.

I’ve known that I wanted to attend Wake Forest since I was about nine. In fact, it was the only school I applied to. Looking back, that was kind of risky, but I’m here now. When I got here, like many other girls who look like me, I struggled to find my place. When social environments weren’t welcoming, I turned to the only thing I knew, service. My involvement with service has truly made my Wake Forest experience. It was my safe space—where I was comfortable. Safe spaces are not frivolous, they’re imperative, and the service community was mine. And through it, I have been able to give back to the city that raised me. However, just as the national arena ignores black women in favor of black men and white women, I began to believe that the motto Pro Humanitate was reinforcing that.

My classmates want to save little girls who look like me. They build them desks, tutor them and give them Halloween candy but ignore black women in the discussion surrounding sexual assault on our campus. Humanity is forgotten when black women are labeled as stereotypical tropes and never allowed to be multi-dimensional beings. Humanity is forgotten when a party theme is offensive, discriminatory and institutionally protected. Humanity is forgotten when we stop fighting for you and fight for us. I began to feel like I was for Wake, but Wake wasn’t for me. Humanity wasn’t for black girls like me. I was taught that seeing the humanity in everyone, despite myself, is what would guide my journey as a black woman in a white space; and that thinking wasn’t enough for me anymore. How long do black women have to serve before we’re allowed to be human? To feel. To fail. A precondition to serving humanity, should be to be seen as human first.

Fall semester of my senior year, I had the opportunity to attend the White House for a Research Summit on Advancing Equity for Women and Girls of Color. This conference was co-hosted by the White House Council on Women and Girls and our own Anna Julia Cooper Center. Stakeholders from academic, nonprofit, government, and philanthropic sectors came together to discuss the issues facing women and girls of color. I must admit that, despite writing a myriad of research papers and presenting the information at conferences and symposia, I’ve never liked research. The act of investigating independent variables to establish a conclusion never aroused any sort of academic curiosity within me.

However, the conference surpassed all of my expectations. I have never been in a room with that many black female academics. It was refreshing and affirming. No triggers. No microagressions. No need for safe spaces. It was all safe.

Out of all of the speakers that day, only one white man spoke. That gentleman was our Provost Rogan Kersh, someone that I was lucky enough to have a relationship with before the conference. I learned that day that Wake Forest University would be partnering with twenty-three other schools to collectively give 18 million dollars to support research for women and girls of color. Yet, if I were to walk into the pit and ask a white male about the experiences of black women I would not be surprised if I were met with a mediocre colorblind answer or complete silence. There is a disconnection between commitment and practice. Though we committed to providing money and institutional support for research, I want to see these concepts of equity and the experiences of black women explored on our campus. I want to see more students visit my website, The Angry Black Collegiate. I want to see the cultural diversity requirement improve. I want to see mental health initiatives focusing on the alarming rates of depressions amongst black women. I want to see more women who look like me in front of the classroom. It’s not enough to commit money to research, if that research is not going to inform our own policies.

Therefore, I am leaving this stage with a challenge. We, the community of Wake Forest must not only commit to living out Pro Humanitate,  we must practice that everyday—as black women have been doing for a long time now. It’s time to center the experiences of black women like me. It’s time to make it about me. After all, I’m human too.

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