Ruth J. Simmons
WASHINGTON, D.C. —Ruth J. Simmons, professor, author, and president emerita of Prairie View A&M, Brown University, and Smith College, will deliver the 2023 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities.
NEH’s Jefferson Lecture is the highest honor the federal government bestows for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities.
Simmons will deliver her lecture, “Facing History to Find a Better Future,” on September 26 at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture at 7 p.m. EDT. The lecture is free and open to the public and will stream online at neh.gov. Simmons will draw on her more than 50 years’ experience as a scholar, pioneering academic administrator, and changemaker in higher education to speak about the role of the humanities in fostering socioeconomic mobility and cultural belonging.
“One of our generation’s most important innovators in higher education, Ruth Simmons has advanced our understanding of the enduring legacy of enslavement across our most preeminent institutions and lifted up the undertold and underappreciated stories of our country’s history,” said NEH Chair Shelly C. Lowe (Navajo). “Through her personal journey and her advocacy for diversity and opportunity in education, Dr. Simmons embodies the greatness that can be accomplished when everyone has a seat at the table. We are deeply honored to have this distinguished leader as our 50th Jefferson Lecturer.”
The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), an independent federal grantmaking agency, selects the lecturer through a formal review process that includes nominations from the public. NEH awards more than $125 million annually in grants that support understanding and appreciation of cultural topics, including art, ethics, history, languages, literature, law, music, philosophy, religion, and others. The Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities is the agency’s signature event.
“For one whose life has been so meaningfully defined by the lifelong guidance and steady companionship of the humanities, the invitation to deliver the Jefferson Lecture is the honor of a lifetime” said Simmons. “From the time I first encountered history and literature as a child of poverty, I have been on a path of learning and self-discovery that has empowered my work in every decade of my life. Persuaded that the humanities can mean everything to young people struggling to understand what their lives can be, I have encouraged students from Smith to Brown to Prairie View A & M to embrace the humanities as a lifeline to happiness and success.”
The daughter of sharecroppers, Simmons grew up in segregated Texas in the ’40s and ’50s as the youngest of 12 children. She went on to earn degrees in Romance languages and literature from Dillard and Harvard universities, eventually becoming the first African American president of an Ivy League institution and a leading figure in mobilizing research on the institutional legacy of slavery while promoting educational opportunity at colleges and universities. Simmons details these experiences in her upcoming memoir Up Home: A Young Girl’s Journey.
Simmons is a Distinguished Presidential Fellow at Rice University and Adviser to the President of Harvard University on HBCU Initiatives. From 2017 to 2023, she served as president of the Texas HBCU Prairie View A&M University and was the first woman to hold that position. Under her leadership Prairie View was reclassified as an R-2 Research University. She also oversaw the creation of an African American studies initiative and a “Panther Success Grant” program at Prairie View to ease financial hardships on students at the HBCU. In 2001 Simmons was appointed president of Brown University. During her eleven years in that role, Simmons appointed a university committee to investigate Brown’s historical ties to the transatlantic slave trade—which inspired similar initiatives at institutions across the world—and oversaw major investments in Brown’s faculty and research capacities, financial support for undergraduate and graduate students, and campus-wide diversity efforts. As president of Smith College from 1995 to 2001, Simmons launched a number of important academic initiatives, including an engineering program, the first at an American women’s college, the creation of a poetry center that brought eminent poets to campus, and a student praxis summer internship program.
Simmons holds a bachelor’s degree from Dillard University and a Ph.D. from Harvard University. A French professor before entering university administration, Simmons held an appointment as a professor of comparative literature and Africana studies at Brown. She has served in various faculty and administrative roles at the University of Southern California, Princeton University, and Spelman College. Among her first academic positions was serving as the administrative coordinator of a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH)-supported Liberal Studies Project at California State, Northridge.
Simmons is the recipient of numerous honors, including a Fulbright Fellowship to France, the 2001 President’s Award from the United Negro College Fund, the 2002 Fulbright Lifetime Achievement Medal, the 2004 Eleanor Roosevelt Val-Kill Medal, the Foreign Policy Association Medal, the Ellis Island Medal of Honor, and the Centennial Medal from Harvard University. She has received over forty honorary degrees from universities around the world, including Oxford University, Ewha Womans University in South Korea, and the American College of Greece. Simmons is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and the Council on Foreign Relations, and serves on the boards of the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, the Alley Theatre, the MacArthur Foundation, Morehouse College, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Holdsworth Center, and Hines Global Income Trust. She received Brown University’s highest faculty honor: the Susan Colver Rosenberger Medal in 2011, and was honored by the Prairie View faculty in 2022. In 2012, she was named a Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor.
NEH’s Jefferson Lecture is the Endowment’s most widely attended public event. Past Jefferson Lecturers include Andrew Delbanco, Father Columba Stewart, Rita Charon, Martha C. Nussbaum, Ken Burns, Walter Isaacson, Wendell Berry, Drew Gilpin Faust, John Updike, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Toni Morrison, Barbara Tuchman, and Robert Penn Warren. The lectureship carries a $10,000 honorarium, set by statute.
Tickets to the lecture are free of charge and distributed on a first-come, first-served basis. Reserve a ticket online to attend NEH’s 2023 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities.
National Endowment for the Humanities: Created in 1965 as an independent federal agency, the National Endowment for the Humanities supports research and learning in history, literature, philosophy, and other areas of the humanities by funding selected, peer-reviewed proposals from around the nation. Additional information about the National Endowment for the Humanities and its grant programs is available at neh.gov.
“Facing History to Find a Better Future” by Ruth Simmons
September 26, 2023
Remarks as prepared for delivery
Chair Shelly Lowe, Senior Deputy Chair Tony Mitchell and other members of the leadership of the National Endowment for the Humanities, I thank you for inviting me to deliver the 50th Jefferson Lecture. Since its creation in 1965, the Endowment has played a leading role in enhancing the quality of our national life through programs that promote excellence in the Humanities. Chief among its tasks has been the steadfast support of efforts to disseminate widely the truth of our history and the nature of our present condition. Given the role of the Humanities in creating a pathway for me to understand my country, my history and the means to face the future, my gratitude and pleasure in this moment cannot be overstated. Thank you.
I am especially pleased to have this lecture take place in this venerable venue, a place that also acknowledges the importance of understanding history and culture and encourages a deep and unembellished examination of the past. The millions of visitors who have crossed the threshold of this museum can attest that the uplifting exemplars and actions chronicled here help us envision a more peaceful, wholesome and sustainable future. I am grateful to Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution Lonnie Bunch and the Director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture Kevin Young for allowing me to be associated with this institution and its vital mission on behalf of the nation. From the Romanesque style of the Smithsonian Castle to the remarkable lattice work of this museum’s façade, the very architecture of America’s struggles and the hopefulness of its continuing evolution come alive on the Washington Mall.
From the time this museum opened with the bipartisan assistance of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, it has been both a beacon and balm for those seeking to acknowledge in full the nation’s past, its present context and its future potential. For the virtually unbounded opportunities that can be made possible by the evolution of civil and human rights will be impeded only by an inclination to dismiss the importance of understanding our past. The humanistic endeavors chronicled by the holdings of the Smithsonian affirm powerfully the truth of E.O. Wilson’s assertion that “the humanities address in fine detail all the ways human beings relate to one another and to the environment…” and, I would add, how we relate to what has gone before. Indeed, it becomes more and more apparent in this political climate that relating to the past and to one another is a supremely urgent need. Knowledge of our history and culture as explored and powerfully experienced through the disciplines represented by the holdings and the exhibits curated in this museum impresses upon us the importance of that commonality as the pathway to a more informed and robustly shared future.
As a lifelong educator, I have sought to facilitate the ability of students to acquire such knowledge. Recalling my own childhood in 1940’s and 50’s America, I impart to them my certainty from an early age that every dimension of my future would be greatly hampered by the somber and, at times, brutal realities of that period. Typified by stark racial divisions, unfettered assaults on minority rights, and campaigns of denigration, those times imposed restrictions based solely on racial and gender bias. Fomenting despair and hopelessness, division and inhumanity, our country was on a disturbing path, the consequences of which we still experience today.
At first, barred from the type of learning that would have offered an understanding of my plight and therefore solutions for how to live with such a reality, I could imagine no escape from the economic, cultural and social boundaries set for me and everyone I knew. Untouched by art, ignorant of the bounty that knowledge could afford, unaware of the variegated humanity that would ultimately influence my path, I accepted the bleak prospects before me. Most troubling of all, I was incognizant of who I was as a human being and unaware of what promise that condition afforded me. I could not imagine a bright future.
Happily, I was introduced to school at the age of six and, like a flower gradually revealing its full complement of petals over time, my life began to open to extraordinary possibilities, revealing, in time, who I could be in the world. The fact that the extent of what could be known seemed boundless in its potential to illuminate my path was a gift of immeasurable importance to a young life marked by need. The need for the most basic human rights. The need for reliable daily sustenance. The need for respect. Hungry for reassurance that my existence meant something, I devoured information and welcomed experiences that made me more acquainted with the broader world. Gradually, I began to see who I was and what I might become.
I am grateful, therefore, to those who take care to see that all of us, and especially our children, have access to the kind of unfettered learning that broadens our understanding of the world. I believe that the flowering of such knowledge invariably lifts our sights, bolsters our understanding of who we are, satisfies our curiosity, and, by enabling us to be more rounded and capacious as human beings, prepares us to be better stewards of a shared purpose. After all, what is more central to living with dignity and purpose than the determination and means to understand the human condition and participate in shaping its future? Without that intentional quest, we are likely to be at odds with the world, at odds with our essential nature, and, in the end, at odds with the lessons of our history. We would be as mere actors, not inhabiting our true selves with purpose, but merely performing tasks in a tragic pretense of existence.
As a young person, my drive to understand the nature of my unique relationship to the world found answers principally through exploration of the Humanities. For these disciplines, in particular, responded to my persistent questions about my life and my fate. Where did I come from and why was I who I seemed to be? Given the limitations of slavery and sharecropping, how could victims of such practices find ways to express themselves and forge a better future? Rudimentary practices in the culture of poverty and farm work made me aware of the importance of understanding the past even before I received a formal introduction to history, philosophy, theology, arts and letters. Work songs heard in the plantation fields, religious rituals afforded by crudely constructed churches and baptisms in creeks, and oral lore recounted by elders gave me a glimpse of a powerful legacy of humanizing knowledge, behavior and performance that could not be negated or forever stunted by hostile social policies. These simple everyday experiences recounted plainly the injustice we endured, stirred our spiritual selves, celebrated our connections to each other and affirmed our worth. Soul-affirming accounts of our past revealed estimable traits that I might have inherited: determination, resilience, compassion, and irrepressible hopefulness. My maternal grandmother was the incarnation of these traits.
An apparent visual manifestation of her African slave origins, she overcame obstacles with grace and determination. Even we grandchildren who never met her learned of her courage, exemplified by her diminutive but fierce mien. Invariably depicted as wearing long white dresses that stood out against her black skin, she preferred to carry implausibly heavy loads on her head - whether water from the well or heavy provisions for the household. She and her husband Richard had bought and settled land in the early part of the 20th century and she passed it on to her children. Accounts of her maxims and her habits inspired generations in my family to carry heavy burdens without faltering. I knew this history and understood it to be my greatest inheritance.
Thus, no matter the political or economic circumstances, even in the face of official policies that withhold truth, suppress the freedom to learn, and curtail basic rights, we possess by birthright the capacity to probe our origins, tell and receive our own stories, represent through art the truth of who we are, and ponder what our future can be. The Humanities greatly enlarge this capacity and protect the ability to see beyond measures that stifle truth and access to knowledge. If we protect and facilitate their reach deep into underserved communities, the Humanities will be a lifelong endowment to the poor and exploited that can never be taken away.
The telling of stories made available through humanistic disciplines has been central to my own growth and perspective. Whether real or invented; metered or prose; sung or recited; visually depicted or oral, storytelling can provide a meaningful context for what we see in reality and what we dream of becoming. From the invention and recounting of mythic figures that help us understand the nature of the world to the powerful figures drawn from our imagination, a vast tableau of human kind is at our disposal helping us gain perspective on human behavior and psychology. I knew from my earliest experiences with reading works of fiction and poetry that I was learning about human nature in a way that I could not extract from the segregated world that imprisoned me until I was seventeen years old, severely limiting my contact with those who were different.
It is not a surprise that when I ultimately chose a direction for my life and career, I ran headlong into the embrace of literature and language, fields that I thought might enable a greater understanding of the breadth of humanity from which I was shielded. The ability of writers to convey a vast range of emotions and intent overwhelmed me as a child and overwhelms me still. A description of a quotidian object in the hands of a creative and visionary wordsmith could provide startling insights as in this passage from Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye:
“These and other inanimate things she saw and experienced. They were real to her. She knew them. They were the codes and touchstones of the world, capable of translation and possession. She owned the crack that made her stumble; she owned the clumps of dandelions, whose white heads last fall, she had blown away; whose yellow heads, this fall, she peered into. And owning them made her part of the world, and the world
a part of her.”
Like Pecola in The Bluest Eye, I wanted to explain all that I encountered and I longed to understand the meaning of everything about me. These “codes and touchstones of the world” reassured me that I was in the world and of the world. Gaining familiarity with the space that I occupied made me curious about more distant realms. Eventually, this lead to learning about others very different from me. By embracing openness to difference, I discovered the key to confronting the racism that wounded and bound me. This openness and a fierce will to understand those different from me finally freed me of the prison of hatred and despair.
The gift of being able to embrace difference was, I believe, the most liberating gift of my young life. Discovering the interplay of perspectives and identities so different from mine empowered my life and gave me a view of the world beyond what I had first imagined. I was captivated by the unique ways that individuals expressed themselves. The body of fields that involve word craft - languages, literatures, music, theatre - are a boon to those who lack the resources to voice their claim to just treatment. Observing the ability of others to express their identity and concerns enabled me to embrace my power to do the same. I understood that through the thoughtful use of language, I could convey all that I wished: anger, love, compassion, vision and protest. I came to believe that the acquisition, rigorous practice and refinement of language skills is fundamental to a well-informed, peaceful, civil society in which individuals and groups communicate across difference and coexist with empathy, respect and shared purposefulness. Regrettably, emphasis on acquiring this capacity is perhaps most neglected and undervalued in marginalized and underserved communities where it is ironically most important.
Writers across cultures and centuries have amply demonstrated the power of language and expression to advance society and elevate the marginalized. Though born four centuries before me and a world apart from my circumstances, the French writer Michel de Montaigne had a tremendous influence on my thinking and, ultimately, on the choices I made in my life. His reasoning reached across time to help me envision how to function in the present. Reflecting upon his vision, interpretation and genre, I came to appreciate my responsibility to reflect deeply, express myself with sensitivity, and act. The use of the “essai,” combining as it did Montaigne’s unapologetic personal reactions to what he was experiencing, struck me as a supremely effective means of wrestling with the contingencies of life. Turning his inner reflections outward, he invited us into his world. If I could feel the force of his thoughts in spite of the vast cultural differences between us, how could similar efforts on my part not bridge far less daunting differences of time and culture? Through Montaigne, I found a way to see myself advancing our common task as a people and as a nation.
In many ways, my writing has tried to harness the spirit of Montaigne’s work by speaking personally to matters as they appear to me. As a college president, I communicate with my students directly, deliberately stripping away bureaucratic barriers to communicate more viscerally. Upon the death of George Floyd, I wrote a letter to my students voicing my personal reaction to this tragedy. In that perilous moment in our national life, I was mindful of Montaigne’s ubiquitous question, “Que sais-je?”. What did I know in that moment? And how did I come to know it? My students needed to experience the progression of my thoughts.
Those who insist on being uniquely and narrowly at one with their own time might miss the enriching experience of connecting themselves to the lessons of history. Seeing history evolve, one can appreciate the breadth of humankind’s journey and the power of its potential. Those ignorant of the past and its multifarious observers and chroniclers miss the deepest and most meaningful connection to what it means to be an actor in the human drama. That a nobleman so removed from my time could so eloquently relate to an isolated impoverished girl struggling to survive in the New World speaks powerfully to the call of historical accounts. Such observations of distant times can easily illuminate the present and point to a future course.
In a similar fashion, two other authors of the 16th century had an impact on my 20th century thinking, creating insights into how I might act in my own time and life. Author of La Defense et illustration de la langue francaise, Joachim DuBellay and his contemporary French Renaissance writers set forth a daring proposition in the 16th century- that the French language, then considered “vulgar” and inferior to Greek and Latin, could be refined and elevated in usage. Their manifesto struck me as a useful guide at a time when African and African American works were considered less worthy than canonically anointed texts in English and French. As I was maturing as a student of the Humanities, universities in this country were just beginning to accept the legitimacy and equality of African American and American writers. The admission of African-American students led officials to incorporate - often tepidly with an air of hauteur – courses in African-American history and culture without however acknowledging the fundamental legitimacy of study and scholarship in this field. Yet, it seemed to me that direct action to elevate the importance of study in this area was paramount to our understanding of the country we live in and to the strengthening of a common national purpose.
As a student of French literature, I also learned about steps taken by African writers Leopold Sedar Senghor and Aime Cesaire who, in the 1960’s, affirmed the need to create a unique expression that elevated their African and Caribbean culture and language. Aime Cesaire, in particular, seemed to me the ideal warrior for our times. His Cahier d’un retour au pays natal was, in essence, a manifesto asserting that only a unique language could accurately describe the culture of his native land. While masterfully using the French language, he embellished it with references and imagery that undeniably evoked his island nation and its history. Cesaire and his contemporaries repeated in the 1960’s what Du Bellay and his cohort had done for French in the 1500’s. Insisting on a language better suited to express their ideas and emotions, they extolled the beauty and utility of the language they were helping to create. Both movements gave the world exemplary works of literature.
As a college student, I was exhilarated to learn that a language praised in our times was once considered a “gutter” language and that it took the efforts of adherents of the beauty of French to press for its usage over Latin. I found the actions of such activist writers particularly instructive at a time when African and African- American culture and language was considered less worthy of admiration and study. The historic efforts of DuBellay, Cesaire and others caused me to focus on ways of elevating African-American Studies in university curricula. I came to understand not only the wisdom of valuing unique minority cultural expression in the context of dominant majority expression but also the need to advocate strongly for the value of minority cultural expression.
Much of my life’s work derives from the inspiration of similar movements. Though not an African American Studies scholar, I saw the need to advance the inclusion of Afro-American Studies in the American Studies canon. To change the way institutions perceived African American Studies, I led African American Studies at Princeton, chaired the African American Studies Visiting Committee at Harvard and, most recently, called for the creation of Afro-American Studies at Prairie View. With recent renewed challenges to the validity of studying this history, universities will need to resist a revival of the politics of hate and protect programs that address the history and culture of the groups that have created the rich tapestry of our nation. I am grateful that I encountered humanistic thinkers and writers who showed me the value of addressing falsely fabricated narratives of history that willfully exclude the perspectives of those who created that history.
I had gravitated toward the Humanities because of a deep need to understand and address my own circumstances. Whether through my readings of philosophers like Fanon and Sartre, or my familiarity with dramatists like Sophocles and Tennessee Williams, I absorbed interpretations of the will and woes of centuries of striving. That striving gave me cause to see myself in a less passive context than circumstances had ordered for me. The doing that began to shape my early life was awakened by historians, writers, dramatists and philosophers who showed me a way to deal with the issues of my time. The life that took shape as a result was not the life that was prescribed for me by the circumstances of my birth but, rather the life that was created by virtue of my gaining an understanding of what could be possible in my unique encounter with the world.
Every child needs the Humanities to build their understanding of who they are and who they can be in the world. The troubling current efforts to eliminate the encounter with aspects of history that could be unpalatable to some are deeply ignorant of the beneficial effects that such knowledge can have on a peaceful, civil society built on difference. Rich accounts of the past and powerful interpretations of the present provided me with a broad acquaintance with many facets of human history and achievement. That understanding then propelled me to formulate my own questions, seek guidance from the lessons of the past, and build a future based on hopefulness rather than despair.
Looking to the examples I encountered in the Humanities, I was able to shape a vision of what could be rather than remain mired in what could not be. I was able to appreciate the beneficial effects of reflection, self-expression and doubt. Montaigne’s question, “Que sais-je?” was a leitmotif throughout my journey. Through my encounter with the Humanities, I understood that my humanity is worth questioning, refining, sharing, and defending. I learned that it ties me to the past and to others who share the human condition. Most importantly, I grew certain that I could improve upon my contributions to the human condition by acknowledging and promoting the worth of others who differ from me. That is what I know. Thanks to the Humanities.
I leave you with a song, one from an interpreter of my culture that evokes my culture and, I hope, one that marks my path every day. It is from Sonia Sanchez’s “A Love Song for Spelman” Number 6:
Like ordained priests: ancient
Walking in precise memory.
Like ordained warriors: majestic
Amazon women planting our songs
Among the stars and on the waters.
Our songs from farms and cotton fields, from sugar
Plantations and slums.
Our songs from urban and suburban roads.
Our songs from Alabama to Georgia, Brazil, and Harlem,
Washington, D.C., and the Congo.
Our songs clotting our blood when we bled.
Our songs sweet like eucalyptus against the silence.
Our songs freezing and burning, moving out of corners.
Remaking the air.
Indeed, I would say, “remaking the world.”
Ruth J. Simmons
September 26, 2023