Plainfield, Vermont, February 1, 2019
Patricia R. Corbett, BA, MFAIA Class of 2017
Art Speaks to the Dead the Living and the Yet to Be Born
Greetings, Brothers, Sisters, and Friends. I am indeed honored to be here today. Welcome to the family, friends, faculty and staff, and school community. I would like to start by saying that there are two people who are responsible for my presence. My Father the late Rev. Dr. Linwood Corbett, Sr., ’78 and My Mother Artist and Educator Mary Virginia Corbett, ‘81. Both are graduates of my family Alma Mater, Virginia Union University, Richmond, VA.
My Father was a civil rights activist, street preacher, baggage foreman, and janitor all while attending Virginia Union University, a small Historically Black University in Richmond, VA. A light skinned Brother who was committed to civil rights, he fought hard for himself, for his family, and for his community. My Father of mixed heritage, black, white, and indigenous, exemplified everything that the white world was telling black people we weren’t and could never be: committed to family, compassionate for community, successful in our own right and by our own definition. A hardworking Brother, in 1974 he chose to earn is bachelor’s degree at 28 years old with a wife and four children. His academic study was the beginning of supporting what the world had already taught him, shown him, and in some trying situations beat into him- life is extraordinarily difficult for a black man in this country. But he was a warrior who never gave up. Linwood Corbett exemplified civil disobedience.
While in study, my father engaged with the work of Gordon B. Hancock, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, Malcom X, Martin Luther King, Ghandi, Albert Camus, Franz Fanon, Khalil Gibran, H. Rap Brown, Stokley Carmichael, and Henry David Thoreau just to name a few. By the time he attended college he had lived through and participated in the Civil Rights era and was grounded in the belief that the liberation of black people required vision and multiple approaches. Liberation required study, hard work, commitment, confidence, impeccable work ethic, and strong spiritual belief. While working as janitor at Virginia Union and for Greyhound Eastern Lines Bus company, he studied politics, sociology, and religion.
When I inherited a portion of his vast library and read through his speeches, papers, and sermons I began to understand my Father’s plan for his wife and four children. He shared the books he studied and the philosophies he learned. He taught us lessons through storytelling, losing his eye, his friend drowning, being sent to a reform school for boys, failing English in high school because he refused to learn Hamlet’s soliloquy. (He went to Summer school.) His stories re-enforced that we finish school and stay on the path. He warned us that racism was real, multi-layered, and could not be easily dismantled despite the strides of the Civil Rights Movement. He preached, protested, loaded boxes on buses, mentored students all while scrubbing floors and cleaning the campus of Virginia Union University. As a result of his labor, all six of my family members attended Virginia Union University and five of us earned degrees in Sociology, Education, Political Science, Music, and English. All of my siblings are actors, musicians, and vocalists. My Father’s love, commitment to family, and strength was the platform from which to build my dreams upon. Being the Black girl is hard; especially when you are often the only one in the room and at the table. (Amen Dr. Jackson and Deanna) My Father and Virginia Union University gave me armor.
My Mother, an educator, poet and visual artist continues to inspire me. Her love and beautiful storytelling is incredible. As she ages I witness her resilience. Losing my Father, her Mother and Father, two of her brothers, and a sister all within a few years. She has become our family Matriarch. Strong and proud. Most importantly, her love for me and acceptance of my bow ties has sustained me through my entire artistic career.
There is a Buddhist passage about a monk who is a poet and has a garden. His love of gardening and passion for growing led him to spend more time in the garden than writing poetry. One of his friends who admired his poetry said to him, if you spend less time in your garden, you will have more time to write poetry. And he said, “If there wasn’t a garden that there would be no poetry.” My mother has been my garden, supporting me through Goddard helping me still to get out of my own way. Before I left Concord, North Carolina to come Vermont, she sent me a check, a letter that made me cry, and a membership to the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC. Registering me as a Woman in the Arts. My mother is my gift. She recently told me that as she ages, she had been exploring what she would tell the dead, the living, and yet to be born. She inspired these words. This speech.
An Artist speaks to the dead, the living, and the yet to be born. Our work is influenced, activated, and often inspired by our ancestry, our surroundings, our family, friends, and the range of emotions we experience as we engage with the world. As I listened to the graduate presentations I saw ancestors pushing you forward: Shante shared circles reflecting her cathartic experience in conversation with trees, she breathed and espoused the necessity of unthawing, re-connecting the thread, making room for grief, Jennifer sang in a voice that was inspired and divinely led by her Principle while sharing composers and musicians who inspired her work- both dead and the living. Sharon spoke of her desire to create an inclusive space for young people in theatre and showed us through improvisation that there is no script when engaging with the living. Kerrykate turned her rage into song and movement and produced an explosion of energy that celebrated being a woman and lesbian. She lifted the LGBTQ and all of the alphabets in the spectrum.
Graduates, today I offer this wisdom to you, continue to move in harmony with the world with grace and humility. It is ok to use your art as a weapon for change. The path to resistance is not futile. The riches gained may not always come to you monetarily. My father would tell you to fight the power with your work. Be a warrior. My Mother, who leads with compassion, would tell you to have a center, something that grounds you, black folks call it faith, and know that “all fruit don’t ripen at the same time”. The two of them inspired me to offer each of you a gift based on what I learned about you. Remember your work is speaking to the dead, the living, and the yet to be born. Now I offer to each of you gifts courtesy of African Americans who have inspired me.
To Jennifer a woman of Principle. I offer you The Sacred Yes; Letters to the Infinite by Reverend Debra L. Johnson. This book will no doubt support the light of principle you carry. Continue to hold that light Sister. And you are hilarious.
To Sharon feed your quest for inclusiveness and to further your understanding of black culture, I invite you to read one of my resources discovered while studying at Goddard, The Anthology of the American Negro in Theater 1967. I recognize you as an artist who seeks see herself in symmetry with others. I support your growing knowledge and encourage you to continue to lead with the spirit of inclusiveness.
To Shante I offer you Stevie Wonder’s The Secret Life of Plants and Grover Washington’s Paradise these albums will nourish your continued conversation with self and trees. I have seen you evolve into a spirit of power and depth capable of moving others. Shante Shante Shante Shante Shante.
To my dear friend Kerrykate, my Sapphic sister who advocated that I come here and deliver this message, I offer you a book sent to me by Sister artist and Goddard Alumna Mary Munson, Black Girl Dangerous by Mia McKenzie. You are a woman of rage who challenges your invisibility. As a person of color my ancestors and my people know invisibility all too well. I also invite you into a conversation and collaboration on my own work, The Perils of a Southern Black Lesbian to ready it for performance.
Please accept these gifts and travel with my warmest wishes. Today I celebrate with the four of you and cheer you to that ever-moving finish line. Pack light for your journey because your mountains will be tall and the air in high elevations requires a change in breathing. All of you are accomplished artist. I encourage you to define your own success and continue the legacy you have begun. Send messages into a universe that requires and thrives off of the energy that you channel. Continue to producing work that speaks to the dead, the living, and the yet to be born
I also ask that you never forget that you were gifted access to a faculty of artists in the Master of Fine Arts Interdisciplinary Arts (MFAIA) program who have offered an embarrassment of riches to prepare you for this journey. While you have earned this MFAIA degree and all the privileges, rights, and responsibility that comes from its conferring, someone got you here. Someone, put down their paint brush, pen, manuscript, musical instrument, activism and left their studio to hold space for you and your work. Someone held your hand, ran beside you, nurtured your soul, offered you a port in the storm, and shore to lie down when you were tired. Someone on this amazing faculty did what Dr. Gale Jackson and Pete Hocking did for me; raised the bar. Both my parents would tell you to express gratitude and keep these hardworking artist professors in your thoughts. Often they sacrifice themselves for very little monetarily. Never forget this and let them know in your own form of expression what this experience has meant to you. They were your gift.
And finally, to Goddard College. My beloved Alma Mater. Watching the graduation presentations, I recognized that this program cultivated their voices, but I was saddened when I arrived to see a once robust campus dwindle in size and lose staff who have been equally instrumental in lifting the artists at this college. I was told by more than one person; we are in the midst of a struggle. I must emphatically state that Goddard College must keep its door open. The Interdisciplinary Arts MFAIA program must grow and become sustainable for the sake of the many students who benefited from this experience and earned degrees. Goddard College has a rich history of speaking to the dead, the living, and the yet to be born. We need you Dr. Bull. With a new president comes tremendous expectation that we survive. You can lead us, but do not forget that you need us. We are the ones you have been waiting for. I encourage you to shift paradigms and redefine how to embrace, engage, and sustain this program. Alumni have more riches in talents than what is often in their pockets. We are hardworking artists and some of us have become astute entrepreneurs. We are business professionals working in education, programming, marketing, development, and sales. We can creatively problem solve and assist with building partnerships. Alumni can help to create and develop, programming, events, festivals, and retreats that move us through our fiscal challenges. We can create new opportunities to share with key stakeholders. We can assist you in finding new stakeholders. I welcome the opportunity to become a part of this process and offer my talents to you. I also call on Goddard College today to welcome back artists as the students have done for me today and create a strong bond with us that supports that the Goddard College Master of Fine Arts in Interdisciplinary Arts program continues to be a lighthouse. We are the light.
Congratulations again graduates, I wish you Godspeed. Safe travels to all present.