If you ever attended a National Council of Negro Women event, you ended up singing "This Little Light of Mine" at the end of the event. It was Dr. Dorothy Irene Height's favorite song, "This little light of mine, I'm going to let it shine". The civil rights pioneer, Fannie Lou Hamer, also loved to sing "This Little Light of Mine", and it is easy to see why. The song encompasses humility and empowerment, the recognition that each light is little, but that in choosing to allow it to shine, to amplify, it can be great. Dr. Maya Angelou wrote, "Fannie Lou Hamer knew that she was one woman and only one woman. However, she knew she was an American and as an American she had a light to shine on the darkness of racism. It was a little light, but she aimed it directly at the gloom of ignorance."
Dr. Dorothy Height and Fannie Lou Hamer embraced their light and shone it at our nation's deficiencies. On Saturday, I asked the 80 women who graduated from Bennett College how they might allow their light to shine. In so many ways, this is the issue that confronts young people, and indeed the issue that confronts us all. What is our passion? How will we transmit it? How will we let our light shine?
In the weeks since Dr. Dorothy Height's death I have been thinking of the many ways she let her light shine. She shone light on issues of equal pay, workplace inequities, global issues of gender inequity, health disparities, and other issues. And by her very presence she tackled racism, sexism, classism, and ageism, refusing to be marginalized because she was nearly one hundred years old. She didn't elbow her way to the table, but in her dignity she insisted on space. By just coming to work every day, well after the retirement age of 65, she shone her light on the capabilities of older Americans. She didn't just shine her light, she was incandescent.
This is a challenging time to claim light. The unemployment rate, at 9.9 percent, is up from last month. The African American unemployment rate is much higher, of course, and a young person entering today's job market will face nothing but challenges. Too many of our Bennett students, like students from other colleges, step away from graduation with uncertain plans. They are waiting to hear about internships, jobs, and graduate school possibilities. They are shackled by an economy that has fewer jobs available today than it did in 2003.
And yet, they have this little light, this small thing that ignites them. For that, they cannot allow circumstances diminish that light, steal their joy, and dampen their enthusiasm. The same tenacity and persistence that propelled them through graduation exercises must now also propel them into the next chapter of their lives. This is the tenacity, persistence, and perhaps incandescence that will maintain their light.
I think of light when I think of the recent passing of Lena Horne, a woman whose utter image was one of elegance and dignity. She lit up a screen, and she lit up our world, not only with her performances but also with her commitment to the civil rights struggle. She found her light and she shone her light, and in doing so, she reminds us all of what our possibilities might be.
No one else will be Lena Horne, or Dorothy Height, or Fannie Lou Hamer. Each of us has a special light that we need to claim and hold, a light we need to let shine. Tens of thousands of African American young adults will graduate during this season, tens of thousands of lights that need to shine. Those of us who are seasoned, who are elders, need to ask what we can do to ignite the light. And our new graduates must embrace and excite the light they have.
Fannie Lou Hamer so embraced her light that she endured a beating that would shorten her life. With the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, she took on Southern segregation and the entire Democratic Party when it met in Atlantic City in 1964. A warrior who wore battle scars until the end of her life, Mrs. Hamer, a native of Ruleville Mississippi spoke truth to power with no fear of consequences. She was badly beaten because she tried to register voters; she carried her injuries for the rest of her life. And yet she shone her light.
Before hotels had fire codes, some organizations lit candle to candle to signify the light that we must shine. Now we have these battery-powered things that minimize the possibility of real flame but maintain the symbolism. The fact is that we all have light, and we gotta let it shine. Kudos to the graduates of the class of 2010.
Dr. Julianne Malveaux is a noted economist and president of Bennett College for Women.