Frieda Ekotto ’86

Photo by Jamie Cotten / Colorado College

Poetics of the Moment: One Breath at a Time

“And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.” - Nelson Mandela

Felicitations! Congratulations! Class of 2024!

As I reflect on my own undergraduate journey in Colorado College just like the one you have completed today, I can’t help but think of the short story by Franz Kafka entitled “The Great Swimmer.”

In the story, Kafka writes about an Olympic medal winner who returns to her homeland where she is much celebrated only to reveal that she cannot swim. You may wonder why I begin with such a puzzling contradiction on the day when we celebrate you.

This is why: The profound impossibility of the Olympic-winning swimmer who cannot swim gives us a moment of pause. The swimmer’s involvement in the Olympic Games’ clear-cut schema does not serve her – it serves the Games, but not her. How do we understand the similar deadlocks and impasses in which we find ourselves today, even amidst deep celebration? What are the poetics of this specific moment: One breath at a time!

As we navigate complex and contentious global issues, let us pause and remember that universities are spaces for learning, spaces for understanding and for respectful discourses. Therefore, I urge you to embrace the diversity of perspectives, engage in constructive dialogue, and strive to cultivate a culture of empathy, mutual respect, and inclusivity. Perhaps now more than ever, it is essential that we harness our differences and treat them as opportunities for growth, learning, and use them to foster a deeper understanding of the world around us. Just like the swimmer, we are all in different kinds of impossible positions. Regardless, there is always room for the perspective of every student who calls Colorado College their own. Poetics of this moment: One breath at a time!

Felicitations Class of 2024. Congratulations to your families, your support systems, your mentors, your professors, and to everyone who helped you along the way. The world you are facing is a very different world from the one you knew when you arrived here during a pandemic, which was turning our ways of living upside down.

In your generation, you are witnessing events that no one could have imagined. There is so much uncertainty. Things we thought were solid have been rocked to the foundations. You are being handed a world that needs you urgently. What are you going to do about it? What will be the difference you make? What will be the legacy of this graduating class?

Now more than ever before, our future depends on hard decisions you will make. Are you willing to make them? What will be your legacy? You have spent years working hard to stand here today. This moment demands that you pose with a huge smile and that you breathe.

You have flourished. You have acquired the fundamental imperatives of a liberal arts education: the ability to think critically, to fight for social justice, to implement peace, to struggle for freedom and a sustainable well-being. These are the privileges or claims or arrangements we, living in the West, all enjoy. These are the arrangements that every human being, anywhere in our planet, seeks to enjoy regardless of their nationality, origin, religion, race, gender, or ethnicity – we need to defend these privileges not just for ourselves but especially for those who, for reasons of oppression and powerlessness, cannot do on their own. The poetics of in-between moments: One breath a time!

When I arrived at Colorado College in 1983, I was without the ability to speak English. But I was determined not to settle for less than what I was capable of aiming for. I already knew that education is the most powerful weapon to change the world. My professors and classmates helped make the impossible possible by teaching me English. It was beautiful. Like Kafka’s “The Great Swimmer,” I was taking my different classes in English without speaking the language. I was in the mix of the movement – confident, but without a solid anchor. Even if I was already making history, Colorado College gave me the tools to make that history and to become the world citizen I am today, standing before you. Remember the moment is always transformative, inspiring, creative. I owe the poetics of this singular moment to Colorado College, to my professors, to all my classmates who were so kind, so patient with me: one breath at a time! 

My story begins here at Colorado College – dealing with existential challenges. I do not know what I was thinking, believe me, going to Philosophy classes with so little English under my belt. Yes, I spoke French with some of my professors but that was not the goal. Somehow in those dark moments, I kept dreaming of seeing the light of hope, I imagined speaking English as I am doing today. In my head, I kept thinking, if only I were born in an English-speaking country, but, by accident of birth, I was not. Like the swimmer in Kafka’s story, making the impossible possible – just learn English. I need it to survive, I need it to achieve my goals of becoming a writer. Poetics of my past moment: One breath at a time.

Colorado College is a special place as we all know. My alma mater, as I love to tell people. We love our classes, the mountains, the different activities, the Block Plan. Here you have been inspired to walk in great minds’ footsteps and remember that your role now is to pass the baton on to others as well as to continue to preserve what is so special about our alma mater: Colorado College. Perhaps this will be an opportunity you will search for, to find your own defining moments – I can guarantee that there have been many in your undergraduate journey here. Keep them all close to your heart as you step beyond these grounds and remember that you will return here again and again, in multiple forms and through many others. Poetics of the secure moment: One deep breath!

How do we make our world a better place for all? As you leave Colorado College, what is going to be your contribution, the poetic moment for you. I want to send you off with a message of hope, to tell you that the world belongs to you. While that may be true, and that you have to take care of it, I am in turn inspired by the world you show us you want to create, and are already creating by displaying grit, determination and revolutionary imagination. I also want to tell you that there is light, and that you hold that light in your hands. Poetics of the future moment: One breath together.

Let us remember Maya Angelou and her beautiful poem, “Still I Rise.”

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise. 

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
’Cause I walk like I've got oil wells
Pumping in my living room. 

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I'll rise. 

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries? 

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don't you take it awful hard
’Cause I laugh like I've got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own backyard. 

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise. 

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I've got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs? 

Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide. 

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.


I would like to ask you to stand up and observe one minute of silence and breathe in!



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