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“Curses and Prayers: On Language” By Anna Deavere Smith

July 31, 2012  • ADS Works

Curses and Prayers: On Language

Originally Given by Anna Deavere Smith as the Bacclaurette Address at Williams College, May 2012

It’s amazing to me that after all the words you have heard over the last four years, you are here for more. Seems like it’s time for a party, not more words. But then, my sense is, you all like words. And it’s my understanding that a baccalaureate is a time for yet a tad more wisdom before the big send off tomorrow.

I thank you for inviting me to partake in the richness of wisdom shared already from ancient wise men.

–Look to the rock from which we are hewn while pursing Justice

—Think about the things that are worthy of praise

–Support justice in all human endeavors regardless of the circumstance

Thank you for inviting me to hear your songs

Thank you for the Call to Prayer. I understand that this is first time in the history of Williams college that the Call to Prayer has been included in the ecumenical baccalaureate service.

The first time I heard the call to prayer was in Egypt.

I thought it was the music of the spheres. I’d never heard anything like it. I ran out of my room and through the terraces of my hotel trying to see if the world was coming to an end or to a beginning.

Do you all know the story of how the Call to Prayer came about?

I will tell you what I learned. This was told to me by Imam Abdul Feisil Rauf, a Sufi Muslim with a mosque in New York City.

The story he told me goes that the Prophet Mohammed left Mecca when there was an assassination attempt on his life – and went with his followers to Medina. And when they got there they built the first Mosque for prayer. And after having built the mosque they wondered how they would call people to prayer and they said “we can’t use a bell because the Christians use a bell, we can use a horn because the Jews use a horn – how will we- ee call the people to Prayer?” and so one of the followers came to the Prophet and said that he’d had a dream that the way the prayer should be called – is that it should be called saying the words you just heard:

‘God is most great – (slight pause – stillness)

I bear witness that there is no God but God –

I bear witness that Mo h ammed is the messenger of God.

Come to prayer –

Come to success.

God is most great.

There is no God but God.’”


Imam Feisil Abdul Rauf put it this way:

And the prophet said

Thisss is an instruction to usss.

And he asked Bee Lel (phon. for Bilal)

Who was annn

Abyssinian slave


Ethiopia –

He accepted Islam in


And his mahster


Him and

subjected him to

immense suffering

Him is ( sic for his name was ) Bee – lel (phon. for Bilal ).

He was the first African to become Muslim

Because he was in a slave inn in


And he uh

And like like

Even for today

The Africans are known for their

Musical voices

And you know

Their rhythm and blues

And soul and stuff like

He had a beautiful soul you know

So the prophet said Bee Llel

Climb to the to thee um to the roof

And call people to prayer

And make this call

People who heard it for the first time they froze

Said what’s that?

(he laughs)

They they freaked out they froze (whispering)

The fact that the call to prayer

has such a compelling –


to anybody who hears it

Is an act of grace.

It it it calls you

It calls

It calls your soul

It’s that call of the wild-

What’s the call of the wild?

It’s a sound that that that that

that your soul perks up and says

What’s- that?!!!!

It is serendipitous, that the Imam at Williams is named Bilal, and he is the first to Call the Prayer at Baccalaureate, and the story I just accounted, happens to tell us about the Bilal who first called the people to prayer in Muslim history.

What I love about that story is, Imam’s idea that “grace” is a moment when your soul perks up. But I also love the part that goes, “We can’t use a bell, because the Christians use a bell, we can’t use a horn because the Jews use a horn…”

What I love about the story is the notion of difference.

That in that holy land – where three religions converged, they needed to be distinctly different and they needed three distinctly different ways to identify the beginning of worship – the call to worship.

Now why would that interest me?

Don’t we all want to be the same? Besides, I am an actress. Don’t I long to be the same as the person I am portraying? Don’t I wish to trick you into believing I am that person, to create a unity with that person?

Actually, no. I know that I can only be me; no matter how hard I try. My work therefore is to walk the plank between myself and the other and to take the risk of a broad jump towards the other. What is required in that broad jump is love and grace.  Without love and grace, it is true that you are there and I am here and there is no meeting place.   You are there and I am here.   With love and grace, there is a meeting place. But we don’t get to that meeting place by denying difference.

So let me say something about the Broad Jump Towards the Other.

When Chaplain Spalding wrote to me – a most eloquent letter – about Baccalaureate he spoke about my work in the theater as “mirroring society”.   And the mirroring of society – comes from a clear understanding of our differences.

Or let me share with you what a physicist told me about the workings of mirrors – and about distortions in mirrors. Because sometimes a mirror can give a distorted view by reflection. Right? This is verbatim from an interview he gave me – for my early play “Fires In the Mirror.

Aaron M. Bernstein, M.I.T.:

Okay, so a mirror is something that reflects light. It’s the simplest instrument to understand, okay? So a simple mirror is just a flat, reflecting substance, like, for example – it’s a piece of glass which is silvered on the back? Okay? Now the notion of distortion also goes back into literature, okay? I’m trying to remember from art – you probably know better than I. You know you have a pretty young woman and she looks in a mirror, and she’s a witch! (He laughs) Because she’s evil on the inside. That’s not a real mirror – as everyone knows – where you see the inner thing! Now that really goes back into literature. So everyone knows that mirrors don’t distort. So that was a play, not on words, but a concept. But physicists do talk about distortion. It’s a big subject, distortions. I’ll give you an example. If you wanna see the stars —- you make a big – reflecting mirror/that’s one of the ways – you make a big telescope so you can gather in a lot of light, and then it focuses at a point.   And then there’s something called “the circle of confusion.” So if ya don’t make the thing perfectly spherical or perfectly parabolic, then, uh, if there are errors in the construction – which you can see! It’s easy if it’s huge – then you’re gonna have that circle of confusion. You see? So that’s the reason for making the telescope as large as you can!   Because you want that circle to seem smaller. And you want to easily see errors in the construction. So, you see, in physics it’s very practical – If you wanna look up in the heavens. And see the stars as well as you can, without distortion/ if you’re counting stars, for example, and two look like one? You’ve blown it!

Come with me to San Francisco in the 1970’s. I went to acting school by a fluke. I left college in an upside down time. You think this is an upside down world; my world was really upside down. I had $80 to my name and an overnight bag. I arrived in the San Francisco Bay Area, where much cultural revolution had occurred, thinking I might save or change the world. Well $80 was not going to go very far in that enterprise and besides the revolution was over when I got to California.

I wandered into an acting class and saw that people were changing—and thought, “well before I presume to change the world, why don’t I watch this kind of changing.”   I wandered into a Shakespeare class. The thrust of the class was a concept called “Speech as An Action.” The magnificent teacher, a woman named Juanita Pat Rice, gave us our first assignment: take 14 lines of Shakespeare and “say it over and over until something happened”. That was the only instruction.

I wandered into a used bookstore in a down and out neighborhood, (drug addicts, poor people, suffering people, schizophrenics. You can go to San Francisco to this day and even though the city now abounds in affluence, that particular area is still full of people who could so use the blessing and the confidence that the peace of God is somewhere with them. They could so use justice or grace.   As one woman who lives around there told me “These are the people Jesus would heal!!!”

For some reason there were many, many used bookstores in that area. And plenty of volumes of Shakespeare in those stores. Not much call for Shakespeare in the Tenderloin I suppose.

I went home clutching my new volume of Shakespeare, a rugged looking red thing that cost me $5, the cost of lunch at least.  I looked for any fourteen lines spoken by a woman and landed on Queen Margaret from the play Richard III. At this point in the play Richard had murdered Queen Margaret’s son, and the sons of others in the scene with Margaret—and so she says:

Thou hadst a Clarence too, and Richard killed him

Then forth the kennel of thy womb hath crept

A hellhound that doth hunt us all to death—

That dog, that had his teeth before his eyes,

To worry lambs and lap their gentle blood;

That excellent grand tyrant of the earth,

That reigns in gallèd eyes of weeping souls;

That foul defacer of God’s handiwork

Thy womb let loose to chase us to our graves.

O upright, just, and true-disposing God,

How do I thank thee that this carnal cur

Preys on the issue of his mother’s body

And makes her pew-fellow with others’ moan!


She continues – and I abbreviate:


“Bear with me, I am hungry for revenge,

And now I cloy me with beholding it,

Cancel his bond of life, dear God I pray,

That I may love to say, “The dog is dead.”


She is both cursing and praying at the same time. She is using speech to try to get an action, which is to damn Richard. In other words she is cursing him to death. Those are pretty strong words, filled with intention. What happened to me that night changed my life.

I said the words over and over as instructed, well into the night.

I saw Queen Margaret – right there in my little San Francisco studio apartment. She was as clear as a bell – right there, as clear to me as the tooth fairy was when I was a child with a robust imagination.

So my first acting lesson led me to see that the character, when conjured was clearly different from me. She was there in her bejeweled—shimmering, from another time, another place. I was apart, poor, current, and stunned in my little San Francisco studio. My soul perked up. To say the very least.

So an action happened to me that night by repeating words. The curse that Margaret was using was a conjuring action for me. Of sorts.   And it left me with a desire to figure out how that happened. Acting school, with a classical training regimen, actually gave me many more opportunities to curse and pray.

This sent me on a journey to find the other, to find the distinctly different from me. And to use words and speech as the way in. But the question that I had was how can words actually cause something to happen. I’ve been caught in that question ever since.

A teaspoon of wisdom:

This remarkable education you have just had has left you with some questions. Cherish them. Cherish them. It has left you with some stuff that is unresolved. Cherish it.

So I put together that question given to me by Shakespeare with something my paternal grandfather, a man with a 6th grade education who started a business with a basket full of spices that he sold on the streets of Baltimore, had said:

If you say a word often enough it becomes you.

I started a journey to absorb America, to become America by inhabiting the words – by repeating the words. I attempted to “conjure” America perhaps, the way I did the night I met Queen Margaret – and my enterprise has been especially to embody that which is different than me to see what it can teach me – what bits of wisdom I can find.

This is how far I got: After thousands and thousands of interviews, I met and engendered the trust of a right wing cowboy from Shoshone, Idaho – who in talking about bull riding – said to me:


But basically I’m an optimist.


You know, when, when you ride a bull and you do good and ride them…You feel like, you know, like there ain’t nothing in this world that could probably you know, you know, beat you up. Or anything like that you know, you just feel like life couldn’t be better, you know, like this is, that’s what life’s supposed to be. Feels, I don’t know, ‘cause there’s like so much power. You know, if you think about it, you shouldn’t be able to stay on the back of a bull that’s trying to buck you off! You know, ‘cause we weigh a hundred and fifty pounds, you know, and they weigh two thousand pounds, you know.

You feel like a king at the moment you know. Yeah, you know.


You can’t stay on top of every bull.   I think it comes from inside you, what keeps you on that bull, you know, I think it’s determination.

I mean Pat O’Mealy, my wife’s uncle, gave me my first cotton flanker rope. He always said “kid, you got more try than anybody I have ever seen.” And try and determination is the same thing. Confidence is a part of it, but I ride more out of determination than confidence. Confidence is kinda like you been on that bull before and you know you can ride eem? Confidence is kinda like bein cocky but in a good way? But determination is like ( forget ) the form get the horn. That’s what Tough Hedemin’ said. Determination is like you gonna hang on that bull even if you are ridin upside down. Determination is like you gonna ride til your head hits the back of the dirt!

Rodeo Bull Rider Brent is my true opposite. You could say that I searched for him for almost thirty years. He is distinctly different from me. I found him after thousands and thousands of interviews, basically after making a large enough telescope.  

I can never be Brent. I can only walk the plank and take a jump, take a risk that through me you will glean a teaspoon of wisdom out of his words:

One: what he calls optimism, I call hope: the reality that “we” (those who are vulnerable, yet determined, for any reason) weigh a hundred and fifty pounds and “they” (the powerful or anybody/thing that puts justice at risk) weighs 2000 pound. Yet we ride. That’s an American idea.

Two: the wisdom– that determination is more important than confidence.

Having met and walked the plank to jump and try to meet Brent, I now start every semester at New York University with the following teaspoon of wisdom to my students:

Confidence is overrated. Give doubt a try. Increase your stamina for doubt. Which will be essential as you meet the world as it is today.

When I played Nancy McNally, National Security Advisor on the TV show “The West Wing” – I would call an actual former US National Security Advisor, Sandy Berger, to give me advice from time to time about the scripts. The best advice he gave me was that as National security advisor you just never have enough information and not only do you not have enough information you may have the wrong information.

And so speaking of cowboys. And bulls. And cows. And information – I was told by Madeleine Berky, Williams Class of 2010, that what I should really do at this Baccaulareate service is to embody Eph, your purple cow. Was that the right information?

I told her I did not have a purple cow suit. Also, because I am interested in speech I asked what your Eph says, and she had no words, and when I asked if your purple cow moos, she said she didn’t think so. The best I can do to mirror you is ( ADS takes out a prop: a replica of the Williams College Mascot’s Cow Bell )

I humor you as an investment in the following: Think about enlarging your mirror to see that which is beautiful and that which is not beautiful.

As the physicist Dr. Bernstein suggests: make a large mirror.

I took my mirror to Rwanda. Some of the wisdom in what was already read today from a variety of religious heritages emphasizes the pursuit of justice. I too have been in pursuit of justice. But in my last project, having given up on justice, I started to look for grace. I turned my mirror to stories that I collected ten years after the Rwandan genocide. I found grace in a most unlikely place. Here is Ingrid Inema who was 6 years old at the start of the Rwandan genocide. She is of the Tutsi tribe, many of whom were killed in the 1990’s by members of the Hutu tribe of Rwandans. Some people were killed by neighbors, and some by members of their own families in what was variously called at the time, a war, and a genocide.

Ingrid Inema, “Grace”:

Okay. So I was six years old. I was going to seven years old. I was six and a half. I had been with my family and when the genocide started we were, you know, we, you know, separated so that we can go in different areas. Not even when you get killed, it’s not everyone at the same time.

So I was with my sister. She was ten years old. We had lost everyone by that time and we were in the maize plantation. We were just hiding there because when you go there the birds would fly or they would not or… you know… there were different circumstances that would happen. It depended on the day, but that day nothing happened. And they sent the dogs. And we heard them bark at us. And right when the dogs came, we heard like, you know, a crowd of people running after us. And when they came, we all ran their own way. I ran my own way. And my sister ran her own way. Everyone else ran their own way. We couldn’t… we didn’t say come with me or… we didn’t have time for that. And so I lost my sister and I went on my own.

I was six years old.

There was no one with me. Myself, I could not take care of myself. Yeah. I was alone except for a big, a higher power that was watching over me. I wasn’t the fastest because everyone ran and some people were killed. But I was just protected by something I couldn’t see. Yeah.

That night I wandered and I wandered and I wandered. I said, “I am alone in these bushes.” So, I started walking in the road, in the streets, the real streets. And there were road blocks there. So they would see me and say, “This kid is Tutsi.” And you know, I would not say anything; I was so afraid. And I kept walking and I found my sister the next evening at a place where they had stopped people. In the crowd, my sister was there. They were taking people to be killed and she was one of them and I was one of them. And they were like, you know, “Take her. She’s gonna be killed.” So they were taking us to a mass grave. So what they did; they would line you up, they would, you know, you would make a line, and they would, you know, cut your head, and throw you in the grave?

But that time we were lining up and right when they reached my sister like she was the next to be killed — they were like, “You know we’re tired. We’re just gonna go home and eat. You kids, you just go. You’ll be killed by, like, I don’t… You’ll be killed by sorrow.” That’s how they said. By sorrow? By hurt? By pain? We had witnessed, you know, like, fifty people getting killed! You would really think that we would be killed by sorrow, by hurt, by pain. So. And they let us go.

I had two parents and a brother and four sisters? My parents and my brother are dead. And my whole sisters are alive and me. Yeah. And just the other day I was thinking, “You know, there was this uncle, that I was, I used to think he’s my paternal uncle? But he’s really not.” And I found out a few weeks ago that not even one person in my father’s family is alive. Not even one person.

Right now, I’m at Stanford and I’m learning, I’m learning a lot. I hope… I hope I become a doctor in the future. I’m learning a lot of science, well, biology and chemistry. But also I’m learning how to think / how to hear, how to listen, and how to understand. I’m learning about myself, my best self, and my worst self. I’m learning about other people. And I’m learning also about my source, my— Rwanda and Africa. Away from it, I am learning. Learning a lot.

Grace. Grace. I’m not very sure if what I mean by grace is what you mean by grace. For example, when you asked me, “Did you forgive the people who killed your parents?” I said I forgave them but that’s not really true. Because forgiveness is something you give when you’re asked for it. When someone says forgive me, you will forgive them. But I gave them grace. I released them. I said, “You know what? You’re fine. I release you. If you come and ask for my forgiveness, I’m ready to forgive you. It’s ready for you to come and take it. But in the meantime right now, you are very oblivious and you don’t…” They don’t recognize what they’ve done. And they’re still wronging me. “Right now, I just give you grace. I release you. I’m not holding on to you in my heart.” That’s what I call grace.

In Palo Alto, you have a sister, who was six years old at the start of the Rwandan genocide, graduating from Stanford University.

When I turned my mirror, when I turned my ear to Ingrid Inema – I heard first of all – remarkable language: just listen to the following –

“you would have thought that we would be killed by sorrow, by hurt, by pain?”

And also, I was amazed at what she did to sort out her options, following the killing of so many members of her family, and Tutsi community.   Faced with the possibility of continuing the violence or even the possibility of being crippled by hatred, her recourse was to find grace and to define grace as a release: as she says of those who killed her family “I am not holding on to you in my heart.”

And so, my final teaspoon of wisdom is this:

If you will take your mirror – if you will take your ear, and turn it to someone who is vulnerable – someone who has been in a crisis, you will find that they have extraordinary resources: linguistics, imagination, sounds, gestures that they will use to restore dignity to their lives and meaning.

And that is exactly what Queen Margaret was doing when she cursed Richard. That’s exactly what I was embodying when I started on my journey – when I repeated her curse – I also was embodying her struggle, through the action of speech to restore dignity and meaning to a life shattered by the violence of Richard III.

Later in the scene Queen Elizabeth asks her to teach her how to curse.

Queen Elizabeth, who has also lost at the violent hand of Richard, begs Margaret:


“Oh thou well skilled in curses, stay awhile

And teach me how to curse mine enemies


My words are dull; Oh quicken them with thine!”


Thy woes will make them sharp and pierce like mine

I am fascinated by difference, so I fully understand that it’s not just my woes that will sharpen my words. It’s not just your own personal woes that will sharpen your words. By daring to absorb the woes of others, you can sharpen words – and try to use them for the benefit of better actions. And you can if only to use words to mirror the best and worst of our condition.

If you will turn your ear, if you will turn your mirror to a crisis and a person in crisis, you will see the action of dignity being restored and meaning being restored. It’s pretty powerful. It is usually a most extraordinary composition of sound, passion and desire for action. Your soul will perk up and say:

What’s – that?!!!!!!!!!!