Simon speaks the truth for Last LectureBy Judah Martin | 04/22/2013 11:00pm
By Judah Martin
With many obstacles thrown at her throughout her life, some might say it’s amazing that Cassandra Simon grew up to receive a doctorate degree and present the 2013 Last Lecture at The University of Alabama.
For a while, things only seemed to get worse. When she was 9, Simon said her father was wrongfully incarcerated for murder, a case she described as one “full of intrigue … it’s about sex, drugs and power.”
Around age 11, Simon and her family moved into a public housing development when, after integrating a white neighborhood, their house was bombed.
To complicate matters, Simon didn’t seem to have a place with the black kids who lived in her neighborhood either. Because remnants of white ancestry dominate her appearance, Simon said her peers made it clear she wasn’t one of them.
“Growing up, sometimes I had to fight,” she said. “Some of the reasons I had to fight is because of my light complexion. The kids teased me and called me white girl, and it wasn’t meant as a compliment.”
Although she was surrounded by drug addiction, prison and prostitution, Simon credited her successes to Abraham Maslow’s theory of self-actualization, defined as the achievement of one’s full potential through creativity, independence, spontaneity and a grasp of the real world.
The first black valedictorian at her all-white high school said others in her circumstances with less favorable outcomes are not necessarily to blame for their condition.
“Some people will just tell you to pull up your boot straps,” Simon said. “But everybody isn’t given the same quality of boots or the same quality of straps.”
With two brothers who have paranoid schizophrenia and another with a personality disorder, Simon thought she would become a psychologist. Instead, she pursued social work with an intense commitment to issues of social justice, which she made clear she would be addressing in her lecture.
“I intend to speak the truth about some things,” she said. “And the truth is what it is.”
Over the next two hours of her lecture, Simon addressed issues of double standards on the UA campus, requesting the audience become aware of injustices around them.
“When I tell you that there are many people on this campus who don’t feel included, I’m telling you the truth, and we need to do something about this” she said.
Simon instructed the audience the way she would instruct her students.
“I want you to question all sources of knowledge,” she said. “Yes, I want you to question what your momma told you, I want you to question what your daddy told you … what your grandma told you, what your preacher told you, question what your teacher told you and, yes, that includes me.”
Collin Whitworth, a graduate student in communication studies and member of the Last Lecture selection committee, said Simon’s lecture was remarkably different from those in the past.
“By the nature of the Last Lecture and award, every lecture is unique and is shaped by who’s delivering it,” Whitworth said.
After listening to Simon’s lecture Utz Mcknight, professor of political science and 2009 Last Lecture award recipient, described Simon as generous and gifted.
“With this, it is a lecture to the students,” McKnight said. “A lot of people feel it should be something else. I think what all students will take away is that social justice requires the willingness to tell the truth as you see it and to be able to have a conversation about how we should live.”