Dear College of Science Faculty and Staff,
In the building where I used to work, there was an alcove that was a nesting place for falcons. For a while, a falcon cam allowed community members to spy on the lovely birds even before they hatched. We saw the babies learn to pull apart a pigeon or duck their parent had provided, we watched their down replaced by big bird feathers. And we watched the adolescent falcons gearing up to fly. They would stretch their wings and run back and forth along the length of their space, getting the feel. After some days, if you were lucky, you could catch one of them standing at the edge of the alcove where it opened to the sky, flapping its wings, taking a little hop forward and then a hop back to safety. You could see the bird getting up courage, becoming brave enough to take the first flight. I never saw that but did see the nest empty next day. On the Novartis building across the street, were two falcons perching on the sign. They took off, circled and came back, maybe parent and fledgling, and the day after they were gone.
That bravery, to take your first flight is deeply biological, and evolutionarily ancient. It involves a group of brain neurons called the ventral midline thalamus. Bravery is the counterweight to fear which lies under control of a neighboring region called the amygdala.
Albert Woodfox was a person of greatest bravery. He was wrongly convicted of murder and held in solitary confinement for 43 years in a six by nine-foot cell. Together with Herman Wallace who was wrongly co-convicted of the same murder, Mr. Woodfox recounted to the Guardian: “We made a conscious decision that we would never be institutionalized. As the years went by, we made efforts to improve and motivate ourselves,” he said. The article goes on “in his 2019 book Solitary, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer prize, he gave more detail on the extraordinary strength that allowed him and Wallace … to withstand solitary. The conditions they endured have been known to cause mental breakdown in individuals within a week, let alone 40 years. Woodfox said that he buried himself in prison books, studying Frantz Fanon, Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey. He organized games played up and down the line of solitary cells by shouting down the tier or banging on pipes – that way they held maths tests and general knowledge quizzes about Black history. He was most proud of having in similar fashion taught several young prisoners how to read.
“Our cells were meant to be death chambers but we turned them into schools, into debate halls,” Woodfox told the Guardian. “We used the time to develop the tools that we needed to survive, to be part of society and humanity rather than becoming bitter and angry and consumed by a thirst for revenge.”
The bravery shown by Mr. Woodfox and Mr. Wallace surpasses most other acts of courage, and we honor them for their unimaginable strength, in the fight against the racism underlying their imprisonment.
Monday is a holiday that Northeastern University observes as Indigenous Peoples’ Day, to honor Indigenous peoples including the local Massachusett and Wampanoag tribes. There is much bravery amongst Native Americans that we respectfully acknowledge, in the past and in the ongoing struggle against continued marginalization of indigenous peoples in Massachusetts and beyond.
We are committed to the fight against systemic racism and marginalization from the College of Science and Northeastern University.
We add honor to the bravery that everyday so many of our College of Science members show. Your students giving their first public seminar or taking an oral exam. Your bravery in teaching through the pandemic, in a terrifying time. The bravery of those of you who are fighting illness, or who are supporting someone you love. The important small and big acts of bravery get us through.