Award-winning author Brando Skyhorse gives riveting assembly on race in America

Skyhorse encouraged Exonians to “practice empathy and fearlessness every day.”

Melanie Nelson
November 6, 2017
Brando Skyhorse approaches the podium at assembly.

Author Brando Skyhorse, whose inaugural novel, The Madonnas of Echo Park (Free Press, 2010), garnered both the 2011 PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Fiction and the 2011 Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction, gave an ovation-earning assembly talk on Friday, Nov. 3. Skyhorse, who is currently an associate professor of English at Indiana University (Bloomington), was raised from the age of 3 as Native American. Later, as a young man, he would learn that his mother had fabricated the identity when his father abandoned the family. Skyhorse and his parents are in fact of Mexican-American descent.

After reading an excerpt from The Madonnas of Echo Park, which is set in the Central Los Angeles community in which Skyhorse was raised, the author explained that he writes about “race, class and ethnicity,” subjects that are “easy for people to ignore.” The author then presented four short stories, three recounting his own personal experiences, and one specifically for students.

With a mellifluous voice, and evocative phrasing, Skyhorse launched into his anecdotes, the first set in a bank, the second at Stanford University, his alma mater, and the third in a bar. Each illustrated some aspect of his lived experience of race, ethnicity and class, and of what he sees as America’s obsession with verifying and categorizing racial identity. “Not talking about race is not an option for anyone in this country whose race is identifiable,” he said. Many students in the audience offered snaps of recognition or agreement as Skyhorse spoke.

For his culminating piece, the author encouraged students to live with compassion, to “acknowledge that different people have different realities,” and to rise above noxious forms of free speech. “Racism,” he explained, “surrenders your agency to fear. It is a point of view with no actual point.” Before students jumped to their feet to signal their gratitude for Skyhorse’s message, he concluded by urging them to “practice empathy and fearlessness every day.”

Watch Skyhorse’s assembly at Exeter Live.