Reflecting on Race and Privilege

April 7, 2015

In introducing author and activist Kevin Powell, the featured speaker at the 23rd Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Convocation on January 19, journalism professor Traci Griffith read a passage of mature insight that Dr. King wrote for his college newspaper when he was 18 years old.

“Education must allow one to weigh evidence and sift fact from fiction, to teach one to think intensively,” wrote King at a younger age than most of those filling the chapel for the convocation. “Intelligence is not enough. Character – that is the goal of education.”

Powell, a special guest on campus, delivered advice for faculty along the same lines at a noon luncheon discussing “Teaching Privilege: the Role of Academic Institutions in Preparing Leaders for Contemporary Challenges,” and later as he challenged and encouraged wider society, especially college students, during his convocation speech about the urgent need for practicing transformative love, hope and self-examination. His topic for the main event was “Violence and the Call for Accountability and Justice in 21st Century America.”

From January 19 to 23 the Saint Michael’s faculty featured activities honoring Dr. King, including panel discussions, a film and day-long faculty “Teach-In,” on the topic of privilege.

Students honored the spirit of Dr. King’s youthful advice at the Convocation, including MLK Society President Tylik Williams-Prince and Co-Vice President Elias Dean, who both spoke from the heart of their own experiences of racism, poverty, privilege and the effects of those forces on individuals and society. “If you’re not uncomfortable, you’re not learning,” Williams-Prince told fellow students. He got a standing ovation. Elias Dean told about being just a young boy when his brother was murdered in his neighborhood “and no one seemed to notice” while his agonized family felt powerless to do anything about it. “All I see is silence, then and now,” he said. “I don’t want to remain silent any more. Our silence is complicit.”

In opening remarks, President Jack Neuhauser noted the’ “long and deep” connection of the College’s founding Edmundites to King’s vision, as through Msgr. James Robinson, SSE, a prominent civil rights leader who died recently. (See In Memoriam page 36.) Moise St. Louis, director of the Center for Multicultural Affairs and a chief organizer of the week’s events, said, “Our capacity to see beyond our power and privilege determines the very quality of our humanity.”

Music included violin solos by Abbey Michelle Graham ’18 and a cappella performances of traditional hymns by Candace Washington ’16. Local poet Rajnii Eddins read from his provocative work as students staged a silent dramatic demonstration around the altar.

Powell connected with Fr. Brian Cummings, SSE, ’86 over their shared hometown of Jersey City, New Jersey. Cummings gave an opening prayer at the Convocation that featured the words of St. Paul: “over all virtues, put on love,” which was Powell’s overriding message, too, if expressed in different words:

“We gotta love, y’all, we gotta love,” he said.

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