Annual MLK celebration at MIT features call to confront America’s history of racism in order to move forward.
David L. Chandler | MIT News Office
At this year’s annual MIT celebration of the life and work of Martin Luther King Jr, keynote speaker Eddie S. Glaude Jr., the James S. Donnell Distinguished University Professor at Princeton University, invoked King’s memory in an impassioned appeal for confronting the realities of the United States’ history and the country’s racist beliefs and actions, in order to achieve a more just and equitable nation.
Glaude, a prominent political commentator and author of books including “Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul,” said at the Feb. 10 event that “ours is a moment shadowed by fear and ghosts. America is changing, and the substance of that transformation isn’t quite clear.” Many people are afraid of the changing demographics of the nation, what has been described as “the browning of America,” and of cultural transformations they see taking place, he said.
Some are clamoring for the “good old days” when the country looked a certain way, and divisions between various groups of people in the country today are in stark evidence. Many refuse to acknowledge “the ghosts of our past.” He said that “ours is a moment when many are running away from history. … Safety is found in the stories that tell us that America is an example of democracy achieved, that ours is the shining city on the hill.”
But, he added, “there is a different story. One that must confront who we are, if we are to be otherwise. If we are to imagine this nation anew, we have to look at the ugliness of who we are, who we’ve been, squarely in the face.”
History matters, he said, “because we carry it within us. … If we don’t tell the truth about what happened, about what is happening, if we try to forget or ignore what we have been through, we condemn ourselves to a certain extent to being moved about by the ghosts that haunt us, and left to wallow in a sea of lies.”
Recalling a speech by King, Glaude said that in the years soon after emancipation, “a kind of willful amnesia enabled the country to turn its back on the promise of emancipation and to reject the idea that Black people could be full-fledged citizens.” And now, “here we are in 2022, still fighting over the kind of story we tell ourselves about how we arrived at this moment.” Attempts to restrict teaching about the nation’s history of racism, and attempts to remove books that make some people uncomfortable about that history, shows “the nation doubling down on its ugliness.”
“We have to grapple with the late King,” said Glaude, “who looked at the ugliness of America squarely in the face and struggled to invoke a vision of how we might, could, be otherwise.” In a speech the night before his assassination, King said “We’ve got some difficult days ahead, but it doesn’t matter with me now because I’ve been to the mountaintop and I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land.”
Glaude said that “we are still in those difficult days.” Echoing James Baldwin, he said that our task is “to tell as much of the truth as we can bear,” and then a little more. “We have to tell ourselves the truth about what we’ve done and who we are.” To admit that, he said, “is to set the preconditions in place for us to be otherwise, for us to grow. Because if we refuse to admit the lies that have in so many ways shaped our formation, then we’re permanently docked in the station. … This is hard work. … We’re going to have to run toward our fears.”
Quoting Baldwin again, he said the answer to those fears “is found in the love of others. The answer is found in the love that can break the sickness at the heart of America’s darkness. … Do you have the courage to fight? Not tinker, but fight to tell the truth, and then a bit more to love fiercely? The choice is before us, it’s before you,” he said.
The annual MLK event featured tributes to five recipients of this year’s Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Awards: senior Lina Ahmed, graduate student Bianca Lepe, faculty member Nilma Dominique, and staff members Austin Ashe and Chiamaka Agbasi-Porter.
Several other members of the MIT community also offered reflections. Senior and MIT Black Students’ Union Political Action Co-Chair Brian Williams, who was recently accepted to Stanford Law School, said that “my life is shrouded in Black history, and I carry that with me every day. It’s the same armor that protects me, and weighs me down.” He said that “We need people in the field, in the classroom, in academia, to push for change. And what’s really exciting to me is that these people already exist and they eagerly await our movement. And that drives me. … I want to be an engineer of social solutions to our most pressing problems.”
Williams said he hopes to work on “envisioning new legislation, new systems that can be applied to fix those problems and liberate those communities. That’s the goal. We should want to see the end of racism and white supremacy within our lifetimes, always asking ourselves, can we create a world where marginalized communities are no longer marginalized?”
Carolyn Carrington, an administrative assistant in the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering, said that “Dr. King believed that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality.” She added that through difficult times, including through the pandemic, “The work we did created a sense of normalcy, as colleagues took the time to speak to one another, share their challenges, or offer a sense of hope. The MIT community for many became an anchor in a time of storms.”
Although these are words she wouldn’t have expected to string together, “I love MIT,” said Ufuoma Ovienmhada, a graduate student in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics and the Media Lab, and former president of the Black Graduate Student Association. She cited M. Scott Peck’s definition of love as “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.” Based on that definition, she said, “I was forced to admit that through these labors, I am committed to the spiritual, and moral, and ethical growth of MIT. And thus I do, in fact, love MIT. It’s an agape love, an ongoing, unconditional concern for the well-being of MIT, the community inside it, and those it impacts.” She added that “to love well, we must be willing to tell the truth.” In that spirit, she outlined three “inconvenient truths about the chasm between King’s values and MIT’s actions.”
First, she said, the MIT Corporation “resists any change that would redress severe power imbalances.” She described serving on committees where she was one of only a handful of students among 25 or 30 members. “At MIT, we aren’t sharing nearly enough power or responsibility,” she said. Second, the Institute’s Climate Action Plan does not include divestment from fossil fuels “that continue to produce climate impacts disproportionately affecting Black, brown, and indigenous people.” And third, though there has been progress in working with graduate students from underserved groups, this work “often moves at a snail’s pace” and “ignores inconvenient truths and inconvenient recommendations.”
She concluded that “if you love MIT too, to love well, we must be willing to tell the truth, then take palpable measures to bend the arc of MIT’s history toward justice.”
In introducing Glaude, John Dozier, MIT’s Institute community and equity officer, read remarks prepared by MIT President L. Rafael Reif. He said, “Let us take this moment to remind ourselves to bring the MIT spirit of open inquiry to our relationships with each other. Let us reject closed thinking and instead choose to broaden our horizons, to listen with compassion, and to be willing to let go of preconceived ideas, of broadening our horizons.”
Stewart Isaacs, an MIT doctoral student in aeronautics and astronautics who acted as master of ceremonies for the event, said that the theme for this year’s event is “Open your mind and heart to truth and love.” He said that at first, that “felt like a watered-down version of Dr. King.” But on reflection, he said, “living out truth and love is actually really hard. Because when you go against the power structure, there are consequences,” including the many that King himself suffered during his life, and that ultimately ended it. “In this country, speaking truth has been and continues to be something that could bring us and our loved ones a lot of harm.”
Isaac said that “We’re here today to celebrate those in our MIT community that bravely challenge the power structure to make things better for us all, often at their own personal cost. … My hope is that today’s celebration will remind us all of the power we do possess when we organize together as a community in the face of real fears.”