Since 1981, the Marion Thompson Wright Lecture Series has found new ways of exploring Black history and culture. The tradition continues on February 17 with “The Power of Black Voices: Afro Latin Identities in America'' or “La Fuerza de las Voces Negras: Afrolatinidades in Las Americas.’’
This year’s event focuses on an identity that often gets overlooked, especially in the U.S. where Blackness is usually associated with the history of African Americans, said Lacey Hunter, a professor of Africana Studies and Associate Director of the Price Institute on Ethnicity, Culture, and the Modern Experience, which organizes the series.
“We’ve been taught to be hyper focused on the U.S. and Africa because of the way Americans tell their story. But that’s a fractional part of that racial identity. Blackness reaches across the world and the majority of people of African descent are in South America and Central America,’’ said Hunter.
“Our program is about telling a series of historical narratives that aren’t included in Black History Month traditionally and don’t get emphasized enough. They take us beyond what we know about our culture and identity,’’ she said.
Although it features talks by nationally and internationally known scholars, the Marion Thompson Wright Lecture Series (MTW), which will be held at the Paul Robeson Campus Center from 9:30 am to 3:30 pm, has always sought to move beyond academia. In Newark, it holds an important place in the civic, cultural and creative life of the city.
The lecture series is named for East Orange native Marion Thompson Wright, who became the first Black historian to receive a Ph.D. from Columbia University. Her doctoral thesis, “The Education of the Negro,’’ documented school segregation in New Jersey, despite an 1881 law that outlawed racial discrimination in public schools.
Her work helped to provide the NAACP with hard data in its court challenge to the “separate but equal” doctrine, which was overturned by the Supreme Court in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling.
As an organizer of the event, Hunter said she has been deeply influenced by historian Clement A. Price, a founder of MTW and her professor at RU-N before his death in 2014. “I want to build on his legacy and think about memory, embodied memory. How do we recall what we’ve learned about being who we are from one generation to the next? How does it show up in our language, cultural traditions and the way we endear ourselves to each other?”
This year’s event includes presentations by Ariana Curtis, the first curator of Latinx Studies at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture; Tanya K. Hernandez, The Archibald R. Murray Professor of Law at Fordham University School of Law, as well as an author and Fulbright Scholar, and Nodia Mena, co-founder of the Afro-Latin American/Latinx Studies Project in the African-American and African Diaspora Studies Program at UNC Greensboro. Lorgia García Peña, a writer, activist and scholar in Black Latinx Studies, and co-founder of Freedom University in Georgia, will also speak.
Hunter expects their talks to cover topics ranging from anti-Black bias within Black communities, the history of colonialism within the Americas, and the importance of including the stories of Afro-Latinx people and other Black immigrant groups as part of American history.
Mena’s talk will include a performance by Bodoma Garifuna Culture Band to illustrate how cultural traditions are preserved and practiced. The Garifuna are the descendants of an Afro-indigenous population from the Caribbean island of St. Vincent who were exiled to the Honduran coast in the 18th-century and later moved to Belize.
At the MTW event, there will also be a performance of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,’’ known as the Black national anthem, by percussionist Jerome Jennings, who will re-interpret the song by adding Afro-Latin rhythms.
This year, organizers of MTW have also partnered with the SOMOS NJ Poetry and Culture Festival, organized by SASN faculty to celebrate Spanish, Portuguese and Latinx poetry. Faculty organizers include Elena Lahr-Vivaz, Jason Cortes and Jennifer Bernstein. Students throughout New Jersey were invited to submit stories and poetry.
“SOMOS does a great job of highlighting the beauty of language, so we asked students to submit literary pieces,’’ said Hunter. “We wanted to hear from students about their cultural identities, things that are a part of how they know who they are. We’re hoping to be able to point folks to a couple of those pieces on the day of MTW.’’
In addition to a lunch that features Afro-Latinx dishes, MTW guests are invited after the series to a reception at the Newark Museum of Art featuring the Bradford Hayes Quartet.