Powerful, Challenging Presentations, Performances Highlight 2019 Marion Thompson Wright Lecture
Invoking the work of the late Audre Lorde, self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,” the 2019 Marion Thompson Wright Lecture (MTW) at Rutgers University – Newark held Saturday, February 17, was a tour de force of thought, image, and performance on the theme “The Erotic as Power: Sexuality and the Black Experience.”
One of the largest and most significant Black History Month events in New Jersey, the “lecture” is more of a one-day conference, featuring multiple presenters and performers who are among the nation’s greatest minds and talents focused on issues related to African American history and culture. For 39 years, the host Clement A. Price Institute on Ethnicity, Culture and the Modern Experience, has engaged luminaries from Nell Irvin Painter, Eric Foner, Annette Gordon-Reed, Lonnie Bunch, and Thomas Sugrue to Max Roach, Esther Rolle, Deborah Willis, and Stefon Harris to not only educate, but challenge and be challenged by the Newark audience. The annual event is what the late Clement Price, co-founder of the series, referred to fondly as “Newark’s greatest civic ritual.” This year was no exception.
Price Institute Associate Director and Associate Professor of History Mark Krasovic welcomed the several hundred university and community members gathered, explaining that the MTW 2019 theme was chosen “not only because of the seemingly constant stream of reminders that sexual violence and trans- and homophobic violence—violence in its multiple forms and guises—are alive and well in our communities and our nation and world, but because we wanted to mark and celebrate, maybe also help further inform and inspire, a rising tide of struggle against them.”
That tide was evident as the audience rose reverently for gospel violinist Melanie R. Hill’s electrifying instrumental rendition of “Life Every Voice and Sing,” and then again in adulation following her soulful version of “You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman,” inspired by the late Aretha Franklin’s signature performance of the Carole King-Gerry Goffin composition.
In Hill’s wake, Jack Tchen, Director of the Price Institute, shared that when he hears the “urgent chords of freedom” of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” labeled the “Negro National Anthem” in 1919 by the NAACP, “I know that freedom song is also for me.” In powerful terms, Tchen, the inaugural Clement A. Price Chair of Public History and Humanities, articulated his profound personal connection to the “African American freedom struggles that won the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments,” and that as a “cis-male child of Chinese refugee parents growing up in the cornfields of the Midwest prairie fertilized by arrowheads and coming of age during the U.S. war in South East Asia, it was the Chicago blues coming up the Mississippi River that gave my inchoate feelings something to grab onto.” Pointing to the broader impact of the composition, he suggested, “That freedom fight song has made the genuine struggle for intellectual freedom possible—free enough for us to dig into the Eugenics Record Office archives to understand those not Christian, not Protestant, not Anglo-American, not white enough, have been walled off in the past.”
In her remarks to introduce the event’s keynote speaker, Salamishah Tillet spoke to the traditional MTW dynamic of mutual challenge, asserting that “sexuality, intimacy, and desire [are] fitting subjects to examine in this moment of deep political polarization and increasing progressive optimism, because gender and sexuality have been so tightly tethered and integral to African-American life that we would be remiss not to take on the subject wholeheartedly and with verve.”
Tillet, who is the Henry Rutgers Professor of African American Studies and Creative Writing, Founding Director of the New Arts Social Justice Initiative at Express Newark, and Associate Director of the Price Institute, pointed to the particular importance of this subject for the Newark community, where convulsions can still be felt from the 2003 hate crime that took the life of fifteen-year-old Sakia Gunn, an African-American lesbian teenager who would have turned 32 this year. “Her death spawned much action in the city,” noted Tillet, including formation of the Newark Pride Alliance, the appointment of Darnell Moore as chair of the Mayor’s Advisory Commission on LGBTQ Concerns, and memorials to Sakia including a mural by acclaimed artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh. “We carry Sakia’s spirit and legacy with us here today,” Tillet said.
With his keynote, E. Patrick Johnson brought the audience to its feet again with an exquisite blend of lecture and performance titled, “Are We Not Family? Sexuality, Citizenship and Politics in the New Black South.” Moving seamlessly from deft cultural analysis to uncannily credible impersonation, he both examined and vivified common tropes referring to LGBTQ African Americans in social contexts from church choirs to street corners. With his combination of disarming reasoning and endearing portrayal of people he has encountered through his research, Johnson, who is chair of African-American Studies and Carlos Montezuma Professor of Performance Studies at Northwestern University, compellingly articulated a hope shared with the rapt audience that LGBTQ members of all communities will be fully embraced as family in every dimension.
Acclaimed director Cheryl Dunye, who has made more than 15 films and directed numerous television episodes including two for Ava Duvernay’s “Queen Sugar” series on OWN TV, then took the stage, receiving an effusive reception as she unpacked examples of her work. An alumna of Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts, Dunye shared one of her earliest short films, “Janine,” a compelling first-person narrative that exhibits some of her now widely imitated “Dunye-mentary” stylistic elements, including tightly framed, extended shots of herself as narrator peppered with collage-like images, blurring the distinctions between real life and fiction. That film, made while she was still a Rutgers M.F.A. student, contributed to her emergence among the 1990's "queer new wave" of young film and video makers. She also shared clips from her current work titled, “Black is Blue,” which foregrounds issues of race, sexuality, and identity in an envisioned Oakland, California of the future.
The MTW afternoon session opened with Marcus Hunter, Scott Waugh Endowed Chair in the Division of Social Sciences and Chair of the Department of African American Studies at UCLA, receiving a warm welcome from a hometown audience eager to hear his thoughts on patterns and consequences of segregation and gentrification in cities across the U.S. Hunter, who was born and raised in Newark, showed why he is a sought after speaker and commentator by media outlets including CSPAN's BookTV, Talking Points Memo, The Washington Post and The New York Times in addition to academic journals, balancing trenchant analysis with humorous anecdotes in describing recent work he has done in collaboration with Zandria F. Robinson published in their book, Chocolate Cities: The Black Map of American Life, in which they disassemble myths about the American South being more segregated and less safe for African Americans than other parts of the country.
Closing the day-long program was Alexis Pauline Gumbs, who identifies as a “queer, black, troublemaker,” and currently is visiting Winton Chair of Liberal Arts at the University of Minnesota. Opening with an homage to late editor of Essence magazine Cheryll Greene for her influence on black feminism, she emphasized both Greene’s intellectual depth as a publisher of too-often unheard voices and her profound influence as a connector among some of the greatest thinkers and activists of the past 40 years. Gumbs proceeded to share a collection of inspirational thoughts from Audre Lord’s body of work, engaging the audience in an exercise she called “an oracle,” designed to demonstrate the enduring relevance of Lord’s thought for individuals contemplating how to achieve their own aspirations.
The Marion Thompson Wright Lecture series was co-founded in 1981 by the late Clement A. Price, Board of Governors Distinguished Service Professor of History at Rutgers University – Newark, and Giles R. Wright of the New Jersey Historical Commission. Over its 39 years, the series has become one of the nation's leading scholarly programs specifically devoted to enhancing the historical literacy of an intercultural community, drawing many thousands of attendees. The series was named for East Orange native Marion Thompson Wright, a pioneer in African American historiography and race relations in New Jersey, who was the first professionally trained woman historian in the United States. The lecture is always held on the third Saturday in February. The 40th anniversary lecture will be held on February 15, 2020.