Ingram speaks on slavery and civil rights law in keynote address
On Wednesday, civil rights lawyer, songwriter and jazz tap dancer Germaine Ingram delivered the ’DEIS Impact keynote address, an unconventional artistic presentation titled “The Law and the Stage: Platforms for Pursuing Social Justice." The speech, which took place in the Shapiro Campus Center Theater, focused on the limited capacity of the legal system to consider the complex narratives that offer real insight into people’s lives, as well as on art as a means of filling that void.
Throughout the address, Ingram presented a series of musings, anecdotes and recollections, interspersed with song and dance numbers with violin accompaniment by acclaimed violinist Diane Monroe, exploring themes of social justice, equality, freedom and storytelling.
The event began with a series of introductions by Student Support Services Program Director Jennifer Morazes, Interim University President Lisa Lynch and Student Union President Nyah Macklin ’16. As Macklin stepped off the stage, Monroe walked on, carrying a violin, and began to play a brisk, jittery tune. After about a minute, Ingram danced out into the center of the stage and started to sing along with Monroe’s music, swaying soulfully.
Ingram concluded her dance to keen applause, bowed slightly, and explained that the song was about Oney Judge — an African-American slave to First Lady Martha Washington — and her relationship with Washington which was marred by the oppression Judge faced and her longing for freedom. “Human instincts for attachment and care can be corrupted and poisoned by brutal institutions like slavery,” Ingram said. She went on to talk about the importance of artistic expression in giving life and perspective to important stories like Judge’s — stories that might not be fully describable in legal language. “It could be storytelling — storytelling that builds a bridge between private longing and the outside world,” Ingram said. “Law engages in a different sort of storytelling.”
“Law,” Ingram explained, “seeks the single story. The single story that declares someone a victim or a villain, as innocent or guilty, as faultless or responsible.” Here, Ingram quoted American lawyer and social justice activist Bryan Stevenson: “We institutionalize policies that reduce people to their worst acts and permanently label them criminal, murderer, rapist, thief, drug dealer, sex offender, felon — identities they cannot change, regardless of the circumstance of their crimes or any improvements they might make in their lives. … Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”
Ingram described her performance the previous night, which channeled the internal lives of Southern women in the last year of the American Civil War. She described “a woman just learning that the scourge of slavery has been lifted,” saying,“[She is] in the grip of not knowing. She asks, ‘Can I believe?’” Here, Ingram went silent, and she began to drum her palms against the podium. Monroe returned on the violin, and after a few measures, Ingram broke into dance and then song. “Can I believe?” she sang. “Can I believe this body can be mine?”
Ingram then recounted a conversation she had a couple of weeks earlier with Director of the University’s Program in Peacebuilding and the Arts Cynthia Cohen about “whether it is possible to make institutional truth and reconciliation procedures porous to the kinds of strategies that artists use for storytelling.” She discussed the difficulty of working with narratives that “don’t fit rigid legal constructs but nonetheless need to be heard in order to increase the prospects for conflict resolution, reconciliation and peace. … We need something more than law affords to affirm our humanity. More, perhaps, than we need justice.” Again, Ingram referred to a quotation from Bryan Stevenson, who wrote, “I believe it’s necessary to recognize that we all need mercy, we all need justice and, perhaps, we all need some measure of unmerited grace.”
The presentation concluded with an interpretation of “Amazing Grace” by Ingram and Monroe, followed by a question-and-answer session moderated by Morazes. Most of the questions focused on the potential of art and storytelling to transform the presentation of narratives in the legal system. When ’DEIS Impact Core Committee Member Hannah Recknor ’19 asked Ingram whether she expected to see any progress in the legal system in accommodating more complex and human narratives, as well as what that would look like, Ingram’s answer was grim: “I am not without hope,” she said, “but it’s slim.” She elaborated that the legal system is narrowing. “We need to work hard to develop alternative systems, to develop our capacity for advocacy. … Not in my lifetime do I expect there to be major changes in the legal system,” she said. “We need to find alternative ways to resolve our conflicts, and frankly, I think that African-Americans have been too trusting in the capacity of the courts to provide us with justice and opportunity. We’re going to have to find other structures.”
After the presentation, Macklin and ’DEIS Impact Chair Lindsay Mitnik ’16 presented Ingram with a ’DEIS Impact sweatshirt — “I’ve been lusting after one of those,” Ingram joked — and a water bottle and thanked her for her address.
The speech followed Ingram’s performance on Tuesday of “Freedom Underfoot” — a song and dance piece examining the final year of the Civil War — and was part of ’DEIS Impact, the University’s annual festival for social justice.