Community members gathered over Zoom to discuss MLK’s impact
Twenty-five women spoke at the event which focused on the contributions of women of color
The University held its 15th annual Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial event over Zoom on Monday, Jan. 18. Twenty-five women spoke at the event, which was themed, “As She Is Queen and King.”
Melissa Nicolas ’21 moderated the event and introduced this year’s theme. Nicolas explained that Black women and women of color have not been included in the narrative of American history, a phenomenon which she referred to as “historical amnesia.” “Women of color have been pioneers for change and champions of equality for generations, but, unfortunately, history does not want to remember us in that way,” she said. The goal of this year’s event was to honor the contributions of women of color, particularly Black women, to social progress and American society.
Rachel McAllister ’21 explained that the majority of American society opposed King and viewed him as an agitator. This has continued into the current time period where communities of color experience persecution, whether through redlining, a lack of available resources in education or one of the countless other modes of racist oppression. “Can you humble yourself to stand in the face of those who persecute you?” McAllister asked the audience. Today, Black women are increasingly at the forefront of social movements concerning issues like police brutality and voter suppression, McAllister explained. As communities of color continue to persevere in the face of opposition, McAllister said “[Black women] are now charged with the mantle of carrying Dr. King in our hearts while being queens.”
Erika Smith, Dean of Academic Services, shared her speech titled, “Teaching a Toddler King.”
Smith discussed her experience with teaching her young son about systemic racism. After buying two books about King, she explained that certain moments in the history of Black Americans were painful to teach to a young child. However, she focuses on pouring sovereignty into her son, a concept she borrows from the way her parents raised her. Smith said that her son is proud of his accomplishments and affirms himself. “It is with the same spirit that both my partner and I have encouraged many Brandesians over the years to see the majesty within themselves,” Smith said.
Vinodini Muragasan, Director of the English Language Programs, spoke on behalf of Elaine Wong, Senior Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education. Muragasan shared excerpts from King’s speech given at the National Cathedral on March 31, 1968, days before his assassination on April 4, 1968. The excerpts called on the urgency of unity and action against the “disease of racism.” Muragasan concluded with a few words from Wong: “We must all honor Martin Luther King’s memory by working for justice, peace, mutuality, human progress and a world perspective and against racial injustice.”
Elena Lewis, Director of the Student Support Services Program, began her speech singing a Civil Rights era protest song she learned as a young girl and refers to as “the anthem of [her] life’s journey.” Lewis then reflected on her experiences being the daughter of a Ghanaian immigrant, the only Black girl in her private grade school class and the first person in her family who was born in the United States to go to college. She also elaborated on her role at Brandeis providing support for students. “As you endeavor to achieve your greatest dreams, I marvel and affirm the work of each of us who work to deepen Brandeis’ push in the arc of social justice,” Lewis said to the students she works with.
Prof. Carina Ray (AAAS) invited listeners to think about what the Civil Rights Movement may have looked like had King been a woman. On a larger scale, Ray pondered what global struggles for liberation would look like if they were led by women. Ray then quoted Thomas Sankara, the leader of the August Revolution in Burkina Faso in 1983. “The revolution cannot triumph without the emancipation of women,” she read.
Zari Havercome ’16 explained that this year, in accordance with her yearly tradition to choose a word, phrase or skill to develop, she chose the word entitlement. After she spent time analyzing the definition, she realized that everything she does for herself “is in the name of entitlement.” “The world would have me believe that I am unwanted, undeserving or underqualified in many ways, and honestly, that is the biggest lie of the 21st century.” Havercome explained that she is entitled to everything, including feeling emotions, thinking critically, good health, a feeling of belonging and experiencing love. She added that this year she will begin to denounce any kind of mindset that will hinder her sense of entitlement. She ended her speech with a call to action, reminding listeners that they are also entitled to various aspects of their life.
Kathryn Bethea-Rivera, Director of the Myra Kraft Transitional Year Program, discussed the impact that this year’s theme had on her. She explained that throughout her life, she has balanced traditionally male and female gender roles, having never portrayed gender conventionally. This manifested for her in the contradictions to gender norms that some of her life’s choices brought, namely her role as director contradicting with her identity as a woman. She then examined more deeply how gender becomes more complicated when one is a person of color. “She puts others before herself, works in male dominated fields, paying a Black woman’s tax for her outward appearance, existing and being othered, being invisible yet hyper-visible,” she said. Bethea-Rivera is now making a conscious effort to create, own and occupy space for herself, and most importantly, embrace the “queenly” and “kingly” parts of her identity.
Muragasan began her own speech reminding listeners that the struggle against injustice, marginalization and inequality is not over. Muragasan explained that when this year’s theme for the MLK event was announced, she was struck by the potency of the words queen and king. While these words have historical roots associated with exclusivity, she said it was powerful to reimagine them with a sense of agency and fortitude. Muragasan also touched on the paradox of inclusivity in higher education seeing as higher education is based on exclusivity. “We have to make all higher education inclusive and we have to make sure that every woman and every woman of color in this democracy and in this University knows that they’re queens and kings,” Muragasan said.
Sonali Anderson ’22, who co-authored the Black Action Plan, shared a speech on the importance of self care within communities of color. “Doing so much, shaking so much, creating so much, carrying so much as Black women, as Black men … we sometimes forget ourselves in the process,” she said. Anderson called for Black men and women to “refocus, re-visualize and renew” while focusing on long term goals.
Monique Gnanaratnam reflected on the women beside King and the women in her personal life, composing what she called a “Love Letter to My Queens” or “sheros.” The women who came before her, she said, are the reason she is here today. “You are the measure of my character, the foundation that nimbly supports me … Your eyes have witnessed and our bodies have remembered,” she said. “You worked hard for there to be me.”
Annie Wong ’21 discussed her struggles in not embodying traditional expectations for Asian women. Wong identified that her Cantonese ancestry placed upon her many standards that she did not identify with and rebelled against. However, in the process, she pushed her own culture away, becoming a “pawn in the system,” but in this space amidst “all of these beautiful and powerful women of color,” she finds herself embracing her culture once more.
Dr. Maria Madison, Heller School Dean for Inclusion, Equity and Diversity, opened her speech with the recitation of three dates, each a century apart: 1866, 1966 and 2066. The first date was in reference to the first Civil Rights Act published in 1866 by Ellen Garrison, a name unknown to many. In 1964 another act passed, and in 1966 King advocated that “we need more than rights, we need equity.” Following this pattern, the next significant date would be 2066, but Madison hopes that we do not have to wait that long and draws optimism from the countless people who have contributed to this movement. She also attributes recent policy work under the Biden administration to decades-long work. We must continue to work towards equity, she explained, and “these promises can only come true if we as queens and kings hold our leaders accountable.”
Mariela Martinez spoke of the relationship between men and women. “They say men are the head and women are the neck that decide which way the men go,” she said. “But how can this be when one is always on top of the other?” Martinez called for the audacious hope of perseverance.
Simran Tatuskar ’21, the former Student Union president in the 2019-2020 academic year, shared her experiences as a Brown woman in higher education. Tatuskar explained that racially charged and sexist acts towards her have made her feel weak in the past. Now, however, she views these experiences as part of the reality of being a woman leader of color. Tatuskar quoted King and shared, “If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.” She added that she was grateful to be alongside women building a culture that values community and mutual support.
Dr. Aretina Hamilton — the new director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Programming, Education, Training & Development — spoke about her identities as a Black queer woman from the South.“I was born into horrors,” she said. “... [And my] parents’ ability to protect me was predicated on how they raised me and on certain environments.” She explained that her father played a very large role in deciding which spaces she could occupy. At first, she thought this was in an effort to “constrain,” but, with age, she came to the realization that her father did this to protect her from racism. “My life is a story of shifting geographies shaped by the horrors of racism and his [her father’s] cartographies.” Recently, Hamilton has shifted from going over her father’s maps and those of her childhood to the “maps of her mind,” to observe the Black women who were forgotten or cast away. We are “sacrificed. Casually erased until we’re replaced … [waiting to be the] new hashtag,” she said.
"Champion poet" Cole Rodriguez recited an original poem about identity, sisterhood and self-worth as a Black woman. “I be you, you be me, we be she and she is beautiful,” she repeatedly professed.
Prof. Faith Smith (AAAS, ENG) shared a poem by Elizabeth Alexander titled “Praise Song for the Day.”
Habiba Braimah (Ph.D) shared an original poem about the societal pressures placed on women of color. “She is queen but in this world being queen is not enough,” she said.
Gisel Ureña ’23 shared an original poem about knowing her own destiny and honoring her own resilience. “I am power, I am the true elements of life, I have always been and I will always always always remain queen and king,” she said.
Poet Laureate of Boston Porsha Olayiwola recited her poem composed for the Museum of Fine Arts entitled “Selma to Montgomery Day 1.” This is a poem ekphrasis that responds to a photo she saw of Selma.
The event closed as it began, with violin music played by Alumna Priya DeBerry. DeBerry played along to the song “Brown Skin Girl” by Beyoncé. Nicolas left attendees with a quote from King — “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about what matters.”