A Weekend of Intellectual & Spiritual Power: 41st Annual Marion Thompson Wright Lecture Series
Through online dependency for work and connecting, I learned that the power of joining together can be more stimulating than ever before. Over the weekend, I attended a virtual conference honoring the 41st Annual Marion Thompson Wright Lecture Series, One Begins Again: Organizing & the Historical Imagination. Initially, I was skeptical about giving up my weekend morning to a jam-packed agenda and lots of speakers but as a loyal former student of Professor Jack Tchen who instilled in his students that everything is connected- I wanted to reconnect. I am so glad I did.
After logging onto the Zoom link, I was happily greeted with authentic Native American music and prayers honoring the fallen and the living spirits in the truest and most engaging way possible. We experienced the sounds and words directly from Chief Vincent Mann of the Turtle Clan, Ramapough Lenape Nation; Water Protector, and Community Organizer. I have attended plenty of events focused on cultural consciousness and they often take moments to call in the ancestors of our native lands that we have inherited. This was the first time I was able to meet and hear from a Native American survivor and leader. It was a genuine honor to be in his presence and with the spirits of his ancestors.
The conference continued with amazing and inspirational words of a politician, Ras J. Baraka, Mayor of the City of Newark, and institutional leaders such as the chancellor of Rutgers University- Newark, Nancy Cantor, and the president of Rutgers University himself, Jonathan Holloway. A participant made an explicit mention that you know this is a special moment when a university president makes time to join an event and speak. These leaders not only spoke about their investment to carrying on and fulfilling the activism of the late Marion Thompson Wright but connected to the necessary and urgent work on personal levels. Offering a glimpse into their experiences as people of color, these leaders rendered themselves human, relatable, and real. It feels like a lot of “good trouble” is not only being done but being guided, supported, and protected by these leaders.
In the panel discussion rich with opinion and range in experience and perspective, Bill Fletcher Jr. Cara Page, and Alicia Garza moderated by Barbara Ransby, dove into a nitty-gritty chat about what’s going on in our hyper-politicized and racialized America. There was a moment when it felt as though traditional theory and contemporary action were at odds but then solidarity arose through the intensity of sensitive timing. In the midst of a new presidency, criminal investigation, domestic terrorist threats, and an overdue reckoning with an enslaved history, this panel discussion was insightful and inspiring. Two quotes that I’d like to posit through these reflections are the following:
“Responsibility cannot be lost. It can only be abdicated.” -James Baldwin
“We are agnostic about power…” -Alicia Garza
These quotes led speakers to a challenging of our internal understanding of power and responsibility. Theories were set aside and humanity came to the forefront. In times where historically oppressed lives are organizing to be seen and defended, it is important to remember that actions are almost always louder than words. In the same respect, transformation comes ultimately from internalized work to be moral, just, and conscious. This work starts with words and the truth of the past. What comes next is where power and the powerful lead us to. The discussion wrapped up with a need to reckon not with just our past, but now with embracing the platforms and power we each have as individuals. Collectively we can be the change and step into a more equal and equitable future. It is each of us who holds the power but the lingering questions were- Where are we going? Who is willing to lead responsibly, reflectively, and righteously?
With big thinking to ponder, we closed the series with tears and chilling realities. Helena D. Lewis connected the pain of slavery with voter suppression to the distancing of the COVID pandemic through her poetic words and stories about her father. She rounded out the conference that centered itself with James Baldwin’s quote, “One begins again” and referred to generational tensions and cultural solidarity. Her tales of her father’s fears of voting and the current fears of COVID-19, reminded us that life is precious and we have to take care of one another. The cycle of life, of history, and of change are upon us again. We are living a moment of urgent transformation. With imagining a future, we have to define what it is we are aiming for individually and ultimately collectively.
This conference offered me a space for reaction, reflection, and feeling. I previously did not think that so much time on a virtual call could possibly hold my intellectual attention but thankfully it also peaked my spiritual attention. It was a unique experience to be in the comfort of my home being able to grab some markers and papers to create as I heard such powerful thinking and feeling. I created these small cards as I connected to historic and cultural artifacts. I hope more dialogues will spark more creation and action.
I am grateful for having experienced this event full of mental and spiritual stimulation.