On Monday January 23 the Africana, Latin, Asian and Native American Cultural Center (ALANA) hosted an event titled “Black Love, Black Art, Black Joy: Southern Womanism Sings A New Song of the South.” During the event, Visiting Assistant Professor of Educational Studies Berlisha Morton discussed her own struggle with identity through a variety of personal accounts concerning her ancestry and her education.
This event was part of the university’s annual week-long celebration of the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Morton diligently planned her talk in a way that fused education and the arts, making use of the blend of music, poetry and dance to convey her message and the message of Dr. King more broadly.
This event was the first of what Morton hopes to be a larger performance series at Colgate. The ALANA Cultural Center was packed with members of the Colgate community who were eager to celebrate the spirit of Dr. King’s mission.
Morton began her talk by calling for a moment of silence to remember the late Assistant Professor of Educational Studies Chike McLoyd, who passed away on December 26, 2016. Morton shared a light-hearted anecdote about her colleague, remembering his quiet energy and bright eyes.
“He was the type of person I wish to be. He could immediately command your attention,” Morton said.
Morton also remarked that McLoyd constantly questioned what it meant to love teaching and challenged himself and others to be brave and take risks, embodying Dr. King’s spirit.
Following the moment of silence, Morton played a video clip of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s final and arguably most famous speech titled “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” In his speech Dr. King spoke to the undisputed freedoms of assembly, speech, press and the right to protest. In response to the clip, Morton questioned how we define the mountaintop and introduced the theme of the talk: education and her personal foundation.
“Schooling had the power to put people on the historical timeline,” Morton said.
During the presentation, Morton spoke in reference to Dr. King and other academics who, due to their exposure to a complete education, had made a significant social impact. Morton admitted she was saddened by this notion. She began thinking of her familial roots, namely her grandmother and great aunt, who, in the 1920s, were not offered access to a strong education.
“So then, is it impossible for them to be intellectuals?” Morton said.
Morton began to share with the audience her journey of finding the roots of her grandmother and great aunt’s education as well as her own true identity. One theme that Morton stressed in particular was her embracement of what she referred to as an ideology called “Southern Womanism.”
Morton defined this idea as the ontological realization that you are denied something and then have the initiative to go out and get it. She expressed this notion through an original poem, which reiterated her effort to express knowledge through art. Morton expressed obstacles she faced in trying to locate her relatives, parse through the records that detailed their educational past and handle the emotions that accompanied her journey. Throughout the poem, she continuously revisited the question of existence, asking herself if existence had to be confirmed by records and what it would mean if the records were not there.
“Southern Womanism tells me to keep on going,” Morton said.
Morton understood a shared sense of intellectuality that her grandmother and great aunt passed down to her. In taking this journey she understood education to be greatly about love. She came to this realization when she found the graves of her grandmother and great aunt, explaining how history became reality.
Following the recitation of the poem, Residential Fellow and creator of on-campus hip hop group Doin’ the D**n Thing (DDT), Chimebere Nwaoduh ’15 performed a contemporary dance to Deniece Williams’ “Black Butterfly,” continuing to weave the thread between academia and artful expression.
In the process of choreographing her dance, Nwaoduh explained her experience working with hip hop dancer Duane Lee Holland. She expressed how he considers himself an “edutainer” in that he uses dance to educate people about the history and culture of hip hop in the past and present. Nwaoduh used the content of Morton’s speech to inspire the movement she chose for the piece.
“I’ve been thinking about dance as a political vehicle, as opposed to something you just do. Dance is so much more than that,” Nwaoduh said. “[Dance] is therapy, resistance, protest, education and so much more.”
Senior Natalie Pudalov is currently in Professor Morton’s Women and Education class and commented about her reaction to the workshop.
“Professor Morton’s MLK workshop challenged me to think about what womanism and feminism mean on an individual and personal basis – how, for example, she employed both in determining her familial roots. As she got ‘lost’ in the archives searching for her family’s school records, I was similarly lost in the depths of her story. I am extremely grateful that Professor Morton welcomed us into her space to share her story with us,” Pudalov said.