The full video of this event will be made available online later this week.
Hundreds of people attended the Harker Speaker Series event with Dr. Michael Eric Dyson at the Rothschild Performing Arts Center on Friday night. A noted professor, preacher and author, Dr. Dyson has written more than 20 books on a variety of topics, including the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Prior to his talk, the audience was treated to performances by junior Fern Biswas, who sang an impassioned rendition of James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and the grades 7-8 dance group Showstoppers, who performed a routine to Gryffin’s “All You Need to Know.”
Sophomore Pavithra Kasthuri, the evening’s student speaker, began her speech by saying that she was “anything but hopeful” in the face rising global temperatures, increasing inequality and multiple wars. “And I’m not the only one,” she said. “The Pew Research Center reports that when asked to project the next 20 years, 66 percent of Americans believe that the U.S. economy will weaken, 71 percent believe that the U.S. will lose its power and status in the world, and 77 percent believe that there will be more political divisions.”
In spite of this hopelessness, Kasthuri said she found hope in the power of dreams. “But we know how powerful dreams can be, don’t we? We know what being at the mountaintop feels like, because we live in it,” she said, looking to Martin Luther King Jr. as an example. “He stood at the mountaintop, and he saw the promised land. And he knew that when reality didn’t look like the dream, the dream was still attainable.”
Actor, singer and songwriter Denzel Fields appeared onstage twice during the event, first to deliver a speech on the importance of speaking up about injustice: “We must speak up for those society has rejected — the innocent children neglected, the generation poorly directed, Black women disrespected. Yes, it’s up to us to correct it.” He followed with his rendition of “Glory” from the 2014 film “Selma,” and later sang Donny Hathaway’s “Someday We’ll All Be Free,” both with piano accompaniment from music teacher Susan Nace.
The Harker String Ensemble, directed by Jaco Wong, then gathered onstage to perform “Adoration,” a piece by Florence Price, the first Black woman to have composed a piece for performance by a major orchestra.
Dyson then took to the podium. After issuing many thanks to DEI director Brian Davis and head of school Brian Yeager for the invitation and acknowledging what he called the “extraordinary” performances, Dyson began his talk on the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and what he called “The United States of Amnesia,” taking aim at political figures and pundits who distorted history in their messaging.
“Now, I wanted to come here and give a lecture on Heisenberg’s beef with Einstein,” he joked. “That’s my real specialty.” However, politicians such as presidential candidate Nikki Haley and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott “are forcing [me] to give out history lessons.”
Dyson referenced Haley’s statements about the Civil War, saying, “Why we got to tell Nikki Haley that the Civil War was about slavery?” He also attacked her allegation that the United States was never a racist country by referring to Thomas Jefferson’s statement that Black people “lack a sense of harmony.”
“There’s a lot of things we lack,” he continued. “Money, resources, access to high level employment. Immunization from a strictly strategic assault upon us claiming we are plagiarists.”
He answered the latter claim forcefully, exclaiming, “You plagiarized an entire culture! You stole our labor assiduously, you stole our limbs and put them to work for your narrow purpose!”
Speaking on history’s remembrance of King, Dyson made special mention of the fact that King was not well-regarded during the height of his activism. “Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered in 1968,” he said. “The second in command of the FBI said he was the most dangerous [Black] leader in America.”
The omission of the United States’ racist history from public narrative, he said, is a “deliberate choice. It’s a deletion of history, and Martin Luther King Jr., as a symbol and a man, stands up against the horrid denial of history through which we are living.
“We have governors who are trying to get involved in determining what goes on in Black history,” he said, referencing Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ efforts to curb the teaching of Black history in schools. “He doesn’t know about the torturous journey we made over the Atlantic. He doesn’t know about the hundred million lost. He doesn’t know about how they were stuffed in cabins. “
In closing, Dyson said that acknowledging America’s history of racism is an important step in creating a better, more equitable nation. “We can have a realistic assessment of the viciousness of our practices and seek to do better regardless … of our skin tone and shade. We should all come together white and black and brown and red and yellow across the rainbow,” he said. “We are at our best forging connections and building bridges so that we are united in the effort to create a future for America that accommodates everybody, that embraces every citizen and those seeking to become one in the interest of making this nation all that it can be.”
Following the speech, Dyson engaged in a Q&A session with Davis, where they further discussed King’s life and work, including his commitment to funding the Civil Rights Movement with the money he made, how his death at the age of 39 affected his legacy and how contemporary activists such as Kwame Ture (formerly Stokely Carmichael) affected his views.
To close the event, the Festival Chorus, made up of singers in grades 9-12 and directed by Jennifer Sandusky and Susan Nace, performed the South African freedom song “Tshotsholoza” and “I Dream a World,” arranged by Andre J. Thomas adapting words by Langston Hughes.