Last week, Willamette University held its annual Martin Luther King Jr. celebrations, which consisted of a book group, a public lecture given by Dr. Nicholas Grier, and an exhibition at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art featuring work by Arvie Smith. MLK: Into the Streets, an annual service event, was also planned to honor Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s work as a humanitarian, but was unfortunately cancelled due to the Omicron variant outbreak.
To kick off the week’s events, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration Book Group held their final meeting in a series of conversations that have been happening over the course of this past academic year. The group invited students, faculty and staff from various on-campus departments to participate in a discussion centered around the book “College Belonging: How First Year and First-Generation Students Navigate Campus Life” by Lisa Nunn.
Gordy Toyama, director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs, explained that the book was chosen for the discussion with specific consideration to Dr. King’s advocacy for many marginalized groups. The book covers first-generation students’ experiences navigating college, as well as their need for specialized community and support.
According to Toyama, the goal of the group was to open up a conversation about how Willamette can better support first-generation students, and overall “to [get us] think[ing] about current issues in our area that MLK would have focused on if he were alive today, whether that’s around issues of the LGBTQ community, the trans community, the houseless community, etc.”
This broad conversation about continuing King’s work carried over from the book group to the subsequent public lecture, “We Need Rest!” given by Dr. Nicholas Grier, an associate professor at the Claremont School of Theology, a counselor at Willamette’s Bishop Wellness Center and the founder and CEO of Coloring Mental Health Collective. The lecture was centered around some of the topics found in Grier’s book, “Care for the Mental and Spiritual Health of Black Men: Hope to Keep Going,” which was offered free to Willamette students, staff and faculty.
Grier opened the lecture with a piano piece and then went on to discuss various current issues that continually prevent Black people from being able to rest. He detailed how his experiences as both a Black man and a counselor have given him special insight into the continual unrest that Black people suffer from, and further emphasized the importance of listening to one another in order to dismantle this system of unrest.
To end the lecture, Grier shared an idea reminiscent of Dr. King’s philosophy: “You see, everyone deserves a fair chance at life, but the truth is not everyone is given a fair chance at life…However, when we dare to create a better future, when we dare to organize for a better future, when we dare to create…new pathways for everyone in the human village to flourish, we will have created a beautiful, soulful symphony of humanity.”
Willamette’s celebration week concluded with the opportunity to view an exhibition [of work] by the nationally-recognized African-American painter Arvie Smith at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art. The exhibition, “Scarecrow,” contains paintings with a wide range of themes, including stereotypes regarding Black people, historically racist cartoon characters and depictions of other injustices that Black people have faced. Smith’s figurative expressionist style, done largely in bright reds, yellows, oranges and browns, intentionally contrasts with the themes of the paintings, which aim to capture the horrors that Black people have suffered for centuries throughout the United States.
The introduction to the exhibition features a telling quote from Smith: “I speak unfettered of my perception of the Black experience. By critiquing atrocities and oppressions and creating images that format dialogue, I hope my work makes repeating those atrocities and injustices less likely. These are the reasons I paint.”
Viewers of the exhibition have the opportunity to look at over twenty of Smith’s works, as well as read several plaques describing Smith’s background, including descriptions of his work as a professor of painting at the Pacific Northwest College of Art. The exhibition also shows a [brief 2015 video interview] that Smith did with the Art Beat segment of Oregon Public Broadcasting.
“Scarecrow” is open to the public through March 26, in a move that encourages the audience to continue the conversation about advocacy and reform started during the celebration week. Indeed, Toyama said that those involved in organizing the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. week events hope that, “we don’t just do these [events] that are one off,” but rather that all the discussions that began within the book group, lecture and exhibition will continue in the coming months, with members of the Willamette community considering the people and causes that Dr. King worked so hard to advocate for during his lifetime and what actions he might take against injustice today.