"What happens to a dream deferred?"
This was one of the most poignant questions Langston Hughes poses in his well-known poem, "A Dream Deferred." During the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes attempted to speak to the frustrations of African Americans and their limited rights coupled with their aspirations and dreams. It wasn't until 1963 when the Civil Rights Movement was crystallized in the March on Washington and Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech 50 years ago.
MLK Week at NYU attempted to speak to this struggle and memory by entitling a major event, "50 Years Forward: The Cost of a Dream Deferred." On February 7, I was excited to hear prominent leaders of the black community, including Susan Taylor and Rev. Al Sharpton, reflect and celebrate the life of one of America's greatest civil rights leaders.
We were welcomed by Monroe France, assistant vice president of Student Diversity. He spoke extensively on the importance of the sacrifice of those who came before us. Without them, the African American community would not be where it is today. NYU's president, John Sexton also addressed the audience by discussing what we could take from Martin Luther King Jr.'s example. He inspired many to promote change and ensure that there was liberty and justice for all, a true testament to the words of the Pledge of Allegiance.
The NYU MLK Humanitarian Award was then presented to an NYU alumnae, Natalie Holder-Winfield. She was awarded for developing new programming that promoted diversity and increased awareness regarding discrimination in the workplace. She spoke to the audience at length about the hardships that she faced as a young associate in a prestigious law firm, where her writing skills and work ethic were questioned because of her race. Her innovative programming is ensuring that employees of color are aware of their rights in the workplace and can demand to be treated with equal respect.
After a beautiful performance from the Adlib Steel Orchestra, a non-profit musical group, a few featured guests spoke. The first was Melody Barnes, whose credentials included being the Vice Provost for Global Student Leadership Initiatives, Senior Fellow at the Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service (NYU), and a member of the White House Domestic Policy Council. She reminded us that Martin Luther King Jr.'s message should not have been left in vain, that we should engender some kind of change ourselves. The next speaker, Michael Skolnik, is political director to Russell Simmons, and editor-in-chief of GlobalGrind. In a hip-hop/rap rhythm, he passionately delivered his speech about the tragic death of Trayvon Martin and showed the audience that the fight for equality is still far from over. We should continue to "climb up the mountain" in honor of both Martins: MLK and Trayvon Martin.
Michaela Angela Davis, a famous image activist and writer, spoke to the audience about the importance of the African American image in the media and at large. If we want to make MLK proud, we would do well to ensure that we are spreading positive images about the black community. She also reminded us that the main reason that people sacrificed their time and effort to attend the March on Washington was not just for equality overall, but also for employment opportunities. While we should be forever grateful to the March on Washington, Davis reminded us to remember the historical context correctly. Keith Boykin is a New York Times best- selling author and active campaign manager/consultant. He shared his experiences about knowing Barack Obama from college at Columbia and emphasizing the importance of the thread of our story as agents of change in the United States. Susan Taylor, the Editor Emerita of Essence magazine and founder of the National Cares Mentoring Movement, suggested that we should be thankful for the changes that our ancestors had wrought.
According to Taylor, "we are sitting in the shade of trees we did not plant." She stressed the importance of changing the lives of those less fortunate to ensure that children of color have the same educational opportunities as those who are better off.
The featured speaker of the night, however, was Rev. Al Sharpton. He is known by many to be another strong voice in the civil rights movement for the African American community, and is largely recognizable by his strong voice and radical opinions. He shared his stories of growing up in one of the most dangerous areas of Brooklyn and how the civil rights movement shaped his life. According to Sharpton, if we ignore the current situation of black people across America, we "become the enemies that we fight." He shared with us his frustration with the romanticization of the past and hoped that all of us would take responsibility to improve the state of minorities at large.
I left the event feeling largely refreshed and inspired, but also motivated to take action. The strength of the collective message of the event left a deep impact on me. I went back to my dorm after the event and immediately signed up on caresmentoring.org to volunteer to help out at-risk youth.
Martin Luther King Jr. was one of the greatest leaders of the 20th century. It is important not just to honor him, but his legacy of equal opportunity and equality overall. If you would like to make a difference in someone's life, please visit caresmentoring.org and type in your zip code. You will find tons of organizations and opportunities to get involved in your community. Let's not just do this in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Let's do this in honor of the current generation of students and the ones to come.