Community members gather to honor MLK Jr.
Mark Munyi / Thresher
The Rice Black Men’s Association and Multicultural Community Relations hosted a vigil to honor and celebrate the life of Martin Luther King Jr. Jan. 14. Titled “How far have we come?” the event included musical performances, a poetry reading, remarks from President Reginald DesRoches and a keynote address by Kiese Laymon, Libbie Shearn Moody Professor of Creative Writing and English and author of “Heavy: An American Memoir.”
The vigil also included a performance of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” by Kiana Day Williams, “Lord, How Come Me Here?” by Demetrious Sampson of the Houston Opera and a poetry reading by Tamaz Young, a Wiess College junior.
While DesRoches introduced the keynote speaker, he shared a story about Rice’s first Black graduate, Raymond Johnson, whom he met last year in the fall.
“It was certainly a very different Rice in 1970. [It] was apparent to me that Dr. Johnson was resilient. He was committed to excellence and extremely courageous — attributes that are as important today as they were 50 years ago when Dr. Johnson was on campus,” DesRoches said. “He opened the doors for others who would follow him in years and decades to come, decades when progress was too slow, and at times extremely painful.
“Martin Luther King Jr. encouraged the masses to fight for civil rights; he promoted equality,” DesRoches continued. “He encouraged nonviolent activism, and he fought through education and awareness. His words have never been more important than today given the challenges facing our nation, and the world. His legacy continues to inspire people across the globe.”
During his speech, Laymon said that King’s words have the “power to build, learn and destroy,” and they should not simply be brought out every January during the holiday.
“In 2023, according to the Senate Joint Economic Committee, white families have 10.3 times more household wealth than Black families … America, the idea and the nation, has chosen not only who it wants to be, but also who it refuses to become,” Laymon said. “The nation is as proud of its settler-colonial history and precedent, as has ever been. The nation is as proud of its ability to murder, as it’s ever been. And judging by who the majority of White Americans want to preside over this nation, the nation is absolutely utterly proud of its greed.”
Despite this, Laymon said he refuses to believe that individuals in America are represented by their ability to “kill, incarcerate or own people most efficiently.”
“I believe that the height of human being in our country can be the ability to atone, to restore, to share and to vigorously admit when we have succumb[ed] to evil,” Laymon said.
President of Rice Black Men’s Association Balla Sanogo, a McMurtry College senior, said the organization wanted to host an event that was both powerful and entertaining, so they reached out to Houston-based Black performers to share their experiences and reflect on how far they’ve come.
Doyin Aderele, who attended the vigil, said she appreciated the event’s curation of speakers and performances. Aderele, a Sid Richardson College senior, said one of her favorite speakers was Laymon, who is also one of her favorite professors and writers.
“I really admire how [Laymon] acknowledges how our negative feelings really impact us as people. He said this specific line about how evil can feel powerful at times, even when you don’t intend for it to be,” Aderele said. “Especially in the world we live in now, it’s important to acknowledge how our different types of emotions shape who we are as people, and how we acknowledge those things and work to do better.”
Sanogo said he connected with Laymon’s speech and enjoyed Sampson’s performance the most.
“I think for [Laymon], the story that he told was something that I can personally relate to with my own experiences, with not only the police but the worst of the white folks in America,” Sanogo said. “[Sampson’s performance was] my first time witnessing an opera singer, and it definitely was a lot more than I was expecting.”
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