January 23, 2015
The Annex rang with performance poetry by Professor Arthur Flowers during a remembrance celebration in honor of the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on Monday night. Beginning at 5 p.m., students and faculty mingled over dinner before enjoying the presentation by Flowers, an associate professor of English at Syracuse University. The dinner featured pulled pork, vegetable jambalaya, banana cream pie and red velvet cake. After about an hour, Kimberly Williams of the Days-Massolo Center introduced Professor Flowers, detailing his accomplishments as a novelist, essayist and performance poet.
Professor Flowers incorporated elements of blues music and hoodoo, a traditional African American folk spirituality, into his presentation. Accompanied by a keyboard, Flowers played an instrument called a kalimba as he spoke. He began the evening by putting on a hat hung with lion’s teeth and purifying the air using a conch shell, which were used in the Caribbean to call slaves to both work and rebellion.
“I thought Professor Flowers was a very wise, endearing man. I enjoyed his performance thoroughly because of how much emotion was invoked through the mixture of music, spoken word and singing,” said Daiyan Hossain ’18.
“It is altogether fitting we talk about the life and legacy of Martin Luther King when all over the world there is trial and tribulation and people dying,” Flowers said. He mentioned police brutality in Ferguson and Brooklyn and Boko Haram kidnappings in Nigeria as examples of the importance of continuing what Dr. King pursued.
“I grew up in the apartheid South,” said Flowers, a Memphis native. “I remember when you had to step off the sidewalk to let a white person go by, I remember having to use the ‘colored’ water fountain and sit at the back of the bus. Basically, black folks were still enslaved and it was Martin Luther King who delivered us from slavery.” Flowers discussed the significance of the Civil Rights Movement being the first revolution to be televised, and the way King wanted not only to save black people but to save all people. “It was when Martin Luther King started equating the civil rights with the struggle for human dignity, that’s when his enemies took him out,” he said.
Throughout the presentation, Flowers broke into spiritual songs like “Wade in the Water” and “Free At Last.” He told an interpretation of a traditional Brer Rabbit, tale repeating the line: “To get to the water you got to go through the fire.” He connected the fable to Martin Luther King with the themes of overcoming adversity and facing what he called “trouble.”
“I talk about trouble because everyone knows trouble. Martin Luther had a lot of trouble in his short life, but whenever trouble came his way, he turned it into strength,” Flowers said. “Things you think will break you never really do, even when Martin Luther King was killed he wasn’t really killed because people never forgot him.”
Flowers himself attended Dr. King’s last speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” at Mason Temple in Memphis the day before King’s assassination. “I recall his face was wrapped in sweat, he came to the Mason Temple and he said ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen . . . I don’t know if I’ll go there with you but we as a people are going to get to the Promised Land,’” Flowers said, emphasizing the importance of remembering such significant moments in history.
“We have been blessed because we are the strong and we are the conscious,” Flowers said. “Our responsibility is to enhance the human condition, continue the legacy of Martin Luther King and to be able to say to our children ‘I was there.’”
Towards the end of the evening, Flowers called on historical figures for strength. “I would like to ask the ancestors to be with us this evening and bless this thing we do. Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther, sit down, rest your feet, take a chair. Your legacy is in good hands, we got this.”
“I would like to commit you to the struggle and I hope you leave here with strength and confidence in the victory of all that is good,” Flowers said in closing. “In the name of Martin Luther King, may God be good to us all.”
After the presentation, Flowers answered students’ questions. “I consider myself a cultural custodian, finding the best of African American culture and sharing it,” Flowers said. He said it was particularly meaningful to share his message with student groups.
“I love talking to congregations such as this. There’s a lot of Martin in the young people today. My generation, we did what we could but now it’s your turn,” Flowers said. He said it was important to “move past protest into strategy,” saying protest means a battle has already been lost. “I’ve always been in the struggle with picket signs and riots and it’s interesting to be on the other side [of the age divide] because when we were young the older generation were telling us to sit down, we were doing it all wrong.”
“I really thought a lot about his advice on activism,” Hossain said, noting Flowers’s distinction between protest and strategy. “Maybe I don’t agree wholeheartedly with that message because I think protesting is, at the very least, a way of communicating defiance against injustice. However, I agree with him that we can do more. Specifically he advised us to strategize. So I thought a lot about what entails strategizing as someone who would like to be an activist.”
At the end of the event, a student asked whether Flowers thought young people today were ready to take up Dr. King’s legacy. “Absolutely, I cannot tell you how proud I am,” Flowers responded. “I’ve been where the young people are today, these kids are engaging in the struggle. I’ve got mad love for you because if it weren’t for you I’d feel like my life has been a waste.”