Examining the dream: Exeter embraces MLK

Exonians honor the slain civil rights leader with programming titled “Changing the Narrative.”

Nicole Pellaton, Jennifer Wagner and Adam Loyd
January 20, 2020
Keynote speaker Ibram X. Kendi speaks to Exeter students.

Keynote speaker Ibram X. Kendi speaks to Exeter students.

Exeter gathered Friday to honor the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., galvanized by an all-school keynote by Ibram X. Kendi, author of groundbreaking books on racism and founding director of The Antiracist Research & Policy Center at American University.

Students, faculty and staff spent the day in workshops focused on topics of diversity, equity and inclusion. Session leaders included: Chef Kurt Evans, founder of End Mass Incarceration Dinners and co-founder of Cooks for the Culture; Janine Fondon, author and educator; Audrey Peterman, environmental consultant; Kadeine Peterson, science instructor at Exeter; Paul Tran, poet; and Michael Twitty, food writer and culinary historian.

Introducing the day, Principal Bill Rawson said, “We come together today to consider where we are in the struggle to create a more just and equitable world. A world in which every person has equal self-worth, equal dignity, and to consider our own places and our own roles in that struggle.”

PEA has celebrated MLK Day for 30 years, using the occasion to study through a variety of lenses the slain civil rights leader's message of peaceful social progress. This year's focus: "Changing the Narrative."

Keynote: How To Be an Antiracist

In a powerful keynote speech, Kendi, author of “How To Be an Antiracist” talked to a packed Love Gym about racism, antiracism and lessons we can learn from “the King they don’t teach us”: the transformation of the slain civil rights leader during the last year of his life as he perceived “a nation approaching spiritual death” against the backdrop of the Vietnam war and increasing violence and oppression in America.

Animatedly addressing the audience of students, faculty and staff, Kendi posed a basic question: “Why do we have racial inequality?”

He spoke about dueling factions in the debate regarding race in America: those who believe that there is something right or wrong with particular racial groups and those who feel that racist policies drive the inequity. Exploring examples of racism, from slavery to mass incarceration to voter fraud, he spoke at length, exploding myths with demographics and data.

“This idea that there are genetic lines we can draw around races, that doesn’t exist.” It is critical, Kendi said, for us to distinguish between the biological and behavioral sameness of all races (“Race doesn’t exist scientifically,” he averred) and cultural and ethnic difference.

“What an antiracist recognizes is that biologically and behaviorally people are people,” Kendi said. “The imperfections of groups, just like the imperfections of individuals, is precisely what makes those groups equals. When I see imperfections in you, I’m actually seeing your humanity.”

Where difference exists, he explained, is in the culture of groups, and the key is in how we approach those differences. “It’s not easy for us to just see cultural difference, but that’s what the antiracist seeks to do.” He added: “We should not be assessing another ethnic group’s culture from our own cultural standpoint because once we do that, we seem to be the most superior. If your culture becomes the standard, the normality, becomes the way humans act and behave … every other different culture is going to seem inferior.”

“We have been taught to rank difference,” Kendi said, flagging the need for change. “And not only rank it, we have been taught to either erase difference, to destroy it, to annihilate it. Or we’ve been taught that it’s critical for us to assimilate those inferior cultural beings into our world.”

Ibram X. Kendi

“The King they don’t teach”

To end his talk, Kendi contrasted a close reading of King’s thoughts at the end of his life to the view of assimilationists in America, who, he said, cast King as the leader of a march toward racial progress, anchored to King’s dream.

“This concept literally roots Dr. Martin Luther King in 1963,” Kendi said. “It imagines that he did not say on May 8, 1967 when he was talking to an NBC news correspondent … that he’s gone through a lot of soul searching and agonizing moments since his famous speech in 1963. That his old optimism, as he called it, was a little superficial and he had replaced it with a solid realism … and he candidly admitted that his dream had turned into a nightmare.”

“I would make the case that King’s nightmare was racist progress. … That there have been forms of racial progress which are undeniable, but that what has happened simultaneously is that racist policies and racist ideas have become more sophisticated, too. Have progressed, too. That is how you can still have … all these years later … widespread racial inequity.”

“This was King’s nightmare, that we don’t want to talk about because we want to focus on his dream. We should recognize progress .. and we should also recognize his nightmares,” Kendi said, as the crowd rose for a standing ovation.

Conscious cooking

Chef-activists, or “cheftivists,” Michael Twitty and Kurt Evans took to the Assembly Hall stage to dish about the ways in which food empowers, engages and enhances the liberation struggles of today. 

Rather than read from a slide deck or crafted speech, Twitty and Evans engaged students with a naturally flowing “fireside chat” that expressed their own personal, narrative stories as well as those from history. In this way, they connected the past, present and future of culinary and food justice with the Civil Rights Movement.

Michael Twitty and Kurt Evans

“We are part of a new vanguard of black chefs with an old mission,” said Twitty, an African-American Jewish author and culinary historian. “Most people look at chefs and they go, ‘they’re the service people.’ The black chefs in America, the men and women, have always been a lot more than that.”

For his part, Evans, a professional chef of 14 years, uses his culinary skills to bring awareness to the pressing social issue of mass incarcerations. He founded End Mass Incarceration Dinners to raise critical funds and acts as culinary director for Drive Change — a paid fellowship program for formerly incarcerated youth to train in the culinary arts.

His activism, he said, is rooted in family and history, including the story of one inspiring home cook’s impact on the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycotts. “You’ve heard of Rosa Parks,” he said, “but there was also Georgia Gilmore. … Georgia Gilmore started a club of other women cooks and they sold pork chops, fried chicken, fish sandwiches. They pretty much fed and funded the bus boycott movement. That’s something that’s really deep.”

The conversation was far-reaching and engaging. The pair moved between descriptions of chitlins and the slabber sauce served aboard slave ships, to the appropriation of Southern cuisine by fast food chains, the service industry’s roots in slavery, and how to make commissary cakes in prison with Oreos and packet mayonnaise.

“These connections that we talk about between food, family, race, power, hierarchy, gender, sexual orientation, etc., are very deep and they’ve always been there,” Twitty said.

Senior Mahdi Hamad, who introduced the speakers, shared his own thinking about food. “Food has always played a big part in my cultural identity. Living in America, and even living in NH, the chance to connect with people who share my culture or black folk at all, ain’t every day. Because of that, my most frequent cultural outlet that I have is cooking Sudanese food with my mom. It is because of this outlet that I hold such a strong spiritual attachment with the food of my people. The thought of other students of color like myself not having access to that outlet kinda hurts.”

Liberty and the land

Channeling Dr. King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, conservationist and author Audrey Peterman spoke to dozens of Exonians in Phillips Church about Mother Nature’s role in her personal search for the promised land and equity.

Peterman described her “experience of consciousness” and the change in her perception of herself after summiting Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park. “I thought, the same entity that made this beauty also made me,” she said of her transcendent experience. “That’s the ultimate sublime feeling of belonging and being a part of something greater than yourself.”

This transformative moment in Maine was part of a 1995 road trip that saw Peterman and her husband traverse the continental United States and also included overnights at several other national parks including, Badlands, Yellowstone and Grand Canyon. Originally from Jamaica, Peterman was in awe of the diverse natural beauty of the United States, but was let down by the lack of the diversity of the park-goers at each of their stops. The couple counted just four other African Americans within the parks during their eight-week trip.

“We saw people from Europe, people from Japan, but we saw very few black, Latino and Native American people,” she said.

Audrey Peterman

Since then, Peterman has devoted her life to inspiring people of color to visit national parks as an author, champion of African-American outdoor organizations and an advocate for the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park in Atlanta.

Peterman asked the group to brainstorm ideas on how to raise the level of awareness of the National Park System within the black community. Suggestions ranged from park sponsored hikes for children within the black community and marketing materials that featured more diversity.

In attendance was Tendo Lumala ’23 who said Peterman’s speech inspired him to want to visit the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park.

“The parks that I’ve been to, like Yellowstone, are all about the natural history of the United States, but going to one that has more of a historical legacy would be interesting to see.”