by Katherine Noll
February 21, 2013
Students' smiling, enthusiastic faces greeted the audience on the big screen in Lipkin Theatre, sharing their names, majors and what they hoped to be one day.
"I want to be a social worker." "I want to be a cardiologist." I want to be a police officer." "I want to be a teacher." "I want to be a dental hygienist." "I want to be a graphic designer." "I want to be a business owner." "I want to be a veterinary technician." "I want to be a civil engineer." "I want to be a nurse."
"I want to be everything!"
The students' hopes and dreams kicked off Northampton Community College's annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration on February 20. The "Faces of the Dream" event featured keynote speaker Dr. James Braxton Peterson, director of Africana studies at Lehigh University.
NCC's Community Chorus opened the program with the song "Lift Every Voice and Sing." Afterwards, the student winners of the MLK Poetry and Prose contest, Travis James and Ilsia Recinos, were announced and recited their award-winning poems.
Gregory Martin, residence hall director, introduced Dr. Peterson, describing him as a friend and a mentor.
Peterson is the founder of Hip-Hop Scholars, LLC, and a regular contributor to various types of media, appearing on CNN, MSNBC, ABC, and Fox News, among others. He is an official contributor to The Daily Beast and blogs for the Huffington Post.
Peterson said he was moved by the Faces of the Dream theme. "In the 21st century representation of Martin Luther King there is a paradigm shift of how we think of him. The national holiday, the monument in D.C., fragments from his famous 'I Have a Dream' speech give you a flat sense of the man," Peterson said, noting that some modern scholars are trying to change that. "He had challenges in his marriage; he used the N-word. He was a real person. But there is push back from those who want to protect the legacy. But protect from what? Or from whom?" Peterson asked.
Peterson cited a play, a graphic novel and an animated series that all explore the human side of King. "These give access to King's life and give people a sense of his faults and humanity. This has great appeal to our students, not because they disrespect the man or what he accomplished, but for them it is a point of entry. It makes King relatable and not just a monument or a speech. I've relaxed my own protectionist approach to MLK's legacy. He smoked, he cheated on his wife. To see the human side of King lets young people see him as a model as opposed to seeing him as a monument."
Peterson also contended that "young people are fatigued by discussions of civil rights and race relations. They need to know King also worked as a poverty and peace activist."
Peterson went on to discuss what he believes to be the three faces of King's legacy:
The First Face: President Barack Obama
"I do believe this president is inheriting the legacy of Martin Luther King," he shared. "If you could ask King, he would be pretty excited about Obama as president, even though he wouldn't agree with him on everything."
Obama, the first African-American president of the United States, most closely approximates King's legacy and dream for this country, Peterson says.
The Second Face: Hip Hop Culture
"Many of you might disagree with me on this, but you can let me have it during the Q & A," Peterson joked.
The Hip Hop culture was created by the first generation of black folks benefitting from the hard work of the Civil Rights movement, Peterson says. "While the mainstream artists glorify misogyny, violence and consumerism, beneath the surface are artists engaged in political activism."
Peterson discussed hip hop recording artist Lil Wayne, who recently came under criticism for making light of Emmett Till's tragic death in one of his rhymes. Till's brutal murder in Mississippi at the age of 14 in 1955 mobilized the civil rights movement.
"For every Lil Wayne and mainstream artist out there glorifying pathological behavior, there are Hip Hop poets/rappers/spoken word artists who are calling them out, challenging them directly and fiercely," he asserts. "But you have to look for them. They are not mainstream. You have to search to discover."
He encourages parents not to censor these mainstream artists. "Teach your children to critically engage," he says. "There is a reverence for ignorance and absence of emotional intelligence among young people. Instead of censoring, do some research. Find artists who call out the ignorance. Have them listen to those artists, too."
The Third Face: You
"Yes, YOU are the third face of Martin Luther King's legacy," Peterson told the audience. "You have to be active and engaged. Speak out. Be present in prisons and classrooms."
Peterson encouraged young people to explore the King who worked for peace and the alleviation of poverty. Peace activists are needed to help young people in inner cities, and millions of children in America do not have food security, he said.
"The legacy of King fleshed out properly gives everyone a chance to engage," he said.
The talk was followed by a question and answer session.
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