For its 40th year, the recent Annual Marion Thompson Wright (MTW) Lecture “Black Futures: What Seems to Be, Need Not Be,” honored its long history while looking to multiple futures – of the series, of the field of African American Studies, and of Black America as a social, cultural, and political formation of power – to foreground a tradition of futurism in black intellectual and cultural life, as well as how that tradition and the freedom dreams it has generated have driven movements for change.
The MTW Lecture is a full-day event featuring several speakers, panels and performers who are experts in African American history and culture. This year’s event included songwriter, producer, and scholar Jason King of New York University; sociologist Ruha Benjamin of Princeton University; and author and filmmaker, Ytasha Womack, an Afrofuturist and Independent Scholar.
This year’s lecture began with welcoming remarks from the Price Institute’s Director, Jack Tchen, followed by a land blessing provided by Chief Vincent Mann, Turtle Clan of the Ramapough Lenape Nation, acknowledging that they were the first peoples to live in what is now Newark, NJ.
It was followed by a performance of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” by vocalist A-Larenée Davis accompanied by Sterling Overshown on piano.
Newark Mayor Ras Baraka continued the theme of weaving past and present by telling the audience that “What you want to build in the future should be informed by the struggles of the present and the history of all those that got you here today.”
Chancellor Nancy Cantor continued the thread by exhorting the academics and students and members of the audience to “use our tools of technology and humanities to shake things up from what they are, to what they should be.”
Ten years ago, the thirtieth anniversary of the series looked back to take stock of its history and that of the field in which it works. For this anniversary, it brought back three of the early MTW Study Club members – Mary Sue Sweeney Price, Larry Greene, and Leonard Muse, who reminisced over their favorite moments of the early days of the series, while looking forward to how the series might more fully and meaningfully participate in bringing about a more just and inclusive future.
The first guest speaker of the day, Ruha Benjamin, author of “The New Jim Code? Reimagining the Default Settings of Technology and Society”, spoke about her research on bias inherent in AI and other technologies, giving extensive examples from around the world and in the U.S. “People think technology will either slay us – Hollywood loves that trope – or save us, like those who work in Silicon Valley,” she stated, “but technology is designed by people who embed their values into it.” Benjamin spoke of the dangers of using “social credit” systems like those used in China, and how those systems do more to reinforce the ideology of the dominant group than to bring about any kind of better society. She asked the audience, “how do we deal with technologies that unwittingly encourage racist and discriminatory practices through their algorithms?” Benjamin went on to cite how the tech workers themselves can help fight against these systems and mentioned that workers at places like Amazon and Microsoft successfully organized against the use of their tech for purposes they found morally objectionable. Her final slide was a proposition to everyone in the audience: “If inequity is woven into the very fabric of society then each twist, coil, and code is a chance for us to weave new patterns, practices, politics. Its vastness will be its undoing once we accept that we are the pattern makers.”
The afternoon sessions opened with the presentation of the Giles R. Wright Award, given each year and named in honor of the Director of the Afro-American History Program at the New Jersey Historical Commission who passed away in February 2009. Larry Greene of the NJ Historical Commission presented the award this year to the Newark Public Library for an exhibit marking 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment titled: African American Women’s Suffrage Exhibit: Fighting for Power and the Right to Vote.
The day continued with filmmaker and leading expert on Afrofuturism, Ytasha Womack, who spoke about using “Afrofuturism as a Creative Tool for Transformation.” In defining “afrofuturism”, Womack said it is “a way of looking at the future and alternate realities through a black cultural lens.
Womack, who is also a dance therapist, considers her role as a writer and a dancer as intertwined: “It’s storytelling, but also pattern-spotting. It’s creating a space.” She went on to add that while there is intelligence in the mind, there is also “wisdom and intelligence in the body that we must value.”
The final speaker of the day was Jason King, songwriter, producer and scholar at New York University. His talk entitled “A Brief History of Black Musicians Feeling the Future, from Thelonious Monk and Prince to Missy Elliott and Frank Ocean” spoke of the possibilities black music offers for the future through what he called its bent for ‘getting togetherness’ – prioritizing collaborations and dialogue. “Art proffers us the vision for a future we can’t yet imagine,” King said, “Black musicians feel the future.”
When introducing the “Black Futures” guest speakers, the Price Institute’s Associate Director Salamishah Tillet said, “to dream of an ideal world is one thing. To plan, strategize, and execute it as a reality is far more challenging.” Every year, hundreds come together at MTW to do just that.
Video Footage from the 2020 MTW Lectures:
The Annual Marion Thompson Wright Lecture (MTW) series was co-founded in 1981 by Dr. Price and the late Giles R. Wright, who served many years as the inaugural director of the Afro-American History Program at the New Jersey Historical Commission. Mounted in observance of Black History Month in New Jersey, the MTW Series is one of the nation’s most remarkable and longest running scholarly conference series devoted to the historical literacy of a community. Diverse, civically engaging, and a contribution to life-long learning, the MTW Series has brought to Newark some of the nation’s most significant scholars. They include former Surgeon General of the United States under President Clinton, Dr. Joycelyn Elders, Pulitzer Prize winning historian and legal scholar Professor Annette Gordon Reed, Deborah Willis, Sterling Stuckey, Eric Foner, Lonnie Bunch, David Blight, and Nell Painter, among many others. The 30th anniversary conference in 2010, Laboring in the Vineyard: Citizenship and Scholarship, a two-day program, drew over a thousand citizens to the Paul Robeson Campus Center on the Newark Campus.
All photos by Fred Stucker.