It’s an annual event that’s both “Newark’s greatest civic ritual,’’ as historian Clement R. Price once pronounced, and one of the nation’s most enduring scholarly conferences.
For more than 40 years, the Marion Thompson Wright (MTW) Lecture Series has convened some of America’s greatest public intellectuals and historians —in addition to actresses, artists and jazz musicians — to explore Black history and culture.
The results have been as thoughtful and uncompromising as they are accessible. And that’s exactly what its co-founders Price, Giles Wright, and the MTW Study Club had in mind when they began the series in 1981. “The lectures speak with complexity and clarity to a broad public audience craving this understanding and aspiring to dream and design together,” said Jack Tchen, director of the Clement A. Price Institute on Ethnicity, Culture, and the Modern Experience, which hosts the series. “They understood the beauty and resilience of the African American spirit and intelligence. They sought historical insights that cut through the negativity and toxic dominant culture.”
This year is no exception as the MTW event, held at the Newark Museum of Art and online on February 19, focuses on artists who incorporate themes of play, utopia and performance in their work. The line-up includes Tyler Mitchell, the first Black photographer to shoot a Vogue cover, Grammy-winning jazz violinist Regina Carter and playwright Dominique Morisseau.
This year, MTW will be part of Black Portraiture[s] conference, an international series that began at Harvard University and travels to a new location each year. At Rutgers-Newark, the three-day conference, titled Black Portraiture[s] VII: Performance and Play, and capped by the MTW dialogues, will also include two exhibitions, SCHEHERAZADE TILLET: BLACK GIRL PLAY, and PICTURING BLACK GIRLHOOD: MOMENTS OF POSSIBILITY, which features more than 80 Black women photographers from ages 8 to 94.
“Every year the theme of MTW is large and inviting enough to contain the multitudes of Blackness,’’ said Salamishah Tillet, director of Express Newark, which organized the exhibitions and MTW event.
“‘Play and Performance’ captures the diversity of African Diasporic cultures, while also acting as a balm as we re-emerge from this pandemic and reimagine justice.’’
‘Play and Performance’ captures the diversity of African Diasporic cultures, while also acting as a balm as we re-emerge from this pandemic and reimagine justice.
The MTW lecture will be open to the public online. Virtual visitors can join by registering through eventbrite. The event will illuminate the same ideas woven through the exhibitions: the concept of “play,” starting with Black girls, as a way of re-imagining race, gender, history and Black futurity.
Other speakers at the MTW event, which runs from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., include MacArthur “genius” Deborah Willis, renowned scholar Dr. Farah Jasmine Griffin, visual artist Bisa Butler, museum director Linda Harrison, and Kamilah Forbes, the executive producer of the Apollo Theater.
The lecture series is named for East Orange native Marion Thompson Wright, who became the first Black historian to receive a Ph.D. from Columbia University. Her doctoral thesis, “The Education of the Negro,’’ documented school segregation in New Jersey, despite an 1881 law that outlawed racial discrimination in public schools. Her work helped to provide the NAACP with hard data in its court challenge to the “separate but equal” doctrine, which was overturned by the Supreme Court in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling.
Wright’s namesake lecture series was co-founded by 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.
Over the years, speakers have included actress Esther Rolle, jazz drummer Max Roach, Lonnie Bunch, founding director of the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture, and historians, intellectuals and leaders such as Arnold Rampersad, Nell Painter and Dr. Joycelyn Elders, U.S. Surgeon General under President Clinton. Themes have included everything from W.E.B. DuBois in Africa, the social life of African American music, beauty and the Black body, health in the Black community and prison and policing.
“The Marion Thompson Wright series is really public scholarship at its best and was conceived as a space in which groundbreaking scholarship in African American Studies and African Diasporic Studies is made readily available and accessible to the citizens of Newark and beyond,’’ said Tillet. “There are few Black history and culture lectures that have such a robust line up of speakers, scholars, and artists and whose themes speak directly to the social justice needs of our moments.”
In Newark, the conference has always held an important place in the civic, cultural and creative life of the city. “It’s been about opening the windows for fresh air to sustain community dialogues, to create a more just and inclusive Newark and Greater Newark,” said Tchen.
Added Tillet, “It is both a cornerstone and celebration, and an annual gathering in which we can learn about Black brilliance in all its manifestations and global histories together.”
The mission of the conference, and the Price Institute, is universal. “We constantly strive to inspire the best in all of us and to celebrate the magnificence and resilience of our beings–mind, body, and soul,’’ said Tchen.