Smith Professor Visits MacDuffie on MLK Jr. Day

Dr. Michael Thurston address the community during a special thirty minute assembly for MLK Jr. Day.

Alana Ford

Dr. Michael Thurston address the community during a special thirty minute assembly for MLK Jr. Day.

Cassidy Polga, Editor-in-Chief

Smith English professor Dr. Michael Thurston visited the community on Monday the 18th to discuss the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and the ways the late civil rights leader’s struggle is still being waged today. In a special morning assembly, Thurston, who specializes in contemporary poetry, gave a speech which focused on three current prominent African-American artists whom he feels are continuing the work that King started. Thurston hoped to leave the school thinking in particular about two ideas that King was concerned with: how and where black bodies can exist in public space, and intersections of class and gender with race.

Thurston began by giving a brief summary of King’s work and importance, and urged the audience to consider why we celebrate MLK Jr. Day. He then read excerpts from Between The World and Me, last year’s National Book Award winner by journalist and novelist Ta-Nehisi Coates. The passages highlighted the experiences of living in a black male body, about which Coates writes “no one survives unscathed.”

The next author Thurston chose to highlight was Robin Coste Lewis, winner of the 2015 National Book Award for Poetry for her collection Voyage of the Sable Venus. From this work, which is built almost entirely on descriptions used by museums to describe art of black female bodies, Thurston read a couple of stanzas, focusing on the use of the word “negro,” which Lewis uses to reflect an awareness of the past and all that is left to improve.

The final artist showcased drew more recognition from students; the mention of hip-hop artist Kendrick Lamar elicited nods and grins. Thurston argued that Lamar’s 2015 album, To Pimp a Butterfly, is just as much a piece of art as the other two examples, and, although he couldn’t read much of the album–given our audience–he spoke about the ways in which Lamar deals with the unique journey of black male celebrities. He also drew connections between King’s work on class divisions and Lamar’s album.

The speech was brought to a close by senior and Student Body President Hiep Nguyen, who was visibly moved.  He said that while he is not American, he is no stranger to racism.  Nguyen then praised the MacDuffie community for its diversity and respect, because they are “what makes MacDuffie awesome.”

Speaking to The Magnet after the assembly, Thurston said that it is important for non-African-Americans to remember that they occupy a specific standpoint and, as allies, should prioritize listening. Asked about what he thinks is the best way to acknowledge MLK Jr. Day, Thurston saw positives to having the day off as well as holding school. He said that he “hates the thought that [the day] can become nothing” if students are given the day off, but appreciates when communities hold events, such as the banner hanging in Northampton and today’s assembly.