Students dancing

Audience inspired to lead at annual MLK Jr. convocation

Jan 16, 2020
Kathryne Davis

Darlene DrewA moving performance from the Brenau University Department of Dance left the audience in Pearce Auditorium on Thursday, Jan. 16, simultaneously uncomfortable and moved.

Featuring student dancers, some of whom donned paper bags over their heads or signs with the names of real historic victims of lynchings, the performance was part of the annual Winter Convocation in observance of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Choreographed by Madia Cooper-Ashirifi, chair of the dance department and assistant professor of dance, it was created to educate audience members about incidents from the past and to show the struggles African Americans faced in the 1900s before — and after — King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

“Learning takes place in situations in which we are made uncomfortable,” said President Anne Skleder. “To be comfortable is to stay the same. To be made uncomfortable is to have an opportunity for growth. I was uncomfortable, and I hope that means I grew today.”

Three Students performingThe piece, which included historic images displayed behind the dancers, recognized the 400th anniversary of the first Africans to be sold into bondage in North America. Keynote speaker Darlene Drew, former warden and chief executive officer, praised the performance.

“When we take those walks through history, often times they’re painful and they make us sad. They make us mad and motivate us,” Drew said. “And they move us. As I was processing everything from the music to the dance, it left me feeling moved.”

The convocation is an annual tradition within The Women’s College of Brenau University that celebrates the lessons and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

Drew was invited to speak after Amanda Lammers, vice president of student services, heard her speak at another event and realized she had to have her talk to the Brenau students. Lammers mentioned how important is it to have a day like this to have a conversation about history and kindness.

“I’m always proud of being at Brenau,” Lammers said. “Today reminds me that I am so, so proud to be a part of this institution. It reminds me that I take for granted what a truly special place this is.”

Drew kept the audience engaged as she went through her story of growing up as the youngest of 11 children on the south side of Chicago to becoming the first and only female to serve as warden at the United States Penitentiary, Atlanta. She is an example of the convocation’s theme “Dare to Lead.”

“I believe that every single one of us have leadership in us,” Drew said. “Sometimes we’re moved to lead for different reasons. People remember those who go first and they also remember those who arrive last.”

Darlene Drew and Anne SklederAfter becoming the first member of her family to go to college, Drew decided to work in a prison. She faced doubt and discrimination in the beginning but continued to practice and perfect her skills and eventually became a warden — which came with its own struggles because of her gender. Drew related part of her story to King’s by saying that they both had to be leaders to pave the way for others.

“When I think of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s work, what he did for us and how we still benefit from it today,” Drew said, “I look at myself and say, ‘What am I doing? What can I do better?’ And I hope as we celebrate events like this, that each one of us search ourselves and say, ‘What is it that I can do better?’”

Cooper-Ashirifi said choreography was inspired by both the progress made by King and by Mary Turner, who, along with her husband and unborn child, was lynched in a horrific wave of May 1918 lynchings. The brown bags over the dancers heads were an artistic reminder of this time in American history.

“This is history being presented in an artistic fashion,” Cooper-Ashirifi said. “Art celebrates our dark history and our past.”