On a somber and snowy morning at Bates College, William Jelani Cobb took the podium in the Gomes Chapel and commenced MLK Day 2016. Cobb, a staff writer for The New Yorker, an author, and an associate professor of history and the director of the Africana Studies Institute at the University of Connecticut, delivered the keynote address, “The Half Life of Freedom.” He initiated a day of programming centered on the theme, “Mass Incarceration and Black Citizenship.”
Michael Rocque, Bates sociology professor and the co-chair of the MLK Day Planning Committee, explained the importance of this year’s theme: “First, mass incarceration and race are heavily intertwined in the United States…we are reading Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow” for our book discussion. In that book, she argues that mass incarceration is just the latest iteration of racialized social control. Further, because it is connected to crime, it is seen as ‘legitimate.’ That is, it is ‘color blind.’
“This allows the public to feel as though mass incarceration is not about race, but rather about crime,” said Rocque. “One of the goals of the day is to dispel that myth and show how race is connected to incarceration.”
Playing off of this notion, Cobb discussed the theory of relativity and that one must understand individuals in relation to other individuals. He used an analogy to Newton and Einstein, pointing out that Newton’s laws are fixed, yet the world does not work the way Newton claimed. Newton’s laws accepted gravity as a constant. One shouldn’t accept mass incarceration of black citizens as a constant or a given.
Cobb’s address was also rich with historical references and examples, supporting his point that one “needs to understand race to understand America.” Race has been imbedded in U.S. history since the nation’s founding, and America is not a post-racial society today.
Legal protection is failing a huge portion of the population. Though African Americans are no longer counted as three-fifths of a person, he explained, there is still an excess and imbalance of political representation in areas of the United States where incarcerated black individuals are not able to participate as voters.
In closing his remarks and in opening to the rest of the day’s programming, Cobb left audience members with a call to action, as they live in “a nation yet to be born, but in our hands to create.”
Notable audience members included Senator Angus King, who delivered a brief address, and students from Lewiston High School.
New to the MLK Day programming this year was a performance by Maine Inside/Out participants incarcerated at Long Creek Youth Development Center, in addition to members of the Martin Luther King Jr. Fellows, a youth development program to advance racial equity and social justice in Greater Portland.
Maine Inside/Out was founded in 2007 and uses theater as a tool for building connections and fostering dialogue amongst incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals.
Their debut performance of “Something’s Wrong Here” was a moving work meant to explore systematic racism in communities, particularly in school systems and the criminal justice system.
The performance began with actors entering the stage and naming issues and products of institutional racism that impact members of the community regularly, ending each statement with “something’s wrong here.” As one participant pointed out, the fact that this play must take place in 2016 signifies a problem deeply imbedded within the social framework.
The performance portrayed incidents of discrimination and racism in the school systems. As one example, a young African American man, Darius, is “ragged on” by the teacher for being late. His white classmate, Jimmy, is also late but given a much more sympathetic reception by the teacher.
Intermittent between the performance, participants shared poems and statistics to further highlight the reality and severity of systemic racism. One young woman read her powerful work in which she declared she would be “unapologetically black.” Others shared statistics that painted a picture of how minority students’ performance in school is impacted by systemic racism, and they noted the lack of diversity in the police forces. One interjection also emphasized that Maine has the highest poverty rate of African Americans in the country.
At the end of the performance, the actors introduced themselves and declared, “I am ready for a change.”
Of a similar essence to Cobb’s closing remarks, the events of MLK Day 2016 left off with a call for action, asking participants to carry forward the message of the day.
“The goals of MLK Day 2016 are to educate the Bates community about issues of race and mass incarceration, challenges that come with criminality, and how mass incarceration intersects with civil liberties,” Professor Rocque said. “We hope that people come away from the day questioning their assumptions about race and incarceration and with a better understanding of what needs to be done to create a more just society.”