“Speak Your Purpose into Existence:” Keith Hamilton Cobb’s opening remarks for Martin Luther King Jr. Day 

Students, faculty and community members filled the Peter J. Gomes Chapel to listen to welcoming remarks by keynote speaker, playwright and actor Keith Hamilton Cobb on Monday, Jan. 16.

The event was opened by Sam Jean Francois ‘23, who encouraged viewers to “take what is discussed today and place it at the forefront of your life.” President Clayton Spencer also introduced the visitor’s speech by touching on one of the day’s themes: Art and Activism. “Art is an act of making, an act of doing, and a way of making meaning,” she said.  

Before Keith Hamilton Cobb took the stage to deliver his remarks, the Chair of the Martin Luther King Day committee and Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Tyler Harper spoke on the themes of the day encouraging the crowd that “education must cultivate character.” 

Wearing a dark blazer and black hoodie, Cobb mounted the podium. With the comfort of one who is used to speaking before an audience, he addressed the crowd in a conversational tone, referring to listeners as “truth seekers,” “creatives” and “dreamers.” Cobb began by introducing himself as an actor and playwright, responsible for American Moor, a play inspired by Shakespeare’s Othello. It is a story about a Black actor navigating the famous play on their own terms, a criticism of white control over the play-making process and its limits on Black creativity. 

“It was a play that needed to be written,” Cobb stated. “Relevant theater that stirs dialogue, frightens people, and unsettles stayed structures, thought, and practice needs to be written.”

To Cobb, theater is a medium for activism, a place to fight against stifled creativity, silence, complacency and inaction. It is a mode of translation, or a filtered reflection, something that we are all a part of. Elaborating on the power of the individual, Cobb stated that the ability to affect positive change in the world can be unlocked by first looking inwards. “Realizing that you have power to change things is in itself, activism,” he said. 

Cobb explained to the audience that creative altruism is key. He defined altruism as the “selfless concern for the wellbeing of others”, and that there is a key component of self sacrifice in being an activist. Acknowledging that pure altruism is as impossible as unconditional love, Cobb stated that it is in the striving for selflessness and compassionate awareness that one can honor the true meaning of their creed and recognize their power to create change. He elaborated that audience members need to be radically introspective and self accepting. 

The keynote ended with Cobb inspiring the audience to say “yes” to engaging in difficult conversations. He also encouraged listeners to seize any opportunities they could to honor their altruistic inner voices despite consequences and despite discomfort. And with the final line of “say yes,” he was met with a standing ovation.