Becoming the Beloved: Bridging the Communities
Even with our relative geographic isolation, Tuskegee University students know they are not separate from the world; many of us do our shopping outside of town, go to restaurants, then return back to our familiar campus. Yet, our community is closer and more similar to others than many of us may realize. Only by comparing our community with others, we can begin to appreciate our own. This was a central theme explored through “Becoming the Beloved Community” program – a dialogue-based artistic-cultural conference bringing together members of a diverse set of local communities.
Dr. Joan Harrell, a Journalism Professor and Diversity Officer in the College of Liberal Arts at Auburn University, is the founder of Becoming the Beloved Community. The title comes from a famous Dr. Martin Luther King Jr quote in which he says “our goal is to create a beloved community, and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives.” This program required introspection and reflection from each of the audience members as well as from the participants. Dr. Harrell’s program created a safe space for everyone to speak truthfully and to have productive dialogue with one another. With a humble and gentle spirit, Dr. Harrell aimed for the program to yield “authentic conversations.”
The program spanned over two days – April 4 and 5, 2022; and hosted a plethora of events. The first day included a panel around the theme of “Where Do We Go from Here: Race, Representation, and Community” and was held in the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art. The panel represented a diverse group, consisting of four women and one man. Three of the women were of color. The participants were Dr. Chippewa Thomas, Dr. Elijah Gaddis, Dr. Linda Gibson-Young, The Auburn Plainsman’s News Editor, My Ly, and Dr. Virginia Sánchez. They each provided distinct and important answers to the panel’s central question. Dr. Gaddis’ research focuses on elements of the American South. He showed the audience a picture of a lynching postcard stating that “objects and images have power.” These objects, Dr. Gaddis says, are a “witness” to the unimaginable pain of this country’s history.
Dr. Sánchez focused on immigrant communities, specifically the relationships between parents and their children. She explored pressures and expectations placed on immigrants; they are expected to be “patriotic … and perfect” which are expectations not placed on native-born citizens. In this way, communities can often be defined by external communities and not by themselves. My Ly explained how she is able to relate to this topic. She brings up her experience as a person of color at a Predominantly White Institution (PWI) saying there is a “looming presence of tokensim.” As a news editor, she says there is often a disconnect with being an Asian American writer: there is sometimes a “fear of writing on behalf of the Asian American community.” That is why, according to her, it is “vital” to have events such as what Becoming the Beloved Community provides. Dr. Thomas, also a woman of color, adds valuable input to the conversation. She was born in Africa, raised is Los Angeles, California, and pursued higher education at Tuskegee University. She is a living example of the impact and contribution of Tuskegee University to the wider academic community.
Tuskegee University student Alexandria Smith asked the panel a question that seems to represent the feelings of many other Tuskegee students. This question comes shortly after Tuskegee University student Reginald Summage was shot and killed at an off-campus party. This event left many Tuskegee University students traumatized with many expressing their feelings. However, many students feel as if they have not been heard. Ms. Smith talked about this devastating event and asked the panel how they approach the act of “telling and listening” in their work, and if there was any power to it. Dr. Young talked about her experience working with asthmatic children at a summer camp. She communicated with the parents to understand what it was that they needed and would want to see. She says there is great responsibility in “showing up” for the communities you are working with.
Dr. Thomas described the panel as an opportunity to “[validate] the lived experiences of all of us.” Since she works with mental health and counseling, she views “becoming” as the embodiment of listening peace and vulnerability. Moreover, she sees cultural humility as an approach to “becoming.” Her input shifted the atmosphere of the panel and created a safe space that encouraged vulnerability and honesty. Dr. Young, a professor in the School of Nursing, offered a unique perspective from the health fields. She places importance on the interactions we may have with others; we can grow, learn, and “become” in this way. Together, panelists provided diverse answers and topics of discussion which were tremendously helpful in creating a community within the space of the panel.
After the panel, there was a showing of the HBO Documentary “A Choice of Weapons: Inspired by Gordon Parks.” The documentary drew connections between art of the past and the present. Within the African American community, photography seemed to be the connection string that established a long-lasting community within the community. It offered every member of the audience an opportunity to hear African American history from members of that community. At the end of the showing, many audience members instantly engaged in conversation about the film and expressed how important it was. The inclusion of this medium greatly contributed to the main goal of Becoming the Beloved.
The following day, April 5, covered the central theme of “The Mountaintop, Christianity, White Supremacy, and Community” which was held in the Telfair Peet Theatre. Dr. Robert P. Jones, the keynote speaker, spoke about his book White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity, and was very honest about his family history. He showed images of his family bible which is essentially his family’s record. Embedded within it is generations of pride and legacy. Dr. Jones alludes to what exactly entails this pride and legacy: slavery. His family’s record includes the enslavement of Africans as they were recognized as his family’s property. He draws clear connections between Christianity and the system of chattel slavery in the United States; Dr. Jones defines this as “Christianity’s entanglement with slavery.” He includes historical accounts such as Frederick Douglass’s Autobiography, in which Douglass states that white Christian masters believed they had divine authority to dictate slavery. He says the white community has difficulty with discussing this truth because it is “costly” for them. However, his honesty and directness created an atmosphere in which the diverse audience could engage in dialogue with one another. While he is not the first to make these connections, it definitely is a starting point for Auburn’s community.
In addition to Dr. Jones’ presentation, the audience heard from many different local preachers who have done their part to follow Dr. King. There also was a performance of some excerpts from The Mountaintop, a play depicting final hours of Dr. King (before his assassination). The play incorporated elements of contemporary humor and the heaviness of Dr. King’s legacy. It forced everyone in the audience to recognize the importance of Dr. King’s contributions to this country and the multiple communities within it.
The main message conveyed by this program was the importance of conversation between and among communities. The audience members each held different statuses, different identities, and came from different schools. As a community close to Tuskegee, however, Auburn University and Dr. Harrell were able to facilitate such dialogue between our communities through this program.