Courtesy of Cornell University

Authors Danté Stewart and Cole Arthur Riley discussed their works at this year's Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Lecture on Feb 3.

February 8, 2022

Authors Explore Black Livelihood, Spirituality in Annual MLK Lecture

Print More

The annual Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Commemorative Lecture — a cross-campus and community partnership meant to honor the life and legacy of Dr. King — took place online Thursday for its second consecutive virtual year. This year’s event featured authors Danté Stewart and Cole Arthur Riley for a discussion on Black literature, love, livelihood and spirituality. 

The Martin Luther King, Jr. Commemoration Event Planning Committee had initially intended for the event to take place in a hybrid format with a virtual livestream and an in-person option at Sage Chapel, where Dr. King himself spoke on Nov. 13, 1960. However, the temporary shutdown of Cornell’s Ithaca campus on Thursday evening due to winter storm warnings forced the event to adopt a completely virtual format.

The event featured a reading from Stewart’s debut memoir “Shoutin’ in the Fire: An American Epistle,” published last November. In his memoir, Stewart meditates on family, identity, Black love and lovelessness and his experiences as a Black man navigating predominantly white, Christian spaces.

Stewart is currently studying at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University, where he focuses his work on reinventing spiritual virtues. He has written for CNN, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. Riley is currently the spiritual teacher in residence with Cornell’s Office of Spirituality and Meaning-Making. She is also the creator of the Instagram account Black Liturgies, a space for Black spiritual words of liberation, lament, rage and rest that boasts around 143,000 followers. 

Oliver Goodrich, chair of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Commemoration Event Planning Committee, explained that the committee looks for speakers who can touch on how Dr. King’s work remains relevant years after his death. 

“The committee wanted to think about ways to reclaim some spiritual virtues that can actually work towards anti-racism and to dismantling anti-Black systemic violence,” Goodrich said in an interview with the Sun.

Leslyn McBean-Clairborne serves as director for the Greater Ithaca Activities Center, one of the sponsors of the event. McBean-Clairborne said she looks forward to the event every year as the speakers inspire her own work in the Ithaca community.

“It gives me and others like me hope,” McBean-Clairborne said, “and also gives us sort of a blueprint that if they can do it … I can do it too, even in this small community.”

After the reading, Riley and Stewart discussed Stewart’s portrayal of Black love and livelihood in today’s society, which Stewart describes as low in empathy and compassion.

“We are dealing with the residual of a world that we have inherited,” Stewart said. “To ground ‘Shoutin’ in the Fire’ in that world meant that I needed to account for the lovelessness of the world.”

Stewart also discussed the ideas of scholar Carter G. Woodson, whose work led to the establishment of Black History Month. Quoting King, Stewart claimed that Woodson wanted the month to represent “the reality of our somebodiness.”

“We have to be honest about Black history that it’s not a story of triumph, for we fail as much as we love, and we destroy as much as we liberate,” Stewart said. “We have taken the mundane, the ugly, the traumatic and even the grand, and we have made it all Black.”

Stewart and Riley discussed how self-honesty and vulnerability are key to embracing Black storytelling. 

“There’s a way to write easy, and there’s a way to write true,” Riley said. “These are the stories that persevere: stories of nuance and particularity, where no one is all hero, and no one is all villain.”

The topic of how to craft nuanced Black stories resurfaced in the final 20 minutes, when audience members could virtually submit questions to Stewart and Riley. 

When asked about representing Black faith in predominantly white Christian spaces, Stewart stressed finding spaces that enable finding connection to Black culture.

“We have to be connected to the stories and the artifacts that bring us meaning,” Stewart said. “We need to find some space to experience what feels like home.”

Surita Basu ’23 contributed to reporting.