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Stone Center to host 15th annual "He Was a Song, He Was a Poem" for MLK Day

Stone Center

The Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History on Thursday, Jan. 17. Artist Charles Williams will have a new exhibit in the center this spring. 

Dancers, poets, faculty, students and community members will gather in the Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History on Tuesday to celebrate the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. through the center’s annual event, "He Was a Poem, He Was a Song."

The evening will begin with the debut of the Stone Center’s spring art exhibit, “Black River: Chronicle of a Spiritual Journey,” by artist Charles E. Williams. Joseph Jordan, the director of the Stone Center, said the Center was particularly drawn to Williams because of the exhibit’s focus on the “spiritual understandings of what it means to be a person of color in the diaspora.” 

Williams, who is based in Greensboro, said he drew inspiration for the exhibit from his relationship with his father. Prior to creating “Black River,” Williams worked on another exhibit called, “Swim: An Artist's Journey,” which he said drove him to further explore his connection to water, specifically through a spiritual lens. 

“When you think about water and the spiritual connotation of it, it means baptism, baptize, rebirth,” Williams said.

Growing up, Williams said he experienced abuse from his father, who he felt at the time was dealing with the “patriarchal male paradigm.” The concept of forgiveness is a central theme of “Black River,” said Williams. 

His father eventually became a born-again Christian, something Williams cites as instrumental in their relationship and in developing the art exhibit. His father’s spiritual transformation involved eventually becoming a chaplain at a detention center near his family’s house in South Carolina in an area, which, “ironically,” Williams said, “is called Black River.”

Williams describes “Black River” as a “multimedia exhibition,” involving paintings, photographs and a video he produced. 

“It's a very intimate exploration of my process for learning about family dynamics and also the parallels within the Western Christian culture, as well as my own personal struggle, which is to forgive and let go,” Williams said.

Williams said his childhood frequently involved his father teaching him “lessons,” about everything from hand-washing dishes to taking care of tools. Williams related these lessons to stories and parables from the Bible, which played a large role in the development of “Black River.”

“Eventually I want to have all 46 (parables) at an exhibition at a museum to show and to create a book,” Williams said. “That's the long-term goal for that, but this show, ‘Black River,’ that begins at the Stone Center, it is like an introduction to the aspect of forgiveness, transformation, grace.”

Williams said he hopes his willingness to be open and share his personal perspectives will resonate with people who experience his exhibit.

“My thing is that I feel empowered, and if I am vulnerable about that, there's so many conversations that could be had between men, for one, and then also, two, father-and-son relationship, because we've seen in the news, you know, over the years, how African-American men aren't put in the best light,” Williams said.

Jordan said while the Stone Center is not holding other programs for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, there will be various other events around campus during the week, such as a campus-wide lecture, days of service and a dinner at the William and Ida Friday Center. Additionally, the Stone Center’s author discussion series is set to begin in February, and will feature a variety of perspectives from individuals, such as writer E. Patrick Johnson, and Yale professor TaKeia Anthony. 

This year's celebration of "He Was a Poem, He Was a Song," will include performances by Opeyo! Dance Company and Ebony Readers/Onyx Theater, or EROT, both subgroups within UNC’s Black Student Movement. 

Sophomore Omega Roberson, vice president and an artistic director for Opeyo!, said the group’s performance will feature a dance choreographed to "Glory" by John Legend and Common, which was featured in the film "Selma." Roberson said she feels an event like "He Was a Song, He Was a Poem" can highlight the work of activists currently on campus like with the recent removal of the Confederate statue Silent Sam.   

“It's just beautiful to watch all of that progression take place,” Roberson said. 

Jordan said he is “constantly reminded” of Martin Luther King Jr.’s words and their relevance to social movements of today, particularly within the educational environment.

“Education goes on,” Jordan said. “It helps you to understand more of why it is that you should never discount what happens to you here, who you end up talking to every day, who you sit next to in a classroom, who you don't sit next to in a classroom, who might be absent but should be there.”

Continuing the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. is a matter of morality, Jordan said.

“We don't have the luxury of determining what we do and how important what we're doing is to someone else,” Jordan said. “We're just supposed to do things on the basis of our own ethics, and our own understanding of humanitarianism or humanism, or whatever you want to call it, and hope that people are able to get something from it.”

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