Take Giant Steps

Eddie Glaude Jr in RISD Auditorium

The RISD community celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr. Day by welcoming author/educator Eddie Glaude, Jr. to campus on January 18 for a keynote address presented online. The James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University began with a short but powerful lecture before sitting down with RISD’s Vice President & Associate Provost for Social Equity & Inclusion Matthew Shenoda for an inspiring conversation followed by a Q&A session focused on questions submitted by students.

Eddie Glaude, Jr and Matthew Shenoda on stage
Eddie Glaude, Jr and RISD’s Matthew Shenoda in dialogue.

Author of Begin Again, An Uncommon Faith and Democracy in Black, among other publications, Glaude centered his remarks not on the sainted, nonviolent I Have a Dream King, but on the decidedly human and exhausted King of the late 1960s, still fighting the same ideological battles weeks and even days before his death. “We need heroes so we can outsource our own responsibility,” Glaude asserts. “But ordinary, everyday people can do extraordinary things.”

As the global pandemic rages on and US politicians battle over voting rights, the teachings of King and the Civil Rights movement as a whole he has come to represent are more relevant than ever, Glaude says. “We stand at a crossroads as a nation,” he declares. “When will we finally imagine ourselves as a genuinely multiracial democracy?”

“We stand at a crossroads as a nation. When will we finally imagine ourselves as a genuinely multiracial democracy?”

The first step to making real progress, Glaude says, is being honest with ourselves about who we are as a nation and where we have been. Rather than hiding behind the glorified ideal of America as a bastion of democracy and a beacon of light, we must own up to our racism and “confront the ugliness of who we are.” Only then can we set the stage for new imaginings.

Glaude makes a point

In his vibrant dialogue with Shenoda, Glaude described COVID as “a blue dye shot into the social body that showed us where all the sicknesses are located.” He also encouraged listeners to understand the relationship between voting rights, a living wage and social safety nets in this country, reminding us that the same powerful people are working against all of these democratic ideals.

“As working people are dying, as Black and brown people are dying disproportionately, the top 1 percent have made trillions of dollars,” he notes. “It’s a deep sickness at the core of society, a corruption of the soul.”

“We must refuse to be complicit with a world that conspires to make us small.”

How can ordinary citizens—particularly artists and designers and members of rarefied communities like RISD—reflect King’s ideals and effect positive change? “We must refuse to be complicit with a world that conspires to make us small,” says Glaude. “We must refuse to quiet ourselves, refuse the contractual demand that is oftentimes a condition for entrée into spaces like this, and instead be our full selves.”

image of John Coltrane from the cover of Giant Steps
An image of legendary sax player John Coltrane from the cover of his 1960 recording Giant Steps.

Glaude encourages RISD students and other creatives to take the lead by envisioning new possibilities and thus helping our society as a whole to move forward. “Poets are the trumpets of God,” he declares. “The arts give us insight into human doings and sufferings that clears the ground for a different way of being in the world.”

He closed the event with a reference to legendary jazz saxophonist John Coltrane, whose mind-blowing solo at the beginning of Giant Steps moved the musical conversation to an entirely new stratosphere. “When the moment calls you, be bold enough to answer,” Glaude pleads. “Refuse to be complicit and take giant steps.”

Simone Solondz / photos by Alex Pizzuti 17 FAV

Watch Glaude’s recorded talk and see RISD’s entire MLK Series online.

January 20, 2022

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