MLK Dream Week kicks off Black History Month

Ashley Pelletier and Toyloy Brown III

The four characters in ‘Death by a Thousand Cuts’ are left unnamed to represent the multitude of experiences of Black men in the U.S. (Peyton McKenzie)

To start off Quinnipiac University’s second-annual Martin Luther King Jr. Dream Week on Feb. 7, the Department of Cultural and Global Engagement showed the documentary “John Lewis: Good Trouble.”

The 90-minute movie screening was followed by a discussion about the late John Lewis, who was a civil rights activist who served in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Vice President for Equity, Inclusion and Leadership Development Don Sawyer III said that Lewis is an example of someone who worked to create change during the civil rights movement as a college student and that students watching can see how influential they can be.

“I just think that students sometimes don’t realize how powerful their voices are, and I think watching a documentary like this and understanding other movements, you see that the youth has always been at the forefront of the struggle,” Sawyer said.

Christy Valentin, a junior athletic training major, said the idea of starting “good trouble” reminds her to continue using her voice on issues that affect her community and people of color overall.

“I’ve been trying to grow a lot and just advocating for myself and my community as a Latina and just speaking up about issues,” Valentin said. “Even if it feels like wrong, or it feels a bit rebel-ish, I’m like ‘Let me just speak up and speak to people,’ but speak with love … that’s one thing (Lewis) was really big on is peace and love, but still being active in your community and using your voice.”

The purpose of this event was to make people reflect on King’s impact and how good trouble needs to continue in the present day.

“The work of anti-racism, the work of social justice does not happen in silos,” said Veronica Jacobs, associate director for multicultural education and organizer of the screening. “It doesn’t happen in one particular moment. It couldn’t happen only in 2020 when we had the world awakening, racial awakening with the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. It has to continue on a daily basis.”

The event was in partnership with the Student Programming Board where it raffled off prizes, including AirPods and a Comfy blanket hoodie.

Adriane Jefferson, the director of arts and cultural affairs of New Haven, presented the second event of the week. She lectured on the influence of systemic racism on culture and entertainment in the United States.

To start, she explored the deep foundation of institutional racism following the Civil War, from Reconstruction through the Clinton administration. She pointed out how upholding systemic racism has led to inequity in the arts and entertainment industries, stating that Black and brown people only see around 2% of the revenue that is taken in by those industries.

Jefferson acknowledged that conversations about racism and how it is ingrained into society can often be uncomfortable, but they are the only way to get to the root of American history.

“It can be a rough and difficult conversation that forces us to reconcile with the truth of our history, of the racism that has existed in the United States for decades,” Jefferson said. “That is the only way we are going to move forward and can advance racial justice, racial equity and dismantle systems.”

Jefferson also wanted to show that arts and culture do not always live up to the common expectation of acceptance and liberalism. She said that she is constantly working to dismantle the deep-seated racism in the arts.

“I myself have been very intentional and very purposeful with using the arts as an avenue to activate change, to eradicate racism,” Jefferson said. “I feel like that is my purpose, that is my call in life. … I’ve seen a lot. … People often feel like arts and culture is more liberal, more progressive, inclusive of all people. That is the general notion when we’re thinking of arts and culture.”

Entertainment and media industries are worth around $2 trillion globally, according to the Global Entertainment and Media Outlook report by Pricewaterhouse Coopers. However, a majority of people working in the arts and entertainment industries are white. According to the 2021 Hollywood Diversity Report by UCLA, around 75% of writers and directors of major films were white.

“What’s really interesting about the entertainment industry is that oftentimes they are valuing profit over people,” Jefferson said. “The people at the top, running the industries, even though most of the talent that you’ll see on your screen is Black and brown, are often white executives making billions of dollars off of Black talent. They are controlling the narrative of the Black and brown story.”

Jefferson said some progress has been made to address the inequity Black people face in arts and entertainment since the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020. However, she said more work needs to be done locally and nationwide to level the playing field.

“Money is not reaching the Black and brown community at all,” Jefferson said. “If you start to look within our cultural institutions … usually it is (a) white male lead or white female lead, and there’s a reason for that. It comes down to education and wealth. Most Black and brown people are not going to school for the arts, and it’s not because they don’t want to. It is because they can’t take the risk.”

She also explained New Haven’s Cultural Equity Plan, a series of strategies to address this inequity in the arts community. These strategies include immersing Yale students in the community beyond downtown New Haven and even giving stipends to non-white artists in the New Haven area to work on their craft.

“It is really unheard of, giving unrestricted money to artists is not really a thing,” Jefferson said. “It’s something we’re having to push. It is something we’re having to hold ourselves accountable to … We’re trying to get money to Black and brown artists so that they can generate wealth.”

The DCGE rounded off the week with two performances of “Death by a Thousand Cuts: A Requiem for Black and Brown Men,” a screenplay written by Steve Driffin about the experience of being a Black man in the U.S.

Four Black men stand at the front of the stage in the Clarice L. Buckman Auditorium. They aren’t given names, only the colors of the shirts that they wear: black, gold, green and red. The four men are an amalgamation of experiences.

“A lot of my own personal stories are in there as well,” Driffin said. “I just wanted to make sure that I told our story encapsulated. (I) tried to capture our stories and our experiences living in this land, because it’s real.”

Actor Sharmont Little noted that bringing ‘Death by a Thousand Cuts’ to life was a therapeutic process. (Peyton McKenzie)

Driffin uses an amazing mix of sound and spoken word to leave his audience with chills. A majority of the music used throughout the show was what Driffin listened to over the eight-year process of writing.

“The music was intentional,” Driffin said. “No matter what goes wrong, we will still find a way within song and music. Singing gets us through so many obstacles, and then there’s love. We saw love, we saw joy, all that encompasses who we are.”

Denisse Bermello, a first-year biology major, said that “Death by a Thousand Cuts” was moving because it went a lot deeper than stories often do.

“It was really inspiring, and we were able to see the lives of Black people and their daily struggles,” Bermello said.

While “Death by a Thousand Cuts” discussed racism and microaggressions that Black men face, it also delved deep into colorism, toxic masculinity, romance and many other topics.

“The play has been therapeutic,” said Sharmont Little, who plays one of the four men in the show. “To go through it twice a week, practicing over and over again. I go home to something different every day.”