Slam poets, children and charity groups celebrate MLK

This past weekend the Yale Peabody Museum held its yearly party for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The two-day festival, entitled “Dr. King’s Legacy of Environmental & Social Justice,” brought together a wide array of local charities, artists and community groups to celebrate the legacy of Dr. King through song, dance, storytelling and poetry. Free to the public, the 13th annual Family Festival also sought to heighten awareness of urban environmental issues and public health concerns that disproportionately affect African American communities.

Museum officials said Sunday and Monday’s festivities attracted what were likely the largest crowds of the year. Attendees of all ages packed the museum halls with strollers, and the sound of laughter filled the air.

On Monday afternoon, volunteer organizer and local high school student Anna Picagli noted, “Everyone seems really excited about the cause. We have lots of branches of the Department of Environmental Protection here, and visitors seem way more into the culture of it than in prior years.”

While many families stopped to look at the Peabody’s collection, the attentions of most festival-goers were turned to the performances occurring simultaneously on the three floors of the museum.

In the ground floor’s Great Hall of Dinosaurs, a crowd of children sat in a semicircle on the museum carpet around a makeshift dance floor to watch their peers, local children’s dance troupe The Anointed Ones, perform a choreographed routine to R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly.” Gathered at the tail-end of the Hall’s 75-foot long Apatosaurus skeleton and gently swaying in time to the music, both children and adults appeared moved by the performance.

Around the perimeter of the room, local businesses and charity organizations had assembled booths to promote upcoming open house events, distribute literature, or, in the case of Evolution, an after-school program for science and college prep, sell candy and snacks to raise money.

Zakiyyah Howell, a New Haven high school student who volunteers for the group, believes that “a lot of people came out today because the inauguration is tomorrow — to celebrate that, too.” Pausing for a moment to reflect with Yale’s Shades a cappella group humming in the background, she added, “This MLK day is especially important because now that we have our first black president we can see that all men are created equal.”

Indeed, nearly everyone in the hall posed to have their picture taken in front of a life-sized cutout of President-elect Barack Obama at a booth for African-American History Month Arts and Writing Competition for High School Students. The theme of this year’s competition is “Dear President Obama, My dream is …,” and some students were already kneeling around the booth, drafting their letters to the President-elect.

In the third-floor auditorium, the final event of the two-day festival was getting underway. Standing before a cheery audience of mostly young adults, an older poet named Ngoma had begun MC-ing the Invitational Poetry Slam.

Featuring the works of 18 poets drawn from as far as Detroit, this particular event has been a part of the Peabody’s MLK tradition. This year’s poets were asked to compose works considering, “If Dr. King was alive today and doing spoken word poetry, what would he be talking about?” Announcing this prompt, Ngoma noted, “In other words, we ain’t going to hear about nobody’s love life.”

In tone, most of the poetry invoked a hopeful anger toward the political, environmental and social issues that affect minorities.

“Talking heads, we don’t need em; the people are hungry for truth — so best believe we gunna feed em,” proclaimed one spoken-word artist to the packed auditorium.

Another, who goes by the name Afrikess, received high marks from the judges for her dramatic reading of a poem remembering an elementary school teacher’s announcement of Dr. King’s death. Unfortunately, her score was docked because she exceeded the three-minute time limit. She agreed to let the News publish the last stanza of her poem:

We marched, integrated,

Separated in our minds to the voting booths

For someone who was a product of little white girl,

And a little black boy trying to reach for a dream,

Creating a thing called Obama

And before the rocks could land or bottles could break it was done

Now, can we really be ready to Not try someone

Who says he is willing to try to change things?

“Will they ever change?”

Mrs. Farrow cried.

Kassed Ragain, a New York poet and mentor in the Urban Words High school outreach program, won first place in the competition, a $1000 cash prize.

Vice President of the Peabody Associates Council Zenet Lewis organized this year’s competition in collaboration with Ngoma and praised those who took part in the day’s competition.

“Over the last 13 years and thanks to Yale, more than 500 poets have graced that mic with Dr. King in mind,” she said. “Today’s poetry showed that we’re all connected on the earth’s plane, and this event give us the opportunity to show how the sciences are always connected with the social sciences.”

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