Zaporah Price, Contributing Photographer

Despite the challenges of the pandemic, Yale and New Haven community members are gathering throughout the month of January to celebrate the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

Beginning last week, organizations such as Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History, the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library and the Afro-American Cultural Center have hosted events in honor of MLK Day, including live performances, a guest lecturer talk and a fine arts competition. Due to the onset of COVID-19, all of the events have been adapted for virtual enjoyment, with some activities spanning multiple days. The fine arts competition, which will culminate in a live performance, is ongoing and will end in February.

“We want to use the occasion of Dr. King’s birthday and our 25th anniversary of this event to highlight and celebrate the work of local environmental and social justice leaders, while centering Black scholarship, activism, and artistry to engage racially diverse audiences with meaningful and accessible programming,” Jesse Delia, the Peabody’s campus and public programs manager, told the News in an email.

This year marks the 25th annual celebration of MLK Day for the Peabody. It is also the second year that the event series did not take place entirely at the museum, as last year’s commemoration was hosted in various campus buildings due to museum renovations.

Celebrations usually take place over two days, but this year’s series hosted by the Peabody ran from Thursday, Jan. 14 through Monday, Jan. 18. Online participants could tune in to an open mic poetry jam, a youth roundtable with social justice organizers, a special panel featuring local artists and more events via Zoom. Events can still be viewed through the museum’s YouTube and Facebook pages. The online welcome event on Jan. 14 has racked up 120 views on YouTube as of Tuesday. Associate Director of Marketing and Communications Christopher Renton wrote in an email to the News that the Peabody’s celebration this year was “an opportunity for programming to reach more families locally and across the country.”

The Beinecke library also celebrated MLK Day via Zoom by hosting a virtual talk on Monday with North Carolina State University professor Jason Miller on the intersections between Dr. King’s rhetoric and the writing of prominent African American poet Langston Hughes.

“To be clear, Langston Hughes’ poetry hovers behind Dr. King’s metaphors like a watermark on bonded paper,” Miller told listeners during the event. “The poet that he [King] seemed drawn to most personally — that is, poems in which he personally sought out, rather than simply writing down when others spoke — includes the poetry of Langston Hughes, his wife Coretta’s favorite poet.”

At the event, Miller presented several images from the Beinecke’s collection to more than 300 live participants at the webinar. Miller said that looking more in depth at Hughes’ works would “tell a larger story” about some of Dr. King’s most famous sermons and speeches. The Beinecke library has a collection of letters, manuscripts and photographs titled the “Langston Hughes Papers” that span the years 1862-1980 and were gifted to the library by his estate.

The Af-Am House has also partnered with the Beinecke library to put on a fine arts competition for New Haven middle and high school students.

The Af-Am House’s fine arts competition began on Monday, in honor of MLK Day. New Haven students can submit essays, poems and drawings through Feb. 12 that respond to the prompt, “What do you dream for, and why?” Winners of the contest will receive a cash prize.

“The idea of the fine arts competition came up because we always want to make sure to stay engaged with the New Haven community, especially in the Af-Am House,” student organizer and president of the Black Men’s Union Jaelen King ’22 told the News in a phone interview. “With Dean Nelson being from New Haven and with Black culture being such an essential part of the Af-Am House and essential part of the New Haven community … we definitely want to work to do as much collaboration as possible.”

The cultural center, in partnership with the Beinecke, will also host an online performance event to celebrate Dr. King and Hughes, as well as to highlight the work produced in the student competition. Selected student participants will have the opportunity to showcase their work during the event and listen to readings of archival documents in the Beinecke’s collection.

Jaelen King, who has no relation to Dr. King, said that online programming would allow for ongoing engagement in celebration of Black arts and culture for longer than just the national holiday.

“We’re really trying to put an emphasis on the fact that Black History Month and MLK Day are just small representations of celebrating what it means to be Black and Black art and Black movements, speakers and figures,” Jaelen King said. “We want to exalt these figures and show them the reverence that they deserve throughout the month and year.”

The live performance event hosted by the Af-Am House in collaboration with the Beinecke is set to happen on Feb. 18 via Zoom.

Zaporah Price |