I love conferences. In fact, conferences are probably my favorite part of being an academic. However, it’s not just going to conferences that I like– it’s being a part of the university hosting them. I love welcoming people to my university who are here for intellectual conversations. It’s about the ideas that fly in a space other than a classroom setting and new people that give life to them. You have to admit, it can be tiring to throw around the same ideas with the same set of people. Conferences breathe new life into age old dilemmas, and you never know what the outcome of new conversations will be.
The most special thing about the Lemon Project, for me, is it’s commitment to the community. Community partners have always been welcomed to participate in the conversations we’re having at the College. So not only do I get a fresh set of intellectuals to meet and bond with but elders from my community to learn from as well.
Between the live tweeting, taking pictures, running the mic, directing people, and checking people in, it’s a miracle that I managed to find time to be in the moment and listen. There were two roundtables in particular that really stuck with me from the event. The first was “Desegregating Higher Education: Placing William & Mary in Historical Context,” which featured an array of people with whom I was honored to share a room: Lynn Briley and Janet Brown Strafer (two of the Legacy 3, the first residential African American students at William and Mary); Lillian Ashcroft-Easton (the first African American to receive a PhD in the History department); Michael Engs (an African American graduate of the class of ‘69); Sam Sadler (for whom the Sadler Center is named); and Ron Sims (an early African American professor and administrator in the 1980s). It struck me as they talked so eloquently about their experiences at the College that these were the people who had made it possible for me exist in this space. Thankfully, as Valarie Gray-Holmes would say, they left gate open for students like me. (Gray-Holmes is writer and performer of the one woman show, “The New Gatekeepers,” which was performed during the Lemon Symposium.)
The second roundtable that I have been mulling over was “Building the Legacy: Where Do We Go From Here?” It featured Jessica O’Brien (graduate of the College); Karen Ely (the last of the Legacy 3); Chon Glover (our Chief Diversity Officer); Sharron Gatling (a staff member in the Diversity office); and senior undergraduate student Taylor Jasper. The questions asked were difficult to answer and sometimes, for Glover especially, difficult to answer without personal investment and emotion getting in the way. They were asked questions like “What has W&M done to heal the racial divide?” and “What specifically should our next steps be when we look at issues of race and reconciliation?” The answers were varied. In terms of what William & Mary has done, chief among the responses was the implementation of the Task Force of Race and Race Relations and the hiring of a Chief Diversity Officer. When thinking about what the next steps would be it seemed that everyone agreed that we have to move beyond the ceremonial and the low-hanging fruit, which is to say, we need to do the heavy lifting now. What exactly “the heavy lifting” will look like is unclear, but I think it’s safe to say it’s going to require more than renaming buildings and a year long celebration of the 50th anniversary of residential African Americans.
In addition to the fruitful conversations, I was particularly moved by all of the art that we had infused in this little symposium. We kicked off the weekend with an artist talk by Steve Prince, who spoke of African diasporic funeral traditions through art. The dirge, he argued, is the slow, sad, emotionally evocative first line, and what we need to get to is what’s called the “Second Line,” the music which celebrates life and helps us heal and move forward. He peppered his talk with images from his own beautiful work and helped the audience see his message within them. Then he held an artist workshop to create a collaborative work celebrating Mr. Lemon, for whom our project is named. (I unfortunately did not attend.) Finally, we ended the day with Gray-Holmes play, “The New Gatekeepers,” which I found as moving as the piece she performed in August 2017 at the mural unveiling in Swem Library which kicked off the 50th celebration. Gray-Holmes told the story of a woman from the Tidewater area in 1959 who witnessed the integration of William & Mary, whose grandson who had dreams of going to college, and how integration looked across the changing landscape of our country.
Of course, no discussion of this year’s Lemon Symposium would be complete without discussing the incredible keynote by Professor Nikki Giovanni. Nikki Giovanni came to prominence during the 1960s and 1970s as a Black Arts Movement poet, thrilling readers with earthy but vibrant, compassionate yet revolutionary poetry. Yesterday, Giovanni celebrated the Lemon Project with us, spoke of the process by which Africans came to be enslaved and were carried to America, describing it as a process which involved no longer recognizing clouds and thus knowing this land would be different. This was the first time I had ever heard enslavement described in this way– only Nikki Giovanni could get me to consider clouds as a system of meaning. She performed her legendary poem “Ego Tripping” at the request of Professor Jacquelyn McLendon, explained her theories about outer space and finding new life out there, and also thrilled us all by explaining that she believed “everything used to be somebody someone loved.” She is a tiny human full of these incredible ideas that she believes in so fully that I find myself convinced that there is life on other planets and that my precious laurel wreath ring used to be someone’s beloved aunt.
This year’s Symposium was amazing. The conversations were impactful, there was amazing audience participation, the art was inspired, and I got to meet some truly incredible people. To think, this isn’t even a complete summary of every single thing that happened, because I’d have to write a short book to do that. But I wanted to take some time to reflect on the dialogue that I had the fortune to be a part of these last two days because the questions we asked were important and the answers to those questions? Critical. I’m not sure what my role is going to be moving forward, but at least I’m beginning to think about my own answers to the questions that were raised.