On the anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death, members of the Wesleyan and Middletown communities gathered in the Vanguard Lounge of the Center for African American Studies to mourn and reflect. A group of students organized the commemoration, which was called Blood on the Leaves: A Vigil for Black Lives Taken.
“We wanted to do something to commemorate, to take time out and respect and remember all of the lives that have been taken in our community,” said Tedra James ’18, one of the organizers. “The vigil is about the [Wesleyan] community coming together in solidarity, remembrance, respect, and mourning for the many, many black lives that have been taken.”
“Blood on the Leaves” refers to Kanye West’s sampling of Billie Holiday’s song “Strange Fruit,” based on Abel Meeropol’s poem of the same title about lynchings of black men and women in the south. The choice to subtitle the event “A Vigil for Black Lives Taken” was also intentional. The rationale, James said, was that the word ‘taken’ encompassed all the lives lost to “modern-day lynchings,” including police brutality, institutionalized racism, and suicides as a result of an unjust system.
Ainsley Eakins ’18, a student organizer whose idea sparked the event, opened the vigil with reflections on her alternative spring break trip to Ferguson. Touching on topics of racism, classism, and other forms of oppression, Eakins voiced her frustrations about how, as a woman of color, she would always be fighting against a system that questioned her right to exist. She told the group how Ferguson reminded her of her hometown, imploring people to see that we’re not different and that we’re all affected by these same systems. Eakins’ words were met with snaps of approval, and she opened up the floor so others could speak.
The group then created an open space for students, Middletown residents, and faculty to speak. Many recounted experiences with racism, as well as all the ways they had felt helpless because of their identities. Among the topics discussed were identity, family relations, conversations with friends, and trying to process and combat hatred with reflection, solidarity and love.
For Janet Shin ’18, the vigil was an empowering experience.
“I was just really honored to be with so many people that validate my existence, and their existences in a world, in a society that constantly tries to discredit our lives, our cultures, our families, just everything that we love and stand for,” Shin said.
Middletown resident April Scheller described the solace that came with the vigil. She discussed how an African-American and mentally ill friend of hers was killed by Middletown police, and how she has feared law enforcement ever since. Scheller said it was comforting to know that members of the community are willing to listen and help each other.
“It always feels a little bit safer after an event like this because people are actually connecting to each other and are talking about something that’s pushed to the background,” Scheller said. “I think above all there’s a sense of togetherness and hope that people bring into this, even though we know we’re facing some really, really scary stuff.”
The organizers said that part of what today’s Black Lives Matter movement is missing is the unity of shared song and togetherness that the Civil Rights Movement achieved. So in the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr’s life and movement, the group ended the vigil by joining to sing “We Shall Overcome.” By the light of smartphones, or using the candles to read print-outs, they raised their voices together.
“Being around that many people made me feel so safe in a way that I’ve never felt before,” Shin said. “It was the most humbling, beautiful experience to be a part of.”