Legacy of King and Black history highlighted in virtual event

Bisa Butler. The Safety Patrol, 2018. Cavigga Family Trust Fund. © Bisa Butler. On exhibit through Sept. 6 at the Art Institute of Chicago.

By Rodricka Taylor
Medill Reports

Lively original works by the Rebirth Poetry Ensemble and the performance duo In the Spirit highlighted the continuing celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at an Art Institute of Chicago event.

The Art Institute has celebrated King Day and Black History Month for years. Due to the pandemic, the recent performance was held via Zoom. The museum reopened Thursday, but many upcoming programs remain virtual

Nile Lansana recites his poem “I Am Not Your Negro” on Zoom for the Art Institute Chicago virtual event. The poetry reading by the Rebirth ensemble highlighted the exhibition of portrait quilts (left) created by Bisa Butler. (Photo from Zoom by Rodricka Taylor/Medill)

“In the midst of this year, it’s especially important to make this happen whatever way we could do it,” said Nile Lansana, 23, a Rebirth poet who read his poem “I Am Not Your Negro.” His work highlighted racial injustice, the struggles Black people face with the pandemic and the protection of property rather than people. 

“I think that one of the hardest things about celebrating King’s Day for me personally is that we celebrate what he did and we celebrate the importance of it as, like, remembrance and as a memorial. But there’s so many and too many moments where his vision isn’t being lived. It’s not being fulfilled, and the result of it not being fulfilled is violence against all Black people, and it’s not OK,” he said.

The youthful Rebirth poets recited pieces in response to the exhibition “Bisa Butler: Portraits,” open through Sept. 6. Butler captures portraits of African Americans in colorful quilts that convey individuality as well as themes of family, community and legacy. 

Avery R. Young, an interdisciplinary artist, educator and Rebirth’s coach, opened the event by introducing Rebirth poet Simone Reynolds, who delivered her moving poem “A Praise Song for Mama Alberta’s Hands.” Her work easily blended as lyrics into the song “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” by Thomas A. Dorsey.

“Bisa Butler’s work[s] were very powerful and dynamic to me. The prompt [for my work] gives me room to really look within and see how the pieces connected to me,” said Reynolds, 22. 

Reynolds joined Rebirth as a senior at the University of Chicago Charter School’s Woodlawn campus, and she said it has provided her foundation as a performer. She said she has always been challenged as a performer by her coaches as she takes up many talents in being a vocalist, actor and poet. 

Brooks Lansana continued the program with “Emmett Wore His Father’s Ring.” Then Eleanor Ross and Lansana joined together in a duo reading of their poem “On King Drive.” They told of their observations on King Drive, with poetry that resonates with crime and gloominess. As they recited, visuals of King Drive displayed on a screen. They told about schools that are liberated but still segregated. Both touched on powerful themes of what has changed and what remains the same. 

Emily Lansana and Zahara Baker perform “The Basement” on Zoom for the Art Institute Chicago virtual event. The performance highlighted the exhibition of portrait quilts (left) created by Bisa Butler. (Photo from Zoom by Rodricka Taylor/Medill)

In the Spirit carried the second segment of the show, focused on King’s legacy and highlighted the stories told by Butler’s quilts, all through rhythm and song. The performance duo, Zahra Glenda Baker and Emily Lansana, brought to life Chicago’s16th Baptist Church in their duet “The Basement.” Then Emily Lansana soloed to sing her composition “Daddy Says I Can.” They joined forces again in “Witness,” a performance about highlighting women who were leaders in bringing change to the world. Baker closed the virtual performance with a song and slideshow of her family and Butler’s quilts. 

“More than 50 years after [King’s] assassination, many would have hoped we would be further along toward the dream than we are now,” Emily Lansana said.

Rodricka Taylor is a video and broadcast reporter at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter @Rodricka_Taylor.