On Sunday, January 19, 2020, Janelle Monáe and Dr. Yusef Salaam delivered a captivating talk as keynote speakers in the 2020 MLK Commemorative Lecture Series. Moderated by the Dean of the Vanderbilt Divinity School Emilie Townes, they delved into the theme of this year’s lecture, The Power of Storytelling: Our Stories Connect Us. This theme highlights the importance of personal stories and the community that can be found when we share them.
“Let’s continue to see the spectrum of who we can be.”
As a Grammy nominated singer-songwriter, performer, distinguished actor, producer, and an openly vocal activist on issues regarding the LGBTQ+ community, Monáe who identifies as a pansexual woman has a wealth of stories to share. Throughout the course of the night, she told her own story of self-discovery and the strength it takes to be able to own one’s truth. Being in the public eye forces Monáe to decide which stories to share and what to keep to herself. She explained the importance of timing and ensuring that one is ready for the implications of sharing your story.
Janelle Monáe’s musical works, such as her albums Dirty Computer and The ArchAndroid, are deeply rooted in a concept called Afrofuturism, which imagines African-Americans as participants and pioneers of the technological future. As part of the lecture, Monáe told the audience that “it’s important to show what we can be and what we don’t have to be,” to look beyond current reality, to a story that has not yet been written.
“Know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the best of our story has yet to be told.”
Dr. Yusef Salaam is one of the “Exonerated 5”, a member of the Central Park 5 Jogger case in which he served almost seven years for a crime that he did not commit. His story is one of strength and survival but throughout the night Salaam stressed the importance of not allowing the story of your past define your future that has yet to be written.
“You won’t be able to have a testimony unless you’ve been tested.”
Salaam’s story is littered with the injustice and racism that he experienced from the American justice system. He had seven years of his life ripped away from him without having any say in the matter. But rather than hold on to anger, Salaam urged the audience to not let their stories rule their lives, because no matter what has happened in the past, the best is still yet to come.
Our stories are our history. In the stories that we share with each other we are able to find things that connect us as a common people. It is important to take the time to listen to these stories and learn from them, but, as Janelle Monáe and Yusef Salaam explained, it is also important to grow from them.
Photos courtesy of Pinterest and InTheseTimes.com.