In a beautiful conclusion to a week’s worth of programming dedicated to the work of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Dr. Nyle Fort’s words instead challenged our community to begin. Dr. Fort opened by comparing his message to food, which for a Chapel full of teenagers on a Friday, was the perfect start. Do we like food? Yes! He explained that while some of what he shared might be familiar, like food in a buffet, some messages might be unfamiliar, might make us uncomfortable, might be new. And yet, we are all invited to sit at the same table. What a beautiful analogy for a community so accustomed to sharing meals. He even invited our community to participate via call and response. He gave everyone permission to engage, call out, express! Again, perfect for a Friday.
Fort’s education and experience precedes him. From Morehouse to Princeton to Columbia, with works published in The Guardian, The Boston Globe, New York Magazine, The Harvard Journal of African-American Public Policy and more, presentations at prestigious institutions, including Harvard University, Yale University, Howard University, and many, many others. So while we acknowledge the privilege of the opportunities afforded to us at Western Reserve Academy, we can add listening to Dr. Fort to the list.
“If I can be honest y'all, I'm growing sick and tired of this narrow story of the so-called black history that reduces the richness of our narrative to a list of African Americans who were the first to do this or that.” Dr. Fort repeated this statement twice for emphasis, explaining the tragedy in the omission — the endless list of historic freedom fighters who never made any sort of list, those individuals who consistently add to the richness of a story. Dr. Fort painted pictures for us — a clearing in the woods described in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, a preacher spreading a call to love in a loveless world to a gathering of former slaves. He reminded us of the thousands taking to the streets, breaking social distance orders at the height of the deadliest pandemic in over a century, to protest in the name of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and so many more. Fort shared the names of Nat Turner, Harriet Jacobs, Ida B. Wells, Pauli Murray, Bayard Rustin, Marsha “Pay It No Mind” Johnson, Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, Claudia Jones, Paul Robeson, Barbara Smith, Lorraine Hansberry, Anna Julia Cooper, Shirley Chisholm, Angela Davis, the endless list of individuals that contribute (and will contribute) to a rich and colorful story. Dr. Fort challenged us to learn and know their names and contributions. We have homework.
Like so much of our history, Dr. Fort believes the way we celebrate King has been sanitized, mainstreamed into a lullaby to keep us asleep. “America’s most famous preacher was much more than the four word sentence that we know him for — I have a dream. He also had a critique. He called the United States a sick nation. And the greatest purveyor of violence in the world. He spoke about the triple evils of racism, war and capitalism.” What Dr. Fort wants us to take away is that there is so much more to Dr. King than a dream. He called upon the entire structure of American society to revolutionize our values. “We can’t transform the world unless we remake ourselves. And we can’t remake ourselves without transforming the world.”
So, Dr. Fort wondered aloud, “How are we going to live our lives?” For the son of a mortician, he said he’s always danced with mortality and felt the urgency of his brief time on this earth. These are dark times, yes, but we are born of that same rich soil that birthed all the historic revolutionaries Dr. Fort shared. We can use our voices and creative, non-violent resistance and agitation that Dr. King advocated for and lost his life for. “I’m interested in building what Dr. King talked about, which was a beloved community rooted in the principles of love and justice and freedom. A ‘world house’ rooted in the principles of liberty and justice for all.”
Despite the dark times that Dr. Fort referenced and that we are all aware of, WRA feels an overwhelming sense of hope. Students and young people have always been on the front lines of change, as WRA Dean of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Dr. James Greenwood reminded us in his introduction of Dr. Fort. Youth and activism go hand in hand. Dr. Fort believes in a beautiful future because we make up that future. We have the power to build the sort of world we want to live in.
And if that wasn’t hope enough, student hands shot into the air following Dr. Fort’s presentation asking questions about faith and spirituality, affirmative action, practical advice and calls to action. Students whose questions weren’t answered, lined up for a moment of Dr. Fort’s time. What a beautiful morning with a remarkable human in honor of the multifaceted Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And now we get to work.