Annual King’s Feast features ‘Activism Through Art’ dialogue7 min read
Ann Arbor, Mich., Feb. 2, 2021 – The national conversation coming out of 2020 about systemic racism and racial justice prompted a local dentist and alumnus of the School of Dentistry to create a painting that was unveiled Saturday evening during the 40th Annual SNDA King’s Feast.
Dr. James Lee (DDS 1990) of Ann Arbor was the keynote speaker at the event which celebrates the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The evening is organized by the school’s chapter of the Student National Dental Association (SNDA) for current and prospective dental students, faculty, staff and alumni. Held online this year because of the pandemic, it expanded on the same theme used last month during the university’s campus-wide MLK Symposium – “Where Do We Go From Here?” – by adding, “Activism Through Art: Documenting Social Change.”
Lee said the tragic deaths of several Black people at the hands of police and others during the early months of 2020 prompted him to think deeply about why this sort of systemic racism continues and what needs to be done to end it. The initial protests and discussions need to be followed by a strong call to coordinate widespread problem-solving, healing and long-term solutions. Particularly frustrating, he said, is that the support groups and healing sessions among Black Americans after the 2020 deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd were happening so soon after other similar clusters of deaths in the past – Trayvon Martin in 2012 and Philando Castile in 2016, among others.
“Five years later, it’s even worse in some ways,” Lee said. “So how do we look at these things and try to make sense of them? There is more sophistication and complexity to these issues than we are recognizing. There’s a historical context to this violence and the attitudes behind these behaviors that we’re seeing. And because of that, we have to look at it as more than just a current event. If we don’t go back into the history and try to understand, we can’t expect different results. We have to do something different, our conversation has to change, if we are really serious about making a difference with these issues that we keep seeing over and over coming at us.”
Among Lee’s inspirations for his painting were the lyrics of a song that is more than a century old. “Lift Every Voice and Sing” is often called “The Black National Anthem.” It was written as a poem by NAACP leader James Weldon Johnson near the end of the 19th century and set to music by his brother John Rosamond Johnson in 1899. It was first performed in public by a choir of 500 schoolchildren in the Johnsons’ hometown of Jacksonville, Fla, as part of a celebration of what would have been Abraham Lincoln’s 91st birthday on Feb. 12, 1900.
Picking up on key words in the buoyant and upbeat lyrics, Lee merged a variety of 2020 images – some literal and some figurative – around the central form of a young Black male athlete running on what the song lyrics call “Stony the road we trod.” The faces of some of those who were killed in 2020 are located throughout; a medical mask covers the Statue of Liberty’s face; a rolling ocean wave pushes the runner forward, a nod to the lyrics’ admonition to “Let (our rejoicing) resound loud as the rolling sea.” An orange sun on the horizon symbolically represents the hopeful lyric: “Facing the rising sun of our new day begun; Let us march on ’til victory is won.”
Lee adapted the song’s title in naming the painting “Lift Every Voice and Scream. No Time to Be Silent, Can We Talk About It?”
He explained the three parts of the title this way: “Why do we scream – parents, teachers, coaches? To get your attention, to keep you safe, to keep you on track. It’s emotional and it’s for your own benefit. So we need that kind of urgency in terms of what we are doing. The second part – ‘No Time to Be Silent’ – borrows from the MLK quote that he didn’t fear ‘the violence of the few, but the silence of the many.’ We’re all involved. Silence is being complicit with the problems that we see. The third part – ‘Can We Talk About it?’– I included because I think the beginning of the solution is having a different kind of dialogue to deal with these issues that we face. The evidence that we see on the news is obviously telling us we aren’t doing enough of the right things. We have to look deeper.”
In inviting the audience to share their reactions to the painting in breakout sessions after his presentation, Lee noted that dentists are problem-solvers as clinicians. They are trained to evaluate a patient, make a list of problems, develop and implement a treatment plan, and offer the patient advice on how to maintain good oral health. “When I did this painting,” he said, “I wasn’t trying to just put out a list of problems. I’m trying to think of solutions as well. I’m trying to add to the conversation and move things forward.”
Dr. Todd Ester, Assistant Dean for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at the dental school, said the painting is an incredible portrait of the year 2020, which challenged people across the country in many ways. He thanked Lee and other alumni for joining the community discussions on race held during the year at the dental school. Ester praised the student body, and in particular members of SNDA, for their commitment and leadership in helping organize and participate in the series of racial healing and listening sessions during the year, made all the more remarkable by doing it during a pandemic.
“We thank you so much for all that you do, and that you are doing it in an impactful, inclusive and very diverse way, bringing equity to all the things you do,” Ester said. “We are grateful for the students and the SNDA for the resilience they have displayed throughout this year like no other. They have had shifts in their academic programming, in their coursework and in their ability to be on campus. They have persevered, they have still recruited students to our school, they have still completed all of their requirements and they have found time to contribute to the leadership of dentistry as a whole. Our future is bright because of you.”
Third-year dental student Sarah Radden, who is president of the U-M chapter of SNDA, and second-year student Raurie Petrich served as emcees for the program, which included welcoming remarks by Dean Laurie McCauley; recitation of the poem “Caged Bird” by fourth-year student Randon Campbell; a video by third-year student Robert Harvey interviewing students about the benefits of belonging to SNDA; and a rendition of the song “Let It Be,” by second-year student Holly Rizzo. Also participating was fourth-year U-M dental student Carla Jones, who is currently the national president of SNDA.
Founded in 1972, the national SNDA promotes and supports the academic and social environment of minority students in dental schools while advocating for diversity in the dentistry profession. It establishes opportunities for members to develop a sense of community, to explore leadership opportunities and to serve disadvantaged communities. SNDA has about 400 members, 65 of which are in the U-M chapter.
The University of Michigan School of Dentistry is one of the nation’s leading dental schools engaged in oral health care education, research, patient care and community service. General dental care clinics and specialty clinics providing advanced treatment enable the school to offer dental services and programs to patients throughout Michigan. Classroom and clinic instruction prepare future dentists, dental specialists and dental hygienists for practice in private offices, hospitals, academia and public agencies. Research seeks to discover and apply new knowledge that can help patients worldwide. For more information about the School of Dentistry, visit us on the Web at: www.dent.umich.edu. Contact: Lynn Monson, associate director of communications, at email@example.com, or (734) 615-1971.