JACKSON — “I am a black girl from Mississippi that plays the harp,” said Dr. Lisa Beckley-Roberts, assistant professor of musicology at Jackson State University. She repeated, “I am a black girl from Mississippi that plays the harp … and I am the daughter of activists.”
Roberts, also skilled in African dance, was the keynote speaker for Tougaloo College’s Social Justice, Humanities and the Fine Arts program to kick-off “Unchained,” the 2017 week-long conference on modern-day slavery. Roberts’ presentation included ideas about the role of humanities in the creation of art activism and social equality.
Last fall, Tougaloo College created an Institute for the Study of Modern Day Slavery, the first historically black college in the nation to do so.
“How do I combine art and activism?” asked Roberts, a question many others in the program expressed. Before teaching at Jackson State University, Roberts earned master’s and doctorate degrees in enthno-musicology and harp performance at Florida State University while teaching African music and dance.
Roberts shared footage of former Florida students, mostly black, using a mixed form of African dance and drum to pay tribute to the life of Trayvon Martin during their annual show in 2012. Martin was an African American teenager who was fatally shot by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in Sanford, Fla.
“It was an opportunity to create a learning community and peace was born out of collective fear and anger,” said Roberts.
The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation awarded Tougaloo College a three-year, $550,000 grant to raise awareness and develop strategies to better combat modern-day slavery. Stipends from the grant enable an interdisciplinary board of faculty members to expand course content, research and action plans for students.
“We’re excited about what this means for our faculty as they introduce our students to new ways of thinking, ” said Dr. Beverly Wade Hogan, president of Tougaloo College.
The conference will consist of daily working groups, some led by researchers ranging from published authors, professors and national news correspondents. Dr. Kevin Bales, professor of Contemporary Slavery at the University of Nottingham in England, will serve on several panels discussing modern-day slavery. Ron Nixon, New York Times correspondent and author of Selling Apartheid, will serve as panelist for a session entitled Slavery By Another Name: Making a Business off of Black Bodies.
Tougaloo has earned a reputation for promoting justice through a variety of social issues, most notably during the civil rights era. Today, the private college is excited to continue revitalizing the role it played during that period, said Dr. Stephen L. Rozman, co-director of the Institute for the Study of Modern Day Slavery and dean of social science at Tougaloo.
“This is an opportunity for Tougaloo to extend its reach and speak to the world about issues of great concern,” said Hogan. “This has been our journey throughout our existence.”
A list of the conference events are listed on Tougaloo’s website.