On October 2nd, Touchstone Theatre hosted their annual “Homecoming” event as part of Festival Unbound 2020. In some ways celebration, in other ways a touchpoint for resistance, this event highlighted local Black voices of the Lehigh Valley. The event included local musicians and artists, as well as poetry readings and opportunities to engage in activism or register to vote. To close the event, Reverend Gregory Edwards spoke profoundly about the fierce urgency of addressing racism in the contemporary moment, before the attendees came together in vigil for the Black lives lost to police brutality and celebration of the ancestors who were leaders in struggle. This article dives into the richness of this community event, and recognizes the many voices that are continuing the work of Black activists and freedom fighters of the past. This moment of reflection and interconnection was possible in part thanks to Lehigh University’s Africana Studies Program, and was catered by Black-owned businesses: Wrap’d Tight and Kitchen of Carib.
The event opened with music by Bakithi Kumalo, or BK, and was MC’d by Sharon Brown. Dr. Terry-Ann Jones, Director of the Africana Studies Program at Lehigh University, set the tone for the event by reading Claudia Rankine’s recent poem “Weather.” Rankine’s poem, written in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic and the intense national outrage to George Floyd’s death, examines the acute urgency for anti-racist structural change, yet contextualizes these crises in long histories of racism. For example, in lines referencing the disproportionate number of Black and brown people who have died from the coronavirus due to unequal healthcare and the disproportionate number who are exposed to the virus as “essential workers,” Rankine writes: “Social distancing? Six feet/ under for underlying conditions. Black.” Here, Rankine critiques the callousness of our society’s reaction to the pandemic that relegated those with underlying health conditions as disposable, rendering clear how being Black is one such condition that also makes people disposable in the United States. Rankine goes on to describe “the violence of again,” in which George Floyd’s murder at the hands of police is all too familiar in a long line of extrajudicial killings of Black people. Her move at the end of the poem is a call to action as she states, “whatever/contracts keep us social compel us now/to disorder the disorder.” In asking her readers to disorder the disorder, Rankine asks us to step into the oncoming storm that is the election and reckon with a culture that devalues Black lives. She closes with these words: “we are here for the storm/ that’s storming because what’s taken matters.” The rest of the “Homecoming” event would echo this sense of a storm, and the continued need to “disorder the disorder.”
Rapper Gr3ys0n, a Lehigh Valley resident for 15 years, followed Dr. Jones’ reading with some of his original music. He performed familiar favorites of his like “Game Over” and “Player 1,” previously performed at the “Songs of Hope and Resistance” event hosted by Touchstone Theatre earlier in the year. One particular line from his first song stuck out as capturing the resonant defiance of the event: “Ya, they are trying to start a civil war,/ so what reasons do I have to act civil for?” Following Gr3ys0n, the Poor People’s Campaign then presented their mission and how to get involved in taking civic action to demand economic justice for all experiencing the vast income inequality in America.
Sharon Brown then stepped in to read the spoken word poetry of an artist from Lehigh University who ultimately wasn’t able to make it. The poem, called “Listen, You are Not Alone,” details how Black and brown communities have repeatedly believed in what has been promised them, such as that they now have the right to vote, that everyone counted, that white America wanted to have open conversations—only to have these promises ultimately prove to be false and empty. The poem repeatedly uses the phrase “you are not alone” as a response to the anger and pain of Black communities as they must wade through these false promises of equality and fairness. Ultimately, the poem concludes that the present fight for equity is not isolated because “reinforcements are on their way”—meaning the energy, love, and wisdom of ancestors like Malcom X and Martin Luther King, Jr. will sustain and support the current fight.
Next, Grace Hochella sang music performed in early Civil Rights Movement protests, noting that for her, participating in music is a kind of protest and simultaneous celebration, and is a way to sustain her soul and her broader community. Grace Hochella’s performance paved the way for Reverend Gregory Edwards to speak to the crowd and articulate the message of urgency that flowed throughout the night. Rev. Edwards is a dynamic speaker, calling the crowd beloved and drawing them into his trust with this mode of address. Rev. Edwards started his speech with gratitude for being alive, for as a Black man, that is in no way guaranteed to him, but after this moment of gratitude, he spared no time in establishing how he and his community are literally dying to breathe. Rev. Edwards set about articulating what has preoccupied many about our current moment: how we can continue as a society to dwell in such hate and inequality. He named the polarization of the nation, the pathologization of Blackness and Black anger, and Trump as a symptom of a greater problem with white supremacy and the impossibility of staying impartial about injustice. In one of the moments that stood out most, Rev. Edwards highlighted the essential need to stay connected and to refuse to disengage from the fight for racial justice, because otherwise, “we will be standing in the blood of our own children.”
Rev. Edwards rejected the idolization of the United States’ “perfect history;” instead, he called attendees to recognize that our nation was founded on violence. Rather than ground his call to action on foundations of a better past we must return to, Rev. Edwards ultimate message revolved around the image of the USA as being in the ICU. For Rev. Edwards, the USA is either headed to the morgue or the birthing room. He asked the crowd, who is pushing the gurney, “which direction are we headed?” Ultimately, Rev. Edwards was adamant that we can give birth to a nation that has never been, but which needs to be. A nation that addresses past violence, makes amends for historic and present day violence through social and governmental change, and pushes for equity in all aspects of our communities.
This year’s “Homecoming” event ended with a rendition of “A Change is Going to Come,” led by musician Gerry Pegues, and a candle-lit vigil to honor the lives and deaths of Black ancestors, like John Lewis, George Floyd, and so many unnamed others. Hopefully next year’s “Homecoming” event will find this community and our nation in the birthing room: if we take Rev. Edwards’ message seriously, we will dig in and begin the serious and ongoing work of uprooting systemic racism in this country.