Each year, the NYU Martin Luther King Jr. Humanitarian Award is presented to someone within the University community who embodies King's "vision of peace, persistence in purpose, and inspirational action."
This year's recipient is writer, filmmaker, and cultural critic Manthia Diawara, a professor of comparative literature and film, University Professor, founder of NYU's Africana Studies program, and former director of the Institute of African American Affairs.
NYU News asked Diawara to reflect on his work and King's legacy before the presentation of the award at the 2019 MLK Week univeristy-wide event on Thursday, February 7.
What does NYU's MLK Week Humanitarian Award represent to you?
The MLK Humanitarian Award represents an enormous honor for me. It is an indication that I have used my position at NYU to stay true to King's dream of fostering a space where people are judged by the content of their mind, instead of the color of their skin or their sexual preferences. From the day I arrived at NYU, I saw my mission as a dedicated scholar and role model for students of all colors—and then as a self-appointed "affirmative action" agent with the mission to help different academic departments to recruit the best minorities in the nation. NYU is a much better place today, for faculty diversity, than it was when I arrived in 1992. I like to believe that MLK's dream is still alive here.
How has the American civil rights movement—and King's legacy in particular—influenced your work?
My world view has totally been shaped by the civil rights movement and the legacies of Dr. King and other African American leaders. I arrived in Washington D.C. from Mali (West Africa) and France, in 1973, in the middle of the civil rights and feminist movements in the streets, in churches, and on university campuses. I went to rallies by Reverend Jessie Jackson, Kwame Toure, and Kathleen Cleaver, and read books by Angela Davis, June Jordan, Toni Cade Bambara, Jayne Cortez, and Amiri Baraka, most of whom became friends and confidants, later on. I brought many of them to NYU and still teach and write about them. I have no doubt that I owe them everything, including what you might call my successful career at NYU.
I remain a die-hard optimist who believes in the legacy of the civil rights movement, in spite of the current backlash and pushbacks against it. In fact, I see the retreats from human rights in America, today, as an indication that we have come closer to the top of the mountain, which threatens racial supremacists and ethnic absolutists alike. The presidency of Obama was symbolic; Obama was not an exceptional and unique black man, but rather a product of what the civil rights movement is capable of producing. Now we can seriously dream of a woman president, a gay president, a lesbian president, a president from all colors and hues of America.
While the pain caused by the resurgence of the ugly head of hatred and racial privilege is real and painful on a daily basis, our gains are irreversible. And our struggles for justice, excellence in education, and the tolerance of our differences are the winning ones.
You established the Africana Studies Program at NYU in 1992. How has the field grown and changed since then? What has been the greatest impact of NYU's program?
Most African American Studies (also known as Black Studies or African Studies) programs were opened in the late 1960s to mid 1970s. NYU's Africana Studies program was inaugurated almost 20 years later. But, with the support of then President L. Jay Oliva and his administration, we were quickly able to build a national powerhouse in African American, Caribbean, and African Studies. Before the end of the 20th century, our names had appeared in the education section of the New York Times and the Chronical of Higher Education, as one of the six premier places (including Harvard and the Univeristy of Wisconsin) to study the field. Some of the former students of Africana Studies at NYU have gone on to leadership positions and professorships at the Social Science Resource Council, Yale, and NYU, to name only a few.
This year's MLK Week theme is "What's Left of the Dream?" How would you answer that question?
MLK said no to injustice, greed and oppression; he said yes to freedom, love, and peace. As a result, he has contributed to making the world better for all of us. What remains, for us, is a recognition of our differences—differences not to be transcended for a "color blind" society, and also not to be seen as oppositional, or as barriers between people, but rather differences as life-giving essences and energies. Connecting our differences, as in a quilt—without preconceptions of superiority and inferiority, and without fixing identities—is essential to the survival of the planet. Our diversity is our beauty, and no one should be made to feel bad because of their difference.
What advice would you give students looking to do humanitarian work?
I will tell students not to surround their suffering and loneliness within walls and think that they are unique; to share their their intuitions and lived experiences with others; and to build solidarities across race, gender and sexuality. As the great Martiniquan poet-philosopher Edouard Glissant used to say, we should all learn to tremble with the trembling of others around us.
College is an an exemplary place to learn, not only from professors but also from other students from diverse backgrounds. NYU and Greenwich Village are great incubators of talents. I have learned a lot just from hanging out at Washington Square Village, and I hope that students do too.