The bells tolled early Monday morning, calling students to the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day (MLK Day) AllSchool Meeting in the Cochran Chapel. Students filed into the pews for Melissa Harris-Perry’s presentation, which began Andover’s 27th commemoration of MLK Day. While Harris-Perry moved through her slides, delivering a presentation on the often-silenced narratives of people of color — specifically women of color — in the United States, many students sat enthralled, laughing at her pop-culture references and falling silent when images of Emmett Till’s mutilated body filled the screens. Her presentation was dynamic and engaging, shifting between statistics and memes, flipping from humorous to serious in seconds.
But throughout HarrisPerry’s presentation, peels of laughter drifted down from the balcony, distracting from the solemn atmosphere of the space. A group of students were unable to contain their laughter, creating a disruption at such a volume that whole rows of the Chapel could not help but look back towards the source of the commotion. In a particularly poignant moment in Harris-Perry’s presentation, she displayed an image of Carolyn Brant, the woman who Emmett Till allegedly whistled at, and Till’s two murderers, laughing together after being acquitted for their crime. She paused briefly, and the Chapel fell silent — but only momentarily. Laughter from the balcony continued to echo, eerily mirroring the photograph projected at the front of the Chapel.
While this was certainly not the first time that laughter has filled the Chapel at an inappropriate time, there is something particularly egregious about this type of disrespectful behavior on MLK Day — a day that most of the country takes off, but that Andover students and faculty elect to “take on.” The day is the culmination of months of work by a large team of students and faculty; members of the Andover community attend an AllSchool Meeting with a keynote speaker before dispersing to various student-led workshops on topics such as immigration, white nationalism, and black feminism. The history of Andover’s recognition of the day is well-known by students; the story of Brian Gittens ’89 and his day-long sit-in on the steps of Samuel Phillips Hall playing Martin Luther King Jr. speeches is arguably one of the most powerful stories of community activism at Andover. For many — hopefully all — students at Andover, this day is one of remembrance and commitment to a more just world. It is not a day to joke about.
The behavior of the students in the balcony is shameful, not just because it showed blatant disrespect for Harris-Perry and her work, but because it was an active choice to disengage from the day. Harris-Perry’s presentation aimed to voice the narratives of women of color in the history of the United States. By addressing the absence of these stories in common retellings of our nation’s history, Harris-Perry encouraged the audience to acknowledge the flaws in the whitewashed and male-dominated narratives of the American past. The laughter of the students served as a disturbing reminder that some people feel entitled to disregard the oppression, histories, and identities of others, and ultimately to remain ignorant. The Andover community holds unspeakable privilege. We urge our peers to recognize the many opportunities available to each of us here, and to actively look for ways to engage respectfully whenever possible. We’re all listening.
The Andover community holds unspeakable privilege. We urge our peers to recognize the many opportunities available to each of us here, and to actively look for ways to engage respectfully whenever possible. We’re all listening.
This editorial represents the views of The Phillipian, vol. CXXXIX.