February 2, 2016 | By Alexis Neely for The Daily Mississippian
The voices of the University’s gospel choir filled Fulton Chapel yesterday as students, faculty and staff celebrated the start of Black History Month.
“I think it’s important for all schools, but also especially for this University, having the history that it did in the civil rights era,” Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter said. “People look to the University of Mississippi to see how things develop and frankly, this University has been one of the leaders nationally in addressing issues and being progressive about the way that we embrace diversity.”
The evening’s celebration was in full swing upon the announcement of an anonymous donation of $25,000 to the gospel choir, presented by Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Brandi Hephner LaBanc, supplemented minutes later by an additional $2,000.
Choir members were in awe of the gift.
“I was amazed,” Terrence Johnson, sophomore journalism major and gospel choir member said. “Honestly, I thought it would be something small like $100, but when the speaker said the total was $27,000, I felt this sense of undeniable joy. The work we are doing, someone noticed, someone cared, someone was touched. That’s what we’re here for, and that’s our primary goal – to touch and heal hearts.”
But the UM Gospel Choir was not the only group to receive recognition.
Donald Cole, assistant provost, assistant to the chancellor for minority affairs, and associate professor of mathematics, presented the “Lift Every Voice” awards, dedicated to those contributing to progress in areas of diversity, multiculturalism and inclusion on campus. Recipients included Athletics Director Ross Bjork and McDonnell-Barksdale Chair of Ethnomusicology and professor of music George W.K. Dor, as well as members of the Associated Student Body and the University’s chapter of the NAACP. This was the first time a group of students received the award.
The keynote speaker of the evening, John and Renée Grisham Writer in Residence Kiese Laymon shared an emotional chapter of his upcoming novel, “Heavy,” detailing his struggles with different forms of violence as a child and the bond he shared with his grandmother.
Laymon said state-sanctioned, interpersonal, sexual and racial violence can be combatted through more properly ordained education systems, the organization of people and honest conversations.
“Sometimes these conversations are so heavy we want to distance ourselves from what we’re really thinking and talking about, but we have to call it what it is, which is violence,” Laymon said. “Let’s talk about our investments in that violence and what we can do going forward to be less violent, but we’re not going to get there if we keep talking about lofty ideas like diversity.”
Junior biology major Jamarkus Watson said he admired the power of the keynote speaker’s address and looks forward to the rest of the University’s celebration of black history.
“This was a wonderful start for such an epic month,” Watson said. “The Center for Inclusion and Cross Cultural Engagement has a lot of things planned for this month, and I’m just excited about it. I just really feel like we’re trying to bring light into what it is to be a black Mississippian or to be African-American.”