(Beyond) a Day of Service: MLK Day 2021

Exeter honors the life of Martin Luther King Jr. with community service and programming headlined by Roxane Gay ’92.

Adam Loyd
January 19, 2021
Roxane Gay

Roxane Gay ’92.

In her keynote speech for Exeter’s 31st annual observance of the life and message of Martin Luther King Jr., Roxane Gay told the community she’s tired of talking about diversity.

To the renowned author and social commentator, diversity has become a buzzword, something talked about and around, creating the illusion of progress and “a placeholder for issues of inclusion, recruitment, retention and representation.” Real change, she argued, “requires intent and effort and material support, which in most cases is robust and long-term financial commitment.”

Gay delivered the keynote via Zoom to Exeter students around the world. It was followed by forty minutes of Q&A, moderated by Siona Jain ’22. Gay’s candid answers created a strong connection with students.

Watch the keynote, introduced by Nahla Owens ’21, and preceded by a welcome from Director of Equity and Inclusion Stephanie Bramlett and Principal Bill Rawson:

A frequent guest speaker on campuses around the country, Gay was critical of the progress educational institutions have made on racial equity and inclusion, suggesting self-reflection and an acknowledgement of a school’s shortcomings are essential steps in improvement.

“Campuses do a really good job of making it seem like they are inclusive, welcoming environments, but they do very little to follow through on the promises they make,” she said. “A lot of times people think that excellence and acknowledgement are antithetical, but they are not. You cannot be excellent until you have an ongoing acknowledgement.”

As an alumna, Gay was able to speak directly to how the Academy’s core values align with her call for action. She challenged the Exeter community to think of non sibi in more “complex ways” and that Exonians need look no further than their own campus to get started.  

“One of the best ways we can serve each other is by making this a more welcoming institution, because ‘Black at Exeter’ shouldn’t exist,” she said, referring to an Instagram account where current and former students share stories of racist encounters at the Academy. “The students that attend and have attended this school should not be forced to carry so much trauma just to receive an education.”

If you cannot stand idly by, and I do hope that you cannot, what are you going to do?"
Roxane Gay '92

Gay explained how these incidents are a microcosm of the country at large and when extrapolated create a culture where the killing of Black people at the hands of police has become commonplace. She said the video of George Floyd’s killing “tells the story of America from 1619 to today and that story is unacceptable.”  

Encouraging the Exeter community to shine light on these injustices, Gay quoted King by saying, “Can we in America stand idly by and not be concerned?” She pointed out King’s words were in reference to hunger in India, but are now more than ever applicable to our own country.

“It’s a question that each and every member of the Exeter community should ask. Can you … stand idly by and not be concerned given everything you know about what happens here on this campus, given everything that you know about the world? And if you cannot stand idly by, and I do hope that you cannot, what are you going to do?”

MLK Day programming kicked off Friday evening with “UnSilenced,” a series of social justice-themed performances including poetry, music and dance. On Monday, Exonians engaged in service projects in their local communities. Students were also invited to learn about the civil rights movement through links to a documentary film fest titled “Where do we go from here?,” to music and stories, and to virtual tours of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights and the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

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