Armed with an intricate headpiece of lion teeth, a variety of jazz instruments, and a deep-rooted passion for the growth of humanity, Syracuse Professor and self-described “word artist” Arthur Flowers serenaded the crowd in Tolles Pavilion on January 19 in homage to Martin Luther King Jr.
After blowing on a conch shell to “purify the air,” as Flowers explained, he began reciting words in rhythm with his accompanying keyboardist, Bernie, and to the beat of Flowers’ own percussion. “It is altogether fitting that we speak of Martin Luther King today, for as you know, these are trying times,” he said. He referenced current trials and tribulations in the world, which include the racial conflicts in Ferguson, the violence both in and against police forces across the nation, and modern-day slavery in Nigeria.
Despite these daunting hardships, Flowers’ approach remains positive: “It is in trying times that we are often called to our very best.” While growing up in Memphis, Tennessee, in the mid-20th century in an environment he termed “Southern apartheid,” Flowers experienced civil rights activism prompted by the teachings of King. He spoke of the constant struggle for freedom that spanned his youth, and King’s successful fusion of the fight for racial equality with the fight for human dignity. King understood he needed to save not only African-Americans, but rather, all people. “Just when he had equated these [two movements], they took him down,” Flowers said, referring to King’s assassination in 1968. Flowers countered, however, that the murder did not kill him, because his legacy and philosophies have continued to live on.
Flowers urged those in the crowd to emulate King’s response to “trouble,” a term he used throughout the performance to indicate the adversity that one inevitably faces in life. “Whenever trouble came [King’s] way, he turned it into strength,” Flowers said. He specifically targeted the youth in the crowd, urging the younger generation take responsibility of making the world a better place. “We have been blessed, you and I, as the strong. And it is our responsibility, as the strong, to pass those blessings along,” he urged.
Flowers concluded his performance on an encouraging note, and expressed his confidence in “the victory of all that is good.” He noted his spike in energy when he sees student activism on his campus in Syracuse, and his satisfaction when he sees youth actively engaged in struggle. “I see a lot of Martin in the young people today,” Flowers remarked. It is this potential that keeps him motivated to sustain dialogue with the younger generation and continue to spread his message through performance poetry.
“Take a seat; rest your feet,” Flowers crooned, standing from his chair in order to provide a resting place for the spirit of Martin Luther King. “Your legacy is in good hands. We got this.”