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Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day Teach-In 2023

BLOOMINGTON, Ill.: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Teach-In this year featured professor of Education and African-American studies Menah Pratt-Clarke. In her lecture titled “Filling Places and Spaces with Our Voices,” Dr. Pratt-Clarke unpacked how the experiences of black women are shaped by the intersection of their social identities: race, class, and gender. In the lecture, Professor Pratt-Clarke shared the story of her mother, Mildred Pratt, who played a determining role in Menah’s upbringing. She began her insightful narrative with videos of Mildred reciting a Langston Hughes poem, “The Negro Mother,” and singing a Negro spiritual, which she (Mildred) requested to be shared in her funeral service held later in the Evelyn Chapel. Those clips combined touching revelations of a mother determined to raise her kids happy no matter the outside circumstances and eye-opening reflection on real challenges Black people faced in the Jim Crow South. In her memoir “A Black Woman’s Journey from Cotton Picking to College Professor,” Pratt-Clarke writes, “My mother, like so many black women before and after her, carried a heavy load of responsibilities and challenges, but she always made a way where there seemed to be no way.” 

Pratt-Clarke emphasized the power of education in transforming people’s lives and overcoming systemic challenges. According to the lecturer, hard work, determination, and access to education were crucial factors in Mildred’s rocky road from cotton-picking to becoming a college professor. A black woman raised in rural poverty in the South, Mildred Pratt earned a Ph.D. in education, becoming one of the first African American women in the country to earn a doctorate in education. “One of the most important lessons I have learned,” Pratt-Clarke writes, “is the power of education to transform lives. Education has been my ticket to a better life, and I believe that it can be a powerful force for change in our society. But we must also recognize that education is not equally accessible to everyone, and that there are many barriers to success that must be addressed.” She further argues that scholars and educators are responsible for using their knowledge and skills to address social and political issues related to race, class, and gender. She suggests this work requires engaging in difficult conversations and working together to create a more just and equitable society.

Pratt-Clarke concluded the Teach-In session with a call for speaking out, sharing our unique stories, and filling spaces with our voices. She expressed a hope that the story of her and her mother inspires others to pursue their dreams and work toward equality and justice. “I believe that we all have the power to make a difference, no matter where we come from or what obstacles we face,” Pratt-Clarke said.  

The Teach-In lecture was followed by a Q&A session that allowed students an opportunity to ask Professor Pratt-Clarke questions regarding her talk and memoir. 

by Delilah Zhanguzinova