The Big Read Keynote Speaker Encourages Students to Empower One Another
"Am I my brother's keeper?" This was the question posed at the start of Monday's Big Read keynote address and kick-off event, which addressed the project's focus on the novel "A Lesson Before Dying" by Ernest Gaines.
University of Houston-Downtown president Bill Flores opened the luncheon with a startling fact. One in five Houstonians is functionally illiterate - meaning they lack adequate skills to manage daily tasks such as completing job applications or understanding banking paperwork.
The aim of the Big Read, Flores said, "is to get people in our community thinking and talking about books - going beyond just reading."
He challenged the audience to share the text and its lessons with others, and to explore the critical race issues of the book with younger children, friends and siblings.
Keynote speaker Vida Robertson, associate professor of English and recently appointed director of the UHD Center for Critical Race Studies then took the mic after a brief introduction from Special Assistant to the President, Gene Preuss.
Robertson gave a compelling, passionate lecture, entitled "My Brother's Keepers: Reclaiming Young Black Men from Apathy and Racism."
Throughout his talk, Robertson compared the characters in "A Lesson Before Dying" - Jefferson and Grant - to the biblical characters of Cain and Abel. Both stories, Robertson indicated, are about characters who suffer from double consciousness, a sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others. "We all - and especially people of color - experience this irreconcilable striving to be both who we are and who society expects us to be."
He went on to proclaim that the greatest threat to minority populations is "loss of hope and absence of meaning," which is a direct result of a failing social system and a greater failure to encourage, enlighten, and empower one another.
He encouraged the assembly to "engage with society structurally, strategically and meaningfully, lest it continue to work against us."