Acts of artistic expression and cultural celebration abounded on March 9 at Sanders Theatre, where the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations’ 34th Cultural Rhythms Program honored Janet Mock as its 2019 Artist of the Year.
Over the course of the show, 12 student groups delivered unique performances in media ranging from traditional Ethiopian dance to acapella to Tae Kwon Do. In her speech, Mock praised the performers and the ethos of Cultural Rhythms as a whole.
“To write, record, create, sing, dance, seek, and show ourselves in a world intent on erasing and invisibilizing, shunning and shaming, is a necessary and vital act,” she said.
Mock, an award-winning writer and activist, broke ground this year as the first transgender woman of color to write and direct an episode of television for “Pose,” a drama about ball culture in late ‘80s New York City that also included a record-high five transgender women of color in series regular roles.
On Saturday, Mock held court over the proceedings from a chair onstage. She frequently pulled out her phone to capture moments from the performances and posted multiple Boomerangs to her Instagram account throughout the afternoon.
Afterward, student performers emphasized an appreciation for the opportunity that the Cultural Rhythms show affords them to share their cultural art forms with the larger Harvard community.
“Sanders Theatre is the biggest stage at Harvard unless you want to count convocation and commencement,” Ata D. Amponsah ’19, a member of the Kuumba Singers of Harvard College, said. “This is the one time that we bring as many people in the Harvard community as possible together to celebrate the diversity in identities.”
“Dance is an art form that allows us to stay true to our roots, to our ethnicity, and display our culture with everybody else,” Mary Galstian ’22, a dancer with the Harvard Armenian Society, said. “I think Cultural Rhythms does a great job allowing different cultures to be on stage as one. It doesn't leave out other cultures and it gives you the opportunity to shine in your own way.”
This year’s theme was “Reclamation,” and the radical act of reclaiming space on Harvard’s campus — both to honor the college’s richness of cultural identities and to empower individuals who have been and continue to be marginalized from rarified, historically exclusionary spaces — recurred as a motif throughout the afternoon. Mock discussed the power and responsibility that comes from occupying these spaces in her address to the audience after formally receiving the Artist of the Year award from Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana.
“As I stand here on this stage as a black and native Hawaiian trans woman,” she said, “I know I am only standing on this stage because of the work of those who put their bodies on the line to fight for self-determination and the elimination of societal forces that impede our collective liberation.”
Khurana’s speech also alluded to the mirror that Cultural Rhythms holds to Harvard’s past. “Like our own nation, there's a great deal that we're proud of,” he said. “But we also have to recognize the complex and contradictory history of our institution — that many of us who are in this room were not have always been part of this community. And so we have to recognize that our aspirations run ahead of our reality.”
Performers and audience members alike also said that they were inspired by Mock’s presence at the festival. “It was truly just breathtaking and awe-inspiring to be in the presence of someone who had been through so much and seeks to be a light for others,” Jenna M. Gray ’19, who acted as one of two emcees for the show, said. “I feel enlightened, as an artist, as a woman of color, as a student, as a storyteller.”
“It’s only March, but so far [Janet Mock coming to Harvard] is the best thing that's happened to me all year,” Omise’eke Tinsley, the F.O. Matthiessen Visiting Professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies at the College, said. Tinsley brought her young daughter to the show.
“There’s a lot of excitement in my classes around Janet Mock, and queer students feeling heard and feeling like it's important to have reflected to them that there are queer folk who are doing amazing work and that Harvard recognizes that,” Tinsley said.
The Cultural Rhythms celebration show heralded a month’s worth of programming and campus conversations organized by the Harvard Foundation. The show served as both a conclusion and a reflection.
“I think the dialogue series and conversation series is really important to ground all of this celebration,” said Winona Guo ’22, a Harvard Foundation intern who moderated a more intimate conversation with Janet Mock on Saturday morning. “So I think that although this event was so full of joy and celebration, I think the conversation and the dialogue events that have been happening for a month now are tremendously important to place that celebration in a racial and cultural context, that is filled with both joy and trauma.”
Mock’s speech was the centerpiece of the show, and her words roused the crowd into a standing ovation. She recounted her difficult childhood in Hawaii, where she said, “my library card gave me, this 12-year-old kid, and this lover of books, access to words, written by Maya Angelou and Alice Walker and Zora Neale Hurston.” Now a New York Times bestselling author, Mock herself has the chance to serve as a refuge for other young folks.
“We are worthy of being read, we are worthy of being heard, we are worthy of being seen. we deserve to take up space, on library and bookstore shelves, on syllabi, on gallery and museum walls, on the screen,” she said.
But Mock urged against complacency. “Being the first is cute and all, but the real work comes when we ensure that we hold those doors open so that we're no longer the only or the last, right?” she said.
The audience — now filled with performers who had come from the wings to hear Janet Mock speak — snapped, whistled, and cheered.
—Staff writer Amelia F. Roth-Dishy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.