Past Meets Present At King Tribute

Henry Green overcame the lure of gang life, a bullet in the stomach, and in April an extensive intestinal transplant that has left him thinner but “a new person.”

He celebrated that “overcoming” out loud, in a celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that combined real-life performance with intimate historical photographs.

Green and his partner Daviya Lyons’s performance of the spoken word piece “Overcome” gripped 50 people who gathered at the Connecticut Center for Arts and Technology (ConnCAT) in Science Park on Sunday evening for a celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King’s legacy in photography, painting, and dance by local artists.

Click the play arrow for a sample.

A centerpiece of the event was the display of “Countdown to Eternity,” an exhibition of 80 intimate black and white photographs by noted photographer Benedict Fernandez. The small-scale but moving images record the King’s life during 1967 and 1968, and the civil rights leader’s assassination and funeral.

Click here for a previous article on Henry Green, who now teaches spoken word performance and character-building, both at ConnCAT’s after school program and at Co-Op Arts and Humanities High School, Green’s alma mater.

While photographing King giving a speech at the United Nations in 1967, Ben Fernandez struck up a friendship that lasted until King’s death. During that brief period, he produced a body of work showing King and his allies not only not only as public figures but as dads playing catch with their sons.

That’s what grabbed Adam Walker about this portrait of King in the front yard of his home in Atlanta. “You always see public images. This is candid,” said Walker, who happened to have a 9-year-old son in tow.

It’s revealing that Fernandez’s portrait of King shows him at the lower left, oddly hunched over, preparing to toss the ball presumably to his son or sons in the upper right of the photo. But the boys are present only by their absence.

Did he not find enough time in an absorbing and dangerous public life to play with his sons? Will the ball ever arrive?

Sharon Clemons said she had been up and down the corridor looking at the photos many times and had seen new things with each survey. In the images that line ConnCAT’s gleaming and optimistically painted main corridor, she saw for the first time the extensive presence of kids in the lives of the civil rights leader.

She had not noticed Andrew Young‘s kids before, said Clemons, who with a partner operates a hair styling business on State Street.

She was also struck by the portrait of King, at an angle and photographed from below, the one Fernandez took in 1967 at the United Nations that sparked the friendship.

“The pull point is the eyes,” she said. In them she saw the dream, the conviction to believe a dream might be realized, but also a softness and vulnerability, said Clemons.

As she looked at more of the 80 photographs in the show, including [full disclosure: reporter’s favorite] this one of novelist James Baldwin with King family members at the funeral, she rued an absence of towering male figures for young black kids today.

“If you ask the children who is a famous black male, I guarantee you they’ll say an athlete rather than someone struggling with political issues. And an athlete does not want that responsibility,” she added.

If anyone at the MLK festivities was thinking that President Obama, about to be inaugurated for the second time, might fit that bill, it wasn’t evident, except in the work of Henry Green.

“Obama is a product of King,” Green said as he ate chocolate chip cookies and relaxed after the performance. “What King said is that one voice can get a million people to think that what was impossible yesterday is possible tomorrow.”

Green acknowledged that the last lines of his performance merge an already famous Obama call to change with a potent use of “king,” with either a capital K or not: “Enough talk/Because it’s now time to be the change/‘cause there’s a king in all of us/let freedom ring.”

The Benedict Fernandez photographs are on indefinite loan from the photographer, and they are worth a trip to 4 Science Park.

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