Emerson’s Elma Lewis Center paid tribute to both its namesake and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on Wednesday, January 25, by honoring Dr. De Ama Battle, an educator and dance historian who has taught generations of black students about their history and themselves through art.
Battle, a protégé of Lewis ’43, is founder and CEO of Art of Black Dance & Music, Inc. In her keynote address at the annual MLK Leadership Breakfast, held in the Bordy Theater, Battle drew connections between the civil rights activism of King, the arts activism of Lewis, and Battle’s own work teaching black children in Boston about the dance and music of the African diaspora.
“From the inspiration of two great leaders back in the 1960s, my inspiration moved me to bring the children off the streets into my basement, where they began training and performing,” Battle said.
She said when she first started bringing young people into her house, shortly after King was assassinated, many of them were angry. “They had a lot of energy; they had a lot of desire to do something more,” she said.
By 1975, Battle had begun shuttling her students to performances in vans, then on buses and trains, traveling around to share their art. It was a way to make children understand that they are connected to a rich history and a wider world.
“Our artforms hold the history of who we are as people,” Battle said. “We can look at a dance, we can look at a play, we can look at songs written in different languages and…show where we came from in Africa, what we went through in the Caribbean, what happened to us in Brazil…”
Battle recalled visiting one school where she was teaching a song written in the Yoruba language. The teachers, even after having it pointed out multiple times, persisted in spelling the name of the song wrong on programs, she said.
“We backed away from that program because we realized this is how we lose our identity,” she said. “This is how we forget where we came from. This is how our culture is suppressed, and if there’s no effort to keep it alive, there’s no point in having culture.”
Battle described the revelation she had when she made the connection between an African dance and who she was.
“[S]omething in my backbone came alive,” she said. “I didn’t know the traditional African movement, but I learned quickly because it was in my backbone and needed to be awakened by the drum and by the camaraderie of the people. It needed to be awakened to let me know I am a valued person.”
When Elma Lewis began teaching dance out of her Roxbury home in 1950, there weren’t a lot of opportunities for black children to learn about and participate in the arts. Since the ‘60s, when Dr. King led a civil rights movement and Elma Lewis started the National Center of Afro-American Artists, students and teachers of color have begun to understand and celebrate their history, and pass that history on through art and performance, said Battle, who is building an archive of dance information based on her 42 years of running Art of Black Dance & Music.
“And as children of color began to see there was a place for them…they learn[ed] to become artistically well-versed. Schools began to develop left and right, and Elma Lewis was at the top,” Battle said.
Judy Pryor-Ramirez, executive director of the Elma Lewis Center, kicked off the breakfast by reminding the audience of both King’s and Lewis’s calls to action: King’s notion of the “fierce urgency of now,” in his 1967 book, Where Do We Go from Here? and Lewis’s 1976 bicentennial speech, in which she broadens the definition of “patriot” from the white men who founded the country to those people of color who made it richer.
The breakfast also featured performances from Adobuere Ebiama, who acted a scene from ArtsEmerson Artist-in-Residence Daniel Beaty’s Mr. Joy; and Steven Martin, interim assistant dean of campus life, who sang Stevie Wonder’s “Love’s in Need of Love Today.”