24th Slavery to Freedom includes music, intergenerational dialogue and art


A student-led concert, rap royalty and an expanded art installment highlight this year’s Slavery to Freedom series.

Designed as a campus and community conversation celebrating the history, heritage, struggles, and triumphs of African Americans in the U.S., Michigan State University’s 24th annual Dr. William G. Anderson Lecture Series, Slavery to Freedom: An American Odyssey will kick off Black History Month and take place throughout February. Named for William G. Anderson, D.O., MSU College of Osteopathic Medicine senior advisor to the dean and professor of surgical services, the series honors his legacy as a trailblazer in the civil rights movement and the first African American member and president of the American Osteopathic Association Board of Trustees and his contributions to the college.

Marita Gilbert, Ph.D., associate dean for diversity and campus inclusion with the college, leads the Slavery to Freedom series. She stresses the importance of broad attendance – MSU students, faculty and staff and the community are welcome.

“We have a focus on intergenerational dialogue – perspectives from trailblazers in the freedom movement, those who have been ‘firsts,’ who’ve really had to carve out space,” Dr. Gilbert said. “And now, we’re thinking about what is the legacy we hold and what do freedom movements look like in this contemporary moment?

“We’re really trying to make sure that folks from our community know they are united and welcome. I see this as the college’s gift, both to the university and to the community, because it’s free and open to the public. We will have art; we will have a sweet treat from some of our local vendors. I’m really so excited to see how the series is growing.”

This year’s Slavery to Freedom kicks off with the first speaker on Feb. 1 and will conclude with Love Got me Over: Singing to Freedom Live Concert Recording Feb. 21 at the Fairchild Theatre with live band performances, storytelling and Black history in collaboration with the MSU College of Music and the MSU Gospel Choir and led by Phoenix Miranda, Caleb Robinson and Rashun Watson.

“Last year, we had the shooting on February 13,” Dr. Gilbert recalled. “It was a really hard moment for our campus and our community, and for some reason, it just kept bubbling up for me that we need to reclaim this time as a moment of joy. Our music has been so much a part of our culture and our resilience and our resistance and our history, and I really felt like a musical celebration was the perfect way to start this year.”

Following the kickoff, the Slavery to Freedom series will feature three speakers throughout February: Tanisha Ford, MC Lyte and Rev. Dr. William J. Barber.

“I am over-the-moon excited about the breadth and depth of our speakers–it’s such a broad spectrum. I’m excited to see the ways we have folded our history into our culture, and that moment to witness the audience coming into the speakers’ knowledge,” shared Dr. Gilbert.

“What I hope is that when folks show up, something the speakers say, some part of their presentation, some part of their presence is an encouragement. Even if things are not ideal, even if things are disappointing, even if the circumstances in this moment are less than desirable, there is a history of overcoming. And it can take different forms–sometimes, it’s driven by our music, sometimes spirituality, sometimes extraordinary acts that ordinary people do every day to impact their communities.”

Special to this year’s Slavery to Freedom series is a 24-piece art installation by local artist Mila Lynn. “I’ve seen four of them, and I was blown away,” said Dr. Gilbert.

Lynn’s work features watercolor and oil paintings on cassette tapes and vinyl records. “The artwork is very diverse – the watercolors almost look like storybook illustrations and then the oil paintings range from abstract to detailed, and feature things like faces or hair textures,” Lynn shared. “It’s kind of a broad range – to be able to represent Black culture is a huge task.”

Lynn chose cassettes and vinyl records for her artwork to pay homage to the importance of music and storytelling in Black history.

“I thought it would be cool to have an undertone of realizing storytelling through music. I feel like that’s something in our culture that’s carried through,” she explained. “Writing and reading, for a long time, was forbidden for us to learn or do, so there’s been so much history that’s been passed by word of mouth or singing songs, music – back when field calls went on, or before that when people had lineage and tribal traditions to celebrate and tell stories and that gets passed down for generations, or even moving forward into the 40s, 50s, and 60s [decades] where all these events are being documented by way of music.”

Lynn said she hopes those who engage with her installation both celebrate Black culture and see it through a holistic lens. “I want it to be both sides. Something I talked about with Dr. Gilbert is that a lot of artwork I know from amazingly talented artists either focuses primarily on Black trauma or celebrating Black culture. I really wanted to do my due diligence with this project of showing things that are not so great that have happened in our past, but also things that are day-to-day – a mother and father with their kids running around, Motown, girls doing each other’s hair, everyday sorts of things.

“We as a culture are so much more than the terrible things that have happened to us.”

According to Dr. Gilbert, the Slavery to Freedom series is an educative space that offers community fellowship between people from many different professions, disciplines and perspectives on life. “Expect to hear and learn about where we come from and memorializing and celebrating from whence we came. I hope everyone who comes hears and learns about our past, but my wish is that everyone walks away with a right and responsibility to continue the legacy of our ancestors. And even if you’re not Black, if that’s not your lineage, you, too, have a role to play in sustaining and uplifting and advocating for freedom movements,” she said.

“I hope people leave joyful,” Dr. Gilbert added. “The folks that know me know joy is something I talk about a lot, that it’s central and something I try and cultivate in my own life. I hope people leave with hope about what is to come and what we can create together.”

The 2024 Dr. William G. Anderson Lecture Series, Slavery to Freedom: An American Odyssey events are free and open to the public. Registration is required. Learn more about the series and events and register here.


By E. LaClear