Martin Luther King Day Program Highlights Camika Spencer’s “One Year in Egypt”

Guest Speaker Camika Spencer and DEI Director LaDarius Drew_MLK Day 2024

The Gunn community celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr. Day on January 15 with a full day of programming, featuring educator, author, and artist Camika Spencer, who employed the art of storytelling to highlight the unexpected challenges she experienced as a Black woman, living and teaching in Egypt over the course of one year. 

A native of Dallas, Texas, which she still calls home, Spencer holds a bachelor’s degree in communications and media studies from Texas A&M University, a master’s degree in playwriting, and an MFA in creative writing education from Wilkes University. In August, her one-act festival “One Year in Egypt,” had its world premiere at the Bishop Arts Theatre Center in Dallas.

“This show is frank, funny, emotional, and informative, as she narrates her personal transformation while deconstructing the myths associated with how she romanticized Africa as a 'woke' woman who'd never been to the Motherland — thus a wake-up call," the theatre said. The solo performance was brought to Gunn by the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.

Spencer taught English as a Second Language at a middle school level in Egypt during the year she turned 50. The trip marked the first time in her life that she had traveled abroad. She has taught English Language Arts at the middle school level for four years, and theatre at the middle school and high school levels for two years. She is a best-selling author of three novels, a playwright, director, and editor. For eight years, Spencer was also a background singer in a rock band, Jonathan Tyler and the Northern Lights, which was signed by Atlantic Records and toured nationally alongside Deep Purple, the Black Crowes, Kool & The Gang, Chicago, Heart, and many others.

“My life is one really amazing experience after the another, but when I’m in the experience I’m like, I don’t know what is going on,” Spencer said during her all-school presentation, which touched on the issues of race, colorism, geography, history, sexism, class, and education. Her experience in Egypt opened her eyes to a different culture, one which she came to appreciate in some respects, despite the fact that she was sometimes treated poorly. “I came back really transformed and a lot less hard on myself and a lot less hard on others.”

She currently teaches sixth graders in a charter arts school, and shared with Highlanders the same advice she imparts to her middle school students: “This world, and everything that’s happening, it’s already yours. You’ve already inherited it. So whatever it’s going to be when you’re my age is everything you created it to be. Decide now how you want this world to look when you’re 52. Decide now how you want it to look, and what experiences do you want to have.”

She encouraged students to travel, and to act if they see things in the world that make them angry or disillusioned. “Do something about it,” she challenged them. She also encouraged students to spend time away from technology, to think about life without a phone in their hand, and to consider what requires nurturing in their lives. Often it comes down to something as simple as making eye contact. “You can make people not feel invisible without having to say something to them,” she said.

Following Advisor Lunch, students gathered with their Advisor Groups to view a 1961 BBC interview with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who spoke about his childhood experiences and incidents that led to the Montgomery bus boycott. Dr. King recalled how, at age 6, he first became aware of racism, when two young boys who lived next door began making excuses when he called on them to come out and play. His mother tried to explain the system of segregation to him in the best way she could.

“The thing that I will always remember is that in the midst of her explanation, she always said to me, ‘You must never feel that you are less than anybody else. You must always feel that you are somebody and you must feel that you are as good as anybody else,’ and of course this came up with me, in spite of the fact that I still confronted the system of segregation every day,” Dr. King said.

When the BBC’s John Freeman pointed out this must have presented a valid conflict in his life, Dr.  King agreed, saying: “As I look back over those early days, I did have something of an inner tension. On the one hand my mother taught me that I should feel a sense of somebodiness. On the other hand, I had to go out and face a system, which stabbed me in the face every day saying, ‘You are less than, you are not equal to.”

Students discussed Spencer’s presentation and the interview with Dr. King in their Advisor Groups, and how they might handle moments of discrimination, inequality, unfairness, or injustice in their own lives. 

Additional Images

Guest speaker Camika Spencer and LaDarius Drew, Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, with members of Gunn's affinity groups

Spencer was introduced by LaDarius Drew, Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at The Frederick Gunn School.