Celebrating Black History Month and the arts

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Students, council members, friends and family alike gathered at the Brookhaven Town Hall to enjoy a sense of community and celebrate Black History Month, which runs through February.

Despite the cold weather outside, the Town Hall was filled with warmth for the 33rd annual Black History Month celebration held by the Town of Brookhaven Black History Commission.

The commission, which was first formed in 1991 for its Black History Month event, is now a permanent organization that hosts a number of other events throughout the year—this celebration being one of the larger ones.

The theme for this year was “African Americans and the Arts.” Following an invocation by Bishop E. Edward Robinson II, the commission’s chairwoman Dr. Corrinne Graham introduced Kendra Rivers, the founder of The Young Queens Project.

The organization, for girls ages 8 to 14, is designed to teach positive self-esteem skills through tangible learning as well as affirmations.

“Today’s presentation was embodying that style of learning,” Rivers said. Each of the nine girls from the group chose a historical Black female artist to represent for this event—some of the artists they chose were Maya Angelou, Gwendolyn Brooks, Aretha Franklin, and Mahalia Jackson.

“They just researched the lady that they had, and then they put it into a speech, some of them took a lyric from a poem they had, and they just used it for the presentation. At the end is when they’ll say, ‘I am,’ and that person they represented,” Rivers added.

Another performance was by the Daughters of Judah of The Breakthrough Chapel. Their dance was not just a performance, but also a means of blessing the lives and houses of all the audience members.

Keynote speaker Dr. Jarvis M. Watson further highlighted the importance of the arts as it pertains to Black history.
“For African Americans and Black people, the arts are a central part of our culture, heritage, and our identity,” he said.

Though he is now the managing director of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility (DEIA) at Columbia University’s Center for Global Energy Policy, Dr. Watson was previously the director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. A problem he became aware of during his time as the DEI director was how the same artists’ names were continuously repeated.

“As if these were the only African Americans or Black artists that existed or mattered,” Dr. Watson said.
Dr. Watson then urged his listeners to consider the communities they are already a part of in order to find those hidden artists. “We just don’t know who they are. We don’t know where they are.”
In his position, Dr. Watson and his team connected their students with local museums to “create a pathway for current and upcoming artists to serve as faculty, consultants, speakers, and also to shape internship and job opportunities.”
Dr. Watson clarified that the arts are a way for people to express themselves on a multitude of levels, not only beneficial to their personal progression, but also to the advancement of Black history as a whole.

“The arts are extremely important for African American and BIPOC cultures to chronicle all aspects of our history,” Dr. Watson said. “The uplifting parts as well as the traumatic parts.”

Student Academic Excellence Awards were also handed out to graduating seniors in Suffolk County high schools. Each student was required to have a minimum of a 90 GPA in order to receive this award, and was given the opportunity to introduce themselves and share their post-graduation plans, including their college and intended major.

As an adjunct professor at Long Island University, chairwoman Dr. Graham emphasized the value in empowering younger students. By involving them at young ages, “you can see—and they can see—a pathway, a trajectory for each of them.”

Dr. Graham said this event is a great opportunity to further expand on practicing this behavior toward children. “It’s important for us to engage our young people at all stages, because you talk about things that are going on, whether it’s mental illnesses or self-esteem, or whatever it is, there’s a whole bunch of noise. How do you create a balance for them?” she said. “It’s by showcasing their goodness. So, they understand that they are great, that they have greatness within them.”

Grace Sargent is a reporter with The SBU Media Group, part of Stony Brook University’s School of Communication and Journalism’s Working Newsroom program for students and local media.