The Black Student Union (BSU) organized a celebration of Black History Month last week. The event, entitled “Because of Them We Can,” was held in Brauer Auditorium and touched on a variety of themes. Bryce Berry ’19 and Asia Johnson-Brimmage ’19, the co-heads of BSU, planned the event for months and thought this was a symbolic time to start what will hopefully become an annual tradition as 2019 marks the 400th anniversary of Africans arriving in Virginia.
After welcoming guests, Berry and Johnson-Brimmage invited everyone to rise and contribute to Lift Every Voice and Sing, a song by J. Rosamond Johnson and James Weldon Johnson which is often referred to as the Black National Anthem. The assembly offered a beautiful rendition of the first verse:
Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and heaven ring
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
let our rejoicing rise,
high as the list’ning skies, let it resound loud as the rolling sea
sing a song full of faith that the dark past has taught us,
sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
let us march on till victory is won.
Two 8th grade students, Mat-Mat Hardy-Lyles ’23 and Devyn Rodgers ’23, presented on the purpose of Black History Month. Rodgers said, “A celebration of one culture is a celebration of them all.”
Upper School English Teacher Celeste Prince offered a beautiful reading of Maya Angelou’s Still I Rise, and guests were encouraged to enjoy the artwork of Johnson-Brimmage and Tea Mitchell ’21 just outside the auditorium.
Kenny Townsend ’19 and Ivy Pease ’19 provided background on Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Townsend spoke about the rich opportunities available to students at MICDS, while also pointing out that at the time of Mary Institute’s founding in 1859, African Americans were still enslaved in the United States. After the Civil War, African American leaders created new pathways for education by founding HBCUs. Townsend and Pease then turned the podium over to Erica Moore, Director of Faculty Equity and Inclusion and Student Activities. Moore spoke on historically Black Greek letter organizations, which are referred to as “The Divine Nine.” Many of these organizations were represented by audience members, who rose for acknowledgment as each organization was presented.
Krysten Holmes ’19, co-head of the African American Mentor Program (AAMP), introduced the evening’s keynote speaker, Dr. Mike Jones, Student Engagement Coordinator for the Gephardt Institute for Civic Engagement at Washington University in St. Louis. Dr. Jones told the students in the audience that they are their ancestors’ wildest dreams.
He talked about how people all come to the table with different perspectives, even when we share cultural tradition. We must admit that we have blind spots because there are just some things we don’t have access to because of our own personal experiences.
He also spoke about the Theory of Change, showing that change is a process, not something that happens immediately, and that to really affect change we should set long-term goals and then work backward to establish a plan to achieve those goals. He challenged students to think about how they are showing up in spaces and how their existence affects where they are.
Dr. Jones admitted that people won’t agree on everything but said we all have a responsibility to do some “meaning-making” work. He instructed students to find out the place and space they occupy and ask “What am I called to be?” instead of “Who am I called to be?” He used himself as an example. If he answers “who,” that defines his role as teacher or a parent. By answering “what,” he’s a nurturer, a mentor. The meaning of your life is discovering who you’re called to be.
He said progress lies in being able to redefine our blind spots. Blind spots will always exist but we can adjust. He encouraged students to step outside their comfort zones and meet new people. He told them they’ll make mistakes, but reminded them to remember to ask for grace.
After the keynote, Gerald Bentley ’19 and Jala Muhammad ’20 moderated a question and answer session with Dr. Jones. Najaah Muhammad ’21 and Afriky Lolo entertained the audience with a vibrant dance and musical performance. Brian Thomas, Assistant Head of School, closed the evening by reminding students about how much they are loved and encouraged them to embrace and accept their responsibilities to shape the world with the gifts they’ve been given while remembering those who have come before and those we are missing now.