At The New Century School, celebrations of culture and heritage are held regularly throughout the year, as befits the school’s mission. On Wednesday, February 26th, TNCS held a brand-new celebration/performance in honor of Black History Month. This wonderful, already much-loved event will be held annually, joining Spanish Heritage Night (that debuted in 2017) and Lunar New Year Celebration (that debuted last month).
Black History Month Celebration grew out of a shared desire among TNCS parents, teachers, and staff to observe Black History Month from the (upper) school-wide perspective to complement the in-class explorations regularly undertaken. TNCS Music Director Javan Bowden (aka, “Mr. B”) led students in a short choral concert, then students made division-specific presentations in their respective classrooms. These took the form of in-depth investigations of individual influential African Americans to special performance art.
At least, that was the original plan. A few days before the event, TNCS parent and Head of the TNCS Parent Council Sakina Ligon announced a very special surprise: Haitian American artist Harold Caudio agreed to join the celebration and present his one-of-a-kind (truly!) art. This presentation happened after the choral performances by students and deserves a post all of its own. Look for Immersed’s interview with Mr. Caudio next week. You won’t be disappointed. In the meantime, enjoy this preview.
Mr. Bowden has been working hard with TNCS K through 8th-grade students all year on harmony. Nowhere is this more evident than in America the Beautiful (music by Samuel A. Ward, lyrics by Katherine Lee Bates, arr. Paul Jennings), a song that hit the perfect note to start off the evening. To briefly address the elephant in the blog, we wouldn’t be celebrating Black History Month were it not to begin to surmount the historic blight of slavery.
Next, students joined together in a traditional West African song (arranged by Rollo Dilworth). “Since music is an integral part of African life and culture,” read the student emcee, “every citizen is expected to develop basic skills in singing and dancing. One song and dance tradition found all over west Africa, including Liberia, is called Fanga Alafia. It is a dance of celebration use to welcome all people. The words in the Yoruba language are as follows: “fanga alafia, ashé, ashé.” Fanga means “welcome.” Alafia means “peace, good will.” The word ashé means “I agree.” This West African folk tune exhibits call and response—one singer calls with a melodic statement, then is answered with a response.
After this rousing, upbeat song, students sang Dry Your Tears, Afrika (music by John Williams, lyrics include an adapted excerpt from the poem “Dry Your Tears, Africa” by Bernard Dadi, arranged by Rollo Dilworth), another uplifting song that translates:
Dry your tears, Afrika,
Your children are coming home. We’re coming home, Afrika.
Hush child, don’t cry.
Sing a song of joy.
We’re coming home, Afrika.
Said the student who introduced it:
This piece was . . . was composer John Williams’ contribution to the film Amistad. Amistad is a 1997 historical drama film directed by Steven Spielberg based on the notable mutiny in 1839 by newly captured Mende slaves who took control of the ship La Amistad off the coast of Cuba and the international legal battle that followed their capture by a U.S. revenue brig. It became a U.S. supreme court case in 1841. The language that is sung throughout is Mende, a West African dialect primarily spoken in Liberia and Sierra Leone.
A TNCS stalwart came next—good old, Stand By Me (words and music by Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller, and Ben E. King, arranged by Roger Emerson), a song that fits so many occasions.
They closed out with Lift Every Voice and Sing (words by James Weldon Johnson, music by J. Rosamond Johnson, and arranged by Rollo Dilworth). The student introduction tells you everything you need to know about this song of solidarity:
It was right at the turn of the last century in which James Weldon Johnson wrote the poem “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and his brother John Rosamond Johnson later set those words to music. Often referred to as the ‘Negro National Anthem,’ this song of justice has been and continues to be performed in a variety of contexts, including civil rights marches, concerts, community gatherings, church services, commencement ceremonies, and celebrations of black history. While this piece remains prominent within African American culture, it is widely performed by people of all races and backgrounds. Its universal themes of liberation and perseverance enable us to reflect on our shared history while at the same time encouraging us all to become agents of social justice and social change.
As their Global Studies unit for the beginning of quarter 3, students researched and created visual presentations of a black leader, whether in politics, the arts, sports, or any other realm. They got extra points for supporting props!
Finally, TNCS 5th- and 6th-graders, wrote, directed, and starred in a play that highlights some of the brilliant achievements by African Americans that have made everyone’s lives better the world over.
Maybe it’s because they needed something to throw themselves into during the winter doldrums, or maybe they were just deeply, deeply inspired. Whatever the reason, students gave this night their all. We’re already looking forward to next year! In fact, Ms. Ligon spoke for many of us when she expressed her gratitude to TNCS admin: “Thank you for taking my passion and concern and making Black History night at TNCS. I am over the moon with the efforts of the staff and students.” It is, however, Mr. B himself who said it best: “Black history is American history.”
And, don’t forget, we get to ride these great vibes another week in anticipation of a post on Harold Caudio!