Black History Month opens with lessons on key figures

Poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou. Olympic athlete Jesse Owens. Astronaut Mae Jemison. Civil rights activist Rosa Parks. These were just a few of the historic Black figures that appeared on a slideshow that the Office of Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Compliance (EDIC) set up to play before and during the opening proclamation for Black History Month last Thursday.

The proclamation drew support from all corners of the Ramapo community. Photo by Care Granholm.

Students and faculty packed the Alumni Lounges, requiring all three rooms to be opened up in order to fit the large crowd. Before the event began, attendees were asked to reflect on what historical Black figures they know and converse with others about them.

Chief Equity and Diversity Officer Nicole Morgan Agard opened the event, welcoming everyone and encouraging attendees to learn about historical figures in all communities in “not just Black History Month, but all heritage months that we celebrate at the college.”

She then welcomed Christine Millien of the Educational Opportunity Fund Program to lead the crowd in singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a famous hymn in Black communities about freedom written from the context of Black voices.

Once the hymn concluded, President Cindy Jebb took the stage to deliver the opening proclamation. She began with a moment of silence for Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man who was brutally beaten by police officers at a traffic stop on Jan. 7. He died three days later in the hospital.

Jebb said Black History Month is a time “that we honor and celebrate the rich heritage, history and accomplishments of Black Americans and people of African descent in our Ramapo community and nationwide.” She also shared that this year’s Black History Month celebration on campus has a theme: community and coalition building.

“In the past year, we’ve made significant strides towards a more inclusive college community on so many fronts… We encourage everyone to continue to come together as a community and build on what we have accomplished thus far to foster relationships and the spirit of collaboration in the spirit of mutual understanding and empathy,” Jebb said.

EDIC also invited Ramapo alum Jaquair Gillette for a spoken word poetry performance. Gillette is a Paterson native and actor, poet and producer. He co-starred and produced the film “3rd and 4th Chapters” as well as a performance art film “Defiance and Desperation,” based on his poetry book of the same name, that was accepted into the upcoming Garden State Film Festival. He also continues to be involved in his community, with roles like a commissioner on the Paterson Arts Exchange.

“Dear world,” he said in one of his poems. “There is no sense in hiding the truth because I’m writing this letter from the pride of my roots.” A common theme between all the pieces he read was legacy, which included the legacy of Black figures who paved the way and hope for new leaders to continue on those legacies left behind.

After the opening poem, he reflected on a piece he came across the night before, one that he wrote and performed when he was a student at Ramapo.

“We encourage everyone to continue to come together as a community and build on what we have accomplished thus far to foster relationships and the spirit of collaboration in the spirit of mutual understanding and empathy”

– Ramapo President Cindy Jebb

“Around this time, about a decade ago, I actually did a poem here and the poem I just spoke to you all was inspired by the poem that I wrote… This was a 21-year-old me and it’s entitled ‘LIFE: Legacy In Full Effect,’” Gillette said. The poem was about the legacies that ended with assassinations and government interference during the Civil Rights Movement and the need to continue fighting for social change.

After Gillette’s performance ended, lunch was served to attendees. They were treated to a drumming performance while they ate. The theme of community Jebb spoke about was palpable as music and conversation filled the air.

After lunch, Rachel Sawyer-Walker took to the stage to close out the event by sharing some of the upcoming programs for Black History Month. One major program is the two-part workshop titled Rest as Resistance, based on the book “Rest as Resistance: A Manifesto” by Tricia Hersey. The workshop will focus on learning how to rest without feeling guilty.

The first part takes place on Feb. 13 at 1:30 p.m. in the Alumni Lounges and the second part, taking place on March 1 at 12:30 p.m., will have attendees taking a nap in the new Multicultural Center, opening at the end of the month in D-214.

A full list of all of the events can be found on EDIC’s website.

Featured photo by Care Granholm