On September 24, 2016 in Washington D.C., Former President Barack Obama spoke at the opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. Obama stated that the opening of the museum “reaffirms that all of us are America — that African-American history is not somehow separate from our larger American story, it’s not the underside of the American story, it is central to the American story. That our glory derives not just from our most obvious triumphs, but how we’ve wrested triumph from tragedy, and how we’ve been able to remake ourselves, again and again and again, in accordance with our highest ideals. I, too, am America.”
A year and some change later in Newark, New Jersey, Great Oaks Legacy Charter School students are celebrating Black History Month by saying – in their own way – I, too, am America. Across all campuses, students came together to create and perform to honor Black History Month. At the Downtown Middle School (DMS), to go see the hit 2018 movie, Black Panther. The new movie has has resounding success both in the box office and culturally. Za’Hirah Thomas-Travers, a 6th grader at DMS, said that seeing the movie was important to her because it “really touched me because majority of the cast are black and we don’t really get to see a lot of black people starring in huge movies like this.”
After seeing Black Panther, students from the Downtown Middle School came together to perform an assembly called the Hidden Figures Tribute. Some students sang original songs they wrote while others performed poems, step routines, or songs written by famous Black artists. Abbie Gama, an 8th grader at DMS, chose to perform a poem that she wrote titled “We are Black.” Abbie said it was important for her to perform the poem because she “wanted to express how other Black people felt throughout history [and how they] felt through all the pain and suffering they went through. At the end I said ‘I am Black’ to prove how I appreciate my Blackness and how I express it.”
Not only honoring the past, some students chose to honor and acknowledge the future that they see. 7th grader, Rizah Guy recited two poems he wrote, “Too Black” and “If I Were You and You Were Me.” Rizah explained that his reason for performing his poetry was to show “what Black people still go through and what we have to do to achieve their goals. Black people are sometimes underappreciated, [everyone else doesn’t] know what we’ve done and who we are. I choose to do poetry because I wanted to spread this message to everyone.”
Mr. Cuffee, an Assistant Dean at the Downtown Middle School, helped organize and plan the event. Mr. Cuffee explained the importance of the Black History Month events by explaining how “seeing Black Panther provides our students with the opportunity to feel a great sense of pride of being black and being able to celebrate who we are as a people, what we’ve done and how far we’ve came as a people. The school was able to celebrate each other and enjoy one another. It was a really epic moment for our students and it was something really special because they don’t get that all the time. Events like this draw our students closer together.”
The High School campus held a Black History Month Assembly where students rapped, danced, gave tributes, and performed for the school. Coach of the High School Step Team, Ms. Noel, explained why she wanted the team to perform: “I enjoyed seeing the excitement in their eyes as they got a chance to express how they felt about current events in the news pertaining to people of color. Being the coach of the step team, I thought it was a great opportunity for the students to perform at the BHM show. It gave them a chance to express their emotion for the month, especially because step is such a big part of African culture. Being a part of something that excites and educates my students is such a humbling experience.”
Students who watched the performance clapped along and enjoyed the celebration. 11th grader Breetny Jusma commented that “Black history to me means a real recognition of black struggle and black success. It’s a month when everyone, especially Black people of all backgrounds, can appreciate all the things that Black people have overcome to celebrate culture and accomplishments within the community.”
Overall, both students and staff at the Great Oaks Legacy Charter High School campuses expressed pride, honor, and excitement to celebrate Black history during February 2018.