Black History Month Programming Looks at the Past and Future

The KanKouran West African Dance Company dancing on stage in bright yellow and orange attire. The University of Pittsburgh campus will come alive with visual art, poetry, and music Feb. 26-29 during Pitt’s official K. Leroy Irvis Black History Month celebration.

Titled “Black to the Future: A Festival of Art, Social Justice and Dreaming,” the four-day festival embraces the idea of honoring Black history but also thinking about creating the future in which we want to live. 

The multi-day concept came up when three Pitt women—Jazz Studies Director Nicole Mitchell, Department of Africana Studies Chair Yolanda Covington-Ward and Center for African American Poetry and Poetics Director Dawn Lundy Martin—met for lunch last semester with Senior Vice Chancellor for Engagement Kathy Humphrey. 

“The three of us came, rather organically, to the idea that we’d like to stretch the theme for Black History Month events, so that it wasn’t simply looking back at history, but also looking forward to the future,” said Martin. She added the Black experience in this country is one of racism, trauma and disenfranchisement, but also one of liberation, resilience and innovation. She said that’s why it’s important to look to the future. 

“The United States and the apparatuses of the state that enable racism are still operational and powerful,” she said. “If we can imagine something different from this reality, if we can dream it, and act, strategize and create toward it, I believe there’s a better chance of us achieving that different, more equal and progressive reality.”

Added Mitchell: “It’s so important that we remember where we’ve come from but we can’t get stuck in those memories. There are many contemporary artists celebrating Black culture that serve a vital role in our inspiration and our ability to imagine new possibilities.” 

“Black to the Future” is sponsored by the African American Alumni Council, the Department of Africana Studies, Center for African American Poetry and Poetics, Equipoise, Jazz Studies Program, Office of Diversity and Inclusion, Office of the Senior Vice Chancellor for Engagement, Kelly Strayhorn Theater and 1Hood Media. The program is part of the Pitt Year of Creativity.

Here’s what attendees can expect:

Ongoing

Black to the Future Art Exhibition

Feb. 26-Feb. 28, 9 a.m.-9 p.m. each day, works by as many as 15 regional artists will be displayed in the Connolly Ballroom of Alumni Hall. All of the works fit the festival theme and some will be for sale. In addition, a large display board will be on hand for attendees to write their six-word stories on what art as social justice means to them.

Wednesday, Feb. 26

Alumni Hall Connolly Ballroom

Alisha Wormsley, Presidential Postdoctoral Fellow at Carnegie Mellon University, will kick things off with a noon talk. A welcoming reception hosted by Equipoise will take place at 5:30 p.m. Those wishing to attend must register.

Then at 6 p.m., Chicago-based artist avery r. young will perform. young will read from his new book, "neckbone: visual verses," released last summer. That will be followed by a performance of "tubman," by his band, de deacon board. Using Black history and culture as a vehicle for empowerment, Mitchell says young’s project is “an incredibly infectious outpouring of Black gospel, funk, soul and the blues.”

Thursday, Feb. 27

Henry Heymann Theatre

Poetry takes center stage at 6:30 p.m. 2018 National Book Award-winning poet Justin Phillip Reed will read from his forthcoming collection of poems, "The Malevolent Volume." Poets Jaamil Kosoko, Tongo Eisen-Martin, and Simone White will react and respond. Dawn Lundy Martin, who heads up Pitt’s Center for African American Poetry and Poetics, says she and the audience won’t know what the poets have created until that night. Said Martin: “What a wonderful way to experience art, I think, to be surprised by what happens, to be moved or startled outside of our everyday experiences and ways of being.”

Friday, Feb. 28

Alumni Hall, Connolly Ballroom and Seventh Floor Auditorium

Another reception takes place in the Ballroom at 4:30 for those who have registered. The artists’ whose work has been on display all week will be in attendance.

Then attendees move up to the auditorium for a performance showcase. Scheduled artists include Pittsburgh rapper and activist Jasiri X; the Kuumba Ensemble featuring Nicole Mitchell and student and community musicians; opera singer Kay Henderson; poet Jari Bradley; and the Some of God’s Children gospel choir.

Following the performances, Jasiri X will moderate a panel discussion on “Art as a Tool for Activism.” Panelists include Oronde Sharif, artistic director of the Shona Sharif African Dance and Drum Ensemble; visual artist Cue Perry; artist and independent art curator Tara Fay and artist/activist Jasmine Green.

Saturday, Feb. 29

The Alloy Studios and Kelly Strayhorn Theater, East Liberty

Members of the Washington D.C.-based KanKouran West African Dance Company will host a community workshop at 1 p.m. at the Alloy Studios, 5530 Penn Ave. in East Liberty, then perform at 6 p.m. at Kelly Strayhorn Theater, 5941 Penn Ave., in East Liberty.

Department of Africana Studies Chair Yolanda Covington-Ward said the dancers will exemplify aspects of Afrofuturism, a powerful multi-arts movement that has been gaining traction, with their performance “Circle of Praise.” She said it will highlight how embodiment and spirituality are used across Africa and the Diaspora to shape the present and perspective futures.

“Afrofuturism brings a different perspective to celebrations of Black history and culture by moving across time, space, imagination and possibility to address what was, what is, and what could be,” she said.

Later that evening, attendees will be invited to a poetry party hosted and DJed by Simone White at Kelly Strayhorn Theater. 

The idea of the festival, say the organizers, is to allow the artists to inspire new futures and help us keep moving forward.

Said Martin: “We don’t need to look directly at activism with a capital ‘A’ in order to change our hearts and minds. Visual art, music and poetry make change because they enter our beings without us inviting that alteration. They show us what dreaming looks like.”

A complete line-up of events is also available on the Office of Diversity and Inclusion website.