University students tell black history through performance

For Black History Month, the University of Minnesota’s Black Student Union told a four-part story of black history through music, dance and spoken word.

by Lew Blank

As images of Martin Luther King Jr. were projected in the background, a performer passionately belted out Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” at Coffman Union Theater Sunday night before the audience erupted in cheers.

The University of Minnesota’s Black Student Union held the first-ever Black History Month Showcase last weekend, which told the story of African Americans in the U.S. through music, dance, spoken word and slideshows.

The showcase highlighted black students’ roots and present-day struggles in four historical parts: pre-slavery, slavery, civil rights and the present day.

“The history that you’re taught and the history that you take in is very narrow,” said freshman Georgina Simon, one of the performers in the showcase. “If you look deeper into … the marginalized groups, you will learn that a lot more was happening that we don’t really talk about.”

Simon’s performance took place during the civil rights section and featured a mashup of two Tupac songs, “Keep Ya Head Up” and “Changes,” which she sung while playing the piano.

While many schools may focus on the eras of slavery and segregation when teaching about black history, Sunday’s showcase sought to encompass the full scope of black history, said junior Matthew Odumuyiwa, one of the event’s organizers.

“We really want to show a sense of continuity, a sense that all of these things are a domino effect that has led to where we are now,” Odumuyiwa said. “We ourselves are part of this grand scheme of progress for black people in the United States.”

For many of the showcase’s performers, it was important and powerful to include their African roots in the event.

“Knowing that there was something before slavery, it’s really empowering,” said junior Atosha Rypa, who helped narrate the event. “We went through hard things, but we also resisted.”

Rypa said telling a more holistic history of black Americans highlighted the importance of resistance.

“The black struggle has always had resistance,” she said. “We’re trying to tell black history not just through struggle, but also through strength and resistance.”

Senior Titi Russell, who performed a spoken word piece about slavery during the event, said she feels there are not many opportunities to hear diverse perspectives on history.

“Having events like this actually gets to showcase that there are different people here,” Russell said.

While the majority of the showcase’s audience was black, many members of the crowd were not, which some students saw as an opportunity to build understanding about black history and culture.

“[The event] kind of opens their eyes in a way to say, ‘oh, we have this community here who wants to share with us their culture and their history,’” Simon said of the goal of the showcase, which was designed to educate non-black students and to celebrate black history. “If you don’t do that, then people aren’t going to know.”

Knowledge of black history is vital to a comprehensive understanding of American history, said first-year graduate student Kenya Womack, who sang in the showcase.

“Black history is American history,” Womack said. “You can’t know American history without knowing black history.”