Students bring Black History Month to Sewanee in full force

By Clair Smith
Executive Editor

Black History Month is being celebrated this February with a full calendar of events to recognize the unique history, cultural contributions, and struggles of African Americans, both in the Sewanee area and globally. 

The Black History planning committee consists of The African and Carribean Student Association (ACASA), BlacQueen, The Black Student Association (BSU), The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Ayres Multicultural Center (MCC), and the Office of Multicultural Affairs. 

Klarke Stricklen (C’22) said this effort came out of “a need to reach all parts of campus;” therefore, the planning committee has been meeting since mid-October, planning events, coordinating efforts with other organizations, and working with faculty from across the College and the School of Theology. Stricklen noted Nicky Hamilton of the Office of Civic Engagement and Special Assistant to the Provost Karen Proctor as important faculty for the planning process, though ultimately this month was a student-led effort.

The events span every facet of Sewanee life: McClurg is hosting Soul Food Sundays and an African Night to highlight the diverse and delicious dishes that have roots in the African diaspora. The Ralston Listening Room is hosting listening sessions that feature black musicians, and the Sewanee Union Theatre has a wide array of films and documentaries for students to view such as Do the Right Thing, Love and Basketball, and newly-released Just Mercy. Along with these activities, there are several lectures and conversations on race for students looking for critical dialogues on race in the modern day, including the Aiken Taylor Lecture and a panel on Just Mercy.

The first Soul Food Sunday, held in McClurg on February 2, was prepared by Chattanooga-based chef Kenyatta Ashford, who received a coveted James Beard Foundation grant to travel to Ghana and explore the roots of African cooking. He is now aiming to take what he has learned about the food of the African diaspora and incorporate it into his cooking in Tennessee. Students also had the opportunity to talk to Kenyatta and his wife Tomeka, who graduated from Sewanee in 2001. 

Caroline Thompson, of the Sewanee Food Literacy Program, said that she was thrilled when students Bre Corn (C’20) and Stricklen approached her about celebrating Black History Month through meals because “food is an approachable way for people to connect and explore new cuisines or dive more deeply into a familiar culture.” Though Chef Ashford will not be cooking meals every Sunday, students should look forward to three more Soul Food Sundays to highlight black American cooking, and one African night on Wednesday, February 19, which will specifically showcase African cooking.

For their first Black History Month listening session, the Ralston Room hosted a Blues Listening Session. As I walked into the first session, Duke Ellington and Johnny Hodges’ Back to Back was starting to spin on the record player. Representatives of the Ralston Listening Room said that they were excited that the Listening Room was being used as a part of Black History Month, and they encourage student groups to see this space as another resource for reaching out to the Sewanee community. 

Just as with food, music is an accessible and interesting way to engage students with aspects of black history and culture. Music is also an especially impactful area through which students can with Black History Month, as black contributions to American music are so crucial. The listening sessions span various eras of music, starting with blues and jazz and progressing to R&B and hip hop sessions, each taking place on Tuesdays from 4-5 pm. 

Several films are being shown this month, including the Academy-Award winning Moonlight and the newly-released Just Mercy, starring Michael B. Jordan, which tells Byran Stevenson’s story of fighting mass incarceration and racially-biased sentencing in Alabama. Many Sewanee students have read Stevenson’s Just Mercy as required reading, and every student can learn about the modern issues of racial inequality that his story speaks on. To see the story on the big screen, students can go to Guerry Auditorium from 5-7:30 pm on Wednesday, February 26.

Dolly Prince (C’22), Co-Director of BlacQueen, said that of the list of events this month, she was most looking forward to the screening of Just Mercy: “The book was amazing and I am certain that the movie is going to be just as influential.”

The following day, Guerry Auditorium will host a panel called “Just Mercy: A Conversation About Racial Inequality and Mass Incarceration” for those interested in a dialogue on the importance of the book/film for understanding this pressing issue. The panel is sponsored by the NAACP and the 213-A Leaders Program, with great contributions from Nicky Hamilton and Karen Proctor as well.

The panel will feature Kuntrell Jackson, actor, activist, and creator of Preventing Adolescents from Incarceration Nationwide (P.A.I.N), and Khalil Cumberbatch, a national advocate for criminal justice and immigration policy change. The discussion will be moderated by Dr. Anthony Donaldson Jr., assistant professor of history.

An important development that the Black History Month schedule of events is showcasing is the recent announcement of Nikky Finney as the recipient of the Sewanee Review’s Aiken Taylor Award for Modern American Poetry. Finney, who was born in South Carolina, has held distinguished positions as a professor in Kentucky and South Carolina and is a founding member of the black Appalachian poets group, Affrilachian Poets. Her poetry focuses on issues of race and Southern culture, often based on the turmoil of her childhood in the South in the 1960s and 70s. Vice-Chancellor McCardell and Review editor Adam Ross will present Finney with the award at 4:30 on Wednesday, February 12.

Finney’s award comes to Sewanee at a critical point- both during Black History Month and during the 50th school year of women’s admittance to the University. Highlighting the work of a black Appalachian woman, who speaks critically and powerfully about issues of race, womanhood, and Southern history and culture, sends a message about the type of scholarship and writing students at Sewanee should engage with more.

“I really hope that the wider student body immerses themself in the different events that we have planned,” Prince said. “I think Sewanee Students need to be more appreciative of the success that African Americans have achieved.” 

The calendar for Black History Month at Sewanee.

Edit: This article has been updated to note that the Just Mercy screening and panel is sponsored by the NAACP and the 213-A Leaders Program. It is not affiliated with the Cinema Guild. Both the screening and the film will be held in Guerry Auditorium.