Above, students from Loyola Village Elementary School perform African music and dance; Elder J. Macharia McCoy performs a traditional libation. (Photos by James Perry)

By Gayle Pollard-Terry
Office of Communications

L.A. Unified wrapped up its celebration of Black History Month on Tuesday, with a public event that featured African dance, drumming, poetry from the Harlem Renaissance, singing and storytelling.

Speaking Kiswahili, Elder J. Macharia McCoy performed a libation, an African tradition that honors the ancestors and the creator. He asked for blessings for everyone present as he tipped a cup and water flowed into a plant he was holding. He asked the crowd to respond, ashay, a Yoruba word, which means “and so it is.” He returned later in the program as a griot, the tribal storyteller, who shared history through spoken word from generation to generation.

He asked, “Did slaves come from Africa?”

He listened for the correct answer. “No. Africans came from Africa and were enslaved.”

From left, Elder J. Macharia McCoy; Andrea Canty, co-chair of the Black History Month Committee; and Dr. Robert Whitman and Angela Hewlett -Bloch from the Access, Equity and Acceleration Unit. (Photo by James Perry)

The annual recognition of African-American achievements and history began the second week of February in 1926. Dr. Carter G. Woodson, a prominent historian and journalist, asked Black schools, organizations, and communities to encourage the study of Negro history. He chose that particular week in honor of the birthdays of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who was born on Feb. 14th, and emancipator President Abraham Lincoln who was born on the 12th. Negro History Week became Black History Month in 1976, and is marked with observances.

At the recent event in Visconti Park near L.A. Unified headquarters, student performances began with the pounding, booming and rat-a-tat-tat tapping of the drumline from Jordan High School. Drumming continued as children from Loyola Village Elementary School took the stage. Barefoot and wearing colorful T-shirts, dashikis and grass skirts, they rapidly stepped, turned and jumped in intricate patterns keeping time to the African rhythms. In a tribute to African-American poet Langston Hughes, students from Valerio Street Elementary recited pieces in a jazzy style. From Van Nuys High School, a young man and woman did an elegant duet with graceful lifts and elements of ballet and modern dance.

“The LAUSD family is celebrating culture in a district that is so diverse that our students speak 94 languages,” said Arts Education Branch executive director Rory Pullens, who emceed the program. Pullens’ office sponsored the event in collaboration with the District’s Access, Equity and Acceleration and Beyond the Bell Branches. He added, “We are celebrating one culture today, but we have so many cultures in L.A. Unified.”

No Black History Month program would be complete without  performance of “Lift Every Voice,” the Black national anthem, and the Crenshaw High School Choir did not disappoint.

The Crenshaw High School Choir performs at the Black History Month celebration. (Photo by James Perry)

Tribute was also paid to Rosa Parks, the mother of the civil rights movement, who refused to give up her seat to a white man and move to the back of a segregated bus in Montgomery, Ala. and Harriet Tubman, an escaped slave who led thousands to freedom in the North on the Underground Railroad.

“It’s important to highlight the often-neglected accomplishments of African Americans rather than emphasize the traditional accomplishments like those of actors and athletes,” said Angela Hewlett-Bloch, director of the Access, Equity and Acceleration Branch. “We need to remember achievements in areas like engineering and medicine. It’s important for students to see a variety of images of accomplishments, and to see people who look like them.”

As she closed the program, Hewlett-Bloch said, “We sang. We danced. We had poetry. We had music. We had storytelling. These are elements of our culture and our legacy.”