By Kit-Bacon Gressitt
Preservation of cultural history is a human tradition that spans ancient oral inquiry through contemporary digital archives. The recorded history of African-Americans, however, has suffered from the disregard of slavery and subjugation, hence the need for National African-American History Month, also known as Black History Month. It originated in 1926 as a designated week, observed primarily within black communities.
In 1976, it was expanded to a national month-long acknowledgement and celebration of, as then-President Gerald R. Ford wrote, “the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
Today, locally, the month is recognized with special events and performances, film viewings and classroom lessons, and, thanks to Platt College San Diego, an exhibit of student artwork installed at three public libraries: Mission Valley, Spring Valley and Vista, in North County. All of the installations will be up through February.
The show, titled “Kaleidoscope: Designing Unity,” celebrates accomplishments in two ways.
“One, is to get the students’ work out there,” said exhibit curator and Platt librarian, Nicole Lewis. “They’re always so proud to show their work, and they get used to producing art. But also, it’s awareness and unity — everybody uniting together to celebrate Black History Month … celebrating how far we’ve come from slavery to the civil rights movement.”
With such topics as racism, xenophobia and white nationalism currently prevalent in the news media, it is no surprise that students were eager to have their work in the exhibits.
“When I announced this show, the diverse hands that were raised to participate were heartwarming to see,” Lewis said. “Sometimes the students are less enthusiastic, but this one, they were very enthusiastic. Definitely, they want to let out their voices. It’s also educational. They’re looking up African-American figures and learn a lot about them.”
Featured artist Jonelle Crowder, 19 years old, has two portraits in the show, of Prince and Michael Jackson, favorite artists her father introduced to her. She created the works in Photoshop using a technique called “geometric portraiture.”
“I wanted to do a different style, seeing how Prince’s music is different than any other person’s. He inspired me. I wanted a unique style for him — and for the Michael Jackson piece. I wanted to do a different kind of piece, dedicated to both of them.”
In addition to her favorite musicians, Crowder is also cognizant of the contributions made by heroes of the civil rights movement.
“African-American History Month, it points at the different triumphs and successes African-Americans have made, to make it how it is today. Today, I get to do things and explore things and be the person I am, without the restrictions of the past. People like
Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, they make me happy to be the person I am today.”
Crowder’s outlook is tempered only a little by current politics.
“I do have a bit of concern — it’s not a good, positive vibe,” she said. But she thinks the public will appreciate the students’ work and learn from it. “This art show will give people a lot of feelings about African-American history, a lot of history, important people in our history.”
Artist Gilberto Gonzalez, 24, includes contemporary history in his contribution to the show, celebrating the strong African-American woman in his piece “Divine Strength!” The portrait quotes first lady Michelle Obama’s speech at the 2012 Democratic National Convention.
“Michelle Obama, herself, is strength.” Gonzalez explained. “Everything she does is all about empowerment and improving yourself. I would have voted for her, 100 percent, and it’s not just because she’s a woman, but because of what she accomplished next to President Obama. … I believe it’s important to represent not only the past heroes, but also our present. … And her backstory, from having nothing to accomplishing all this, it’s inspiring for everyone.”
“If they have a dream, they can say ‘I believe in myself, I can do this, too, whether it’s art or business. These people have done it before me, so it’s my time now.’ Some of us come here with a dream, to give our families a better opportunity. So I believe the art will bring more people a better understanding of different types of people.”
The public can see these and other students’ creations during regular library hours.
—Kit-Bacon Gressitt is a local arts freelance writer who has been published in multiple publications. She also hosts the Fallbrook Library’s monthly Writers Read authors series and open mic. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.