New York, NY—The Isaacs Center richly celebrated Black History month with a two-hour virtual presentation last Friday that featured performances from an eclectic mix of seniors, community members, students and staff, as well as special appearances by elected officials.
The event kicked off with the singing of the Black national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which was written as a poem in 1900 by James Weldon Johnson and set to music by his brother J. Rosamond Johnson in 1905 for the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday.
Justina Sharrock-Brown, the senior engagement specialist at Isaacs Center, who moderated the presentation, said that this year’s theme for the Isaacs Center’s Black History Month celebration is “Black Family: Representation, Identity and Diversity.”
“The Black family has been a topic of study in many disciplines—history, literature, the visual arts and film study, as well as sociology, anthropology and social policy. It’s representation, identity and diversity have been reverenced, stereotyped and vilified from the days of slavery to our own time,” said Sharrock-Brown.
“The Black Family knows no single location since family reunions and genetic ancestry searches testify to the spread of family members across states, nations and continents—in layman’s terms, Black folks are everywhere.”
She then introduced Damion Samuels, who is the director of youth services and community engagement at the Isaacs Center. He was asked to provide a few remarks which he said he welcomed because he usually enjoys a good soap box.
“Speaking out and speaking truth to power, and speaking truth no matter who hears it is part and parcel of the African-American experience. It is who we are, it is what we’ve always done, and so we also acknowledge that there is a beauty and a grace, an elegance and a magnificence in all the expressions of Black art and Black culture,” said Samuels.
In keeping with the oral tradition of the Black community, Samuels read a distinguished quote from 1857 from one of the most revered of orators—Frederick Douglass. There are two paragraphs that stand out for Samuels and frankly, he said, speaks to the nature of Black struggle and Black persistence. He wanted to share Douglass’s message in a way that would remind the audience that progress is still required.
“We have elected a new president, one that many of us think has more of our interest at heart, and yet we know that racism has persisted in all administrations, and so it is our job to create a beacon, to create hope and to make sure that justice for all people is one that we all engage in,” Samuels said.
He then raised his voice as certainly as Douglass would have to read the passage, which begins with the line, “Let me give you a word on the philosophy of reform,” and includes perhaps one of the most formidable words of all time to describe historical and contemporary social relations: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did, it never will.”
Samuels concluded his presentation with a request for the audience.
“I urge you to remember that the fight is right outside our door. We still have injustice, we still have mass incarceration, we still face tremendous housing discrimination, workplace discrimination [and] that the average income of the Black family is still less than one and half times the avg income of a white family. There is work to be done and I’m so proud to be among people who are willing to do it,” added Samuels.
Sharrock-Brown then introduced Jianne Carrasco, a culinary student at Isaacs Center and a big fan of Nina Simone.
For Sharrock-Brown, her favorite quote by Nina Simone is: “You can’t help it. An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.”
“That is definitely something that Nina Simone did throughout her career, she definitely made music that was reflective of what was going on, particularly throughout the civil rights movement and so it’s really inspiring to see someone several generations removed impacted by her work,” said Sharrock-Brown.
With that, Carrasco launched into “You Know How I Feel” and after her rendition, she received a standing ovation.
Lindsey Donnell is a professional ballerina with the Dance Theater of Harlem, an organization that was founded in 1969 by Arthur Mitchell, who was the principal dancer at the New York City Ballet in the 1950s. He broke boundaries in New York by dancing with Diana Adams.
“There was a very sensual, slow duet that Mitchell and Adams did. She was a white woman, very pale; Mitchell was a beautiful dark-skinned man and that performance really broke boundaries in the 1950s because it was one of the first times that you could see integration on stage,” said Donnell.
Donnell, who hails from Midland, Texas, has been touring the world, pre-COVID, for the past 10 years with the Dance Theater of Harlem. She’s bi-racial, but grew up in a mostly white environment. Arriving in Harlem and joining the Dance Theater was the first time that, she said, she had been in a space that celebrated Black culture and Black heritage.
“I feel proud to be the skin that I am in, and I wouldn’t feel this way, the confident woman that I am, without this organization helping usher me there,” said Donnell.
In the ten years that Donnell has been touring, she’s toured most major cities in the U.S., as well as abroad: Poland, Lithuania, Hungary, Italy, Israel and Turkey.
Donnell never dreamed that she would go to Lithuania.
“For me, the tour and the travel has been so wonderful to really be able to recognize the differences in cultures. Learning about cultures around the world has really made me take pride in who I am and also realize that there is no right way or wrong way, we are all here to celebrate,” Donnell said.
The Isaacs Center’s President and Executive Director, Greg Morris, noted in his remarks during the presentation that it was important for the city, for the country, to commemorate the hard struggle for equality.
“As we honor the rich history of Black Americans, and demonstrate in our words, actions, and deeds that Black Lives Matter, we reflect on the excruciating struggles for freedom and equality in our nation, as well as the remarkable demonstrations of perseverance and achievement. It is the effort we make—not just for a month, but every day—to call out and confront what is unjust and inequitable that defines us, and it is the commitment we make to struggle and overcome that heals us and brings us hope,” said Morris.
“I know I speak for my colleagues when I share that it is truly the honor and privilege of a lifetime to provide support to those in need, to be relentlessly committed to cultivating self-reliance and dignity, and to work to build a New York City that works for everyone.”