A Time of Celebration

By Charles McKenzie, March 21, 2023
Black History Month events take center stage at IC.

During February, Ithaca College hosted a series of events in honor of Black History Month. Students, alumni, and faculty had turns in the spotlight over the course of the month. Several signature events included the BIPOC Students and Allies Showcase February 22, the Black History Month Concert on February 23, and the Community Celebration on February 24.

“Throughout February, our Whalen Center for Music has reverberated with the joyous sounds of community and collaboration,” Ithaca College President La Jerne Terry Cornish told a celebratory crowd in Ford Hall, capping off concerts that included music ranging from classic hymns to Beyoncé and African drums. 

Music and dance pieces came from around the world, including Ithaca’s historic Southside neighborhood in a thrilling multi-night celebration that literally and figuratively uplifted voices of color. The evenings were largely organized by Baruch Whitehead, associate professor of music education, along with student, community, and faculty leaders. 

The BIPOC Students and Allies Showcase featured 10 different performances in the Hockett Family Recital Hall, from the classic “Summertime” from “Porgy and Bess” to the more modern title song from “Dreamgirls.” Sprinkled throughout were pieces from the Philippines, India and Brazil, among other countries.  

“Because of my work in Ithaca with Dr. Nia Nunn, I definitely have a passion for bringing about social justice specifically through education. There’s so much power in that. I’m learning that this is what I was created for, to try to bring radical transformation and healing to everything that I touch.”

Nicole-Bethany Onwuka ’22

The evening was arranged by Whitehead and student director Alexa Rahman ’24, who also contributed a moving violin piece called “Adoration.”

During a break between pieces, ICUnity, an alumni volunteer group that supports diversity-related programs and events, gave out awards to two recent alumni.

“What they’ve done at such a young age is so impressive. I am envious,” said ICUnity president Gary Gilbert ’91.

One recipient, clinical health studies graduate Treasure Blackman ’22, DPT ’24 sent a message to the audience at the event.

“I was gifted the opportunity to serve the Ithaca College community, whether that be as an RA or with the Black and Brown communities here,” she said. “I saw that as a gift to do community organizing, bringing communities together, bridging gaps, pouring into other emerging leaders just as other leaders had poured into me.

“I’ve learned a lot about structural imbalances that keep underrepresented communities oppressed and how to best combat that oppression,” said Blackman, who received the Du Bois/Mandela Scholarship as a senior.  

Nicole-Bethany Onwuka ’22, an actress, singer, and educator who received the Chung/Thorpe Leadership award as a senior and who still works and performs in Ithaca, was also honored at the event. She thanked the student and faculty leaders who are “creating space for POC communities here.”

Dancer on stage

The events also included an opportunity for the Ithaca College West African Drumming and Dance Ensemble to perform. (Photo by Charles McKenzie)

“Because of my work in Ithaca with Dr. Nia Nunn, I definitely have a passion for bringing about social justice specifically through education,” she continued. “There’s so much power in that. I’m learning that this is what I was created for, to try to bring radical transformation and healing to everything that I touch.”

Nunn, who is an associate professor in the Department of Education at IC, saw her work literally take center stage on Thursday night, as the venue went back to Ford Hall. After a performance from the college’s West African Drumming and Dance Ensemble directed by Whitehead, Nunn’s Community Unity Music Education Program (CUMEP) filled the hall with uplifting songs and call-and-response cheers.

CUMEP is a not-for-profit multicultural performing arts and human rights education program established in 2002. It serves children from all communities, but particularly children from inner-city neighborhoods in Ithaca. It was established by Whitehead along with Nunn’s father, Fe Nunn ’80, who led a song during the performance.

The audience included those outside of the IC family as well. During the Community Celebration, President Cornish welcomed members of the Greater Ithaca Activities Center (GIAC) to Ford Hall.  

“Our community is honored to host the members of a center that has positively impacted the quality of life for individuals and families in Tompkins County for the past 50 years,” she said. “GIAC provides crucial multicultural services focused on the social and individual development of some of Tompkins County’s most vulnerable: children and families, at-risk youth and adults, the underrepresented and the disenfranchised.”

The stage was soon aflutter in a rousing amalgamation of jumpers, dancers, singers and brief Black History lessons offered by current GIAC students.

“For many of us Black Americans, our Black History is often being erased, but tonight, we’re not letting that happen,” said GIAC director Leslyn McBean-Clairborne. “We are bringing to this stage our culture and everything that tells you who we are. When we were broken, when we were in despair, we sang.”

The week also included the curated show “Lisette: A Song’s Journey from Haiti and Back” by assistant professor of vocal performance Jean Bernard Cerin. It featured a screening of a short documentary in Ford Hall that traced the long and varied history of ‘Lisette quitté la plaine,’ the oldest song text in Haitian Creole from its first setting in colonial Saint Domingue to its adaptations in France, Louisiana, and modern Haiti, along with 11 wide-ranging performances.

All three nights were kicked off by the stirring “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a hymn that has become known as the Black National Anthem, performed by the Dorothy Cotton Jubilee Singers.

Standing together as one, they sang a fitting tribute to the eclectic showcases:
“Lift every voice and sing,
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the listening skies.”