Black History Month (Virtual) Celebration
RMS February/March 2021
Background: 2020 marked Rutland Middle School’s first ever Black History Month Celebration, which was a live performance featuring student artwork, music, and poetry. In the midst of the pandemic, we knew our celebration would look different this year. In January 2021, Social Studies teacher, Katie Geno, and Music teacher, Allie Griffiths, organized a committee of 10+ students who were interested in producing this year’s BHM Celebration.
Process: Over the course of January and February 2021, students met at least weekly and oftentimes outside of school to create a program that was powerful and educational to share with their peers and the community. They wanted to feature the message “Know Justice, Know Peace.” As teachers, we siphoned their knowledge, curiosities, and talents into a plan to create a virtual celebration video. Throughout the committee meetings, students engaged with poetry, art, and music ranging from the antebellum years to the Civil Rights Movement to the protests of Summer 2020. We sifted through work from multiple eras and genres of the African American diaspora and settled on what the students thought was most important: that American history IS Black history. The students were particularly fascinated by Billie Holiday and “Strange Fruit”–the first protest song of the Civil Rights Movement. They debated on the tone they wanted to set, some worrying that too much solemnity would disengage some viewers; what resulted is a mixture of sorrow, joy, and hope.
Mrs. Geno helped students curate posters and historical photos to include in the video; Ms. Griffiths rehearsed with the singers, rappers, and songwriters via Zoom. The students also requested that Ms. Griffiths sing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” because they wanted it to have the gravitas it deserved, while recognizing that Zoom rehearsals are challenging. Jorden Watson, 8th grade, created two original tracks, one of which was directly inspired by “Strange Fruit” and features Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s voice. Phoenix Valle-Downes, 8th grade, performed the poem as a rap over Watson’s composition. Students used the cloud-based digital audio workstation, SoundTrap, to collaborate remotely. Another 8th grader, Dominic Arbuiso, was so inspired by “Strange Fruit” that he created a partner poem called “black holocaust.” Rihanna Freeman, 7th grade, wrote a piece called “Hope,” which she recites with great poise and confidence. Ending the video is Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me,” performed by 8th graders Amaya Tonda and Georgia Gaines–both remote students; images of the July 2020 protest in Rutland are juxtaposed with images of the Freedom Summer.
“I got inspired by a YouTuber who combats bullying and racism on his channel.” – Dominic Arbuiso
“It bothers me that it’s only the 2nd annual Black History Month Celebration at RMS. There are so many people and stories to still share. I learned more about Black entrepreneurs, singers, and I like that we’re doing this because then people will know that racism isn’t a one-time thing–it’s still going on.” – Amyah Gomes
“A lot of people don’t really understand how it feels to be Black. It’s a way to put them in our perspective.” – Jorden Watson
“I learned more about Black Americans than I knew before.” – Leah Potter
“I do believe this is one of the best opportunities I have received to show part of the community what Black history month is all about.” – Rihanna Freeman