Black History Month events focus on past, present, future of black life


Image via the National Archives of the United States

Rep. K. Leroy Irvis, former speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, delivers an address during the commissioning of the nuclear-powered attack submarine U.S.S. Pittsburgh.

By Grace Giglio, For The Pitt News

Pittsburghers remember K. Leroy Irvis as a devoted politician, activist and writer. The organizers of this year’s Black History Month celebrations decided to honor the first and only black speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives by naming the festivities after him.

The K. Leroy Irvis Black History Month Program “Black to the Future: A Festival of Art, Social Justice, and Dreaming” is a four-day celebration that reflects Irvis’ activism and engagement, featuring artists, political leaders and dynamic cultural performances to explore the theme of activism through art.

The festival will occur next week from Feb. 26 to 29, with the first three days in Oakland, before shifting to East Liberty for the final day of festivities. The celebration is free and open to all Pitt students and community members, offering a diverse and inclusive range of cultural activities from opera to hip-hop and dance workshops to poetry parties.

Festival organizers come from across the University, including the Jazz Studies program, Africana Studies department and Office of Diversity and Inclusion. They decided to take a fresh approach to planning Black History Month this year, diverging from the traditional structure of panels and speeches. Organizers designed an interactive festival lineup to reflect upon past and present, encouraging attendees to imagine future possibilities of black life.

Ron Idoko, diversity and multicultural program manager in the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, said he was excited to think beyond the standard format and plan a celebration based on community participation.

“Our committee thought, let’s not go the traditional route,” Idoko said. “We really wanted to explore what it means to live and engage with activism through art. We have all this variety to really show the dynamism in terms of how art can be used to relay messages.”

Idoko added that, through these cultural activities, organizers seek to encourage a better understanding of diversity and inclusion on the individual and community level. 

“Diversity talks about the various dimensions in which we are different,” Idoko said. “Inclusion allows us to bring our full selves, prompting us to think about how we can further engage dimensions of diversity that aren’t always highlighted.”

Oronde Sharif, an Africana Studies lecturer, said diversity and inclusion is about celebrating everyone at Pitt and sparking conversation to embrace both differences and similarities. He is looking forward to participating in the KanKouran West African Dance Company’s dance workshop and performance on Feb. 29, which will showcase multi-generational dancers.

“Culture and festivals are for everyone,” Sharif said. “The dance performance on Saturday will take the audience on a journey drawing from spiritual dance and tradition, transitioning through places of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.”

Hailey Baxter, a sophomore pharmacy student, said she was excited to learn more about the festival’s theme of art as activism.

“Art is definitely a good means of activism,” Baxter said. “It’s important to be able to tell a story from experience and share our humanity through that.”

But Idoko said an important part of education is to think not only about the past, but also what possibilities lie in the future.

“I think it creates a stronger campus environment when we all learn about each other,” Idoko said. “I’d really like to see a wide, broad and diverse audience coming in to become engaged in this celebration.”

The month’s events include:

  • African American Alumni Council present Black to the Future ceremonial time capsule burial: Feb. 27 at 3 p.m. in Alumni Hall’s Connolly Ballroom
  • Reading Justin Phillip Reed with poetry and performance: Feb. 27 at 6:30 p.m. in the Henry Heymann Theatre
  • Black to the Future art reception, showcase and panel discussion: Feb. 28 at 4:30 p.m. in Alumni Hall’s Connolly Ballroom
  • Community dance workshop by KanKouran West African Dance Company: Feb. 29 at 1 p.m. at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater’s Alloy Studios
  • KanKouran West African Dance Company performance of “Circle of Praise”: Feb. 29 at 6 p.m. at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater
  • Poetry party hosted and deejayed by Simone White: Feb. 29 at 8 p.m. at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater

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