When local artist and art professor Wendell Brown’s father was born in 1920, there was no Black History Month. Descendents of American slaves celebrated Emancipation Day instead.
“In the ’20s, there were people who had a direct link to slavery in the 1860s,” Brown says. “Someone who was a child in 1860 could still be alive in 1920 and remember slavery.”
By the time the assistant professor at Benedict College was a boy, however, the idea of Emancipation Day had faded.
“When I was little, I remember having Black History Week,” Brown says. It wasn’t until 1976 that the recognition of African-American History had grown into a month-long celebration.
Over the years, the word “Harambee” (pronounced “hah-RAHM-beh” — Swahili for “together pushing forward”) has been applied to the effort to see this part of history legitimized. In Columbia, this act of coming together will occur on Saturday at the Harambee Festival at Benedict College. Each year, thousands of people are drawn to the college to experience music, stage performances, food, music, art and more.
The college began celebrating this festival as an effort to unite the college and its neighbors as a community. Now in its 25th year, the 2014 festival will include a highlight of six Anheuser-Busch “Kings and Queens of Africa” paintings. The paintings — 30 altogether — were commissioned from 23 African-American artists by the company in 1975 and donated to the United Negro College Fund in 2012; the fund then distributed the paintings to several member schools, including Benedict.
Benedict was one of six historically black colleges to receive pieces from the collection, which features paintings of historic African rulers such as Cleopatra and Pharaoh Akhenaton with his wife, Queen Nefertiti.
This year, Brown worked with the Harambee committee to put together an interactive exhibition that gives people “an opportunity to build on and learn about the community in new and elevated ways.” The pieces will be shown alongside a collection of African artifacts, including traditional masks, Liberian ankle bracelets, and pieces from Nigeria and South Africa.
“The exhibition gives us a first-hand view of history that’s often been forgotten, and to excavate the story of African-American history in a way that puts it in a global perspective,” Brown says.
This will be done by letting visitors to the first and third floors of the Mays Human Resources Arena use “paints, crayons and markers to color in iconic African kings and queens, becoming actively involved in creating the pictures and becoming connected to what they’re learning.”
Kings and Queens of Africa will open Thursday and run through the Harambee Festival weekend until Sunday, Feb. 24.
Can events like these drive black history to become part of mainstream culture?
“Ask me again in 50 years,” Brown says, “but seeing how it’s progressed, it may be.”
All Harambee Festival events are free and open to the public. The festival runs from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. A full schedule of events can be found at benedict.edu/harambee.
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