Celebrating Black History Month: Cultural Reflections Part 1

February 4, 2022

Mary Baldwin University celebrates Black History Month 2022. *Responses have been edited for clarity and conciseness.*

African American students, faculty, and staff kick off MBU’s celebration of Black History Month by reflecting on artistic and scholarly works centered around the Black experience — and the profound impact those works have had on their lives. 

The two-part series begins with individual recommendations for great books, songs, albums, essays, movies, TV shows, and more. Each is accompanied by a contemplation of their personal significance. (Check out Part II of the series HERE.)    

Mary Baldwin University celebrates Black History Month 2022. *Responses have been edited for clarity and conciseness.*

JALIYAH BRYANT ’23

Ida B. Wells Honor Society
Kuumba Players’ Manager & Director
Class of ’23 SGA Vice President

TV show: A Different World 

Growing up in a military household overseas I felt like I lived in a bubble. My [African American] culture — or even Blackness in general — wasn’t celebrated outside of our home. 

So, when I started watching A Different World, it spoke to me immediately. The early 1990s sitcom centers around students attending a fictionalized historically Black college. It was the first time I could see myself reflected [in a mainstream media production]. Suddenly I was seeing Black people presented in a way that felt real: With positive images that were — and for that matter, still are — all too lacking in television and cinema. 

The show let me see and experience issues that were pertinent to my life through the lens of young Black adults. Here were normal, everyday people struggling to find themselves, to achieve fulfillment and success, personally, academically, and professionally. There was romance; there were victories and losses; there was friendship and family. And it all felt true. 

Watching A Different World, my cultural identity began to take shape. I saw incredible, amazing people. I saw reflections of my family and friends, my values, my dreams, all beautifully on display.

"A Different World" aired on NBC from 1987 – 1993.

ANDREA CORNETT-SCOTT

Chief Diversity Officer

Song: The African American Spiritual: “Ain’t Got Time to Die” 

W.E.B. Dubois called the Black church the greatest repository of African culture in the Americas. My identity as a Black woman has been shaped by my experience as a Christian believer raised in the Black church. Therefore, my song of choice comes from the heart of the Black worship experience — and it is one you can still hear sung at historically Black colleges today.

“Ain’t Got Time to Die” has touched my life in so many ways. It features in countless memories, and runs like a thread connecting events that often span decades of time. For instance, it was the hymn of invitation when I joined the church at the age of 7. Later, it was the soundtrack playing in my head when I answered my call to the ministry. 

As a child, I remember watching Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral on a black-and-white television and hearing Mahalia Jackson sing it with great fervor: 

So won’t you get out of my way, let me praise my Jesus. 

Get outta my way, let me praise my Lord. 

If I don’t praise him, the rocks are gonna cry out: 

Glory and honor, glory and honor, ain’t got time to die. 

Tears streamed down my mother’s face as Ms. Mahalia ended the song. She looked me in the eyes and said, “Don’t ever forget it.” I promised her that I would not. And I didn’t. 

As a graduate student, I used “Ain’t Got Time to Die” in the title of my master’s thesis. As a professor, I include its verse in the syllabus for my African American religion class. 

The words remind me it is my vocation as a Black woman to serve my community with all of my time, talent, and treasure. They remind me that when I keep busy serving my community — serving my students, serving my people — what I am really doing is praising God. “Ain’t Got Time to Die” calls me to remember the African philosophy of ubuntu: “I am because we are. And since we are, therefore am I complete.” 

For me, “Ain’t Got Time to Die” insists that I charge my community to go back and [reclaim important cultural knowledge] that they may have forgotten.

The Fisk University Jubilee Singers helped to raise awareness of African American spirituals through concerts and recordings under the direction of John W. Work, Jr., the first African American to collect and publish spirituals. Photograph taken between 1870 and 1880.

ALEXIS N. DEARMON ’23

Ida B. Wells Honor Society
Alpha Lambda Delta National Honor Society
Secretary of Greater Things Dance Ministry ’20 – ’22

An unnamed painting by visual artist and author Johnalynn Holland

This painting has been described as a metaphor for how white supremacy has poisoned Americans. It features a red, white, and blue serpent eating away the half-decomposed body of an African American woman. Her mouth is masked, silenced. The phrase “Breonna Taylor was murdered” is scrawled repeatedly through her long, braided hair. She gazes at the viewer with a sad, smoldering resolve.   

In an interview, the artist said: 

This is my reflection of my weariness from living in a world slowly — too slowly — realizing and reckoning with issues we have talked about for decades. … The venom of white supremacy will kill us all if we’re unable to molt its skin and start anew. 

While I agree with that statement, I see more than that in this work. To me, it also points to the [societal poison directed at] women in America, and Black women in particular. The woman in the painting is dying because she is being told all of the things that make her feel less than she is. She’s like a mirror urging us to understand a hidden message about ourselves: A Black woman is power. 

The painting reminds me that this society will continue to try to deteriorate us, but we have to keep fighting the battle [against racism and inequality], even when pieces of us seem to die. We can look to women such as Maya Angelou, Ida B. Wells, and Sojourner Truth for strength and inspiration. They overcame unimaginable odds, and made incredible sacrifices to do everything in their power to make life better for those that would come after them.

From left: An unnamed painting by artist and writer Johnalynn Holland; the artist posing for a photo.

EDWARD A. SCOTT

Professor of Philosophy

Song: “Giant Steps,” by John Coltrane

I discovered “Giant Steps” as a sophomore in college. I was jolted by composer/saxophonist John Coltrane’s virtuosity, his musical daring, and the risk he took to craft something technically difficult but sublime. I listened to it over and over again to follow his solo. I even sang along with him, scatting the twisting, speed-defying lines as he played.

I have no idea how often I have listened to this song since those early years of college so long ago. All I know is that it still jolts me as it did the first moment it came into my life. The song inspired me to want to live in such a way as to craft something technically difficult but sublime, to live as though my life were an instrument I could play with virtuosity.

Saxophonist John Coltrane's "Giant Steps" was released in 1960 and has since become one of the most revered jazz albums of all time.

CHASITY FORD ’23

Ida B. Wells Living Learning Community ’23
Kuumba Players Stage Manager ’20 – ’22
Black Student Alliance Secretary ’20 – ’21
Mary Baldwin University Choir President ’20 – ’21 

Movie: Moonlight 

Moonlight is a coming-of-age story about a gay African American boy, Charon, who lives with his drug-addicted mother in an impoverished Miami neighborhood. In it, Charon grapples with his identity and sexuality while experiencing the everyday struggles of childhood, adolescence, and burgeoning adulthood.

As a queer Black woman, the film impacted me hugely. Before watching Moonlight, my only example of a [gay Black person] came from the book, The Color Purple. But that didn’t exactly feature a happy outcome — and the work was set in the [first half of the 20th century], so it didn’t really seem to represent me. I still didn’t feel secure [openly embodying and presenting my identity]. 

I think that has a lot to do with the fact that queer Blackness is tremendously underrepresented. And even when it is portrayed in the media, the depictions are almost always negative, showing queer Black individuals like myself in violent, derrogatory, or harmful situations.  

So when I saw Charon’s life flash before my eyes in the theater, I was amazed. Watching him claim his identity and obtain peace [without anything terrible happening] let me know that I too can have a happy ending. I saw that it was safe to show love and to care. I felt affirmed in my identity as Black lesbian woman. I knew that it was okay for me to be who I really am. 

The film "Moonlight" was directed by Barry Jenkins and won an Academy Award for Best Picture in 2017.

AMY TILLERSON-BROWN 

History Department Chair
Dean of Mary Baldwin College of Women

Books: Black Reconstruction, by W.E.B. DuBois; The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison; Jubilee, by Margaret Walker; Native Son, by Richard Wright; Roots, by Alex Haley; Nikki Rosa, by Nikki Giovanni; Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Hurston; Daughters of the Dust, by Julie Dash

There are so many great books written by Black authors that I couldn’t bring myself to pick just one. Each of the above works centered around and normalized the experiences of Black people. In these stories, Black people were not at the margins: Their experiences, feelings, longings, disappointments, and successes were the starting point and throughline.

I have carried pieces of these works with me since I first encountered them. They remind me of the beautiful Black freedom struggle that I study, write about, and engage in. Each is a pathway to understanding the history and legacies of African descended people in the Americas — a history that I have a passion for learning about, being a part of, and celebrating.

The Bluest Eye was author Toni Morrison's debut novel. She won a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993.

JELANI MEYER ’22 

Majoring in English

Album: Ready to Die, by Notorious B.I.G. 

I listened to Ready to Die in its entirety for the first time during my freshman year of college. My high school English teacher had praised [the approach] for years, but — like adolescents are apt to do — I was dismissive. I’d heard popular Biggie songs like “Hypnotize” and “Juicy,” but listening to a 25-year-old album straight through? That wasn’t something people my age did. 

Yet as time went on I got intrigued. And when I finally gave it a try, it blew my mind. 

Ready to Die perfectly encapsulates the plight of a young Black man growing up in a certain kind of situation. It expresses the pressures that come from having to provide for your family, while at the same time going out into a world that’s never been kind to you. I could relate to that, because that’s how I’d felt. 

The album got me interested in Black history and society. I wanted to understand how African American communities had produced an artist like Notorious B.I.G. I started by researching the history of hip-hop, urbanization, and the policing of young African Americans. That led me to look into the musical lineage that connected African American spirituals to blues, jazz, funk, and eventually hip-hop. How could artists like Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis be the musical ancestors of a 2Pac or Notorious B.I.G? These are the questions I was asking as my exploration expanded beyond music to include films, literature — any Black cultural touchstones I could get my hands on. 

In this way, Ready to Die opened me to an entire universe, one that I was previously totally uneducated about. The album provided me with a feeling of true visibility and assurance that my experience growing up in Washington D.C. wasn’t isolated. Discovering that shared experience led me to find and understand my place within a much, much larger African American community.

Rapper Notorious B.I.G. released "Ready to Die" in 1994 to widespread critical acclaim. It is now considered one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time.

TYNISHA D. WILLINGHAM

Interim Provost and Chief Academic Officer
Professor of Education

The writings of feminist theorist and author bell hooks 

For me it is not an individual piece, but the body of work that the Black feminist, poet, theorist, and activist bell hooks contributed to the world. 

She’s famous for her efforts to explore the intersectionality of race, capitalism, and gender, and what she described as their ability to produce and perpetuate systems of oppression and class domination. But to me, I love the way she reminds us of the beauty of being Black. Also, how she impresses a deep sense of the power of love — the power of both loving oneself and others. 

I admire her breadth and range, as she’s written everything from children’s books, to poetry, to feminist and political essays, to scholarly treatises on education. The former are part of my own kids’ collection, because of the way they celebrate Black children as beautiful and joyous. Meanwhile, my career in education has been greatly inspired and influenced by works like Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Act of Freedom, and Teaching Critical Thinking: Practical Wisdom.  

I began reading bell hooks when I was a college student and, later in my life, was lucky enough to have the opportunity to work with her as a mentor and colleague.

Author-activist bell hooks was renowned for her scholarly work around race, gender, and feminism.

“The song inspired me to want to live in such a way as to craft something technically difficult but sublime, to live as though my life were an instrument I could play with virtuosity.”
professor of philosophy, Dr. Edward Scott

IN LIVING COLOR: The Architecture of Black Survival

Mary Baldwin University’s Office of Inclusive Excellence will be sponsoring special celebrations and events in observance of Black History Month throughout February. CLICK HERE to learn more and join the festivities.


Read Part II of our Black History Month
Reflections Series here.