Late last fall semester, five student groups from an “African Diaspora” class taught by Saheed Aderinto, Western Carolina University associate professor of history, gave presentations on the history and cultural presence of black people in the Americas to five world history classes taught by Emily Cash and Brittany Miller at Smoky Mountain High School.
Their presentations coincided with WCU’s interdisciplinary learning theme “Africa! More than a Continent.”
“Although the presentations of the students varied widely, a common thread was the contributions of black people to a shared global culture of food, philosophy, dress, music, artistic ingenuity and intellectualism,” Aderinto said. “They emphasized that the presence and experience of black people permanently changed the cultural landscape of the Americas and contributed to the multiculturalism and diversity of the Western Hemisphere.”
The students’ work and presentations speaks to WCU’s commitment to diversity in multiple forms, he said. “From the stories about food, dress, philosophy and artistic culture of the Afro-Caribbean to that of Kwanzaa and Harlem Renaissance, the students gave impressive analysis that highlighted the significance of African and black culture in an exciting manner,” Aderinto said.
Each group presentation featured the making of Yoruba female headgear (known as “gele”), drumming and a question-and-answer session.
A student group composed of Sherae Bonner, Paul Bruce, Tori Bugg, Annie Cameron, Mckenzie Chapman and Casey Creech presented on Afro-Caribbean culture, emphasizing how the geographical location of the Caribbean allowed the region to absorb and transform multiple cultures from around the world.
Today, Haiti is generally seen as the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, but on the eve of the Haitian Revolution in 1791, the former French colonial territory was the most prosperous colony in the entire region, Aderinto said. A group that included Ryan Curry, Katie Derreberry, Makayla Deviney, Bryan Ferguson, Marilyn Goble and Elizabeth Iannuzzi made the point that the story of Haiti transcends the horror of poverty and earthquake reproduced in mainstream media, he said.
Beginning in the 1920s, a rebirth of African-American culture took place in the New York City neighborhood of Harlem. “The Harlem Renaissance, as this rebirth is called, highlighted the history, literature, music, and artistic achievement of African-Americans during the horrific era of Jim Crow,” Aderinto said. “However, the cultural impact of the Harlem Renaissance went beyond the story of African-Americans in continental America, as students Leslee Kanupp, Justin Kidd, Stefan Koeckeritz, William Lee, Samantha Marchese and Jasmine McAllister affirmed. Many Harlem Renaissance artists and performance, such as Josephine Baker, moved to Europe to introduce Jazz to countries like France. Harlem became a mecca for Africans around the world who wanted to partake in a cultural and artistic movement that positively transformed the image and identity of black people.”
The students in another group, Joseph Mintah, Amber Moskal, Adam Parent, Michaela Proffitt and Michael Shaw, used the biography of Bob Marley (1945-1981) to explain the intersections of popular culture, idea of global peace and African cultural survival in Jamaica.
When Mualana Karenga created the Kwanzaa festival in the mid-1960s, he hoped for an event that would bring African-Americans together to reflect on common ideas and principles, Aderinto said. A student group composed of Shirlene Scott, Tiana Suddreth, Carleen Turner, Carly Walls, Jaime Watkins and Samantha Wayne noted that the formation and character of Kwanzaa promote the significance of African cultural root in America. “Observed from December 26 to January 1, Kwanzaa and its elements borrowed heavily from African culture of sacrifice, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, creativity, community cohesion, and celebration of the gift of life,” Aderinto said.
The presentations were “hugely successful and an eye-opening experience for both WCU and Smoky Mountain students,” he said.