In honor of Black History Month, the University of Arkansas – Fort Smith’s Black Student Association kicked off a slate events Friday, Feb. 8, at the Blue Lion at UAFS Downtown. The kickoff celebration featured talks by area leaders and artistic performances, all relating to the African American experience in Fort Smith.
Black History Month, which takes place every February, serves as a time to honor and remember the history of African Americans while educating the American people about African Americans' cultural background and reputable achievements, both in history and current events.
Guests of Friday’s event, which was co-sponsored by the Black Student Association, the UAFS Campus Activities Board, UAFS Rotaract and the UAFS Jazz Catz, were asked to donate canned food items in lieu of an entrance fee, and the evening was emceed by UAFS students Shandreka McCullough and Davin Chitwood.
The first speaker of the night, State Representative Jay Richardson (District 78) spoke of a need for unity, and offered guests a three-fold mission to improving the world and honoring the legacy of those who forged the path of African American history.
“Vote, be informed, and be heard,” said Richardson. “Those are the things that our ancestors charged us to do because they did it ahead of us. Black history month is a time to look back at those who charted a path for us. Remember them. Act on the paths that they have laid for us, and continue to plow forward.
Between speakers, the event featured artists from across disciplines who shared songs and stories of the African American experience. Spoken word poems were performed by UAFS students Lela Belleton and Lynette Thrower. Belleton encouraged the crowd to refuse to let anyone put them - or their culture - into a box. The mad hatter wasn’t mad, she said in her poetic reading, but misunderstood.
Thrower read a powerful series of poems expressing the way she processed the black lives matter and me too movements. “I’d been somewhat mute,” Thrower said, “just because of the impact on me, the intensity of what had been going on, but once I finally was able to write about those issues, I wanted to share.”
Thrower departed the stage to wild applause from a captivated audience. “Being able to express, and have the community embrace those words and empathize and sympathize, it’s validation,” she said. “This event a huge deal, this is much needed and this opportunity is highly valuable.”
The Jazz Lab Ensemble performed a series of historical jazz songs from the African American music community, while the women of the UAFS Jazz Catz performed hits from legendary artists such as Aretha Franklin, Etta James and Ella Fitzgerald.
Fort Smith Police Chief Nathaniel Clark closed the evening with a moving, impassioned speech about Black History Month and respecting the leaders who sacrificed their lives to make way for future generations.
“Many years ago, when segregation was the law of the land, many communities were mesmerized by fear or traumatized by violence,” Clark said, “but nevertheless we had individuals who stood up with a dream of hope! And they stared hatred, and they stared exclusion, in the eyes. They broke down barriers. And they demanded justice, and they demanded equality.”
As he spoke, his wrist-watch resting on the podium in a nod to long-spoken preachers, the audience listened intently to a booming voice of encouragement.
“I challenge you all this evening to press for justice until the fire consumes your bones ... Press for equality like the children of Egypt, pressing on to the promised land. And water the seeds of potential that will bloom into hope and bloom into success.”
Clark also gave a powerful nod to his historic role in the criminal justice system of Fort Smith, urging listeners to, “invest as much capital into bringing justice to people, as we do in bringing people to justice.”
The Black Student Association will also host a viewing of “Selma" at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 12, at the theater of Windgate Art & Design, located at 535 N. Waldron Road, and a discussion panel titled "Safe Space: An Open Discussion About Social Injustice” on Monday, Feb. 25, also at the Windgate Theater.