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Black History Month Comes to Life

Youth Gives Voice to Trailblazers

by Darla Carter | Presbyterians Today

The youth at New Hope Presbyterian Church in Anaheim, California, celebrated Black History Month in 2021 by portraying their favorite African American trailblazers in a series of videos. Courtesy of New Hope Presbyterian Church

New Hope Presbyterian Church in Anaheim, California, was having its regular service online when a young girl wearing a white lab coat and pink turtleneck came onscreen and introduced herself as Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, a trailblazing African American.

“Greetings, I am a scientist, and my name is Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, and I am 35 years old,” she said. “I am from North Carolina, and I have a Ph.D. in microbiology and immunology. I will go down in history for leading the effort to solve the global pandemic. I led a team of scientists to study and develop the COVID-19 vaccine.”

The “actress” was a participant in New Hope’s living history museum, a series of videos featuring kids, ages 6–14, from the church. The videos, honoring prominent figures in Black history, aired each week last February.

“Every year for Black History Month, we try to do something that involves our youth,” said Carol Nealy, who came up with the idea for the project and serves as moderator for the church’s youth advisory board.

Normally, the kids would have presented the living history museum in person, but the board had to pivot because of the global pandemic, Nealy said. Families were asked to record their children at home and then send the videos to the church’s media team to be woven into online services. Kids wrote their own scripts and decided how they wanted to present themselves on camera. It was impressive “how our youth just really embraced the concept, whether it was talking about someone who they admired or whether it was actually embodying the person” by dressing up in costume, Nealy said.

Kids were allowed to select the historical figure of their choice, with the overarching theme being science, technology, engineering, art and math. As the videos began to flow in, the media team was bowled over by the submissions, said the Rev. Chineta Goodjoin, who worked with her husband, Reginald, to create a stylized introduction set to a jazzy rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” — a hymn often referred to as the Black national anthem. The videos were all so good, she said, that “we weren’t going to leave any out.”

Among the figures highlighted in the videos were Madam C.J. Walker, an entrepreneur who made a fortune on Black hair products; civil rights activist William M. Trotter; the late Ozzie Davis and Ruby Dee, who were both actors; poet Amanda Gorman, who performed at the 2021 presidential inauguration; and U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris.

“One of the things that I really appreciated was that the kids got to have an appreciation for the shoulders that they stand on, and the legacy that they represent,” said Goodjoin. “Our church is a church that’s multi-ethnic, multicultural, and to see other cultures and races coming together for a common good and also standing on the shoulders of those who have historically fought for the rights of African Americans I think speaks to the church’s nature of inclusiveness and diversity.”

Standing in a baseball uniform, with a bat on his shoulder, a boy described how Jackie Robinson was the first African American allowed to play in Major League Baseball. “I became famous because I crossed the color line,” he said. However, “it wasn’t easy, you see,” he explained in a different part of the video. “There were fans, players and pitchers who hated me.”

The youth also described more obscure facts about Robinson, who was court-martialed for refusing to move to the back of a military bus. “Instead of moving to the back, I stood up,” Noble said in character.

In another segment, a teen took on the persona of Walker, whom she described as the first self-made female millionaire. “I created my own pomade formula, and I opened my own beauty school,” said the faux Walker, who also was a philanthropist and a social and political activist. “One of my quotes is ‘Don’t wait for opportunities to come. Get up and make them.’”

Another student brought Trotter to life by reading about the activist’s various accomplishments, including creating an all-Black political group and taking 20,000 signatures to the White House to fight segregation.

“So often, the stories of Black Americans are not taught in America’s classrooms,” said Goodjoin. “I just think it’s so important that the church fill in that gap.”

And having the children deliver the stories made them even more impactful. “When children speak, everyone listens,” Nealy said. “You get the attention of everyone, including other youth.”

Darla Carter is a communications associate for the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

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