story & photos
by Vito J. Leo
Whether it was planned that Black History Month would coincide with the month of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, or whether it was simply the good fortune of 12-to-1 odds, as of now these two celebrations of US history are intertwined, much as the memory of the log cabin president is inevitably linked to the abolition of slavery in America.
And with the recent Inauguration of Barack Obama on January 20, in the same month when the Rev. Martin Luther King is honored nationally, January is fast becoming symbolic for African-Americans as well.
But for now, the shortest of all months stands tallest among African-Americans and earlier this month, students at Eastern CT State University were able to gain insights concerning both Honest Abe and the Black experience through events scheduled on back-to-back nights: a re-creation of the legendary Lincoln-Douglas debates took place on February 9, followed, the next evening, by a storytelling session sponsored by the University’s Intercultural Center.
Drew Mizak, Groton, wore the trademark Abraham Lincoln stovepipe hat and Luke Boyd, Wallingford, took the role of Stephen Douglas. The two senior political science majors used words from the original debates in their presentations and then used their own words in an impromptu post-debate Q&A session. Audience members posed questions that Drew and Luke responded to in character with answers they thought their historical persona might give.
“I didn’t find out about the question-answer part until right before we started, so it was kind of nerve-wracking doing it,” said Drew who is presently student-teaching at Stonington High School.
Drew said he had to depend on his own knowledge to answer the questions fired at him by fellow students, but, in the end, “it was all a good learning experience with a lot of fun involved.”
Both young men were convincing in their portrayal of these two historic Americans, in part due to the many hours of preparation leading up to the faux debate.
“It ended up being a lot more work than I thought it would be, but it was worth it,” said Drew who was approached to take part in the event by Professor William Salka who conceived the idea.
Although the debate re-creation focused on a real-life event, the next night’s activity revolved around allegorical tales handed down vocally from one generation to the next.
And while the stories weaved by Professor Raouf Mama spoke of some surreal aspects of life, (e.g., losing health while chasing wealth, then using wealth to regain one’s health), no one could doubt the very real deliciousness of the African-American dishes prepared by John Cyr, executive chef, and his crew in the University’s dining services department.
More than 50 people enjoyed the ethnic dishes which included curry chicken skewers with peppers and pineapple, succotash, jerk chicken, carrot salad and chewy homemade slices of sweet-tasting Naan flatbreads.
The entrees were as diverse as their origins, according to a resident of Africa studying for a degree in international business.
Musonda Lumande, who came to the Willimantic campus from Zambia some three years ago, said she was “surprised and pleased to learn how many different types of African-Americans there are in the US,” all stemming from the same roots but budding into a variety of branches from Compton to the Caribbean.
More events celebrating Black History Month are scheduled at the Eastern CT State University Student Center, including a one-person theatrical performance entitled “They Call Me Lizzie” on February 18 and an inspirational lecture by Sarah Parker, author, “Uncle Tom’s Plantation” on February 25. Both events begin at 3 p.m.
Professor Indera Petosky, Intercultural Center Director, will oversee the planning of both events and she’s hopeful they will be as well-attended as the storytelling proved to be.
“I think it all went very well this evening,” said Indera, who insists that African-American History Month is the more au courant designation of what, she admits, most of her peers still refer to as “Black History Month.”
But call it what you may, February is full of reasons to look back proudly on those Americans of all colors who have come before us.