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Exploring the Key Questions

Exploring the Key Questions
Rachel Nagler, Director of Community, Equity, and Inclusion

This year’s Black History Month national theme is “African Americans and the Arts.” Syracuse University Professor and President of the National Art Education Association James Haywood Rolling Jr. said “African American artwork examines several key questions African Americans have struggled to address, perhaps more than any other people group in the United States. Who are we as a people? Who am I as a human being? What is my value to the world? African Americans have had to create a new identity as valuable citizens in a nation where the first African men, women and children were transported here to be treated as little more than beasts of burden.”

At Dana Hall we are continually exploring similar questions as a community. For African American students the question of humanity is an inheritance that is deep and complex. This category, Africaness and Americaness, draws attention to this distinction, to the importance and passage from Africa to America. 

Art in all its forms documents the human experience, history, time and place. Art marks the passage of time through traditional oral story-tellling,  dance, visual and performing arts. This month we invited storyteller Ben Cunningham, pictured above with some of our Middle School students, to perform for the entire school; his visit engaged us and asked us questions, and we relished the experience of being told a story. Students were drawn to Ben’s ability to take personal experiences and interweave creative instruments to learn powerful lessons of connection and kindness. It is also in February that we have the Choral Concert’s tribute to Janet Jackson and the Dance concert in early March. Our students are on stage, back stage, and in the audience sharing their gifts and pushing themselves to produce and impact their community through the act of creating. The questions Rolling poses extend past the confines of just one month, as all of our students look inward to examine such large and overarching questions. 

Who are we as a people? 

Our students often explore this question in our affinity and alliance group spaces. This year, Kesher, our Jewish student alliance group, is grappling with this heavily, as is SHADES, our Black/Latiné affinity space, during both Hispanic Heritage Month and Black History Month. Additionally, this question gets explored in academic classes across multiple disciplines. 

Who am I as a human being? 

Thinking about this year's Black History Month theme, I see our students growing and examining this question through visual arts projects that explore the textures of home, that allow them to consider both the cultural and the personal attributes that define and inform their humanity. I see them singing and dancing and moving their bodies through space in both original and traditional ways, linking their present selves to the past. 

What is my value to the world? 

Immeasurable. This is what we strive for at Dana Hall. For our students to be known, seen and heard. To know their value and how to increase their limitless value by making positive contributions to their communities. 

As you consider these questions and their myriad answers, I offer you films and art to deepen your exploration. Here is what we will be watching, viewing and reading this February:  

Black Art: In the Absence of Light (streaming)
The Color Purple (in theaters and streaming)
The Hate U Give ( streaming and reading) 
The Embrace Monument in Boston
See You Yesterday (streaming) 
A Ballerina’s Tale (streaming) 
Parent/Alumnae Book Club Read: Master Slave Husband Wife: An Epic Journey from Slavery to Freedom by Ilyon Woo 
Walking Tour: African American Women in 19th-century Cambridge, Massachusetts