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Amherst planning townwide activities to celebrate Black History Month

When Black History Month arrives in February, though, there has been nothing of similar magnitude to embrace the scope of contributions of black Americans to the history and culture of the United States, say members of a group who aim to change that.

This month, members of the Human Rights Commission are setting out to develop visual and performing arts programs, known as the Black History Month Project, or BHM Project, and BHM Project Unplugged.

Carol Ross, who is spearheading the effort with fellow members Ingrid Askew and Kathleen Anderson, sees the two projects as a way to bring the community together and give real focus to the month.

“This will encourage dialogue in a healthy way. This creates tradition and takes Black History Month in a new direction,” Ross said.

“Amherst is known as a progressively liberal town,” Ross added. “Let’s make sure it walks the talk.”

The most visible project will come Feb. 16, when, using a successful model developed at Halloween, artists and high school students will paint the windows at storefronts throughout downtown.

“For two weeks following that, it’s like Amherst will be an exhibit,” Ross said.

Ross said the imagery will focus on how black history impacts American society.

“This will be the first time as a community. Let’s make it about relevance, not just race,” Ross said.

Local artist Toby Barnes is already working with the high school art team on the project. Other artists are being recruited to assist.

Leisure Services and Supplemental Education, the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce and the Business Improvement District are all supporting the project.

“It is an exciting happening that a city or town in some state of the United States is bringing public recognition to the lives of those people who have made the U.S. what it is today,” Anderson said.

Beyond the familiar

While most children and adults know about King and Rosa Parks, Anderson said many other important figures get short shrift.

“There are many other people who have contributed to the way of life we have come to expect. There are so many people whose lives and brainpower have made life in every part of the world better and safer,” Anderson said.

Garrett Morgan, who invented the modern traffic light and gas mask, Lewis Latimer, who assisted in creating the light bulb, and Dr. Benjamin Carson, a neurologist and physician, are a few examples, Anderson said. Students may also choose from unsung heroes from Amherst.

What ends up as art will be up to the imagination of the participating artists and the students who help out.

“We want to make it fun. Let it speak to the voice of the youth,” Ross said.

Ross said the project comes at a time when cultural distinctions, especially among younger generations, are disappearing.

“As we progress as people, these lines are getting more and more blurred,” Ross said.

The organizers hope the project will also be a boost to downtown as visitors come to see the works. Educational brochures about the project may be available at stores and restaurants and plans are under way for the painting to be documented by Amherst Media, videographers with the Youth Action Coalition and an audiovisual team from the high school, who will interview participants about the meaning of Black History Month.

The window painting takes place the same day as the “Walk for the People, Walk for the Earth” peace and disarmament walk organized by the Leverett Peace Pagoda. That begins at Pulaski Park in Northampton at 11 a.m. Feb. 16 and concludes with a community potluck at the Jones Library at 5:30 p.m., with Charmaine White Face, a member of the Oglala Sioux tribe, discussing uranium mining at 7 p.m.

Meanwhile, BHM Unplugged takes place Feb. 21, from 7 to 9 p.m. at Town Hall.

Askew said she is soliciting artists who can perform anything from spoken word and hip-hop pieces to those who want to show off their dance moves.

“We’re initiating this for people to come and share their interpretation of Black History Month,” Askew said.

Works can be specifically about the month, such as how celebrating black history affects their lives, or focus on the future.

Askew has spent several years living in South Africa and has worked with hip-hop artists.

Artists interested in assisting with the visual displays can call Ross at 347-415-6083 or carross_2000@yahoo.com. Those who want to perform should get in touch with Askew at 413-328-0961 or ingridaskew@gmail.com.

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