WHITE OAK — Black History Month is a highly anticipated time of the year for many people, and the Montgomery County Alumnae Chapter Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., had a unique message to send as part of its yearly observance of Black history.
This year, the Arts and Letters Committee of the local Delta chapter held a celebration of Black history through the arts at the White Oak Community Center on Feb. 9. The program – themed “Doors to the Past, Windows to the Future: Letting Our Light Shine” – highlighted Black women’s legacy surrounding the arts and spotlighted artistic talent among local youth.
According to event organizers, the program’s goal was to inspire and encourage the young students in the audience to embrace their culture, stay academically focused and get involved in their communities.
“We develop our programs so that we can collaborate with the county’s programs and the Montgomery County School system to try to give these kids a chance at life,” said local chapter president Mona Williams, who emphasized her organization’s commitment to help reduce the achievement gap in the county.
“We want our young people to remember their heritage, and we want them to think positively and reach beyond their current goals so that they can excel, become outstanding community citizens, and then come back and give back to the community.”
The social hall of the White Oak Community Center, comprised of dozens of Black residents from the Montgomery County community, was also decorated — with Delta members arrayed in their sorority’s apparel and Afrocentric garments.
Siblings Mikala Wingate and David Wingate kicked the event off by performing “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” known the Black National Anthem. The Elite Step Team of Eastern Middle School gave spirited dance performances, and percussionist Khalil Abdul-Wakeel performed the charity single, “We Are the World,” on the drums.
Local chapter co-chair Crystal Roberts said the program this year was largely centered around “listening to the message from our young people” through a pointed focus on the arts — dance, music, literature, etc.
“Our history is rich, and right here in Montgomery County we have a plethora of young adults who are just superbly talented and should be celebrated,” Roberts said.
In the program’s highlight performance, keynote speaker Gayle Wald delivered an in-depth presentation on the legacy of three prominent Black historical figures in the arts: Zora Neale Hurston, author, folklorist and anthropologist during the Harlem Renaissance era; composer and musician Ella Jenkins, known as the “First Lady of Children’s Music”; and Rhiannon Giddens, a singer and banjoist who leads the Grammy award-winning folk group “Carolina Chocolate Drops.”
Wald, an author and professor of English and American Studies at George Washington University, sought to “do justice to the past and contemplate the future through the stories of Black women” in her 20-minute presentation, she said.
“The solution I’ve come up with today is to explore the very notion of Black history and its relation to our past,” Wald said in opening her presentation.
The relationship between the artistic work of Hurston, Jenkins and Giddens, Wald concluded, shows the world that “history is hidden in plain sight,” and their contributions to global Black culture “build[s] bridges over time and space, providing doors to the past and windows to the future.”
Wald was invited to speak by Wilsonia Cherry, the former deputy director of the division of education programs with the National Endowment for the Humanities.
“It’s moving to me when any community takes the time to think about where it came from and kind of do that as a collective,” Wald said with regard to the program’s significance.
“So, I think those rituals of remembering — thinking about the future, remembering the past are always community-building to help people navigate the world, so I think this kind of event is really important for people.”
Members in the audience showed their enthusiasm by applauding each performance and presentation. Kisha Smith, a county resident and Delta sorority member, said she showed up at the event to support her fellow sorors. She said the program sent a message of unity, cultural expression and artistic excellence.
“I think the program gave a very good overview of the historical significance of having to know our history,” said Deloris Cole, a native of Annapolis, longtime resident of Rockville and one of the elderly members of the local Delta Chapter who were acknowledged during the ceremony.
“The traditions were also noted, particularly the Black National Anthem ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing,’ and the significance of stepping. And then the background of the music industry and what that has meant to our culture.”