Every February, Oakland schools are normally busy with performances, assemblies, and exhibits that celebrate Black History Month. With the COVID-19 pandemic keeping schools closed and preventing in-person gatherings, Oakland Unified School District students and staff have had to pivot to virtual events this year.
Last year’s killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the uprisings against police brutality, and conversations about systemic racism that followed, have strongly influenced many of this year’s Black History Month events, including OUSD’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Oratorical Festival. The theme this year for what’s become an annual showcase—which also inspired an Emmy award-winning HBO documentary—is “Where Do We Go From Here?: ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’”
Awele Makeba, the producer of the oratorical festival, said she chose the theme “based on the past year, living in the pandemic, living in a time of injustice and inhumane practices,” and wondering about the need for change.
vote for the mlk oratorical documentary
“We Are the Dream: The Kids of the Oakland MLK Oratorical Fest,” which recently won an Emmy Award, is also nominated for an NAACP Image Award. You can vote for it online in the Outstanding Children’s Program category.
In past years, hundreds of Oakland students performed poetry, speeches, or monologues at their schools to qualify for the district-wide competition, which would take place over several days in the auditorium at Skyline High School. This year, students can either pre-record their orations and submit them to judges, or perform them live over Zoom. While the annual festival, in its 42nd year, won’t happen in person, there are some advantages to transforming a days-long live show into an online production, Makeba said. The virtual platform will allow grandparents, cousins, extended family from other states and countries to watch their students’ performances.
The district-wide oratorical competition will be broadcast on YouTube in March for the public to watch, said Makeba, who also teaches drama at Skyline High School. The dates of the final competition are still to be determined, as the school-wide contests will be happening until Feb. 19. Despite the loss of a central gathering place to support students from pre-K to high school in their performances, Makeba hopes that the Oakland community will still feel inspired by the students’ work.
“Just to bear witness, to see how amazing the young people are, to see the power of their voice and how they’ve discovered how to lift it up at such a young age, to see their wisdom in understanding social justice issues,” Makeba said. “When you look at the videos over time, it blows me away.”
Black Lives Matter Week of Action
The OUSD school board has designated the last week of February as “Black Lives Matter Week of Action.” Two programs within the district’s Office of Equity, African American Female Excellence and African American Male Achievement, are planning a week of online events for the OUSD community.
Themed “Keepin it Kwanzaa,” the celebration includes a Black college exhibition, a racial justice training for staff, a roundtable spotlighting Black students talking about their experiences in Oakland schools, and Jeopardy featuring trivia about Black history. Each event represents one of the seven principles of Kwanzaa, a December holiday that celebrates African-American culture.
Iminah Ahmad, the program manager of the African American Female Excellence program, said part of the reason for the theme is to highlight those values outside of December, when school is usually not in session.
“Black History Month is a great opportunity to do that, but we can’t limit it to just the month of February,” Ahmad said. “We have to find ways to embed this into the cultural practices of school districts like OUSD year-round.”
In previous years, other events in February were competing for people’s attention and attendance, Ahmad said. Since having the sessions online lowers the bar for participation, she thinks OUSD’s Black History Month programming could gain a wider audience this year.
Off-campus school celebrations thrive
School-based celebrations are also taking on a new format this year. At Fremont High School, performing arts teacher Kehinde Salter has been in charge of planning the Black History Month activities for the past four years, which usually include student dances, poetry readings, and reciting speeches from famous Black American historical figures.
In previous years, Salter usually began preparing for the February shows after Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in January, which gave her about six weeks of daily classes before a performance at the end February, she said. But with the distance learning schedule this year, she has far fewer meetings with her students to prepare, only six virtual sessions with her class. In the past, the celebrations would involve Salter’s drama, choir, and dance cohorts, but because OUSD high schools are on a quarter system this year, she only has her drama classes right now.
“I go through all of Black history from pre-colonialism to 2021. Because of the pandemic, I have six classes, the classes are only an hour and 15 minutes long,” she said.
The lessons are especially important for her to teach her classes because most of her students aren’t Black and a lot of them are newcomers to the United States and are unfamiliar with Black history, she said. But she emphasizes colonialism as a common thread between her students’ cultural histories and Black history.
“It’s a shared history. For anyone who lives in America, by studying Black history, you’re going to learn about American history,” Salter said.
For this year, she asked her students to record videos of themselves reading a particular piece of writing, like Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I A Woman,” and their reaction to it. Salter will then edit the recordings together into a 20-minute video that she’ll share with the school community and the entire district.
At Madison Park Academy, a school serving sixth to 12th grade in East Oakland, Taiwo Kujichagulia-Seitu takes on the Black History Month programming in February. Her plan is similar to Salter’s, but with sixth to eighth graders.
Her students are recording themselves narrating two children’s books: “Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters” and “Precious and the Boo Hag.” Their renditions will be edited together with illustrations from the books, which puts less pressure on students, she said. A third group of students is examining the promises of the Reconstruction period, the era following the Civil War when the U.S. government briefly promised to address the harms of slavery for newly freed Black Americans before abandoning those efforts after a backlash from white southerners.
“In the past I’ve always dealt with stage fright, but because there’s no stage, just them and a camera, no one’s looking directly at them— I’m primarily using pictures,” Kujichagulia-Seitu said. “I’m seeing students really shine, and I think that’s the biggest opportunity.”
Salter said she’s been impressed by students who rarely turn their cameras on during class but created prolific recordings of themselves for this project.
The other opportunity provided by the virtual format is that it allows more family and community members to watch and support. In previous years, Black History Month performances would take place during the school day, which made it difficult for working parents to attend.
“A lot of parents have never seen their children act or dance,” Kujichagulia-Seitu said. “I hope to see this level of engagement once we are back in school and to see some of these tools still being utilized.”