February is Black History Month, and Kingston is celebrating as never before, with events scheduled nearly every day through the end of the month. Participants can pick up a printed 10-page passport guide as a souvenir, with facts and figures, and a comprehensive, easily navigable website, www.BlackHistoryMonthKingston.org., lists and describes all the events. There’s something for everyone — film screenings, jazz performances, lectures, kids’ activities an interactive discussion about racial justice, comedy slams … as well as a fund-raising (and sold-out) gala at the Library at the A.J. Williams-Myers African Roots Library on Gill Street that recognizes the achievements of two local African-Americans, Ben Wigfall and Tay Fisher. The programming touches on the breadth, richness and diversity of the African American experience, from Sojourner Truth to hip hop, black super heroes to West African drumming, fine art to community activism, soul food to the Underground Railroad — turning Kingston into an extraordinary touchstone for black culture.
The mastermind behind Kingston’s Black History Month extravaganza is Frank Waters, a resident of the Lace Mill who has brought the energy and expertise he previously invested in Black History events in Harlem to Kingston. Formerly a resident of the Bronx, Waters, who spent 10 years organizing events in New York City, wanted to leave the city after he and his wife, Shaniqua Waters, had their second child. Having spent weekends in the area, they moved to Kingston in 2012 (and since have had a third child). Waters got to know the community when he began organizing a kids fest, MyKingstonKidsFest, which was held at the Lace Mill last May. Waters turned that event into a vocation, hosting activities for kids and creating an online resource for local kids and parents called MyKingstonKids.
Waters got involved with the African Roots library after being introduced to a board member in June and in the course of helping promote the library got the idea to put together a comprehensive Black History Month program. “The Department of Parks and Recreation and the churches do a few things, but nothing’s connected together and you can’t find information from one location, so I said ‘hey let’s do a black history month,’” he said. “We will plan events and those who want to create their own can be part of it.” He took his cue from Harlem Week, which has existed for 45 years and “has various activities and programs going on, with a kick-off event in Gracie Mansion.”
Waters began making inquiries to see if there was local interest. His goal was “to bring more African-Americans out to participate with the rest of the community, because it seemed they weren’t really a part of it.” The response was enthusiastic. “It’s been overwhelming and fantastic,” he said. “So many people want to participate.” Waters encouraged people and groups to organize their own events, and as a result, the participating venues represent a cultural cross-section of the city, including the Hudson Valley LBGTQ Center, Old Dutch Church, Kingston City Library, Kingston Artists’ Collective, Hudson River Maritime Museum and Arts Society of Kingston (ASK). Most of the events are free, ensuring access for all. Waters got sponsorship from RUPCO and the Midtown Arts District; he raised nearly $5,000 in donations and through selling ads in the guide, printed map and event listings.
The kick-off event at the Lace Mill galleries on Feb. 3 featured a dance performance by the Creative Center for Education (CCE) students, a digital media exhibit featuring videos and 3D animation of performances by poets, singers and dancers, and an exhibition of the hand-crafted drum collection of Ubaka Hill, CEO of One Million Women Drummers, who hosted the event.
A special fundraiser by Micah Blumenthal will provide free tickets to people of color at the local premier of the new action-hero flick Black Panther at the Regal Hudson Valley Mall Theater on Feb. 16. The movie stars an African superhero of the same name and is the first in Marvel Productions history to feature a majority black cast. While everyone is welcome, Blumenthal (as he eloquently explains on the blackhistorymonthkingston.com website) is seeking to create a majority black audience at the 7:10 screening at the mall theater, filling a void in local conventions of movie-going. Tickets for the event, which is called “Black Panther Movie Takeover,” must be reserved in advance; to reserve and donate, go to BlackHistoryMonthKingston.com, click on “Check Event Schedule,” and scroll down and click on “Black Panther Movie Takeover.”
Another highlight is the lecture “Political Promise of the Hip-Hop Generation” on Feb. 17 at the African Roots Library, from 6-8 p.m., by James Bernard. Bernard is the leading expert on the subject, having founded two leading rap publications, Source and XXL. Bernard, who is currently the executive director of Public Allies N.Y., an AmeriCorps program dedicated to social activism, will talk about how hip-hop brought voices into the mainstream that formerly hadn’t been heard and will describe its early days in the 1990s, when it was invested with entrepreneurial energy; he’ll provide an overview of the movement’s impact on national politics and comment on its prognostics for the future
Bernard’s talk dovetails with “Racial Justice Action Night,” to be held Feb. 19 at 6 p.m. at The Church House, 355 Hasbrouck Ave. The discussion and workshops will be hosted by Callie Jayne, who, as director of Citizen Action’s Kingston branch has been deeply committed to the local fight for racial justice.
Jayne will also be one of five African-American women talking about health, work, relationships, money, politics, and other life issues at the Nubian Café, a women’s night out held Feb. 15 from 6-9 p.m. in the West Gallery at the Lace Mill. The café, which has a suggested donation of $5 and will serve tea and other light fare, is hosted by Shaniqua Waters. The other participants are Ubaka Hill, Nina Dawson, formerly alderwoman of Kingston’s Ward 4, and Victoria
A discussion and storytelling focused on the challenges faced by black LGBTQ people will be held at the Hudson Valley LGBTQ Center on Wall Street in Uptown Kingston on Feb. 25, from 3-5 p.m. Other events throughout the month are geared to families and kids. As in years past, the city Department of Parks and Recreation will sponsor “It’s All About You” children’s activities at the Rondout Neighborhood Center on Feb. 19 through 24 starting at 6 p.m.
Waters is particularly excited about the one-of-a-kind “MyKingstonKids Puzzle Party” at the African Roots Library on Feb. 18 from 1 to 4 pm. The event features Kevin Dunn, whose New York City-based company, Puzzles for Us, makes educational puzzles and games focused on African American culture and history. Dunn sponsors competitions for kids and families in the Bronx and has created puzzles ranging from crosswords to giant jigsaws, so his creative ability to combine learning with fun should be a blast for local youth.
Rounding out the cornucopia of events are several musical performances. Bob Shaut and Sax Life will perform “O Grande Amor,” at the ArtBAR Gallery on Feb. 16 at 7:30 pm, a medley of Brazilian jazz and chestnuts from the African-American songbook, including Jobim, Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn and other greats. The next night, Feb. 17, pianist James Weidman will perform a “Spiritual Impressions” concert at the Senate Garage, starting at 7:30; tickets are $20. He’ll be accompanied by Ruth Naomi Floyd and Teri Roiger on vocals, Anthony E. Nelson Jr. on reeds, John Menegon on bass, and Tony Jefferson on drums. On Feb. 24, Senegalese drummer Amadou Diallo will perform at the Kingston Library from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.; the concert will culminate in a group drumming session.
Deborah Tull will impersonate Sojourner Truth, the 19th-century crusader for equal rights for blacks and women who was born and raised a slave in Ulster County and whose passion and gift for rhetoric roused the conscience of her audiences. Tull will channel that power in a performance of Truth’s spine-chilling “Ain’t I a Woman” speech at the Old Dutch Church on Feb. 24 from 1 to 3 pm.
Such a rich program ensures that Waters is well along to achieving his goal of raising awareness about African Americans in the community and bringing black and white together.
“I want people to participate and enjoy each other,” he said. That energy won’t dissipate once March rolls around: Waters plans “to keep the conversation going” by removing the word “month” and marketing the website as blackhistorykingston.org. He is continuing to solicit donations, made through the African Roots Library, to market and create events. “It’ll wind up being Black History Kingston for a whole year as we add events to the site,” he said.