January 31, 2024

Eclectic Roster of Local Events to Mark Black History Month

By Anne Levin

It has been nearly a century since the first observance of Black History Month in America. Each of those years, the month-long celebration in February has had a theme.

This year’s focus is on the contributions of Black painters, dancers, musicians, and other cultural figures. A four-minute video on the website of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (nmaahc.si.edu) serves as a fitting introduction to the breadth and scope of these artists, who are being celebrated at the museum in Washington, D.C.

Closer to home, the list of events marking “African Americans in the Arts” includes a wide range of subjects — artistic and otherwise. Lectures, concerts, a birthday party for Frederick Douglass, plays, film screenings, even a special African and Afro-Caribbean board game night are among the tributes taking place this month.

Events most closely related to the theme include “RESPECT: A Tribute to Aretha Franklin,” at State Theatre New Jersey in New Brunswick on Sunday, February 18 at 3 p.m. featuring the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra and Capathia Jenkins (visit stnj.org for tickets); and A Lovesong for Miss Lydia, a play by the late Don Evans, at Kelsey Theatre on the campus of Mercer County Community College in West Windsor, February 9-11. Call (609) 570-3333 for tickets.

Christ Congregation, 50 Walnut Lane, will host its pastor, the Rev. Dr. Kirk Johnson, for a special book signing and discussion on “Race, Medicine, and Economics” at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday, February 4. Johnson is also assistant professor of justice studies and medical humanities at Montclair State University. His books are The Anti-Racism Resource Guide Volume One: Supporting Black Businesses and Economics, and Medical Stigmata: Race, Medicine, and the Pursuit of Theological Liberation.

“We are thrilled and blessed to have such an outstanding academic expert on racial justice and superb spiritual leader to help educate us about these critical issues at the intersection of race, medicine, and economics,” said the church’s co-moderator, the Rev. Robert Moore. “We invite anyone interested to attend this free event.” Call (609) 921-6253 for more information.

Princeton Public Library, 65 Witherspoon Street, offers an eclectic list of events to celebrate Black History Month, in the Community Room unless indicated otherwise. Through February 15, the exhibit “Three Eras of African American Inventor Experience” is on loan from the Black Inventors Hall of Fame in Newark. Mounted in the main lobby, the show focuses on the 400-year history of African American inventions from smallpox remedies to cell phone technology, and more. On Sunday, February 11 at 2 p.m., James Howard of the Newark organization presents “Black Inventors Got Game,” specifically talking about the Black inventors’ contributions to the toy and game industry.

Author and Princeton University professor Ruha Benjamin discusses her new book Imagination: A Manifesto, and its connection to her previous book, Viral Justice, with writer/scholar/activist Lorgia Garcia Pena on Monday, February 5 at 7 p.m. The talk will also be livestreamed on YouTube.

The Douglass Day Transcribe-a-thon on Wednesday, February 14 from 12-3 p.m. invites participants to transcribe handwritten general correspondence of abolitionist Frederick Douglass from the Library of Congress, to help create a searchable database. This event is in the library’s Technology Center. The film Lady Sings the Blues, about jazz singer Billie Holiday, is screened on Friday, February 16 at 4 p.m., in advance about author Paul Alexander’s discussion of his book, Bitter Crop: The Heartache and Triumph of Billie Holiday’s Last Year, on Tuesday, February 20 at 7 p.m.

A panel discussion follows the screening of the PBS documentary Revolution ’67 on Wednesday, February 21 at 6:30 p.m. The film is an account of the Black urban rebellions of the 1960s, focusing on the six-day Newark disturbances which began as spontaneous revolts against poverty and police brutality, and ended as milestones in this country’s struggles over race.

A “Journey Through African American Music” on Saturday, February 24 at 2 p.m. is an interactive event for all ages. Finally, a bulletin board and book display on Black inventors is on view on the library’s third floor. Visit princetonlibrary.org for details.

Diagonally across Witherspoon Street, the Arts Council of Princeton hosts a celebration and community discussion of Black History Month on Thursday, February 22 from 5 to 8 p.m. A collaboration with Joint Effort Princeton Safe Streets, “Black Angels Ancestors and Heritage: Reflections on the People and Growing Up in the Witherspoon-Jackson Neighborhood” will center on the contributions made by Princeton’s Black community, “and the memories, reflections, stories, tales, legends, truths about having been a resident of the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood,” reads a flyer about the event. Longtime community members Tommy and Joanne Parker will be honored, and an art exhibit related to the celebration will be on view.

Visit artscouncilofprinceton.org for details.

Princeton Public Library isn’t the only local site to celebrate the birthday of Frederick Douglass. On his Valentine’s Day birthday, February 14, the Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum (SSAAM) in Skillman honors Douglass’ life and legacy with a party — complete with cake — as well as a live transcribe-a-thon of his papers from the Library of Congress. The event, at the True Farmstead, 183 Hollow Road, is one of others being held around the country. Space is limited, and advance registration is encouraged at ssaamuseum.org/upcoming events.

Earlier in the month, the SSAAM presents a live theatrical performance, Meet Phillis Wheatley, at the Mt. Zion AME Church on the site, on Friday, February 9 at 7 p.m. and Saturday, February 10 at 11 a.m. An audience Q&A will take place following each performance. Wheatley was kidnapped from West Africa and sold into slavery in Boston when she was 7 years old. In 1773, while still enslaved, she became the first published African American poet in U.S. history. While not as well known today as Harriet Tubman or Sojourner Truth, Wheatley was one of the most famous poets of her era, and was praised by such figures as Benjamin Franklin and George Washington. Daisy Century of American Historical Theatre portrays the young poet.

West Windsor Arts at 952 Alexander Road partners with Art Against Racism and the African American Parent Support Group of West Windsor-Plainsboro to present traditional and contemporary African and Afro-Caribbean board game collection on Thursday, February 22 from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Included are Bid Whist, Spades, and Dominoes. The exhibit “Manifesting Beloved Community,” inspired by Martin Luther King Jr., is on display. Admission is free. Register at westwindsorarts.org.

Two virtual events related to Black History Month are sponsored by Mercer County Library System. On Tuesday, February 13 at 7 p.m., “Three World-Renowned Contemporary Black Artists” is presented by Jeanne Johnson, a docent at both the Princeton University Art Museum and Morven Museum and Garden. Photographer Samuel Fosso, mixed media artist Nick Cave, and portrait painter Kehinda Wiley are the subjects.

“Finding Benjamin James and the History of the Mount Ely Hancock House” is the subject of a talk on Wednesday, February 21 at 7 p.m. Pat Donahue, current owner of the Mount Ely Hancock House in East Windsor, will discuss the history of the house and the genealogy of James, an enslaved man who once lived and worked at the house. She will place the life of James into the larger context of slavery in New Jersey. Visit mcl.org to register for these programs.

Events in Trenton marking Black History Month include a celebration through storytelling on Sunday, February 4 from 4 to 6 p.m. at the Trenton City Museum at Ellarslie, in Cadwalader Park. Storyteller Jamil Long, Musszett the Poetess, dancer Victoria Smalls, and author Diane Ciccone will perform. Visit Ellarslie.org for

The Capital City Area Black Caucus celebrates with a Trenton “visioning discussion” and community salute to Mercer County Executive Dan Benson on Saturday, February 24 from 9:30 a.m. to 12 p.m., at Mt. Zion AME Church, 42 Pennington Avenue. The list of those being honored includes U.S. Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, Assemblywoman Verlina Reynolds Jackson, State Sen. Shirley Turner, Mercer County Commissioner Sam Frisby, and several others.