Tue, 02/23/2016

"The title of tonight's event, 'Transformative Life Narratives' hopes to celebrate Black History Month through performance," said Associate Dean Alexandrina Deschamps in her opening remarks about the celebratory nature of that night’s event. The second annual Black History Month Celebration cohosted by Commonwealth Honors College featured student performers and professional storyteller Onawumi Jean Moss, exploring positive and negative experiences of black lives in local and national contexts. 

The event began with Victoria Matthews, a senior women, gender, sexuality studies major, presenting two pieces of her spoken word poetry. The first, entitled “Inquiries,” came from Matthews exploring her “experience as a black woman on a predominantly white campus,” and the questions she receives on a daily basis. The second, entitled “Nameless” and featured on the event's printed program, describes her relationship with her mother and the quest for remembering from where she came.

it’s hard to remember the ways in which my body, fragile and amphibious was referred to

before i was torn from you.

i wonder if i was beautiful. if i was precious.

i wonder if i was amazing, glorious, blessed.

Onawumi Jean Moss performed several scenes from her first solo show inspired by the autobiography Seriously…What Did You Call Me? Earlier in the evening, she had taken the time to introduce herself to each audience member, generating small talk about names and (especially with students) about career goals. In taking the stage, Moss maintained this conversational tone in her performance, making it seem more personal and real. “My name is Jean Carolyn Durham, and I can do everything,” she mentions early on in her performance, remembering herself at ten years old. But we soon learned that not to be true. Centered on the discovery of her birth certificate, Moss’s thought-provoking, entertaining, and moving performance of self-discovery presented private and personal struggles in the process of renaming herself. “Here, years later, with the name of an entitled white girl and a marriage that didn’t work out – these weren’t my name,” said Moss, piecing her narrative together. Performing small scenes of her life in nonlinear fashion, Seriously…What Did You Call Me? took the audience in and out of the personal and political nature of Moss’s central question. From her childhood in Missouri to her Thanksgiving presentation of Mary McLeod Bethune, from her high school senior prom to her time as a dean at Amherst College, her storytelling captivated the audience visually and aurally. In a one-woman show, Moss engaged in the simplest ways to embody multiple characters of her story—ten-year old Jean performing in the school assembly, her cousin Eloise in a phone conversation, her student at Amherst College who loved Mary J. Blige. Moss remarked in one vignette that the cry of her birth was “from your mouth to God’s ears – and it’s still the truth today.” 

Breaking the fourth wall, Moss encouraged the audience to offer questions, comments and reactions to her performance. Many remarked on the importance on lineage to identity, especially in the context of American citizenship and genealogical discovery. “Your lineage will inform your character,” said Moss. “You have been made ignorant about who you are, and you must reclaim it.” While modest about her own story, Moss encouraged the audience to look to their own roots and history, recognizing that African-American history is integral to understanding the history of the United States. In sharing her journey as an empowered African-American woman from her roots in the Jim Crow South, through the Civil Rights movement, and into today, Moss's story sparked a conversation of struggle and celebration of herself and other black individuals. 

Following Moss, student performers Maija Hall and Hadiya Williams sang an acapella version of Nina Simone’s “Four Women,” the famous 1965 song that describes four stereotypes of the African-American community, emphasizing strength and resilience, pain and power. Terrell Jones, a junior and member of UMass Dynamics, ended the evening with his rendition of the Oscar-winning song “Glory” by Common and John Legend, accompanied by Elms College student David Ho. 

Now the war is not over, victory isn't won,

And we'll fight on to the finish, then when it's all done

We'll cry glory, oh glory.