Wednesday, October 14, 2020

HBCU Students & Alumni Adapt As In-Person Homecoming Celebrations Go Virtual

 Ruth Samuel | October 14, 2020 | Story #7 for MEJO 253

HBCU Students & Alumni Adapt to Virtual Homecoming Celebrations

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. --- For Historically Black Colleges and Universities, October marks the beginning of homecoming season, but due to COVID-19, students and alumni are now tuning in from their living rooms as schools embark on virtual celebrations. 

“Homecoming is a time for students, staff, alumni, and locals to come together and embody Black excellence, Black pride, and Black unification. Each event that we have just brings something different,” said Sadonna Fleming, a sophomore criminology major at Howard University. 

Known as Google’s most searched homecoming, Howard University’s event attracts over 100,000 people on average annually. Beginning with a day of community service, the celebration lasts from October 10 through 18. Fleming, who serves as the executive vice coordinator of Howard’s Undergraduate Student Assembly, helped plan the event and pick this year’s theme: advocacy.

The 19-year-old said, “It is such a great, powerful theme because of what is going on in our nation right now and how we were founded. What people can expect this year is the symposium ‘From Protest to Policy.’ It’ll be a panel discussion of student members to government, faculty, and celebrities.”

Fleming said that the homecoming planning process, which begins in April, was a waiting game, requiring approval from Mayor Muriel Bowser and navigating university communications. As COVID-19 worsened, Howard and other HBCUs announced cancellations in June and July, later pivoting to virtual celebrations. Hampton University alumna Jasmine Kromah was saddened by the prospect of not returning to her alma mater.

“I feel like I have this chapter of my life that's not officially closed because there wasn’t a graduation,” said 22-year-old Kromah, a class of 2020 graduate. “To not have this celebratory moment at homecoming is just...ugh. Every time I go back [to Hampton], it just feels like I'm back at a family reunion or a family cookout.”

Hampton’s virtual homecoming week will begin on October 19, however, the full list of events has yet to be shared. Kromah played an integral role in homecoming as an undergraduate member of the Terpsichorean Dance Company, the oldest organization on Hampton’s campus founded in 1934.

Kromah said, “I’ve been apart of the showcase reveals, and it’s a way to collaborate with different people on campus. We'll do a big dance performance and reveal who's coming at the very end.”

Last year at Hampton, Charlotte native & rapper DaBaby performed at their homecoming concert. At North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University, Ari Lennox, 21 Savage, and more took the stage, reaffirming the homecoming’s title “GHOE: Greatest Homecoming On Earth.”

North Carolina A & T’s GHOE 2019 celebration drew in over 70,000 attendees and $40 million in revenue between flights and lodging. Considering it overlaps with Halloween this year, first-year student Torree Theodore was looking forward to partaking in the HBCU homecoming experience.

“Since ninth grade, I knew I had to go to an HBCU," said 18-year-old Theodore, “I was getting excited before, looking up YouTube videos and everything. Growing up, I went to my mom's homecomings a lot, and she went to Benedict College in South Carolina. I was so excited to live on campus and experience all of that.”

While this year promises a virtual concert, meet-and-greets, and more, the in-person GHOE experience includes a parade, a comedy show, football game, and tailgates — all of which require intense planning and spending. Student Government Association President Brenda Caldwell said a lot of elements went into the decision to hold a virtual celebration.

“I sat on the University Reopening Committee, then on the Student Affairs Subcommittee,” said the senior political science major. “Meetings started back in April and we start planning GHOE in March. It was really a matter of logistically speaking could we pull this off, would it be worth it to put all this effort in for it to not happen, and also safety.”

Twenty-one-year-old Caldwell is the youngest in a long family legacy of Aggie Pride; her first homecoming experience at North Carolina A & T was in 1999. Along with Fleming and Kromah, she wants to ensure that future classes like Theodore’s will one day experience what it means to attend an HBCU homecoming: being a part of a family.

14th Annual Nigerian Independence Day Celebration Pivots to First-Ever Drive-Thru Cookout

Ruth Samuel | October 7, 2020 | Story #6 for MEJO 253

14th Annual Nigerian Independence Day Celebration Pivots to First-Ever Drive-Thru Cookout

RALEIGH, N.C. --- On October 3, hundreds of people gathered in the parking lot of Reign Lounge for the Triangle’s 14th annual Nigerian Independence Day Celebration, which took place in the form of a drive-thru cookout due to COVID-19.

Nigerians are the largest African immigrant population in the nation, with over 1,000 Nigerian-born residents in Raleigh alone. Event organizer 38-year-old Uchenna Richards saw this cookout as a necessity to bring in 60 years of independence.
Lagos native Richards said, “The first year we did it, we just did it for fun. This year because of COVID-19, we’re doing a drive-thru cookout. At the beginning, it was more like, ‘Let’s just get people to just drive through, get some food and go.’ Some people didn’t want to leave, so we figured, we’ll start off by telling people if you want to stay, park down the street.”
Richards, a Greensboro resident, has lived in the U.S. for the past 25 years, and graduated from North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University. Tired of traveling out of town to celebrate his home country, he spawned this idea with his friends in 2006, and the event has been held in the Raleigh-Durham area ever since.
“I tell people this is the one event where you can get Nigerians of different tribes and there will be no problems,” said Richards, who is Igbo. “Growing up, our generation versus the parents’ generation, there was this big tribalistic problem. When it comes to independence, for that weekend and that day, everyone puts everything aside.”
For the past 14 years, Richards and his peers have pooled their money together for tents, reservations, and paying the caterer: PK Suya. While Richards recalls approximately 100 attendees at the inaugural celebration, they served over 500 people last year.
By 5 p.m. on Saturday afternoon, there were 300 visitors. Richards says the event is not about generating revenue, but rather about generating community and checking in with one another.
“This event is about getting to meet people, fellow Nigerians, and socializing. The United States is a very individualistic country so it’s really nice to be able to socialize and connect with fellow Nigerians, fellow Africans generally. I still really miss Nigeria,” said Mirabelle Uma, a 29-year-old recent immigrant from Abia State.
Uma, a graduate student at UNC Greensboro, attended the event last year and said she was impressed with the turnout this year, despite no vendors or prizes. East Carolina University student & Durham native Amaogechukwu Egbuna came home for the weekend to attend the celebration with her mother & aunt.
The 20-year-old said, “A lot of graduation parties didn’t get to happen, a lot of baby showers didn’t happen either. You know, Nigerians, we love to throw parties and celebrate and a lot of people have had small home gatherings, so this is a really excellent idea.”
Apart from celebration, the event also featured educational components. In addition to passing out masks, members of the Nigerian Nurses Association of North Carolina (NNANC) were handing out informational pamphlets on hypertension and domestic violence. In 2018, domestic abuse in Nigeria saw a 134% increase according to the Pulitzer Center, a media organization centered on underreported global issues.
Amaka Ofodile, a nurse with over 16 years of experience, said, “This event is in solidarity with our country, Nigeria. The origin of this organization is stamped on domestic violence elimination, and we want to do everything to curb it. We want to continue to educate our Nigerian community on how to stay safe, especially with COVID-19.”
Furthermore, an elder in the community spoke about the importance of voting in the presidential election, considering the visa ban on Nigeria and other African countries. Richards said that although the ban hasn’t directly affected anyone in his family, it’s still important.
“I’m a registered Democrat, but I came here as an immigrant. If a Republican overnight decides to support immigration, I’m down for it because that’s another way me, my family, and friends that are suffering back home can come to this country and enjoy and benefit like I have. I’m part of the people who are going to vote Trump out,” he said.

The Hayti Heritage Film Festival Collaborates with NeXt Doc for Inaugural Drive-In Screenings

Ruth Samuel | September 30, 2020 | Story #5 for MEJO 253

The Hayti Heritage Film Festival Collaborates with NeXt Doc for Inaugural Drive-In Screenings 

DURHAM, N.C. --- Friday through Sunday, the Hayti Heritage Film Festival partnered with NeXt Doc, a community of filmmakers, to host nightly drive-in documentary film screenings, continuing their yearly programming and efforts to safely promote the arts amidst COVID-19. 

“When I moved to Durham, you could find Black-themed films that were made by white filmmakers and I realized how difficult it was to have a Black film ecosystem,” said Lana Garland, festival director & curator. “I decided to make it a festival for Black filmmakers in general, with a focus on Black Southern filmmakers.”

Garland, a media industry veteran and an arts administrator at Duke University, has been leading the festival since 2017. Embarking on its 27th year, the Hayti Heritage Film Festival is one of the oldest Black film festivals in the nation. Traditionally housed within Durham’s historic Hayti Heritage Center, the festival takes place annually in February, accompanied by year-long programming, workshops, and events sustaining the arts and storytelling. This year, due to the pandemic, the festival has been moved to a drive-in experience for safety. 

53-year-old Omisade Burney-Scott said, “I'm a big fan of the Hayti Heritage Film Festival and have been a supporter, participant, and observer in it for the past few years. When Lana started sharing that this pop-up drive-in theater was going to be possible, I was really excited. I haven't been to a drive-in theater since I was nine.” 

In February, Burney-Scott, a 1989 communications graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, premiered her own documentary “Bonne Mort” about her work as a death doula. Since then, the viewing experience has changed, but she still looked forward to seeing stories on screen and sharing a communal space with others.

“When I first moved here, there were folks who were like, ‘Aren't you afraid to move to Durham?’ It was constantly getting a bad rap in the news. I told them, one thing I've never been afraid of is my people. Ever,” said Burney-Scott, who has been living in Durham since 1997. 

Attracting over 1000 attendees last year, the festival is typically held inside of the Center, supported by the St. Joseph’s AME Church Historic Foundation. Analogous to a marketplace, the event allows festivalgoers to watch films, mingle with one another, and purchase apparel, DVDs, and more. Tickets are approximately $10, similar to movie theater prices.

In previous years, the film festival has shared documentaries through Vimeo and other paid streaming platforms. However, the drive-in screenings were free, made possible by the help of audio/video company Kontek. Attendees pulled up in their vehicles and tuned in to 88.3 FM to listen to the audio as documentaries were projected onto a white screen.  

Garland said, “Radio is just another piece of audio equipment, so we just used a frequency. Before for drive-ins, you would have literal speakers inside of a car, but those don't exist anymore. The whole purpose was to replicate that because people could have a good time, see each other, and be safe.”

Though replicating nostalgia, films produced by NeXt Doc storytellers touched on current issues. Based in Albany, New York, NeXt Doc is a collective bolstering the work of filmmakers of color between ages 20 and 24. UNC-Chapel Hill graduate and NeXt Doc fellow Courtney Station fostered the relationship between Garland and the organization over this summer. 

“We really wanted to partner with an organization that was POC-centered, and not in a way where their target audience is POC, but their leadership is white,” said 23-year-old Staton. “I know Hayti has very big historical significance and is a pillar in Durham, particularly Durham's Black community.”

NeXt Doc fellows sought to challenge notions of white-centric filmmaking through different topics: acknowledging gentrification in Durham, shedding light on repatriation of land to Indigenous tribes, and sharing stories about Black transgender identity. The documentaries, specifically “Native in America” by Brit Hensel, hit home for first-time spectator Carrie Howard. 

The 41-year-old from Barbados said, “That experience of not quite fitting in any world resonated with me because I think sometimes as an immigrant, I feel that myself. With regards to blood quantum, I was thinking about how that has been perpetuated by Europeans with the one-drop rule and there's still tension there in the Black community.”