By Liam Hofmeister, editor-in-chief
Children started by swaying slowly to the spiritual classic “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” performed by Etta James. They moved into an energetic shake when Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” began blasting on the radio and a gleeful jump when Pharell Williams’ “Happy” filled the Boston Public Library’s Children’s Room.
The songs represented the movement of black music throughout the 19th to 21st centuries. Copley Central Youth Programming Librarian Maija Meadows said the library staff planned their programs to educate children about black history.
“Every week, we focus on a different artist with the kids,” Meadows said. “They didn’t know that Malcolm X was in our neighborhood, and they were like ‘what!’ … I think it’s important to bring different perspectives to the kids and the community.”
February is Black History Month in the US, and the Boston Public Library (BPL) has slotted a full month of programming to acknowledge this history across its 24 Boston-area locations.
A booklist of modern black literature, public screenings of films and jazz concerts featuring local musicians are planned, with a special focus on individualized events for each location.
“We are the public Boston library, but we welcome everyone through the Greater Boston Area to participate,” Rosemary Lavery, BPL senior public relations associate, said.
The BPL February reading list is titled the “Black Is…” booklist. It comprises a collection of over 35 works of literature from 2015 representing the breadth of black identity, said Anne Smart, South End BPL branch librarian. Ta Nehisi Coates’ National Book Award winner “Between the World and Me,” Toni Morrison’s story of black abuse “God Help the Child” and Shonda Rhimes’ tale of personal liberation “The Year of Yes” feature on the list.
“The best thing is they just get a variety,” Smart said of the books. “African-Americans have made many contributions in many areas, and we think this list shows that.”
To accompany the reading list, an open house black history event will be held at 4 p.m. on Feb. 29 at the BPL’s Dudley branch in Roxbury. Visitors and readers will be able to see traditional black head wrapping, button making and poetry to give a visible component to the “Black Is…” booklist.
In the Lower Mills branch in Dorchester, a film series is scheduled for 1 p.m. every Friday for the month of February. “Glory,” the story of the Massachusetts 54th Infantry, the first all-black regiment to fight for the North in the United States Civil War, will roll on Feb. 12. “In the Heat of the Night,” a fictional murder-mystery about a black detective, will show on Feb. 19 and “Malcolm X,” a biopic about the Black Panther civil rights leader, will play on Feb. 26.
Public jazz concerts will be held throughout the month, highlighting artists from Boston communities.
“We tried to incorporate a local figure or local artist that is enjoyed,” Lavery said. “Artists are chosen for a reason: Because they’re from the community.”
Boston-based R&B trio d’Allegro will perform spirituals and songs of black inspiration at the Mattapan branch at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 25. The Kevin Harris Jazz Project, a New York-based jazz collective rooted in the fusion of compositions from the likes of Johannes Sebastian Bach with the works of Harlem Renaissance jazz artists like Thelonius Monk, will hit the Grove Hall branch at 2 p.m., Feb. 27 for a public concert as well.
Art exhibitions and history talks will be hosted at various branches of the BPL throughout the month to round out an education in black history.
“We do a lot of different programming to celebrate the diversity that the city of Boston has,” Lavery said.
For the full list of programs accessible to Boston residents, visit the BPL calendar at bpl.org.
Photo by Nola Chen