“Black History Month is when not only Black struggles are recognized, but Black strength is celebrated by everyone,” said Eloni Bickham, a senior in the Arts and Humanities Academy (AHA). Art has been used by Black people historically as an outlet amidst forced repression of Black customs and culture. Ironically, this art has historically been stolen, appropriated, and undermined, but the pride that it was created with has stayed alive. Black History Month is a time when Black artists and the people who appreciate them can teach and express their pride while acknowledging the hardships by which some of the art was forged.
A local example of artistic passion is Ren Nelson, a senior in AHA. Nelson is a visual artist, as well as a writer who sees drawing and painting as their favorite type of art because it is the one they have been doing the longest. Not only are they able to create masterpieces with colored pencils and paint, but they also use less than usual mediums as well. “My favorite piece that I’ve worked on thus far is called ‘Spilled Coffee,’ a portrait I made of my best friend out of Black coffee,” said Nelson.
This hyper-realistic picture was made by Nelson using a technique known as “coffee stain.” Although the majority of Nelson’s art itself does not contain a racial component, they see their Black and biracial identity as having a huge impact on their writing and artistic expression. “Because of my racial makeup, I personally think that the color of someone’s skin is not important and that a person or character should be judged for their actions and the content of their character,” said Nelson. “What I would want people to take away from my art is inspiration of any kind. I don’t really have any complex message I want them to keep. I just want them to feel good as a result of my art. I make something to make someone else feel good,” they continued.
Although Nelson is an excellent example of a young Black artist making waves at Berkeley High School (BHS) and beyond, there is still something to be said for the performing artists who have something to contribute to the conversation. Maceo Raiford-Cohen is an Academic Choice (AC) senior who, for the last four years, has been a dancer in the Afro-Haitian dance class. This class has been a part of BHS for more than fifty years. It is an important connection to history for Raiford-Cohen and many other artists at our school. It is a window into Black culture in an academic setting, a sight that is sadly uncommon in this country. The class also serves as a vigorous exercise opportunity. Part of what inspires Raiford-Cohen in his art as well as his life is the celebration of his history. “Both my parents are history teachers, so I love anything that has some connection to African American history,” said Raiford-Cohen.
Bickham elaborated, “Too often we focus on all the negatives of being Black and somewhere along the way, we forget to look at the positives that come with belonging to a strong community and culture. This month is a chance for us to not just be viewed as victims, but as strong individuals with hopes and dreams.” Bickham is a visual artist who mostly works with pencil, but recently has moved into watercolor. “I draw a lot of portraits of Black women with natural hair usually having to do with mental health and Black girls expressing emotions. I don’t see art about Black girls a lot, so it feels good to create art that represents my community. I want people to acknowledge that Black girls have to bottle up all these emotions and internalize all these things society tells them, and then are expected to be fine. My inspiration comes from watching Black women in my life struggle, and so I want to create art for them so that they can have a voice,” Bickham said. All three of these artists create work that expresses their connection to Black History Month. While they are just three examples, countless other young Black artists around the world are reconstructing what being Black means to them through their artwork. I cannot wait to see what they come up with.
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