By Madeline Orton
Playing civil rights activist Rosa Parks, actress and and President of Yearning to Learn, Inc. Alicia Washington told an audience of school kids, “I knew there was a possibility of getting hurt, but I knew someone had to take the first step, so I made up my mind not to move.”
At the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton, students celebrated Black History Month by learning about African-American history through some likely, and some not so likely, sources.
“We have a very large collection of African-American art in our fine art collection,” said Beth Cooper, Curator of Education at the New Jersey State Museum. “So, year-round you can see these stories and learn these stories, but for the month of February, we really want to put a spotlight on it and let people know that it’s here.”
The New Jersey State Museum is offering a window into African-American history through its galleries, theater space, and even planetarium.
“In addition to that,” said Cooper, “we added the planetarium show, Follow the Drinking Gourd, and we also added some live performances that really make history come to life.”
On this day, it’s a theatrical performance presented by Young Audiences of New Jersey and Eastern Pennsylvania that takes center stage with actress Alicia Washington’s portrayal of Rosa Parks.
Maureen Heffernan, Director of Arts and Education at Young Audiences of New Jersey and Eastern Pennsylvania, sees the arts as a way to deepen students’ understanding of subject matter. “At Young Audiences of New Jersey and Eastern Pennsylvania, we’re always excited to find ways that the arts can be used to illuminate and to expand on the curriculum students are studying.”
“Study guides and all of these materials accompany each production,” Alicia Washington explains. “All of the productions, especially affiliated with Young Audiences of New Jersey, have curriculum standards built into the programs … We’re bringing a historical figure to life, so that people can understand that these were real people and they weren’t just sort of symbols in a book.”
The museum encourages schools to attend a combination of its exhibitions and performances.
“We really try to teach teachers how to use our collections together. Go through the entire collection with your kids and make those connections between the art and the science and the history,” said Beth Cooper. “We have these stories here and we can also connect them to the broader picture of American history.”
Those involved hope teaching history through the arts will engage students in a different way.
“Kids are really amazed when they come to museums and they see the real thing and they’re able to hear those stories and understand the importance of the objects or the art, and it really brings lessons home to them,” said Cooper.
As Alicia Washington shared, students can get equally excited. “We’ve had reactions where students actually shout out, ‘Oh, that’s terrible.’” At one performance, she said, “we even had one audience just spontaneously sing along with us … We were singing ‘We Shall Overcome’ and the whole audience of students just sang with us.”
Educators and artists alike believe the message about African-American history that students will take away from their experience at the New Jersey State Museum is clear.
Baye Kemit, Principal of The Garvey School, one of the schools in attendance, explained, “Many obstacles are still here today, but they will know that they can overcome some obstacles that they’re going to confront in the future.”
Like Kemit, Alicia Washington has a message she hopes kids will learn from this experience: “It’s individual acts of courage that make a difference.”
Major funding for NJ Arts is provided by The Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and the F.M. Kirby Foundation.