Local performers celebrate Black History Month in Riverhead

“When the forefathers of America wrote the Declaration of Independence and other documents, my ancestors suffered 400 years of slavery,” said James Banks, Suffolk County Community College professor and co-chair of the nonprofit African-American Educational Cultural Festival Inc. “In the subsequent oppressive times, the injuries they experienced were, and [are], the other ‘PTSD’ — which stands for ‘post-slavery stress disorder.’ ”

The festival’s Black History Month reception at Riverhead Free Library Monday, the first of several events planed for this year, brought to light the difficulties African-Americans have faced and honored the culture and heritage of the African diaspora. Community members dressed in native garments danced to ancient drumbeats and indulged in traditional food to commemorate the conclusion of Black History Month.

Two drum selections performed by musician Edwina Lee Tyler were followed by a liturgical flag dance from Gloria Moore of Riverhead’s Friendship Baptist Church, who dressed in white to match her flag. The Rev. Mary Cooper of House of Praise Christian Revival Center provided an invocation. Mr. Banks read African-American poetry and Sarah Bullock of Riverhead read an original poem called “I Found the Answer.”

Riverhead Town Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith read an earlier town proclamation declaring February Black History Month in Riverhead. She was joined by Councilwoman Catherine Kent.

“We want to educate and celebrate the African-American culture,” said AAECF president Marylin Banks-Winter, who spearheaded the event. “We want to help everyone — from the NAACP to the Anti-Bias Task Force. If a parent needs help within a school district, or if someone needs a mentor or anything, we’re here to help.”

Library director Kerrie McMullen-Smith said Ms. Banks-Winter’s inspiration for the reception came partly from a library exhibit of work by African-American photographer Toba Tucker. The photos, taken in Riverhead in 1986-87, were borrowed from East End Arts. Ms. Tucker’s work has been displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art and the New York Public Library.

Poet Sarah Bullock reads her poem, “I Found the Answer” to a full crowd at the African American Educational Cultural Festival’s first event this year at Riverhead Free Library Monday. (Kate Nalepinski photo)

“It kind of morphed into this great thing, and we decided we’d host a reception,” Ms. McMullen-Smith said.

AAECF board member Lawrence Street said the word “festival” in the organization’s name was chosen to connote its program’s celebratory aspect — involving a series of activities to take place throughout the year.

“It honors, embraces, celebrates and pays tribute to the Afro-American culture and its history,” he said. 

In conjunction with AAECF and the Friends of Riverhead Library, the library kicked off the month by mounting an exhibit that includes portraits of African-American “ancestors” and aims to educate the community on history and culture.

“This exhibit shows a powerful, deep and lasting contribution to the African-American story, American history — which is our history,” Ms. Banks-Winter said.

The exhibit features African-American and African artworks, artifacts, photos and apparel, focusing primarily on pieces donated by the Riverhead community. Large portraits in the upstairs gallery feature black icons like Sojourner Truth, while the downstairs display features art by AAECF artist-in-residence Tonia Williams, a collage of African-American military veterans and posters of notable inventors and leaders, like Frederick Douglass. The exhibit also includes traditional African attire from Senegal, on Africa’s west coast.

Ms. Banks-Winter said the idea was well-received and the community embraced the planning process, which began early this month.

“The thing about it is, there was not one person who said no,” she said. “They were all waiting for something like this to happen.”

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Top photo caption: Musician Edwina Lee Tyler performs an African drum selection Feb. 25 at the African American Educational Cultural Festival’s black heritage celebration at Riverhead Free Library. (Kate Nalepinski photo)