Standing center stage with gold papers in hand, sophomore Isabella Gervasoni steps up to the mic, an aura of quiet determination about her. She begins to recite her poem, “Sing A Colored Woman’s Song” to address the objectification of women of color.
“Help her away from all that filth, breathing over her shoulder, sucking at her neck, pushing on her so aggressive because no one ever told her that she could do better, no one ever told her there was such a thing as being colored and beautiful all at once,” she said in her poem to snaps and hollering from the audience.
Dressed in all black and proudly wearing the gold black power fist of Malaika Apparel on her chest, Gervasoni was one of several performers who garnered applause from a captivated audience. Led by IC Sister 2 Sister, members of the Ithaca College campus community of color celebrated African-American heritage while displaying through harrowing honesty the everyday alienation and struggle of living as a minority group in a systematically oppressive society.
“Reclaiming Blackness: Showcase” yielded an audience of over 100 students, most of whom were students of color, and featured performances in slam poetry, rap, break dancing, musical performances, beatboxing and stepping, most of which came from students of color. The showcase explored and worked to reclaim the social identity of blackness in the 21st century.
“This show offers an expression of a feeling of liberation that we can’t get in class because of all the ‘isms’ we face,” said Brittany Gardner, sophomore and co-president of IC Sister 2 Sister.
IC Sister 2 Sister is an on-campus group committed to empowering women on the Ithaca College campus through education, discussion and sisterly bonding. In coalition with the Office of Student Engagement and Multicultural Affairs, IC Sister 2 Sister led a series of performance workshops Feb. 28 in preparation for the showcase that night in Emerson Suites. Centered in the middle of the audience on an elevated stage, the showcase featured current members of the student body, alumni, local artists and a poetry group from Albany, New York. The event was emceed by Gardner and sophomore Denise Terrell, community service chair of Sister 2 Sister.
Senior Namarah McCall began the event by singing over a live-recorded loop of her beatboxing. She said the showcase offered the campus community a raw, emotional reflection of what people of color really feel.
“We, in our community, are told that the things that are the true markers of our identity are the things that we should be ashamed of,” she said. “We’re using them in a way where we’re not appropriating them because it is ours.”
Several of the performances featured original rap songs by students, including freshmen Damiano Malvasio and Isaiah Horton, while performances from the college’s own dance groups like Island Fusion and D.O.P.E Steppers were also scattered throughout the show.
Ground Up Crew, the college’s break dancing group, retold the emergence and evolution of hip-hop and underground break–dancing culture in the 1970s and addressed the culture’s ensuing oppression from authorities through a dance routine.
“Hip-hop started in the 1970s in the Bronx by black and Latino youth,” Ground Up Crew member Garrett Chin said, narrating the performance. “These marginalized people were expressing themselves in a way the world had never seen.”
After the performance by Ground Up Crew, member Daein Won quieted the audience and asked the audience members to raise their hands if they opposed the oppression of people and if they knew black lives mattered.
“Emancipation Proclamation. 1863. The year is now 2016. Why are we still in chains?” Won said. “All the victims, whose voice we don’t hear, may their souls rest in peace.” He called for a moment of silence for victims of the nation’s police brutalities.
“Don’t ever give up,” Won said. “No one can fight oppression alone.”
Ground Up Crew member and senior Imani Hall said that in his time at the college, he didn’t know of any event exclusively celebrating black culture that had been organized.
“For me, reclaiming blackness means getting in touch with my roots and really celebrate all aspects of black culture within the African diaspora,” Hall said. “But realizing and recognizing that black history isn’t just oppression, that it needs to be celebrated in a positive light.”
The showcase also featured a group of poets called “The New Poets,” consisting of three teachers from a community charter school in Albany, New York. Through their poetry, which they supplemented with the sounds of congas in the background and audience participation, they celebrated African heritage, questioned traditional academia and paid honor to women.
“We perform in reverence to a spoken–word form that came out of the ’60s and ’70s during the Civil Rights Movement and the black liberation movement known as The Last Poets,” one of the members said. “Whenever we are speaking in the spirit of black history or claiming our blackness, you know we are some serious-ass poets.”
Before the intermission, the emcees yielded the stage to three POC at IC members to update the audience on the group’s plans for the future. According to their announcement, there will be a teach-in at 7:30 p.m. March 22. The teach-in is designed to educate the campus community about institutionalized racism in the world, in the community and in “ourselves.”
“In order to heal and grow as a community, we must come together as a community,” one of the members said. “Our focus moved from Rochon the moment the last protest ended, but that protest did not end the structure that is institutionalized racism.”
The members declined to provide further information.
Sophomore resident assistant Brian Colon said his favorite act was Island Fusion’s performance to Beyonce’s “Formation,” which was a part of a montage of other songs. He said the group was able to convey a powerful message through song and dance.
“The message I got was ‘We’re here, and we’re taking a stand,’” Colon said. “I think they’re taking a stand for their futures here at the college.”
Freshman and audience member Nigel Jackson-Avila said the performance that spoke to him more than any other was the one by The New Poets. He said he admired their irreverence of traditionally whitewashed culture.
For Jackson, the idea of “reclaiming blackness” is about having pride in his culture.
“A lot of times, you’re told to hide your blackness, and it’s just about being able to accept it, acknowledge it and being proud about being black,” Jackson said.
Freshman Trina McGhee said that often, there is a negative connotation of being black, but this performance’s message was “this is who I am.” In the midst of racial problems on campus, she said, the showcase offered African-American students a sense community in a time when many feel isolated from each other during everyday life.
“There may be only like a couple black kids in your class, and when we get together like this, you see that we’re going to be all right,” McGhee said. “It feels really empowering.”