Mr. James Smith, Education Coordinator at the Young Men's Leadership Academy (YMLA), invited Tony Allegretti and Patrick Fisher of the Cultural Council into his classroom on Wednesday, February 8, 2017. YMLA, which is part of Eugene J. Butler middle school and Duval County Public Schools, implements a methodology grounded in training young men to discover their strengths and to overcome challenges. The Cultural Council extends paid summer internships to 8th grade students at YMLA through the Cultural Service Internships Program.
In Tony's hand as we entered the classroom was a well-read and dog eared book written by James Weldon Johnson. The book was Johnson's 1933 autobiography titled "Along This Way". Tony engaged the 6th and 7th grade students in a discussion on Johnson's life. The group explored Johnson's accomplishments, which include being a renowned songwriter, poet, novelist, journalist, critic, leader, and educator.
Johnson was born in Jacksonville, Florida in 1871. In 1900 Johnson wrote the song "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" for a celebration of Lincoln's birthday. Johnson's words were celebrated by the black community and "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" became known as the "Negro National Anthem." In 1920 Johnson became the national organizer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Since June 14, 2016 the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens have displayed an exhibit title "Lift: Contemporary Expressions of the African American Experience." The title of the exhibit is a direct reference to Johnson's acclaimed song. The exhibit, which closes on February 12, 2017, has received a lot of attention and has been a point of discussion amongst Jacksonville's community. As part of the day's events, Mr. Smith took his class on a trip to visit the Cummer so students could experience the exhibit.
Outside of the museum the students met with Hope McMath, the immediate former Director of the museum and the driving forces behind the exhibit. "Lift" represents a convergence of two subjects McMath is passionate about advancing, the arts and diversity and inclusion. McMath speaks with sincerity and a deep understanding of how both the arts and diversity enrich the culture and identity of communities.
Once inside the museum, McMath led the group to a bronze sculpture by Augusta Savage. Born in Green Cover Springs, Florida, Savage was a prominent artist during the Harlem Renaissance. As a young child Savage started working with clay, a natural material found in abundance in her hometown. As a young woman, Savage moved to New York City where she attended Cooper Union. Savage's work garnished attention, which earned her a fellowship that resulted in her studying abroad.
The group made their way to the gallery in which "Lift" is being exhibited. Along the way, McMath pointed to pictures of James Weldon Johnson, John Rosamond Johnson, and Augusta Savage. The group also examined a replica souvenir depicting one of Savage's most famous works, "The Harp," a work she created for New York's 1939 World Fair. McMath informed the group that Savage did not have the funds to cast the "The Harp" in bronze, and because of that the piece does not exists today.
As the group walked inside the gallery we heard a version of "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" being played through the museum's intercom system. McMath instructed the students to sit on the floor and listen to the words of James Weldon Johnson. She then asked the students to look at three pieces by Marsha Hatcher, one of the artists who contributed to the exhibit, and relate Johnson's words to Hatcher's work. The students illustrated an advanced level of intellect as they critiqued Hatcher's work, commenting on tones and imagery.
Several artists whose work is exhibited in "Lift" were present as the students toured the Cummer. This made the morning's outing even more enriching. Ingrid Diamani, Clendia Cooper, Roosevelt Watson III, Chip Southworth, and Thony Aiuppy were all available to discuss their work with the students. Several community members, including Mal Jones, Shawana Brooks, and Rikki Southworth, were also present and engaged students in discussion.
"Having the students see the exhibit would have been great, but the opportunity to interact with the artists, to listen to the artists' perspectives and ask questions, led to a remarkably interactive experience. By the end, students were sharing their own thoughts on what they saw represented in the art. That is the transference that good education is all about; giving the students something to examine, providing some background and the opportunity for engagement, and then allowing them to add their own curiosities as they create meaning. That kind of learning lasts a lifetime." - James Smith, Leadership Coordinator, Young Men's Leadership Academy (YMLA)
"The show was a huge success on many levels. It demonstrates this City's love of art, but more importantly our rich history of Black accomplishment, power and beauty, and the chasm of racial segregation and persecution that remains. Together we can Lift Every Voice." - Chip Southworth
"The LIFT experience has been an exciting one. One of the highlights for me, though, was engaging with the students from the Young Men's Leadership Academy. They are some extraordinary guys. I got to share some of my story with them and the ways that my paintings in LIFT came to fruition. I got to talk to some of the students about storytelling in art and had several students share some of their own connections to the social narratives depicted in the work. One student spoke about being emotional because he could see his uncle and grandfather in the paintings. That connection gave me chills." - Thony Aiuppy
"This weekend two historical exhibits that have prompted discussions on the topics of freedom, equality, and inclusion come to a close - the "Lift" exhibit at the Cummer and the Anne Frank exhibit at MOSH. As a community, we must reflect on what these exhibits mean in a greater historical context and realize that just because these two exhibits are closing does not mean that the conversations must end. There is still work to be done to continue the advancement of diversity and inclusion and we should move forward with the momentum established by these exhibits." - Tony Allegretti, Executive Director of the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville
The students from YMLA demonstrated a high level of maturity in how they conducted themselves while at the Cummer. It was apparent that this outing wasn't simply an excuse to be outside of the classroom. Instead, Mr. Smith and his students made the gallery their classroom. The students took full advantage of the opportunity to ask artists questions about their work on exhibit. I think I speak for everyone involved when I say we walked away with an elevated sense of pride in our community as a result of Wednesday's event and I'd personally like to thank Mr. Smith for asking the Cultural Council to be involved.
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