2019 Black History Scholarship Dinner


Tyra Hughes, Royson Folas, Copy Editor, Athletics and Editorials

WEST ORANGE, NJ — On Friday, February 1st, West Orange High School (WOHS) held their annual Black History Scholarship dinner and it is safe to say it was a smashing success. Performers, singers, dancers, and guest speaker Dr. Janice Johnson-Dias all recognized the importance of black history month throughout the night.

The AFJROTC program kicked off the night with the raising of the colors along with sophomore, Joseph Florendo, singing the national anthem. Principal Hayden Moore introduced the event by giving a little background on Black History month itself. He says, “Black history is about perseverance, strength, and unity. Black history is the reason I’m your principal, [and] if it wasn’t for those that trail blazed before me, I [wouldn’t] stand here tonight.”

After the stimulating speech from Mr. Moore, sophomore Olivia Ridley performed her powerful poem, “Blood Lungs”. Her poem tells the story of her personal interaction with the black girl stereotype. Ridley says, “I tend to think before I speak because for some it contradicts what they see on my skin. They used to call me an oreo. You know black on the outside while white and wonderful on the inside.  Because a black girl can’t be that well behaved.” She discussed how even though she is a well mannered young lady, people still find it odd that she does not represent society’s stereotypical idea of what a black woman is. She furthermore discussed that when a person “with black on their face” fails to uphold the standards set by white men, the punitive consequences tend to be lethal. It was a wonderful poem and a delightful start to what would be an enlightening and educational night.

There were also many poetry performances that followed Ridley, including a reading of the poem, “Enough is Enough”, by Geraldine Louis, Emily Cardona, Shannelle Chambliss and Kai Mccall. These students highlighted police brutality in our society, and how it continues to affect black families throughout America. It was truly a powerful performance with an important message to all that police brutality tears families, and our society apart.

The keynote speaker of the night, Dr. Janice Johnson-Dias, made an incredible speech that highlighted her educational achievements, the importance of black history and the successes of black people in history. Dias is an Associate professor at John Jay College, and is the place where she spent many years getting her education. A highschool graduate of Boston, Dias has always loved school and was able to earn her PHD from Temple University. In her speech, she made a very valid point by recognizing the value that an effective education system can have by teaching black history in schools. “Black history is American history,” Dias noted, “So how can people value black lives if they don’t know black history?”

Dr. Dias also paid homage to the works of successful black people who, despite being often overlooked in history, continue to hold their legacy in our society today. After highlighting the successes of inventors like Marie Van Brown, who created the first security system, and Madame CJ Walker, who created the first line of African American hair products, Dias emphasized that February demands the responsibility we should all have in learning black history through technological resources.

In addition to her passion in education, Dias has also worked to co-found the Grassroots Community Foundation. We had the opportunity to ask her a few questions about her inspirations for the foundation.  “The Grassroots community foundation is a training institution. We train women and girls to use their skills and talents to make a difference in the world. I started GrassRoots in 2011 after listening to Michelle Obama talk about the different health issues facing women and girls… Our own work builds on Michelle Obama’s work and tries to create communities where people are healthy leaders and to use that energy to make things better.”

Promptly after Dr. Dias’ speech, dinner was served and Mr. Moore sparked up the night with a lively Soul Train and Congo line. The celebration of black history did not stop there. After the dinner and Soul Train line, the performances from the students resumed to end the night off on a high note.

WOHS student, Maria Simpson, discussed the effects that the angry black woman stereotypes has on black women in America in her poem. She assured that the crowd, “I hope you know you are allowed to have anxiety without having an attitude,” and that as black women, “We are allowed to be angry.”

The Jubilee Choir did a lively performance of many songs at the dinner. Their talented voices added to the positive energy and celebration throughout the night, as did Kristian Reynolds and Ashleigh Phillips with their dance performances. Reynolds and Phillips empowered black women in America through their contemporary dance pieces to the songs, Rise Up by Andra Day and Superwoman by Alicia Keys. The two performances were beautiful additions to the night.

Stacey Lozin and Daniella Rodriguez performed the songs “From a Distance” and “Strange Fruit”. Following them was a poem by Orianna Carter titled, “There Shouldn’t Be a Black History Month”. In this poem, Carter discussed that although black culture is often appropriated and has made trends within our society, black lives are still undervalued. Through all the hard work and hardships that black people have experienced, Carter discussed the importance of celebrating black history not only in February but year round. She used powerful facts like the police brutality tragedies of Trayvon Martin and thought-provoking lines to relay her message. Carter ended with a powerful statement: “Society has an inability to understand that our skin does not just rub off. [But] once we understand the importance of black ideology, there will no longer be a need for one month of recognition, cause we’ll have all twelve.”

Indigo Jackson performed the song Feeling Good by Nina Simone, and Nyasia Foster & Jordan Scott-Young sang “Respect” and “Think” by R&B legend Aretha Franklin. These musical performances did not fall short in displaying the power and talent shown in the works of legendary black artists in history.

Following them were WOHS’ very own Girls NU Theta Omega Step team and AB-solute boys step team. The two teams showed passion and precision in their work. It was a night of great importance for the WOHS step teams as it was their last performance before they would take on regionals, Saturday February 16 at WOHS. Nevertheless, the two teams left the crowd mesmerized and on a high note as they capped off what truly was a night to remember.

We were fortunate enough to sit down and speak with a few participants of the events. When asked about what black history means to her, Dr. Dias, who co-founded the Grass Roots Community Foundation, said, “I mean black history is the history of my life. I am a walking example of what black history is about. I was born in really deep poverty, without electricity or water and now I stand as a person who owns a PHD and is well recognized and nationally known. Black history is the history of celebrating where you’re from, recognizing that being born black equates to having more challenges but when we come together and work we can have both personal achievements as well as achievement for others”.

Dr. Dias’ life story can be an inspiration to all that black people can and have achieved greatness, despite humble beginnings or life struggles. Black history represents the power and strength to push through hardships and Dias truly has truly reiterated these ideas in her success. It was an amazing experience to hear how far she has come since her struggle with poverty, and WOHS was very lucky to have such an educated quest speaker of the night.