‘Songs in the Key of Strife’: Black history through song, in Morristown

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By Bill Lescohier and Kevin Coughlin

Songs in the Key of Strife, the weekend’s black history program at Calvary Baptist Church in Morristown, was billed as an inter-generational celebration.

And so it was, with singers, dancers and musicians of varying ages telling the musical story of African Americans.

But the generation behind the celebration was of the golden variety.

“This year I decided using music would be a vehicle of entertainment and joy, while giving a strong message of black identity,” said Shirley Holcomb, who joined Calvary in 2011 and helped energize its Golden Years Ministry.

Shirley Holcomb, event chairwoman, addresses Black History concert at Calvary Baptist Church, Feb. 24, 2018. Photo by Bill Lescohier
Shirley Holcomb, event chairwoman, addresses Black History concert at Calvary Baptist Church, Feb. 24, 2018. Photo by Bill Lescohier

The ministry’s 30 members visit museums in Newark and Washington DC, tour communities in Harlem and organize seminars for seniors on healthy living and estate planning.

Holcomb has put together an annual black history celebration for the last five years, always keeping the younger set in mind.

“I want it to be meaningful for the children,” said Holcomb.

‘Young, Gifted and Black,’ video by Bill Lescohier

The first year, she asked kids to write to an unsung hero in their families. 

Everyone exalts famous figures like Martin Luther King, she said, “but all of us are standing on someone’s shoulders. And I wanted the children to recognize, within their community, within their families, whose shoulders they were standing on. That turned out to be very beautiful and meaningful.”

This year’s presentation featured jazz sax player Kenneth Brown, the Liturgical Dancers and the church’s Praise Team choir. They epitomized how music has influenced, embraced and empowered the black community, Holcomb said.

The Liturgical Dancers, video by Bill Lescohier

“I’ve always taught my grandchildren to be very proud of their African heritage and to rejoice in our ancestors, because they were very strong people,” Holcomb said.https://youtu.be/NocSIB0S1Ck

“Had they not fought, prevailed, prayed and whatever it took, we wouldn’t be standing here. A lesser people would have not survived what our ancestors had to go through.”

It’s a proud heritage, one she hopes young people take to heart,
“so they can stand tall in a society that’s going to try to knock them down because they look different.

They must learn to “take that difference–because that’s the way God made us, and he made us in his image. And we’re all in the image of God, and he did not define color or anything else. He just said, ‘in my image,'” Holcomb said.

The Praise Team, video by Bill Lescohier

The Golden Years Ministry is comprised of people 55 and older, with a number of working people at the young end of the scale. Members are planning a #MeToo event with the church’s Women’s Ministry, Holcomb said.

In partnership with the Urban League, the NAACP, the Morristown Neighborhood House and Church of God in Christ, the Golden Years Ministry also hosted a Morristown High School screening of 13th, a 2016 documentary that contends mass incarcerations of black men are an extension of slavery.

Black America lost an entire generation to the so-called War on Drugs, Holcomb said.

“If it was really a war on drugs, they would have been on Wall Street and in frat houses. This has really decimated our community.” 

The screening drew a large crowd, though not enough young black men, Holcomb said.

“I didn’t get that turnout I was hoping for,” she said. “It’s something everyone should see. It was informative, and it was heart-wrenching. But it was true.” 

Holcomb won’t give up.

“Because God has given me all this energy at this age, I’m sure I’m supposed to use it for the glory of God, and the edification of his people,” she said.

Slideshow photos by Bill Lescohier:

Black History concert at Calvary Baptist Church, Feb. 24, 2018. Photo by Bill Lescohier
Shirley Holcomb, event chairwoman, addresses Black History concert at Calvary Baptist Church, Feb. 24, 2018. Photo by Bill Lescohier
Tori A.Morrow-Smith speaks at Black History concert at Calvary Baptist Church, Feb. 24, 2018. Photo by Bill Lescohier
Tomi Joi Webber speaks at Black History concert at Calvary Baptist Church, Feb. 24, 2018. Photo by Bill Lescohier
Poster at Black History concert at Calvary Baptist Church, Feb. 24, 2018. Photo by Bill Lescohier
Poster at Black History concert at Calvary Baptist Church, Feb. 24, 2018. Photo by Bill Lescohier
Jelly Roll Morton is remembered at Black History concert at Calvary Baptist Church, Feb. 24, 2018. Photo by Bill Lescohier
Charlie Parker is remembered at Black History concert at Calvary Baptist Church, Feb. 24, 2018. Photo by Bill Lescohier
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