Melanin Minds takes Morristown High on a multicultural journey

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By Bailey McGuinn, MHS Class of 2018

For three hours last week, the Morristown High School cafeteria was transformed into a joyous dining- and performance hall for a celebration of diverse cultures.

Multicultural Night was an international phenomenon, organized by MHS senior Bella Simon, president of Melanin Minds.

That is the school’s first African-American Culture and Social Activism club, and the event raised money to support the club’s community endeavors and fight for social awareness.

African dance at Melanin Minds event at Morristown High, April 26, 2018. Photo by Bailey McGuinn
African dance at Melanin Minds event at Morristown High, April 26, 2018. Photo by Bailey McGuinn

People attended from all around Greater Morristown, including students from the Frelinghuysen Middle School and the Morristown-Beard School.

“The point of tonight is to educate you guys about the different nationalities we have around this high school and in Morristown in general,” Simon, who will attend the University of Maryland this fall, told the crowd.

“When you came into this room, you left America and now you’re traveling the world.”

Each attendee received a passport, and stickers commemorating their visits to a dozen tables.

The tables had foreign phrases, and plenty of traditional wear and artifacts on display. Some even offered gifts like bindis or buttons. Prizes were awarded to visitors who collected passports full of stickers from each country.

Those countries were France, China, Malawi, Nigeria, Jamaica, Colombia, Honduras, and India.

Slideshow photos by Bailey McGuinn:

Cassie Gordon gets her face painted a traditional tribal pattern signifying harmony. Photo by Bailey McGuinn
African dance at Melanin Minds event at Morristown High, April 26, 2018. Photo by Bailey McGuinn
Principal Mark Manning praised Bella Simon and her event. Photo by Bailey McGuinn.
Melanin Minds VP Nile Birch snacks on the job. Photo by Bailey McGuinn
Morris Hills AACC puts on a showstopping performance. Photo by Bailey McGuinn
Underclassmen Avina Sharma, Nidha, and Natasha celebrate their Indian heritage. Photo by Bailey McGuinn.
Junior Amelia Langan puts her skills to the test, making fresh crepes all night. Photo by Bailey McGuinn.
Melanin Minds Executive Board Member Indira Summerville and Advisor Tanya Cepeda enjoy the festivities. Photo by Bailey McGuinn
Performer Hugh Grennan and Victoria Fanning enjoy a multicultural feast. Photo by Bailey McGuinn
Amelia Langan, Jackson Campbell, Colin McCallister, and Becca Murray represent France by making dessert crepes. Photo by Kylee Strasser.
Melanin Minds members and executive board. Photo by Bailey McGuinn.
Seniors Laura Barber and Sydney Kratchovil represent the China table. Photo by Bailey McGuinn
Bella Simon enjoys the music with her father. Photo by Bailey McGuinn
Victoria Fanning tries out a traditional Indian dance. Photo by Bailey McGuinn
Both food and drink are offered at the Honduras table. Photo by Bailey McGuinn.
Hand-made poster by MM club members welcomes guests. Photo by Bailey McGuinn
Underclassmen Cassie Gordon and Jamie Salter dress to celebrate their cultures. Photo by Bailey McGuinn
Club members and performers gather around the check-In desk to greet guests. Photo by Bailey McGuinn
Senior Colleen Petersen checks out the China table. Photo by Bailey McGuinn.
The packed house has all eyes on the performers. Photo by Bailey McGuinn
President Bella Simon and VP Nile Birch of Melanin Minds enjoy the success of their event. Photo by Bailey McGuinn
The Jamaica table offers Jerk Chicken. Photo by Bailey McGuinn
The Malawi-Nigeria table serves traditional Puff Puff dessert. Photo by Bailey McGuinn
Tanya Andino leads the Italy table. Photo by Bailey McGuinn.
The packed house, full of staff, students, and community members. Photo by Bailey McGuinn
Melanin Minds President Bella Simon speaks to the packed house. Photo by Bailey McGuinn.
Hugh Grennan takes a crack at writing in Mandarin. Photo by Bailey McGuinn.
The Simon family. Photo by Kylee Strasser
The Passport to Our World Program. Photo by Bailey McGuinn
Dancing at Melanin Minds' Multicultural Night, April 26, 2018. Photo by Bailey McGuinn
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Cuisine varied from dessert crepes to horchata, samosas, plantains, pizza, empanadas, dumplings, and even giant munchkin-like desserts called “Puff Puffs.” Attendees piled their plates high and experienced flavors from around the world.

Senior Nile Birch, the club’s vice president,  represented his home country of Jamaica by serving jerk chicken and teaching patrons the phrase “everything arie” (everything’s alright).

“I’m so proud of all the hard work Bella and Melanin Minds put into making the night such a success,” said Birch, who will attend New York University’s Tisch School for Musical Theatre this fall.

“So many people walked away with new perspectives and an awakened appreciation for different cultures. It was an experience so rich and educational that I really hope MHS continues it in the years to come.”

Playlist: Videos by Bailey McGuinn and Kylee Strasser:

‘YOU CAN’T PUT A PRICE TAG ON IT’

The night was full of singing and dancing, too. The African American cultural club performed a high-energy dance blending traditional African dances with more modern moves.

Many acts encouraged audience participation, teaching dances and other movements. The night was educational, as well as a celebration.

“You can learn how to make crepes, or write in Mandarin, learn about Indian instruments,  or have an African Tribal Face makeup done,” explained Simon.

Cassie Gordon gets her face painted a traditional tribal pattern signifying harmony. Photo by Bailey McGuinn
Cassie Gordon gets her face painted a traditional tribal pattern signifying harmony. Photo by Bailey McGuinn

“The symbol being painted on people’s faces represents harmony in most African tribes — a circle around the eye with eight points, and almost a smiley face at the end. The white color symbolizes purity, strength, and unity, and that’s what we’re trying to achieve tonight. We are trying to be on one accord, to be in harmony and connect the different cultures and communities and schools here.”

History teacher Tanya Cepeda, the club’s faculty advisor, said Melanin Minds was established in 2015 as a place where a diverse group of students has come to talk about the world

“They have been challenged to identify social norms and current events that need to be re-examined and addressed, which has been at the core of the group’s purpose.”

She said evenings like this one are needed in such conflicted social and political times.

Melanin Minds Executive Board Member Indira Summerville and Advisor Tanya Cepeda enjoy the festivities. Photo by Bailey McGuinn
Melanin Minds Executive Board Member Indira Summerville and Advisor Tanya Cepeda enjoy the festivities. Photo by Bailey McGuinn

“Human nature tends to see individuals that do not look like oneself as ‘different.’ What better way to create understanding and familiarity with groups of American students we may see as ‘other’ than to host a multicultural dinner event?” said Cepeda, who served $2 plates to patrons.

“This event continues the efforts of Melanin Minds to break down barriers between student’s cultures and move toward a student community where we all see each other as one,” the teacher said.

MHS Principal Mark Manning addressed the packed event, praising Simon and Melanin Minds for their contributions to the community.

Principal Mark Manning praised Bella Simon and her event. Photo by Bailey McGuinn.
Principal Mark Manning praised Bella Simon and her event. Photo by Bailey McGuinn.

“It’s so special that we take time here at Morristown High School to celebrate the multicultural and diverse elements that make up our school community. And I chose the word celebrate– it’s not enough to just recognize it,” Manning said.

“I think it’s important that we celebrate it, that we showcase it, that we embrace it, because it makes our lives so much richer and fuller,” he said. “You can’t put a price tag on it.”

Club activities have included attending the March for Our Lives in Morristown, and collaborating with the Morris School District board to include more African-American history in core history courses in the K-12 curriculum.

“I’m so proud of Melanin Minds,” added Manning.

“What they’ve managed to do is remarkable, how in tune and sensitive and courageous they are, to challenge us. I think we need our young children to challenge us and to let us know that there are bigger issues out there that we need to deal and wrestle with. These guys keep us on our toes.”

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