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.
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.
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.
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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.”
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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.
“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.
“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.
“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.”