Students at Glen Ames Senior Public School not only see black history, they hear it and sing it, too.
Beginning in February, when students at the local Grade 7 and 8 school climb the stairs to music class, they see four floors of art made to honour Black History Month.
Many pieces feature musicians – Louis Armstrong trumpeting in a field of daisies, Ray Charles’ name in English and Braille, a sparkling, sequined portrait of Diana Ross singing Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.
One poster, titled “Hats of History,” shows the towering top hat worn by Abraham Lincoln and several other famous toppers, from the #42 Dodgers cap worn by Jackie Robinson right up to the one-of-a-kind brim that Pharrell Williams wore to last year’s Grammy awards ceremony.
“It took a lot of people, not just one, to break down the racial barriers,” said Mikaleigh Cairns, who made the poster.
Music has also had a strong role to play, said Glen Ames music teacher Ian Speck.
Besides taking classes on the key points of black history in North America, this year Glen Ames students watched Soundtrack to a Revolution, a documentary about the freedom songs sung by protesters in the US civil rights movement.
In Speck’s class, students also wrote responses to Old Man River, a song about segregation with a complicated history. It was written by Oscar Hammerstein for the 1927 musical, Show Boat.
“One of the things we talked about was how black people weren’t allowed in the front door of the theatre,” said Speck. “When they sang, ‘You and me, we sweat and strain, body all achin’ and racked with pain,’ they weren’t talking to black people in the audience.”
“They were trying to get empathy from white people.”
For more than a decade, Speck has kept the best of students’ Black History Month projects, and they decorate the music room year-round.
Some are uplifting, like the desk lamp decorated with photos of civil rights leaders and notes to This Little Light of Mine.
Others are unsettling. Among this year’s projects is a paper and plasticine scene showing the tree in Strange Fruit, the Abel Meeropol poem about lynching made famous by Billie Holiday.
“We’re an elementary school, but the kids need to be able to grasp these concepts,” said Speck.
By Grade 7, he said most students know pieces of black history, but often “they don’t see the whole picture.”
Transposing some of those history lessons to music class is one way Speck hopes to fill the gaps.
Glen Ames is full of young musicians – all 430 students learn guitar – and when they play their spring concert on May 4, much of the music will be rooted in the spirituals, blues, jazz, and rock ‘n roll traditions that began with black musicians.
Speaking with a guitar in hand, student Morgan Harris said it’s been exciting to learn the history behind the music.
For her Black History Month project, she found herself going between reading history and listening to the likes of The Foundations, Lionel Richie, and the Black Eyed Peas.
“You don’t just sit down with a textbook and say, ‘Okay I have to do this,’” said Harris.
“You get to explore.”