The hall of the Baldwin Masonic Temple on Prospect Street was crowded on Feb. 18 for a celebration of history, art, language, food and legacy in honor of Black History Month.
The fourth annual Cultural Heritage Celebration, hosted by the Order of the Eastern Star Nassau Chapter 718, drew people from across Long Island for dinner, performances and educational lectures.
“What is culture?” asked Dr. Betty Douglas Parris, an English professor and fashion writer, who was one of the evening’s guest speakers and a member of the organization. “How many people can define the word culture?”
“A hot comb in the hair on a Sunday morning,” said Suffolk County resident Nolan Epps, one of the dozens of people who attended the celebration.
“The character of a nation of people,” someone else called out.
“It’s the values, customs and beliefs of your lineage,” came another voice.
On a poster board that moved around the room from table to table, attendees signed their names and wrote which countries their families were from. Arianna alTiye, the organization’s worthy matron and master of ceremonies for the night, said she likes to read each note to get an idea of everyone’s heritage.
The Eastern Star is a fraternal organization, open to women and men, that promotes “the principles of charity, truth and loving kindness” through service to members’ local communities.
Dr. Joysetta Pearse, the curator of the African American Museum in Hempstead, spoke about influential black figures in history, some of whom were left out of traditional textbooks.
“Did anybody ever tell you [King George III of the United Kingdom] was married to a black woman?” Pearse asked, referring to Queen Charlotte, who experts believe was of German and African descent.
She spoke about the most recent common ancestor of all living humans, known as Mitochondrial Eve. “DNA has proven that, in order to be a human being, you had to start as African,” Pearse said. “There’s nothing on Earth that is human except something that is derived from Africa.”
Pearse told the stories of Sarah Rector and Elizabeth Jennings Graham, explaining how Rector became a millionaire at 18 when her family’s plot of land produced oil in the early 1900s, and how Jennings Graham insisted on her right to ride a New York City streetcar in the mid-1800s, leading to the desegregation of all New York City transit systems.
“But you never hear about her,” Pearse said of Rector. “Don’t you think a child would like to walk into the museum and see a little 10-year-old face talking about, ‘I’m the richest little girl in the world?’ . . . We have to educate our own children.” There was applause.
“People call me all the time, ‘What you got special for Black History Month?’” Pearse said. “No, we ain’t got nothin’ special because we black 365 days a year. We got the same stuff that was there last month. You need to come and see it.”
AlTiye presented a certificate of award to Pearse for her “significant contribution to advancing the awareness of not only women’s history, but also black history.”
Dr. Linda Michelle Baron, professor, author and poet, took to the center of the room to passionately recite some of her poetry and share a message of fighting adversity with love. “I write poetry for the unloved,” she said, referring to many children.
The group was then treated to live music and dance performances by Big Bank Jour, a Washington, D.C.-based hip-hop artist, and the Royal Enchantment Dance Ensemble.
“Movement can come in words, movement comes in the feeling of poetry, movement can be kinesthetic,” alTiye said, “and it’s all speaking a language that we all understand.”