The assignment was to choose a black figure who inspires. So, shortly after Christmas break, the 10 Central High School students who volunteered for the task chose their subjects, and in their spare time — including before and after school, as well as during break and library periods — researched, wrote and practiced presentations about them.
The group rolled out their reports in two-minute speeches before about two dozen of their peers in the high school library on Feb. 13. The assignment touched on a number of disciplines, including research, history and public speaking, and was timed to coincide with Black History Month.
For most of the student speakers, the historic figures they chose had had a personal impact on them. “I just wanted to pick someone I looked up to,” Nasiyr Muhammad, 18, said.
Active in the school’s drama club, and hoping to study performing arts in college, Muhammad said he chose to speak about famed black performer Sammy Davis Jr. because of his lifelong activism, but also because Davis has inspired generations of black performers, including him.
“Sammy Davis Jr. was a one-of-a-kind talent,” Muhammad said. “. . . He broke the color boundary for vaudeville. I aspire to be as great as he was.”
“My person is a representation of me,” 15-year-old Uk Ebong said. She selected prominent Nigerian author and scholar Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who came to the United States at 19 to continue her college studies, and in her writing draws from personal experiences in both Nigeria and the U.S. Ebong said that as a student who emigrated from Nigeria to Valley Stream three years ago, she felt a deep connection to Adichie.
“She’s just a young girl from Nigeria,” she said, “like me.”
Sixteen-year-old Adam Thompson is an avid soccer player, but said he has noticed with disappointment the ugliness of racism that often accompanies “the beautiful game,” particularly in Europe.
That was why he chose Kevin-Prince Boateng, a midfielder of Ghanaian descent, who has played for various professional clubs and is regarded not only for his skill on the field, but also his moment of defiance when on Jan. 3, 2013, while playing for Milan against Pro Patria, he and several of his teammates were the target of racist chants from the crowd. He reacted by kicking the ball into the stands and walking off the field. The rest of his team followed, including its captain, and the game was abandoned.
Thompson said in his speech that although his team and club supported him, Boateng risked his career through the act, increasing its importance.
About Boateng’s actions, he thought, “Finally, someone is doing something about it,” referring to racism.
And All-County singer Emmanuel Nwade, 17, chose singer, songwriter and musician Stevie Wonder. “He’s timeless,” Nwade said. He was someone he could relate to, and was an inspiration for having overcome not only prejudice against his skin color, but also his disability — Wonder was born blind.
“Wonder did not allow his blindness and color to be an un-climbable wall in his life,” he said. “ … One day I can only hope that I have half the determination that he has.”
Not all speakers, however, chose figures with whom they felt closely connected because of shared experience.
At random, Tumi Sadiku, 17, selected the early-20th century dancer Josephine Baker. She gained notoriety for dancing in an outfit consisting of nothing but a beaded necklace and skirt made of artificial bananas, which became an icon of the Jazz Age during the 1920s. Baker became a movie star, but renounced her American citizenship after the racist backlash against her appearance, and moved to France, where she was a celebrity.
She worked for the French resistance during World War II, using her celebrity status to spy on the Germans, and earning the Croix De Gurre and induction to the Legion of Honor, the highest French order of merit, for her exploits.
Sadiku said she was immediately intrigued by the performer’s life, and that by closing her eyes and running her finger down a page of prominent black figures, “I felt like it was fate” that she stopped at Baker’s name.
The students independently carried out their research for the project, and library media specialist Lisa DiChiara helped them prepare their speeches, practicing with them and ensuring they kept to the time limit, requiring them to cut information when needed.
Some, DiChiara said, “lived” at the library while researching their speeches.
The exercise was one of pride, most of the students, almost all of whom are black, noted.
Seventeen-year-old Tracy Sanon, who chose Kenyan-Mexican film star Lupita Nyong’o as her inspirational figure, said that among her accomplishments, she most admired how the actress embraced her skin and hair, and that by picking her, Sanon said, “I wanted to show that black is beautiful.”