Carnegie Cinema was filled beyond capacity Friday night, with student and adult attendees crowding into extra chairs and onto the floor in the aisles.
As a way to celebrate African American History Month, the College of Communications held an event to acknowledge the achievements of African Americans in the media over the course of history, as well as to showcase the talent of current African American students at Penn State.
College of Communications Assistant Dean of Multicultural Affairs Joseph Selden gave the introduction to “At the Crossroads of Freedom and Equality,” welcoming the audience members and thanking them for coming to show support for diversity efforts and African American history.
“There was a time where it would be against the law for this to exist,” Selden said. “At Oklahoma State University [when I was an undergraduate], we couldn’t have more than four African Americans grouped together or the university declared it a riot.”
Though Selden said racism and sexism are still alive on Penn State’s campus, he recognizes that progress has been made in light of our generation’s election of the first black president.
After Selden’s introduction, Joshua Johnson — a Penn State student who has been written about in the New York Times and featured on the Ellen DeGeneres Show for his tap dancing — took the stage.
Johnson (senior-broadcast journalism) grew up in Harlem, N.Y., and after his high school was converted to a performing arts school during his freshman year, he was required to take tap dancing and found he enjoyed it and was good at it.
In his first few years at Penn State, Johnson traveled the five hours home every weekend to tap on the subway, spreading his love of dance and collecting tips. A New York Times writer eventually discovered him performing on a subway, and now his weekends are often spent traveling to surrounding states to speak and perform.
“When I go speak to the high school kids, it’s like I’m looking in a mirror,” Johnson said. “One of the things I always say is ‘never doubt yourself. And normally it’s not you, it’s your peers telling you you can’t do something.’ ”
Next up in the program was a reading of Maya Angelou’s poem “Caged Bird” by Jamal Atwell (junior-advertising), followed by a performance by the Alpha and Omega step team.
The poem spoke of seeking freedom, and the step team performance consisted of seven women dancing and chanting Christian-themed messages.
Following these performances, the keynote speaker, Donna King — a lecturer in African-American studies — was introduced to the audience.
King’s presentation focused on the history of African American presence in the media, starting in the mid-19th century. She emphasized the importance of the media during those times in bringing to light the issues of African Americans both before and after the Civil War.
“Those of you that are in communications, you need to go back and compare the press of yesterday to the press of today. The press of the past had a purpose,” King said. “Locally in the Centre County courthouse, there is documentation of owners getting their slaves back.”
King pointed to the difference in the newspapers of the Republican Party, who supported Lincoln and the abolition of slavery, to those of democratic papers, which often projected anti-African American sentiment.
An example King gave was the local “Bellefonte Republican” praising African American abolitionist Frederick Douglass for his speech given at Penn State, while the “Democratic Watchman” used derogatory language to express how “unimpressed” they were with Douglass.
History of Penn State’s political and social activism was discovered by King to date back to the 19th century, when many prominent faculty of the university supported abolitionist causes and would attend services at “colored” churches.
“There’s a legacy of social justice here at Penn State that people don’t realize,” King said. “I found a convention pamphlet from 1883 for colored men. Guess who gave the convocation speech? James Beaver, [namesake to Beaver Stadium].”
King’s presentation was followed by a vocal and guitar performance by Eric Farmer (graduate-educational leadership), as well as a choral performance from Penn State’s United Soul Ensemble of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” also known as the African American National Anthem.