By Kelsey Mannix


As people filed in to Northwestern High School’s auditorium on Feb. 13 for the Jim Henson Center for Visual and Performing Arts Academy’s “Of African Descent” production, they were greeted with upbeat music from various African cultures playing over the sound system.

NHS Dance
Dance students from the Jim Henson Center for Visual and Performing Arts Academy performed during Northwestern High School’s “Of African Descent” performance.
Photo credit: Kelsey Mannix

Those beats set the tone for the evening’s educational celebration of culture and diversity.


Students sang, danced, played instruments and performed theatrical readings showcasing various aspects of African culture — the successes, the challenges and everything in between — during the fourth staging of this event.


The production coincided with the International Decade for People of African Descent, which is an initiative of the United Nations designed to raise awareness of the contributions people of African descent have made to the global community and to “propose concrete measures to promote their full inclusion and combat racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance,” according to the U.N.’s website. The official decade runs from 2015-2024.


At the beginning of the program, Sekou Ahmad, an English teacher at Northwestern, quoted Jamaican poet Mutabaruka: “Slavery isn’t African history. It interrupted African history.”


“While the issue of slavery is pivotal in understanding our past as well as our present, far too often it is treated as the sum total of our story,” Ahmed said in an email. “I feel that Mutabaruka’s quote acknowledges the impact of slavery, while stating that our history is much richer and far reaching [than] that tragic portion of our past,”


Leona Lowery-Fitzhugh, Northwestern’s Visual and Performing Arts coordinator agreed. “It was so very meaningful about [how] slavery interrupted African history,” she said. “And how what we do here as artists … can bring out recognition to the contributions of people.”


Readings by students from Northwestern’s theatre department included works like “Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou and “Dream Variations” by Langston Hughes.


Students in the TV production program created and showed a video that featured interviews with members of the Northwestern community who are of African descent.


TV production students recognized the significance of the event and how such productions can impact people.


“[Events like this] give a better perspective on something that not maybe everyone understands, but also give a nice open window into something that [people] can appreciate,” senior TV production student Bikayi Wuvalla said.


During the choral portion of the production, chorus director Gregory Lewis Sr. involved the audienced, inviting everyone to stand and sing along to “Lift Every Voice and Sing” by James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamond Johnson. 


An important takeaway from the night was that art is an easy way to teach others about different cultures.


“Arts kind of reach around the world,” Lowery-Fitzhugh said. “And while we’re celebrating … African descent [today], we can do the same thing with any other culture. She continued, “We are the visual performing arts, [and] we try to get our kids to show how it just touches the entire world.”