Photo credit: Bergette Photography

Storytelling is essential in defining the human experience and especially effective when expressed through various art forms. It's one of the ways the arts encourage empathy, bridging divides between groups and building understanding. As we observe Black History Month, we see how stories from history and from personal experiences can help us understand and value one another. As civil rights icon Congressman John Lewis said, "The movement without storytelling is like birds without wings."

The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center recently hosted Lifting as we Climb Day, the first of ArtsWave’s signature event series for 2020, presented by Macy’s. Lifting as we Climb Day focused on African American art and stories. From jazz, R&B, ragtime and hip-hop music to spoken word pieces, incredible dance performances and the museum’s exhibitions themselves, every part of the day brought attendees together.

The day kicked off with a jazz performance in the lobby by students from the School for Creative & Performing Arts. Jazz is deeply rooted in the African American experience and is often called the only uniquely American art form. In the Harriet Tubman Theater, the Cincyettes Drill and Dance Team performed, showcasing the amazing heights young girls can reach. From there, WordPlay delivered bold challenges in the form of spoken word poetry. Macedonia Living Word Fellowship Youth Ensemble gave a striking performance, weaving together the story of African American life — from slavery to emancipation, the civil rights era, all the way through today — with spoken word, dance, song and more.

Music from the charismatic Ed “Sax” Thomas and Destiny L brought on the afternoon. Following that, The Children’s Theatre of Cincinnati put on a stunning and engaging production of “Harriet Tubman: Straight Up Outta’ The Underground.” After a look back on Ragtime hits with the Kentucky Symphony Orchestra’s Newport Ragtime Band, Elementz showcased the talent of our region’s young hip hop and spoken word artists, bringing a day full of powerful stories to a fitting conclusion.

February also features the inaugural concert of Flow, An African American Arts Experience presented by ArtsWave. The premiere event features the world-renowned Dayton Contemporary Dance Company with "Retro/ACTIVE," a collection of masterworks and new works that illuminate some of the most important stories from the African American experience. "Vespers," byUlysses Dove, is a touching, poetic ode to womanhood. Warren Spears created "On the Wings of Angels" as a soaring tribute to the Tuskegee airman. "Indestructible" by Abby Zbikowsky explores the endurance of women who struggle against intolerance and the role that faith can play in finding both justice and peace. Debbie Blunden-Diggs choreographed a brand-new piece, "Num3r8tions," which will look toward DCDC's future as they celebrate their 50th anniversary season.

That’s just a glimpse into how the arts of the Cincinnati region commemorate Black History Month. At the Taft Museum of Art, Cynthia Lockhart’s quilts tell the story of people who have endured injustice in the special exhibition, "Journey to Freedom." At the Madcap Education Center, Lyn Ford brought her brand of "Affrilachian" stories to the inaugural Cincinnati Storytelling Festival. Salon 21 will host pianist Dr. Leah Claiborne at the Weston Art Gallery for "Negro Melodies of America," a performance of works by Black composers who use spirituals in their compositions.

Four times a year, ArtsWave’s Circle of African American Leaders for the Arts compiles a list of major events that highlight the region’s collective dedication to Black History stories and art forms. You can find the 2020 Black History Month flyer here. Also, click here for more information on Flow, an African American Arts Experience.