2017-03-08 / Front Page

Black History Month Celebration And Awards

By Thomas Cogan
At the seventh annual Black History Month celebration, held at the Jacob A. Riis Settlement House in Queensbridge for the seventh straight year, a crew from WABC Channel 7 recorded the proceedings.  Executive Director Chris Hanway introduced the founder of the event, City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, but not before making some celebratory remarks of his own.

He mentioned Moonlight, the movie which, after being delayed by an embarrassing  error, was named best picture at the previous night’s Academy Awards show.  He then announced that the movie, which is about an African-American boy’s growth into gay manhood, is to have a special free showing in Queensbridge on Saturday, March 18 at 5:00 p.m.  He also announced there had been no shootings or homicides in Queensbridge during the past year.  In Van Bramer’s opinion, the bullets-free period that Queensbridge is still enjoying might be owing to the Cure Violence campaign started by a winner of one of the evening’s awards, Emanuel “Malik” Campbell, of Build Queensbridge 696.  The evening also contained some youthful singing and dancing and a Distinguished Public Service Award presented to Dennis Walcott, president and CEO of Queens Public Library.

A procession of politicians, police, clergy and local citizens appeared on stage in the course of the evening, several of them to receive one of the large, framed Proclamations the city awards for achievement, presented this evening by Councilman Van Bramer.  Situated around and in the midst of those presentations were the singing and dance numbers.  After Bishop Mitchell Taylor, of Center of Hope International, gave the invocation, a few singers from the Center of Hope Choir, battled bravely against the pounding electronic accompaniment and only when the choir director took a microphone and sang into it did the listeners get a “Lift Every Heart and Sing” they could hear.

Riis Academy P.S. 166 STARS Ballet then danced to the Waltz of the Sugar Plum Fairies.  A musical group from IS 125 sang what their teacher called “music of African-Americans,” though it included Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies” and “Amazing Grace,” done to an upbeat tempo that was so lively that when it ended, Van Bramer said, “Who was expecting that performance?”  When the dancers from Precise Dance Studio followed with the evening’s most energetic performances, they received the most enthusiastic applause.  Van Bramer asked everyone to remember Malik Wood of Precise Dance Studio, who was hailed for his performances four years ago but died of a brain tumor in 2016.  He introduced his brothers, Joshua and Jason.  He said that Joshua had seen him on the street last summer, walked up to him and asked if he and others could have a skateboard park, because they really needed one.  The councilman was impressed by such forthrightness and said he’d try to get it.

The evening’s honorees for longtime work in the neighborhoods and elsewhere were next called to the stage.  Kim Alston, second vice president of the Queensbridge Tenant Association, received the first Proclamation and was followed by Captain Hugh Bogle, commanding officer of PSA 9 in Queensbridge.  He went over the history of Black History, going back to the 1920s, and had an apt quote from South African Bishop Desmond Tutu:  “If you are neutral in the struggle you have sided with your oppressor.”  Malik Campbell, the following honoree, said he started Build Queensbridge 696 in 2013, being distressed by the shootings occurring in the neighborhoods.  Despite the absence of gun violence in Queensbridge in the past year, he said to Van Bramer that he was surprised to receive an award and be told he was instrumental in establishing a peaceful situation.

Giselle Burgess, community engagement specialist for the Girl Scouts of Greater New York, called herself “a hard-headed girl who sometimes has to learn the hard way.”  Her work, however, did not impede her from giving birth to five children.  She grew emotional as she hailed her “girls of courage, confidence and character.”  It was such a sight that Van Bramer confessed he was “teared-up too.”

The last two were women named Johnson.  Joyce “GG” Johnson, a volunteer at the Ravenswood Community Center, said simply, “Children and volunteering are my passions.”  When called, Renée Johnson, assistant principal at P.S. 111 in Long Island City, strode to the stage with an administrator’s determination.  Commenting on her award, she said that every day she must remind herself that she teaches children.  She remembered a teacher who, when asked what she taught, would say, “I teach children,” the only statement she ever needed to answer that question.  Two such children, Isaiah Brown of P.S. 111 and Deviney Jackson of I.S. 204, were this year’s Young Honorees.   

Dennis Walcott, winner of the meeting’s Distinguished Public Service Award, may be president and CEO of the Queens Public Library, but Van Bramer said he has also served as schools chancellor and deputy mayor in the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg; and he is also a lifelong resident of Queens.  Walcott did a slight dance to the on-stage music and in his remarks hailed the 90th birthdays of Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte before admitting that while he liked the music, it’s “not my generation.”

To close this year’s meeting, most of the winners gathered on the stage, toting their Proclamations and other awards.

 

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