PUBLISHED: 11:00 AM on Wednesday, February 9, 2005
Celebrate Black History Month with song, theater and soul food
It's common knowledge that the African heritage of American Blacks is strong in music, dance, and storytelling. What's not so well-known is that African slaves also brought over to the American continent a strong tradition of making weavings, something that on American soil turned into quilting.

So what better way of celebrating Black History Month than a musical play that centers around a quilt, telling the story of African-Americans in drama and song?

There's not a lot of documentation about African textile art, so little is known about its sources -Eby the time African American quilting became its own tradition, African textiles had been traded throughout South and Central America and the southern United States that original African traditions had been intermingled with those of other cultures. What is known is how the tradition developed, and how, during the days of the Underground Railroad, quilts were used to carry messages and information or create maps that showed reliable escape routes for slaves looking for freedom.

In the dramatic play "Pieces of Life," written by Juneauites Michelle Monts and Bridget Easaw, a grandmother sits down with her grandson to explain to him about the history of the African American people, using a quilt.

"We were looking att different people in Alaska, and seeing all the different heritages, we thought a quilt was a good way of representing that."

"Each piece of the quilt represents a different part of history for the African American people," said Monts, "and each period has songs that go along with them." Songs are sung by the choir "Voices of Praise," which came together with 10 members in preparation for the Martin Luther King Day celebration, and has since grown to more than twice that size.

Starting in Africa with traditional songs, over slavery's spirituals, through the Civil Rights Movement, the play walks (or, rather, dances) us musically through history to a point in the present where songs of praise and worship represent the appreciation of having been brought out of a painful past to a place of equality - at least theoretically.

Racism, unfortunately, is still alive in Alaska, which Blacks can testify to just as other minority groups can.

"It's very visible in the schools," said choir director Sherry Patterson. "We're concerned about our kids in the schools."

And while the blatant racial epithets Black students still endure usually don't surface as easily in the adult population, the disparity in respect and treatment can still be found there, the three women said.

Monts said behavior that reveals underlying racist is often not deliberate.

"We [Blacks] were raised to watch ourselves, watch our backs, at all times," Monts said. "In the same way, parents of other cultures instill their values into their children, and sometimes it's values that are based in ignorance. I'm not even sure they're aware of what they're doing."

Patterson said when faced with an accusation of racism, people, whether in businesses or in government service, will usually have another explanation for treating Blacks differently.

"But we know," she said. "We've lived it."

Monts said one telling experience she had was participating in an "Undoing Racism" training, where participants of different backgrounds were asked to answer the question "What is it like to be your race?" While Tlingits, Filipinos and African Americans would talk about pride in their heritage and traditions, a Caucasian participant was stumped and couldn't think of what it was like to be White.

"He said, 'I'm beginning to understand that the biggest advantage I have is that I never have to ask myself that question'," Monts recalled.

The Black community in Juneau and Southeast Alaska isn't big - but very much alive. The Black Awareness Association provide scholarships for high school seniors and are involved in the Juneteenth celebration (the oldest known celebration of the ending of slavery in America, on June 19.) Recently, the association also started "Women of the Whale," a group working with young people, and especially women.

"Working with women in pain has been my desire for a long time," said Patterson, "but the Lord is just now