Smile Politely

Seven ways to celebrate Black joy and excellence in C-U

February is Black History Month, and like so many other communities across the United States, Champaign-Urbana has had a number of special events in its honor. As is to be expected, event offerings are a mix of celebrating the many contributions of Black people to American culture and society, and a reminder of the historic and ongoing oppression and violence perpetrated against Black people in the United States.

Often, there is a focus on the latter: the violence, trauma, and oppression. For example, Krannert Center for Performing Arts’ February calendar included a February Dance 2022 that centered Black dancers, an Afro-Brazilian Percussion workshop, and also Social Justice and Just Causes, Strange Fruit, and a performance of Parable of the Sower that was recently canceled due to COVID-19’s impact on the company’s ability to rehearse and prepare. It’s important to honor the past and ongoing traumas, the impact of those legacies on the contemporary moment, and call for meaningful change.

But it is also important to honor and revel in the laughter, lightness, and fun. In contrast to focusing on stories of perseverance, survival, and trauma, in recent years there has been a call to share Black joy as an act of resistance. Although Black History Month is ending soon, we think that honoring, celebrating, and including our Black communities should be a year-round endeavor. With that in mind, we want to share a few perennial ways to celebrate Black joy here in C-U. 

  1. Support Black joy by spending money at some of our excellent local Black-owned businesses, because money does buy happiness. Buy Black Chambana has a directory if you need some inspiration. We have a lot of favorites but one we want to highlight is Plant Mode. They started the year off in the tough position of having to abruptly move to a new location due to building safety issues in their original space, so go check out their new space at 113 N. Walnut Street in Champaign. 

  2. Eat at Black restaurants. Stango Cuisine is one of the only Zambian restaurants in the nation. Or if barbecue is more your speed, check out Wood n’ Hog. Nothing Bundt Cakes or CBPB Popcorn shop can take care of your dessert needs. 217 Black Restaurant Week, another project from Buy Black Chambana, happens every June, so mark your calendar. 

  3. Read Black literature. Need a place to start? Nnedi Okorafor is an award-winning Nigerian-American fantasy and science fiction author who got her BA at the University of Illinois. The 2021 Urbana Poet Laureate Ashanti Files published Woven: Perspectives of a Black Woman in 2019. If you prefer non-fiction, check out the work of Professor Candice Jenkins who researches and teaches on contemporary African American literature and speculative fiction. If you want more suggestions, there is a subscription box service that was started right here in Champaign. Jamillah R. Gabriel started Call Number, a quarterly subscription box service with curated selections of Black literature. 

  4. Enjoy Black dance, either as an audience member or a dancer. We already mentioned the February Dance 2022 event at KCPA (which you can still view online), but if you want to learn how to dance we recommend taking some classes at the Urbana Dance Company. This semester, Joseph Kirby is teaching hip-hop classes at 7 p.m. on Wednesday nights. 

  5. If you don’t want to take formal dance lessons but enjoy dancing, our many local Black DJs and musicians offer plenty of opportunities to celebrate Black excellence and move your body to a beat. BLACKMAU is a collaboration between Kamau Grantham and Stacey Robinson and you can find them around town organizing shows and events. Or check out New Souls and their endlessly danceable R&B, soul, hip-hop, and funk covers performed by Brandon T. Washington, Cii La’cole, and Mike Ingram.

  6. In addition to performing arts, our community is home to many Black visual artists who have work displayed around town or available for purchase. Kofi Bazell-Smith is a manga artist who often delivers workshops and has art displayed around town, and you can support him by buying some of his work through his website. Patrick Earl Hammie has shows in galleries across the United States, but you can also see his work locally. Most recently, he was commissioned by the Chancellor’s Office to paint a portrait of Albert R. Lee, which is on display at the Student Dining and Residential Services building. Hammie and Stacey Robinson have work on view at Avionics. The Urbana Utility Box Mural program has a piece by BLACKMAU on the corner of Vine and Main. 

  7. Support the C-U Black and African Arts Festival. Founded by Cindy and Susan Ogwal, the C-U Black & African Arts Festival typically happens in September. The mission of the festival is “to expose and give a culturally diverse experience to the Champaign-Urbana, IL community by expressing both Black and African heritage.”

This list is just a starting point for ways to celebrate Black joy and uplift our local Black communities. Please feel welcome to share your favorites, and let’s keep the support going year round. 

The Editorial Board is Jessica Hammie, Julie McClure, Patrick Singer, and Mara Thacker. 

Top image by (left to right): Urbana Arts & Culture Program Facebook page, Plant Mode Instagram page, and © Patrick Earl Hammie, Albert R. Lee, 2019. Image provided by Patrick Earl Hammie.

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