Rite of Passage: A Journey through the Hidden
By, Alexander Le
A group of thirty teenage boys listened in reverence to Dr. Charles Lee-Johnson as he explained the antiquity of Egypt. He led them through the labyrinth of African history, where too many times there had been great hidden figures lost in the Western landscape. From Black Madonna to Islam, he unveiled parts of the world that exist, but are concealed by the shadows of a selective Western history. Before ending the tour of the museum, he asked all the boys to tap their fingers upon the aged skin of an antediluvian African drum, for it was part of their rite of passage to feel the rhythm of the past that remained in them.
On February 27, 2017, the African American Museum of Beginnings held its second annual NAACP Night at the African American Museum of Beginnings. This cultural celebration was held in collaboration with the Pomona Valley NAACP, and school officials from Riverside County and Pomona Unified School District. Museum volunteer Tamela Hutchinson explained that the annual event includes the “Rite of Passage” to emulate ceremonies held in Africa where boys symbolically became men, and this annual event maintains the same purpose for the students: to obtain true growth.
After the boys finished their tour, Khalif Anderson Gordon Rasshan, founder and curator of the museum, invited everyone to the procession in a room across the museum. A myriad of attendants had come to support the event from prominent community leaders such as NAACP Branch President Jeanette Ellis-Royston, to Pomona Unified School District Deputy Superintendent of Instructional Services, Stephanie Baker, to students of PUSD’s Garey High School. After having retired from forty-three years of teaching, Khalif Rasshan and his wife, Victoria Rasshan, had decided to open the African American Museum of Beginnings, which for six years has been standing proudly in Pomona. He thanked everyone for their support and then gave the floor to Jeanette Ellis-Royston, who welcomed all the NAACP members and community for coming together for the night. She then invited Audrey Yarbrough to the front, who called for everyone to join her in singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
From every corner of the room, venerable voices stood united in singing James Weldon Johnson’s enduring song. Every voice was heard as they sang, “Til earth and heaven sing, Ring with the harmonies of liberty; Let our rejoicing rise.”
After the moving procession, seven students from Garey High School, with the support of Garey High School Advisor and NAACP member Audrey Yarbrough, were invited to the front to present their studies of the hidden figures in African American history. It began with Braxton Williams, Mikeyana Farrow, and Alton Pottis who presented “Lift Every Voice and Sing” in poetic form. Together, they explained the song’s importance in African American heritage, and how its meaning continues to resonate today. Mi’kala Reed and Yu-Nek Smith spoke of the Harlem Renaissance and how it was a “spiritual coming of age” in African American culture in a time when their culture was invisible to the public eye. Jordan Fitzhugh, dressed like a professional businessman in a fine black suit, reminded everyone of the history of violence the U.S. government enacted against successful African American business owners, such as the Tulsa Riots of 1921 where one thousand two hundred and fifty six homes and businesses were immolated in an act of egregious injustice. Lastly, Staphany Sok presented the important history of Historical Black Colleges and Universities. She expressed how these institutions had an indivisible significance to African American heritage, and quoted the great Zachary Hubert: “Get your education… it’s the one thing they can’t take from you.”
All seven students were awarded for their efforts in leadership, diversity, and education with the esteemed Certificate of Appreciation from Audrey Yarbrough in affiliation with the NAACP.
The meaning behind the NAACP Night at the African American Museum of Beginnings and the Rite of Passage program was elucidated remarkably by Pomona Deputy Superintendent of Instruction Services, Stephanie Baker, in her profound sermon about “hidden figures.” Drawing from the Academy Award nominated movie, Hidden Figures
, she affirmed that African Americans today still face invisibility in society. The movie is based on a true story about three African American women, who against all odds, had become the extraordinary “calculators” of NASA. It had an astonishing effect on Baker, where she deduced that the title of Hidden Figures
had two meanings: quite literally, the women were hidden
in a separate room at NASA, and secondly that they worked with figures
. She reminded everyone that African Americans are still hidden. With only 2% of African Americans employed in the engineering field, many are left unseen and invisible. Furthermore, she stated that the glass ceiling continues to exist, but cautioned about the sticky floor, in which one’s own people may try to hold one down.
Baker ended her sermon with a memory of when she had walked upon the acres of land purchased by her great-grandfather. He, who had been once a slave, had passed down that land from generation to generation. She reminded everyone that the importance was not that the land continued to be a symbol of liberty, but that it was in the determination and perseverance of the hidden figures of the past that had allowed them to move forward and achieve greatness. Her speech drew a roaring applause from everyone in the room with some members standing in ovation.
As the applause began to fade, Jeanette Ellis-Royston took the stage and she notably added that, “If you want to be someone, be yourself. Do not be hidden.” Additionally, for their unparalleled efforts in “moving forward with strength and courage” and “building bridges” in the community, both Deputy Superintendent Stephanie Baker and the founders of the African American Museum of Beginnings, Victoria and Khalif Rasshan, were award with the Certificate of Appreciation from Audrey Yarbrough in association with the NAACP.
As the NAACP Night neared its end, the teenage boys of the Rite of Passage program were given a book by author, artist, and songwriter Ms. Drama Ganza titled, History Is a Part of Me
, in partnership with the NAACP. The educational book reveals the hidden African American inventors hardly spoken of in history, such as Garrett Morgan, who had invented the traffic light in 1922. Before leaving, she listed in rap the many other African Americans inventors veiled in history, in which she rapped with her remarkable voice that could
never be hidden nor silenced. As one of the newest additions to the museum, the African American Museum of Beginnings will temporarily exhibit a sculpture of the forty-fourth president, President Barack Obama, from James Ellison of Rowland Unified School District’s Nogales High School, who presented to the NAACP. The bust of the president stood proudly in front, as a permanent figure of diversity that could never be concealed in history.
The NAACP Night at the African American Museum of Beginnings and Rite of Passage at the African American Museum of Beginnings served not as a test of masculinity, nor physical fortitude. It was about learning the trials and tribulations of the hidden figures of the past. It was about uniting people together to see what many others had not. To enter the Rite of Passage is to leave with the knowledge that together in diversity, there are no hidden figures, and that every voice along the way is never forgotten.