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OAAA Black History Month events to honor ‘Black Bottom Saints’

The virtual events will feature author Alice Randall, prominent members of the music industry and screenings of several recent films

<p>The month is themed around Alice Randall's book "Black Bottom Saints" and will also feature recording artists Louis York.&nbsp;</p>

The month is themed around Alice Randall's book "Black Bottom Saints" and will also feature recording artists Louis York. 

In honor of Black History Month, the Office of African-American Affairs will hold a series of events inspired by Alice Randall’s novel “Black Bottom Saints.” The novel tells the stories of 52 individuals, or saints, from Black Bottom, Detroit. These saints include famous figures like Dinah Washington — a jazz and blues singer known as “the most popular Black female recording artist of the 50s’” — and Joe Louis — a professional boxer who was heavyweight champion of the world from 1937 to 1949 —  as well as local heroes who embody the spirit of the vibrant neighborhood. 

The events will include a variety of book discussions and movie screenings and highlight guest speakers such as author Alice Randall, recording artists Louis York and music supervisor Carter Little. 

Established in 1976, the Office of African-American Affairs is in charge of organizing University-wide Black History Month events. Originally, the organization curated a series of events to honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but these events have since evolved into a month-long celebration of Black History Month.

Michael Gerard Mason, associate dean of African-American Affairs, who curates the University’s Black History Month events, described his decision to change this year’s theme from origin stories to “Black Bottom Saints” in response to the Black Lives Matter protests ignited by the death of George Floyd last summer.

“I wanted to make a shift to something that was probably less trauma-focused and more celebratory,” Mason said. 

Mason decided to focus instead on Randall’s novel “Black Bottom Saints,” selecting 28 saints from the work to highlight as an inspiration during these difficult times.

“We began to pivot towards creating a month where we might discover 28 or so people who we can lean on to for encouragement, both in their lives now and in the past life,” Mason said.

With all the events online, Mason and the Office of African-American Affairs placed more of an emphasis on individual engagement, so students and faculty are able enjoy the novel, films and music independently if they are unable to attend other events.

“Each of [the] fliers is embedded with links that will take people on their own journey to sort of discover information about the things we’re highlighting rather than having many, many programs that require frequent engagement,” Mason said.

The Office of African-American Affairs will hold a kickoff event at noon Friday, which will feature author Alice Randall and recording artist Louis York. Members of the University community who are interested in attending the event may register online for the Zoom event.

Members of the University community are encouraged to read a chapter from Randall’s novel “PATRON SAINT OF: Junkmen, the Adopted, Widows, and Widowers” that tells the stories of Dick “Night Train” Lane — a professional football player in the 50s and 60s who still holds the NFL record for most number of interceptions by a rookie cornerback — and jazz and blues singer Dinah Washington, Lane’s wife.

Discussions of the novel will take place on Feb. 11 and Feb. 25 at 7 p.m. via Zoom. Each member of the University community may invite one family member to participate in the discussion, and the first 20 people who RSVP will receive free books. Those interested in attending either discussion should RSVP online.

While the chapters of “Black Bottom Saints” vary in length, each saint’s story is incredibly relevant for the current times. Other saints include poet Robert Hayden, singer Della Reese and Tanya Blanding, a four-year-old Black girl who was killed by a Michigan State trooper in her own home. The novel may be read from beginning to end or as a collection of short stories.

Mason said he hopes the University community will feel connected to some of Randall’s saints during these difficult times. 

“Alice Randall identified … people who she felt like could be intermediaries to stand in the gap for us in our times of need in different ways,” Mason said. “What I'm hoping is that we can just carry with us some number of new people who do great things for all of us.”

On Feb. 12, the Office of African-American Affairs will hold an HBO Max-Party featuring “Judas and the Black Messiah,” the true story of Black Panther Party chairman Fred Hampton and FBI informant William O’Neal. 

The month’s events will continue with a virtual discussion about the history of “Cancel Culture” at 7 p.m. on Feb. 17. An event on Feb. 18 honors the Black athletes of 2021 and connects their experience to “Night Train” Lane, one of the saints featured in Randall’s novel. On Feb. 19 at 7 p.m., there will be a Zoom Netflix Party showing the 2020 film “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” which describes the tensions that develop between singer Ma Rainey, the “Mother of the Blues,” and her white producer.

Along with artistic depictions of each of the saints, Randall and her team also created a playlist of more than 100 songs to honor the music of the Black Bottom cultural center for which the novel is named. 

On Feb. 26, music supervisor Carter Little will discuss the Black Bottom Saints playlist and answer questions at noon. The playlist is a celebration of music from Detroit’s Black Bottom neighborhood. It includes songs from such prominent artists as LaVern Baker, Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington. 

After hearing about the Office of African-American Affairs’ plans for Black History Month and the playlist, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame reached out to partner. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame will be following the Office of African-American Affairs’ social media accounts throughout the month and will reshare their posts. 

“Each day we're sharing one saint and one song from the playlist, [and] many of those people who are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,” Mason said. “So the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame will be represented in our kickoff this coming Friday at noon, and that’s gonna be pretty sweet.”