Rebecca Karabus

As Black History Month draws to a close, Yale and Greater New Haven community members celebrated Black culture and heritage at a Saturday brunch featuring drum performances and the Yale Gospel Choir.

Sen. Gary Winfield, assistant state Senate majority leader who represents New Haven and West Haven, joined Afro-American Cultural Center Director Risë Nelson at the State of Black New Haven Brunch. The brunch was a part of the University’s first annual Celebration of Black Life Festival, which featured events throughout the weekend including a Celebration of Black Arts Showcase, workshops on Black health care and finance and a fashion show. New Haven Promise and the University’s Office of the Secretary and Vice President of Student Life sponsored the festival. Speaking to an audience of around 90 people, Winfield emphasized the importance of remembering Black history — which he views as inextricably linked to American history — in order to foster greater unity and compel social progress.

“In this country we see [Black history] as something separate from American history, though the history of America is largely wrapped into Black history,” Winfield told the News. “I think what people don’t understand is that we can’t understand American history without understanding Black history.”

Winfield said his job requires “going back” by remembering previous generations’ struggles for social justice in order to educate younger generations. He noted that today’s youth live in a world he thinks is changing more rapidly than the world he was born into. He said this has influenced the “palpable” urgency he senses in recent Black activist work, including the Black Lives Matter movement.

He spoke about the power of Black activism on social media, citing Black Lives Matter and other hashtags on Twitter as effective in beginning a larger intellectual dialogue about struggles afflicting the Black community. He said because today’s activists are less willing to accept the status quo, their methods are generally more “confrontational” than activists of the past, and that their use of social media has facilitated the proliferation of their message.

Nelson said the theme of the festival — “Roots, Rebirth and Renaissance” — allowed Yale and New Haven community members to return to the roots of humanity and the history of the African Diaspora.

“It is imperative to know our histories, learn the stories of how we have not just overcome and survived but how we have thrived,” Nelson said. “It is imperative that we stop in these moments to acknowledge that we are here, together, praising each other for our goodness and the contributions of our cultures, raising each other up, and celebrating ourselves.”

Winfield said members of the Black community must be “audacious” to believe that social progress can be made despite shortcomings in the public school system and violence, which disproportionately afflict Black communities. He said hope is “passive” and will not compel sufficient change.

Nicole Tinson-Johnson DIV ’16, a member of the Black History Month planning committee at the Af-Am House and one of the organizers of the “A Moment of Crisis: Race at Yale Teach-In” last November, praised the event and the festival for bringing together Yale students, faculty and members of Greater New Haven.

“The Celebration of Black Life Festival brings together the community. The root word of community is unity, and the unity experienced at the brunch was awe-inspiring,” Tinson-Johnson said. “We all gathered as one to embrace our culture.”

Black History Month was first recognized by the federal government in 1976.

Correction, Feb. 29: A previous version of this article misstated the number of attendees at the event.