Dr. Stephanie Shonekan stepped back to the lectern on the night of March 8, moments after her student, Kennedy Moore, had enchanted the full house at Columbia College’s Bixby Lecture Hall with a rendition of the 2001 Mary J. Blige hit song, “No More Drama.”
“I should go everywhere with Kennedy Moore,” Shonekan said.
Shonekan, chair of the Department of Black Studies at the University of Missouri, served as the keynote lecturer for Women’s History Month festivities at Columbia College. Her presentation, “Four Women: Black Women Sing of Life, Liberation, and Love,” beseeched the audience to “come closer” and empathize with the experiences of African-American women through songs from artists Nina Simone — whose song “Four Women” provided the framework for the lecture — Abbey Lincoln, Janet Jackson, Blige and Beyonce.
Some of the songs echoed through the speakers in the Brouder Science Center’s Bixby Lecture Hall. The others, Moore belted out with nothing more than a microphone and a backing track.
“This demographic is critical to the progress of this country. From the very beginning, black women have carried a heavy load,” Shonekan said. “Music has always been a way to understand the history of the culture of African-Americans and, indeed, of black people all over the world.”
Since 2011, Columbia College has celebrated national Women’s History Month each March by presenting its own slate of events. This year’s theme, “Taking Center Stage: Celebrating Women Who Create and Inspire,” focused on the arts.
Carmen Price, Columbia College adjunct instructor of philosophy and co-chair of the college’s Women’s History Month Committee, said the arts provide a fitting microcosm for the challenges women face in all walks of life.
“What we’ve seen in recent years is a thread of continuity. There is increasing evidence that, regardless of the type of art they engage in, women encounter a disproportionate number and degree of obstacles and limitations,” Price said during her introduction of Shonekan’s lecture. “They struggle to get funding and to get the foot in the first door. They struggle to get promotion for their projects. They struggle to be treated with dignity while they work. And then they struggle to be recognized for their artistic achievement
“To put it bluntly, women struggle just to be taken seriously, throughout the world of arts as well as elsewhere.”
Shonekan’s March 8 keynote lecture centered on music. A March 13 retrospective of Christian College alumnae in the arts recognized four key figures from the college’s past who blazed their own trails in a variety of mediums. Vinnie Ream sculpted a likeness of President Abraham Lincoln that still resides in the U.S. Capitol rotunda. Artie Mason Carter helped found the iconic Hollywood Bowl concert venue, Tessie Mobley was a groundbreaking Native American opera singer, and Sally Rand entertained thousands at the 1933 World’s Fair with her famous fan dance.
On March 14, Citizen Jane Film Festival feature films programmer Donna Kozloskie hosted a showing and discussion of the film Big Eyes, based on the true story of artist Margaret Keane, who had to fight for decades to reclaim her art after her husband appropriated her distinctive painting style as his own. Kozloskie also led a discussion about the difficulties women face in bringing their film projects to screen.
The month culminated in a talent showcase and reception on March 20 in Atkins-Holman Student Commons, set against the backdrop of works of art from Columbia College students set up around the commons. Valerie Wedel, a 2002 graduate, was also on hand to discuss her large-scale art installation “Sloughing Off,” which was on display in the commons for the entire month of March.
The piece consisted of cloudlike fabric forms hanging down from the second-floor catwalk and suspended by string just above the heads of passersby. In her artist statement, Wedel wrote that the piece “is meant to evoke the idea of a casting off of something no longer useful, like old skin. Letting go of old ways of doing things, old concepts no longer held dear, to reveal new ways of being that are yet to be discovered.”
Shonekan, too, preached the importance of new experiences in her lecture. It’s the only way we can all grow.
“We have to be willing to approach the screen, study it, digest it, talk about it, ask questions, so that what we leave with is more than what we came in with,” Shonekan said. “We leave with more nuance, a more developed and critical lens. We are ultimately more transformed. Therefore, we can go out and transform others.”