By Eui-jo Marquez
By Eui-jo Marquez
In an era where political correctness and the concept of “the human race” have discouraged our acknowledgement of different races, the Ujima Project is singing, teaching, and encouraging the celebration of race and advancement.
The Ujima Project is an academic program that helps educationally disadvantaged Black students become successful at college. Ujima is Swahili for “collective work and responsibility.”
According to Don Ajene Wilcoxson,business administration instructor and founder of the Ujima Project, Black students as a group need help. They are the least likely to return to college after one semester.
Wilcoxson doesn’t know why Black students suffer this plight. He believes it has something to do with them not feeling comfortable at college.
“There’s dual responsibility- students who want to succeed must reach out for help but also the institution needs to give encouragement and support,” he said.
“People are afraid of difference, which is kind of ridiculous in Southern California,” he said. He believes everyone should feel comfortable in at least two cultures.
Wilcoxson hopes that through academic preparation, caring mentors and cultural education, Black students will be more likely to finish college. At 61 percent, they have the lowest course completion rate of all ethnicities on campus.
College can be intimidating at first, especially if you don’t feel comfortable and welcome. Wilcoxson wants everyone to feel comfortable asking questions. That’s why the Ujima Project is so beneficial for everyone. The Ujima Project plans to offer two events every semester where the entire college community can learn about African American culture.
Karen Wilson, historian and singer-storyteller was the star of the first event, “Where is the ‘African’ in African- American”, which took place on Thursday afternoon.
“When cultures want to come together you have to spend some time together to know who you are and where you came from,” she said.
The event, held at the Digital Library Auditorium, was an hour of Wilson’s jazz singing, accompanied by Garfield “Cookie” Coleman on the piano, Jim Palmer on the tenor saxophone and Anthony Garcia on bass and drum.
Riverside City College President Daniel Castro started the event by thanking students for having the courage to attend college.
“You are the best of our communities,” he said.
“You, whether you like it or not, have been handed the leadership mantel to take to the next level,” he said.
In between songs like “Stormy Monday”, Lil Greene’s “Why don’t you do right”, George Gershwin’s “Summertime”, and a jazzy rendition of “Twinkle twinkle little star”, Wilson talked about how the presence of African culture in the United States was not theoretical, “not just in the air,” she said.
“It’s active and alive in all of us.”
Wilson explained that the sampling of hip-hop and rap started with Black slaves, who sampled from each other’s Pan-African cultures.
She further explained that the improvisation of Black culture, apparent in jazz, has positively changed and affected American lives in uncountable ways.
As Cookie’s fingers danced across the keys, Wilson’s deep and melodious voice sang, scatted, and taught as she moves across the stage. The black and white keys represent how colors work together. Without one, music would be flat, dull and lifeless.
“This history is all of our history. American history. To function without knowing it is to function without a full understanding of who we are,” she said.
It seemed like she was full, almost bursting with energy and desire, desperately wanting to share all her experience with the next generation.
A racially diverse group of over 100 students and faculty laughed, sang, clapped, snapped and danced in their seats.
RCC student Elizabeth Manchaca was given extra credit in her English 1A class for attending the event. “It was so cool,” she said, explaining that she had listened to jazz but never fully appreciated it until now.
Music student Jovaun Moody was just walking by the event when he stopped in to check out the commotion.
“It sparked my interest,” he said.
“Man, it was tight,” he said, impressed with Wilson’s explanation of African American culture through modern music.
“We don’t get to be one until we know all our parts,” Wilson said.
To this end, Ujima’s next event, Harambee, will present an opportunity for open discussion for the entire college community.
“The focus of this gathering is to bring African American students together to dialogue, share concerns, make commitments, and celebrate our accomplishments academically and personally,” Wilcoxson said.
Harambee is the official motto of Kenya, meaning, “pulling together” in Swahili.
It will be held on the Oct. 24, from 6-8 p.m. in the cafeteria. Wilcoxson promises it will be full of good music, honesty and acceptance.