One of Europe’s top ballet troupes invited then 16-year-old Janet Collins to dance a key role, an unheard-of honor for a performer who was not only still a teenager, but Black.
The only problem is, the producers wanted Collins to conceal that last part — they demanded that she perform in whiteface.
Collins, showing a maturity well beyond her years and understanding of her place as a trailblazer in the world of ballet, declined.
“But it broke her heart,” her cousin, the dancer and actress Carmen de Lavallade, wrote eight years ago in Time magazine.
Collins would have to wait another 19 years to shatter ballet’s color barrier. In 1951, she was the first Black dancer to perform as a prima ballerina at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.
A new generation of children heard Collins’ story Wednesday during the African-American Read-in at Farrell Area Elementary School. Participants read Michelle Meadows’ book “Brave Ballerina,” a children’s book treatment of Collins pioneering role in American dance, to students in the pre-kindergarten and kindergarten classes.
The annual Read-In, established in 1990 by the African American Caucus of the National Council of Teachers of English, is intended to highlight the work of Black authors writing about Black experiences.
In other words, representation.
Dismissing Collins, Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson or any other Black trailblazer as something that doesn’t matter is the privilege of those who routinely see themselves on television, on the Metropolitan Opera stage or on the Supreme Court of the United States.
For those who don’t see themselves in those spaces, representation is important The presence of Lt. Gov. Austin Davis, the first Black man ever to hold that office in Pennsylvania, was a big deal to the Farrell third-grader who looked at Davis and said, “You look like me.”
For that child, 8 or 9 years old, the horizon of what is possible has just grown to include holding Pennsylvania’s second-highest executive office.
That’s what the Read-in and Black History Month do for Black children. It spotlights the stories of people like Collins, or the late Civil Rights leader and Congressman John Lewis, subject of the sixth-grade selection, “Preaching to the Chickens” by Jabari Asim.
It tells those children that they, too can be ballet dancers, U.S. Representatives. Or authors — all of the African American Read-in selections are written by Black authors, like Amanda Gordon who, then 22, read her poem “The Hill We Climb,” in 2021 at President Joe Biden’s inaugural ceremony.
“It’s hard to be what you haven’t been exposed to,” said Farrell Superintendent Rev. Dr. Lora Adams-King. Adams-King and Farrell Mayor Kimberly Doss read “Preaching to the Chickens” to sixth-grade classes Wednesday during the Read-in.
“Is the next congressman in there,” Adams-King said, gesturing toward the sixth-grade class . “Is the next senator in there? Is a future president in there?”
Or maybe the next Robert Robinson Taylor.
Taylor, born in 1868 to a formerly enslaved father, was this country’s first academically trained Black architect. His work includes more than two dozen buildings on the campus of Tuskegee University in Tuskegee, Alabama.
Farrell sixth-grader Gavin Tsolo-Pettiford, is the student in that room who might follow in the path that Taylor forged more than a century ago. An enthusiastic football and basketball player, he had the typical teenage aspiration of going pro.
“If I don’t make it as a pro, I’d like to design buildings, become an architect,” Tsolo-Pettiford said.
He’s already a student of the trade. Tsolo-Pettiford said he admires building designs in places like New York City and Pittsburgh.
Adams-King, a longtime teacher and administrator in a district where many of the young male students don the Steelers’ blue and gold on Friday night, understands the dual nature in the aspirations embraced by students like Tsolo-Pettiford.
She knows that a large part of Farrell’s image rests on its athletic programs, but doesn’t want to limit the students to their on-the-field exploits.
“The image is to portray us as entertainers and athletes, and we are that, but so much more,” Adams-King said.
The Read-In selections — and Black History Month — tells many of those, “so much more” stories.
ERIC POOLE is editor of The Herald and Allied News. Contact him with news tips, complaints and book recommendations at firstname.lastname@example.org, and by phone at 724-981-6100.
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