Black History Month is an important time of the year because it allows us to shine a light on the oft-overlooked achievements of black leaders and inventors, as well as force many Americans to confront the darker chapters of our history that tend to get overlooked.
That is precisely what happened on a brisk, Thursday evening as a few dozen people gathered in the Crispell Memorial French Church on Huguenot Street, mere yards away from a slave burial ground, to see a performance by dynamic storytellers and musicians Kim and Reggie Harris.
Originally from Philadelphia, Kim and Reggie have been performing all over the world for over 30 years, drawing inspiration from history and their own lives to weave a collage of folk music, personal anecdotes and historical facts that seamlessly blend into a cohesive performance called “Songs of Hope and Freedom.” With their performance they seek to entertain and educate the crowd by engaging them in interactive songs and stories that discuss the trials and tribulations black people have faced over the course of American history.
Their artistic repertoire is wide and diverse in its subject matter, but the night’s songs and stories were selected in honor of Black History Month. They span hundreds of years of African-American history: telling the story of Harriet Tubman, the Negro Baseball Leagues, Martin Luther King, Jr. and even Reggie’s own tale of his reunion with a distant cousin.
“As a nation we are still dealing with slavery. Economically, politically and socially, the legacy is still with us,” Kim Harris said. “So it’s important that we continue to educate [people] about it.”
Kim believes that song has a unique ability to galvanize people into action that is absent in other forms of communication, making it a powerful tool to trigger social change.
“Singing draws people together. It inspires,” she said. “You’ve got to encourage people to do something that sometimes is against the law and really scary. Song is a great way to do that because when people sing together they are literally conspiring together.”
Many of the attendees, including Cara Lee, director of the Nature Conservancy’s Shawangunk Ridge Program, were moved by their heartfelt presentation.
“You can feel the emotion in their performance,” Lee said. “I loved Reggie’s story about finding his cousin. It shows that they not only have an incredible breadth of knowledge, but a deep personal connection.”
Their deep appreciation of the history of the African-American narrative is why they are always welcome at Huguenot Street according to Kara Gaffken, director of public programming at Historic Huguenot Street. They were previously invited to Huguenot Street in June of 2014 to commemorate Juneteenth, the oldest known celebration of the announcement of the end of slavery.
“Slaves played a major part in the history of New Paltz,” Gaffken said. “All of the buildings and homes on Huguenot Street were built by African-American slaves and many of them were buried right here on Huguenot Street. So we believe it’s very important to remember and honor their memory, especially during Black History Month.”
While much of what they do aims to educate, Kim maintains that like all music, their songs are about community.
“With that singing going on it can really help people just come together because socially, we need to come together,” Kim Harris said.
Kim and Reggie Harris’ music, along with their performance schedule, can be found online at www.kimandreggie.com