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CABCS’ “New York’s Caribbean State of Mind” Lecture Links Music With History

By Joseph D’Andrea

Micah Oelze’s lecture on Caribbean movers who channeled their activism through music was presented to a full house of students, faculty and administrators in the University Center Ballroom on Wednesday, Febr. 21. When he’s not in front of a class of Adelphi students as an assistant professor, Oelze is a professional guitarist, specializing in music originating in Latin America, in line with his specific area of study. 

Professor Micah Oelze performed a series of songs rooted in Caribbean history during his lecture in the University Center Ballroom. Photo by Josseph D'Andrea

Sponsored by the John Hope Franklin Distinguished Lecture, the Center for African, Black and Caribbean Studies (CABCS) and the Center for Academic Support and Enrichment, the presentation of “New York’s Caribbean State of Mind: Music, Migration, Race and the Making of Empire” blended performance with a traditional lecture.

“Dr. John Hope Franklin, a renowned Black historian, educator, and social activist believed that history could be utilized to understand ourselves and others and to improve society,” said Carolyn Springer, director of African, Black and Caribbean Studies. “Dr. Micah Oleze was selected to give the 2024 John Hope Distinguished Lecture because of his expertise in Latin American and Caribbean history and his scholarship, which focuses on historical events that shape culture and how music and other arts can spur social and political change.”

During his lecture, Oelze explained that in the late 19th century many newly freed Caribbean Blacks were searching for work away from their existing homes that had trauma associated with them, and they brought richly honest, experience-influenced music along their journey and once they settled down in New York City. Focusing on this connection between music and history, Oelze engaged with audience members, going beyond simply educating about history and actively bringing the past to life.

“My aim is to keep finding different ways to make students of color — especially those from the Caribbean — feel like they belong on campus, helping them recognize that they are the critical players making Adelphi a strong university with community and mental health,” Oelze said. “And, obviously, they are the ones improving our local soundscape.”

He continued: “Using the guitar and singing are my favorite ways to teach, so it was a gift to have the chance to bring that to the university. I was thankful to have so many of my student scholars — past and present — in attendance. It meant so much to have their support.”

Among other historical anecdotes, Oelze discussed the history of banana workers in Costa Rica, tracing back to the 1920s when the United Fruit Company in the U.S. hired Black Caribbean workers. One figure Dr. Oelze mentioned was Jamaican political activist Marcus Garvey and his vision of a unified Black race, along with his efforts to promote economic and educational opportunities for Black people worldwide. The challenges faced by those with the same grievances as Garvey are represented in songs written about their conditions, which Oelze performed, including Jamaican-American singer Harry Belafonte’s 1956 “Banana Boat (Day-O)” and Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” from 1980.

Speaking of the United Negro Improvement Association, founded by Garvey in 1914, Oelze said: “A lot of times in United States history, we don't give enough credit to how big this thing became. You had dozens of chapters and thousands of people involved in their own United Negro Improvement Association, not just in the States. We’re talking about 52 branches in Cuba, 47 in Panama, 23 in Costa Rica and [many more] in Jamaica.”

After the lecture, Zachary Zeller, senior history major in the STEP Program, said, As usual, Professor Oelze is a captivating speaker who excellently dove into the compelling history of Latin American musical influence on New York's musical culture. I was happy to attend his lecture and hope there are more like it coming in the future.”

The lecturer's all-encompassing approach made the material appealing even to non-history majors.

“It had a lot of interesting insight into the history of Caribbean culture through music,” said sophomore English and education major Justin Schweickert. “The music performances during the show definitely helped to make everything seem more real. It was very informative and I thought the speaker was really funny, too.”

Following the lecture, Oelze received several certificates: Certificate of Special Congressional Recognition, signed by Gregory Meeks, NY Representative to US House of Representatives; New York State Assembly Citation, for commitment to Latin American History, from assembly member Taylor Darling; Nassau County Legislature Citation for community commitment; and Town of Hempstead, Certificate of Recognition, signed by Hempstead Town Supervisor Donald Clavin and local councilmen and councilwomen.

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