SWANA Keeps the Flame Burning for Black History

Lisa Reisman | February 7th, 2024

SWANA Keeps the Flame Burning for Black History

Black History Month  |  New Haven Free Public Library



Top photo: A younger drummer gets in to the spirit of things at the Black History Month celebration at Wilson Library hosted by SWANA. Bottom photo: Drummer Michael Mills and event emcee Robin Hobson. Lisa Reisman photos.

There was the raw power and energy of Michael Mills’ African drumming, the stirring rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” by Scotticesa Miller. There was Scripture and poetry readings and jubilant dance.

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Scotticesa Miller sings "Lift Every Voice and Sing." 

The occasion was the Black History Month celebration on Saturday afternoon at Wilson Library and hosted by SWANA, short for Sisters with a New Attitude, a women’s group formed in 2001 with a mission for “women to support women in a positive way,” President Deborah Elmore told the lively crowd of 60.

The group holds Her-Story hours, a Thursday night weekly prayer line, as well as a project that has members sending cards and letters to the women in Niantic prison, and a Juneteenth celebration historical enactment of the journey from slavery to freedom on the New Haven Green.


Poet and writer Elizabeth Wallace-Hunt with the inspirational greeting cards she makes with local artist Jasmine Nikole.

True to the “Keepers of the Flame" theme, the purpose of Saturday’s event, emcee Robin Hobson said, was “to maintain the legacy of our history, to learn the messages embedded in what has been passed down to us because those are our history books.

“It’s up to us as elders to teach our youth that history,” she said.

That was evident in the display of vibrant African bowls and handmade tools and implements, as well as in a short play performed “by the children of SWANA,” as Elmore called them.


The crowd gathered at Wilson for the celebration Saturday.

With the lights dimmed, audio of crickets chirping, and a group of children settled on a green blanket decorated with cotton balls in front of the space, Elmore narrated a story about a Black girl and her newborn baby “with straight hair and blue eyes.” The girl is missing her mother who has been sold and plans “to follow the North Star, so [her] baby’s life can be spared.” 

Hobson explained that “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” which was sung heartily by the crowd, was a spiritual encoded with hidden meanings.

“If a slave heard this song, they knew it was time to prepare for escape,” she said. The ‘band of angels’ referred to the conductors of the Underground Railroad (the sweet chariot) who would soon come south (swing low) to guide the slave north to freedom (carry me home), she said.


SWANA President Deborah Elmore.

Cornrows weren’t just hairdos, Hobson said.

“They were maps that let people know the safer places to go,” she said.

Likewise, quilts, in addition to keeping people warm on cold nights, contained messages in the shapes and motifs that indicated the area’s immediate dangers or where to head next. 

After Adrienne DeBarros’ spirited recitation of “Ain’t I A Woman,” Sojourner Truth’s 1851 speech about the rights—or lack thereof—of African American women, Hobson asked what feelings the poem evoked.

“Power,” one person said.

“Grief,” another said.

“Black History Month is the shortest month of the year, but we get an extra day this year,” said Glenn Ellis, author of “The Names Have Been Kept the Same” and producer of Positive Records Period, before leading the audience in call and response.

“To the beat beat, black black, to the beat Black history,” he sang out.

“To the beat beat, black back, to the beat Black history,” everyone sang back.

Distinguished New Havener Neil Richardson spoke about a host of community initiatives to help youth, including his plans to open a roller skating rink and mentoring program sometime this year.

“That’s what I’m talking about,” someone said, as a young child raced about.scarves

Hobson and Naz Zimmerman transform scarves into waves.

Toward the end, Hobson and Naz Zimmerman, Elmore’s grandson, led a rendition of “Wade in the Water,” shaking scarves rhythmically between them, sending waves through the scarves, the audience joining in.

“These were messages to help them get through,” Hobson said after the last note faded. “They can help us too.”