During Black History Month, The Salt Lake Tribune published several stories that sought to elevate the voices of Black Utahns. In case you missed them, here they are in one place. Read about two Black ballerinas whose experiences have fueled big changes at Ballet West, as well as Utah’s break-dancing history. And find a list of Black-owned food businesses in the state (pro tip: bookmark it) that you can support not just in February, but throughout the year.
If you are Black, Native American, Asian, Hispanic, Pacific Islander or belong to any other minority community in Utah and you have story ideas or feedback, we want to hear from you. Reach out to Salt Lake Tribune culture editor Kolbie Peterson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Confronting racism in the ‘white ballet world’
As Ballet West’s artistic director, Adam Sklute decides how the dancers wear their hair. For a 2018 production of George Ballanchine’s three-part “Jewels,” he called for a low bun in the first work, a high bun in the second and a French twist in the third. Jazz Khai Bynum, a Black ballerina in the Ballet West II corps, was cast in all three works. She came forward and told the director that, with 15-minute intermissions, those fast hairstyle changes were simply impossible for her.
“That blew my mind,” Sklute admits. “It seems so minor, but it’s huge.”
Such expectations in ballet — historically interwoven with racism — are “a restriction because most people of color have a different hair texture than somebody who’s Caucasian,” said Katlyn Addison, another Ballet West dancer. “And there’s the feeling — I don’t fit in here. I don’t look like that.”
Bynum and Addison have shared their experiences to help shape new inclusive policies adopted by Ballet West.
Utah — yes, Utah — has its own ‘breaking’ history
Popular movies like “Flashdance” and “Breakin’” brought break dancing to Utah by the early 1980s, when kids were breaking in high school hallways and meeting up to dance at the mall.
Tony Saiki, a member of a Utah break-dancing crew formed in 1983, remembers how kids would show up, “bring cardboard, and just dance and have fun,” he says. “It was a way to really bring in a lot of different people, and a lot of the kids that did terrible at school and [weren’t] looked upon as anything, they became kind of little heroes for the people.”
Now, kids and adults alike learn how to do headstands and windmills through organizations like 1520 Arts, which aims to pay respect to hip-hop’s roots and revive the popularity of break dancing.
“When hip-hop was actually originally made, it was to get people off the streets and stop fighting because there are so many troubles with the gangs that this was a way they could come together and battle it out without gun violence or all these things,” says Katie Hall, who teaches graffiti art and dancing at The HERC. “The message of hip-hop is one love,” she said.
Support Black-owned food businesses year-round
A heightened push to support Black-owned businesses began last summer, when many consumers decided one way to fight racial inequity was to frequent such establishments. Since then, though, the focus has waned.
But the work never stops, said Lex Scott, leader of Black Lives Matter Utah. These businesses provide jobs and support other efforts within the community all year long.
“The best way to celebrate Black History Month is to support Black-owned businesses year-round,” she said. “Lift them up with your dining dollars.”
Keep this list of food business owned by Black Utahns handy — you never know when you might need healthy food in the Marmalade neighborhood, sweet potato pie, Faygo soda or smoked ribs.
Finding refuge in an unsafe world
To shed light on the disproportionate rates of violence that people of color experience nationwide and in Utah, artist Denae Shanidiin and photographer Jonathan Canlas created the “Safe/Not Safe” project. The photography series features portraits of Black, Indigenous and other people of color (BIPOC), each photographed in a place where they feel safe and another where their inner alarms go off, usually after a traumatic experience.
The series explores how ordinary places can feel threatening through a lens of trauma. But the subjects have found that sharing their pain can bring healing.
In her “unsafe” photo, Davina Smith stands in front of a crosswalk, where she says a driver intentionally tried to run her over. The Diné woman’s expression emanates anxiety.
But she has a relaxed, easy smile in her “safe” photo, in which she’s surrounded by dry grass, wood and stone at the Bells Canyon trailhead. Smith chooses to go to the mountains to hike and meditate. “That’s an area for me to reconnect with Mother Earth,” she said, “and just to refocus, reenergize, rejuvenate myself.”
Racism isn’t hypothetical for Black pastors in Utah
Most Black clerics in Utah face a similar question from curious outsiders: Are there really Black churches in the Beehive State?
The answer is yes. In fact, there are more than a dozen historically Black congregations in Utah. These five Black preachers play crucial roles in Utah’s religious life, and they’ve all dealt with the issue of racism in the mostly white state.
Pastor Brenda Hector, who preached at Embry Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Ogden before the pandemic hit, says the older Black members there have definitely experienced racism, she says. Their grandparents lived on plantations, and they themselves lived through the civil rights movement, “but they don’t dwell on it.”
Still, Hector says, it is time to bring in younger people to be mentored by their elders.
“We need to teach them and then turn it over to them,” she says, “so we can sit out.”