URBANA — The Cotton Club was established in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City in 1923, during the Jim Crow and Prohibition era, as a place for African American artists to perform in front of white audiences.
It helped launch the careers of many well-known artists, such as Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway.
Over 30 years ago, the concept of the Cotton Club was brought to the University of Illinois by the Central Black Student Union, and it has been a staple of Black History Month every year since.
“This week highlights a variety of events that our black students can participate in and bond with each other in celebration of our history, our present and our talents,” said Kaniah Jackson, a UI housing resident director who participated in Cotton Club Week all four years while an undergrad. “We get to see the many different talents of our current black student population, which is still less than 5 percent of the student body on this campus. We get to learn about our history, which has been twisted and retaught in ways that omit the truth.”
So far, this week has showcased Gospel Explosion (a Sunday kickoff of praise and glory), Spittin’ Figures (spoken word), The View From Their Eyes (a discussion of the Tuskegee Airmen and World War II), Soul Train Karaoke and Soul Bowl (bowling at the Illini Union).
At 7:30 p.m. tonight at the Student Dining and Residential Programs Building, the group will host its annual Cotton Club Week Fashion Show.
It’s designed to empower students by showing the multi-faceted talents of African American students across campus and celebrate their culture.
“A fashion show is included in Cotton Club because the scope of talent that the black community has to offer is expanding. It gives opportunity for individuals who have the talent of presence, fashion design and style to show what they have to offer,” said sophomore Trinity Rosa, producer of this year’s show.
The week will end with a variety show at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at Foellinger Auditorium.
“The week is an outlet, an educational experience, an experience,” Jackson said.
The Central Black Student Union is dedicated to promoting and supporting African American students at the UI and in surrounding communities.
It is also the coordinating body of the six black student unions in the university residence halls.
“It is our mission to foster a sense of unity, community and support to ensure a positive experience for all African American students and minority groups,” said Cristian Biviano, the organization’s staff supervisor. “We aim to unite the students of the residence halls with surrounding members of other organizations to achieve a common goal of unity and support.”