All images are courtesy of WMCAT
Grand Rapids — When Grand Rapids University Preparatory Academy junior Elijah Brown agreed to be part of a Black History Month T-shirt project between Meijer and the West Michigan Center for Arts + Technology (WMCAT), he thought it was just a little thing.
In his words: “I thought it was for one local Meijer in Grand Rapids. I didn’t know it was going to do all this.”
“All this” is the shirt that Brown designed with Grand Rapids artist Jasmine Bruce now available at 220 Meijer stores in six states as part of its Black History Month collection.
“All this” is a raft of media interviews. “I’ve been doing media for weeks and weeks,” Brown said with a laugh.
And “all this” includes the surreal experience of seeing his shirt at the Bridge Street Market in Grand Rapids, his extended family telling him how great the shirt is and his mom in tears with pride.
The shirt that Brown and Bruce came up with is a different approach to Black History Month, they say.
“When Jasmine and I first met online, we basically came to an agreement,” Brown recalled. “Not traditional. I didn’t want to keep talking about the history of our influencers, Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks. In the next 20-30 years what’s going on now is what’s going to be history.”
Brown, who is hoping to major in psychology or finance in college and become an entrepreneur after graduation, adds that the events of last summer, especially the police brutality that he witnessed in the media and on social media, were at the heart of his design.
‘Our History is Right Now’
“It influenced the whole shirt, my whole design,” he said without hesitation. “That shirt is a message. We’re coming together, starting movements, Black Lives Matter. That’s our Black history. Our history is right now.”
As a result, the shirt features an original quote from Brown and a design brought to life by Bruce.
The words are direct – “This isn’t just a month, it’s every day for us. #blackhistory” – and they’re boxed up. Above the box is a bird released from a cage. Below it, the empty cage.
For Brown, a self-described ”math head” who also loves to write, the intent of the message is pretty simple. “We should recognize Black history every month,” he said. “Not just in February.”
He credits UPrep and his participation in WMCAT’s nationally-recognized Teen Arts + Tech Program for the opportunities he has been given these past few years, including being asked to be part of the T-shirt project.
There are 4,000 of the shirts in Meijer stores in six states, all of them produced by Ambrose, the WMCAT screen-printing business.
Trudy Ngo-Brown, the director of Arts + Tech at WMCAT, noted that Meijer has been working to include more local suppliers and products in their stores and had reached out to Ambrose for the order. The Ambrose team then reached out to the Teen Arts + Tech Program to get students involved, and Brown was invited to participate based on another client shirt-design project he had been part of last summer.
Reflecting the Voices of Black Artists
Bruce, meanwhile, has done some teaching at WMCAT and, noted Ngo-Brown, has been an active artist in Grand Rapids.
“I thought she’d be a great mentor for Elijah in this project given her experiences,” Ngo-Brown added. “I also thought it was important for this design to reflect the voices of Black artists.”
Bruce, a Northview High School and Grand Valley State University graduate, said it was a pleasure to work with Brown on a project that aligned with her focus to transform and heal through her art. She said that she and Brown both were drawn to Maya Angelou’s poem “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” and agreed that the shirt needed to convey both themes of captivity and freedom.
“It’s not just a month for us,” she added. “For Black people it’s all year. And working on this shirt was the same. It went a lot deeper for us as people of color.”
Like Brown she said that seeing the shirt in a Meijer store is pretty amazing.
“As Midwesterners we’re always going to Meijer,” she said. “So, going to a Meijer and seeing it there. Yeah, I thought that was pretty cool.”