Donated items a link to African heritage

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High foreheads and neck creases might not be in the American definition of beauty, but an African mask makes its case.

A mask belonging to the Mende's Sande secret society is just one artifact Ralph Proctor recently donated to the University of Pittsburgh's African Heritage Classroom in observance of Black History Month. This year's gifts come just in time to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the room's dedication.

"The room provides an opportunity to understand that Africa was a proud continent with great civilizations before European civilization. Pittsburghers have a chance to study cultures unlike themselves," said Mr. Proctor, a Pitt alumnus who is a professor and chief diversity officer at Community College of Allegheny County.

The mask, from Sierra Leone, is more than 100 years old and was worn by young women who had been accepted to the female-only society that initiates girls into adulthood. It is designed to embody the Mende's ideal woman.

Mr. Proctor's collection includes more than 1,000 pieces collected over decades of travel to Africa. He donated some artifacts when the room opened in 1989. Last year, he began to give annually.

"Instead of simply giving the gifts, I decided to give in honor of [Laurence] Glasco, who came up with the concept for the room," Mr. Proctor said.

Mr. Glasco, who chaired the room's design committee, requested a piece representing the queen mother. She is used in the room to represent Mother Africa, as many West African kingdoms relied on the king's mother to uphold moral and ethical standards. After finding a Benin bronze casting of the head of a queen mother in his collection, Mr. Proctor boxed up the piece along with several others.

Some of this year's gifts include a chief's chair from the Chokwe Tribe in Angola that served as a throne for outdoor ceremonies; a four-sided mask from the Fang tribe in Cameroon that represents a deity able to see the past and future; and a bell from the Yoruba tribe in Nigeria used to diagnose illnesses, find the source of tribal problems or foresee the future.

During a conversation with an African dinner guest, Mr. Proctor learned his first try at collecting wasn't successful. He found false information in books written by authors who weren't entirely knowledgeable about the continent.

"I figured I'd better go to Africa and start learning from Africans," he said.

His collecting methods don't always comply with the norm, he admitted. Most collectors believe older is better, but Mr. Proctor was fascinated by a brightly colored mask that had just been used in a Nigerian funeral.

"The people thought I was just a little weird, but its condition represents the mask at its power."

The African Heritage Classroom is the only room of the 29 Nationality Rooms in the Cathedral of Learning that represents a continent instead of one country. Incorporating cultures from an entire continent proved to be difficult at first for Mr. Glasco, a Pitt professor of history.

"We could try to weave all sorts of styles in one room or just represent one. We chose to pick one and do it as accurately as possible," he said.

While searching for designs in books selected by a librarian, Mr. Glasco saw an Asante courtyard and "immediately knew it had to be the room's design." The courtyard, where people gather for meals, weddings and funerals, acts as a unifying symbol because it is an aspect of life throughout Africa.

"The courtyard is something African students would get misty-eyed about when thinking of what they missed from home," Mr. Glasco said.

The room's design can accommodate symbols from many groups so a large number of people of African descent can find a piece they can relate to. The chalkboard doors are modeled after ones fashioned by the Igbo people of Nigeria, which is the ethnicity of "12 Years a Slave" actor Chiwetel Ejiofor.

"You never know what you might run into," said E. Maxine Bruhns, director of the Nationality Rooms and Intercultural Exchange Programs.

The Rev. Maureen Cross-Bolden, chairperson of the African Heritage Classroom Committee, witnessed the diversity throughout Africa firsthand. A simple breakfast proved to be a learning experience when she had three men from Zimbabwe stay at her home. Though all were from the same village, each prepared his French toast a different way.

"They were all from the same place but they were from different cultures," she said. "That always stood out in my mind."

After the room opened, its committee continued raising money to give students the chance to learn beyond the classroom. Each year, the committee awards scholarships to students who are planning to study abroad in Africa. The student will be chosen Friday.

"I feel a sense of self-pride because the room represents the motherland of my people."

Sara Payne:

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