Yesterday was the kick-off for our campus celebration of Black History Month. After a wonderful introduction by the Provost, a colleague in the History department gave an impassioned, scholarly, engaging presentation that asked the question: what should Black History Month mean to us?
He began by describing his own childhood in Virginia, surrounded by statues commemorating the heroes of the Confederacy. He ended with a refrain from W E B Debois, “Would America have been America without her Negro people?” as images of notable black writers and artists projected behind him. Stirring, scholarly and surprising, it was, without question, the best explanation of the importance of Black History Month that I have ever heard.
Any guesses on how many faculty, staff and students attended? About 15 students, 5 faculty, and 10 staff. What does it mean when a campus shows little interest in recognizing the achievement of blacks in America?
Now, there are many reasons why campus events are sparsely attended. The semester is underway and everyone is focused on classes, deadlines, and committees. There was not sufficient publicity, perhaps. Many might be planning on attending particular events later this month (events include a soul food dinner, and a presentation by Freedom Rider, Hank Thomas), and perhaps they assumed this inaugural event wouldn’t be that important. As well, faculty, staff and students in Wisconsin (and elsewhere) are stressed and overworked. Many feel they don’t have time to attend non-mandated events. As is often true with campus events, folks figure other people will be there and that their own attendance won't be missed. In this instance, it was.
And yet I'm inclined to believe that the lack of attendance is directly related to the topic. I wonder if students (and even faculty) have grown tired of official celebrations (from elementary school through college) that are often empty exercises, hollow observances of the past that often fail to seem urgent or connected to the present.
Or, to paraphrase Kanye West, maybe our campus just "doesn't care about black people." I'm not suggesting this is true, but merely raising the question. Do most students assume that these celebrations are just for black students? As my colleague so eloquently pointed out, American history would be unrecognizable without the inclusion of blacks. This is not "their" history, it is our own.
How are your own institutions celebrating black history month? Which events seem most meaningful?