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Black History Month kick off prompts conversations about race and identity

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On Feb. 1, students gathered in the Black Cultural Center to kick off Black History Month and talk about the experiences of black students at Swarthmore. The event was organized and led by Shiko Njorge ’21 and T. J. Thomas ’21 and covered topics such as what it means to be black, black representation in the media, and what Black History Month means to students.

The meeting began with a brief summary by Thomas about how Black History Month was created.

In 1926, historian Carter G. Woodson pioneered Negro History Week because he felt that black individuals and their accomplishments were not recognized. Negro History Week was the second week of February, purposely coinciding with both Abraham Lincoln’s and Frederick Douglass’ birthdays. It wasn’t until 1970, however, that Black United Students at Kent State University proposed an entire month devoted to black history. Six years later, in 1976, Black History Month was officially recognized by President Gerald Ford.

After an introduction about the history of Black History Month, Thomas led the conversation by asking  students the question ‘What is blackness?’.

Maleya Peterson ’21 shared her experience growing up in predominantly black area in Brooklyn.

“I got the nickname ‘the whitest black girl,’” Peterson said. “I think that people thought that knowing how to express myself clearly and appearing eloquent made me ‘white.’”

Another student, Paul Buchanan ’21, talked more about the effects of these stereotypes and how he sees blackness.

“I think that blackness is something that is defined individually by black people. When people try to put black people in a box, they try to rob someone of their comfort in their black identity,” Buchanan said. “This creates a tendency to conflate success with whiteness. Success shouldn’t be just seen as whiteness.”

The conversation then shifted to perceptions of blackness on Swarthmore’s campus.

Peterson talked about how she felt the need to code-switch, or to change the way she expresses herself according to her setting, at Swarthmore.

“It feels like I’m a whole different person here than when I’m at home. I’m scared that people will judge me as ‘just another black girl,’” Peterson said. “I try hard to hide certain parts of my personality when I’m here.”

By contrast, Brie Dinkins ’21 expressed that she felt a stronger need to code-switch at her predominantly white private high school than at Swarthmore.

“I had never really fully embraced myself [in high school],” Dinkins said. “Now I’m starting to see people [at Swarthmore] that look like me and am finding spaces where I belong.”

At Swarthmore, black students make up 6 percent of the student population. Some students conveyed dissatisfaction with the size of the black community on campus. Buchanan shared that he had initially been excited by the diversity offered at Swarthmore but was disappointed when he found out about how few black students there were on campus.

“Most of the schools I was looking at were majority white,” Buchanan said. “I came here and I saw that there weren’t as many black people as I thought there were. It’s been an adjustment to reckon with that.”

Despite Swarthmore’s small black community, Buchanan believes that it’s important for black students to attend schools like Swarthmore.

“I think that it’s important for black people to go to predominantly white institutions and show that black people are just as capable as others,” Buchanan said. “6 percent is not what I want to look at when I leave. I want that percentage [of black people at Swarthmore] to be higher.”

According to Buchanan, it’s the administration’s responsibility to expand their reach and make schools like Swarthmore more accessible to black students.

“I think that if Swarthmore were to expand their reach to different areas of the U.S. we would get a lot more interested black students,” Buchanan said.

To wrap up the conversation, students talked about the representation of black people in the media.

Pempho Moyo ’21 believes that the few opportunities in Hollywood for black actors and actresses leads to better performances from them.

“If you put black people in movies, they’re going to thrive because there aren’t opportunities for us to be represented, “ Moyo said. “When you have a majority black cast and a history of not being represented, they’re not going to give 100 percent, they’re going to give 150 percent.”

The conversation moved onto the representation of black people in the media.

Buchanan shared his own thoughts on how black representation can be problematic.

“My big issue with tokenism is that it puts one black person on a pedestal. It makes that one person represent the whole black community,” Buchanan said.

The conversation on Monday was just the beginning of a string of events held throughout February for Black History Month. In the upcoming days and weeks, there will be movie screenings of “Pariah,” “Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes,” a poetry reading by Dr. Eve L. Ewing, talks about Queer African Studies, the relationship between African Americans and Quakers, and queerness in the black community. The Black Love Formal will then be held at the end of the month.

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