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Black History Month

Black History Month: necessary but not enough

in Opinions/Staff Editorials by

Since 1976, every U.S. president has designated February as Black History Month. In February,  the struggles and successes of the black community are highlighted and recognized nationally. In February, we lift up the voices and stories of members of our community who have been oppressed since before the conception of this country, and remain oppressed today. However, when considering Black History Month, we need to be careful. Students and the college cannot descend into the pitfall of patting themselves on the back for recognizing Black History Month in February and then forgetting about it March through January. When we think about this month, we should think about the reason the month is required in the first place — we need to prioritize black voices because society at large fails to do so.

At Swat, the theme of this Black History Month’s series of events is “reclaiming our voices.” We at the Phoenix value how organizations and departments across campus come together during this month to have discussions about creating a more inclusive and supportive environment, both at Swarthmore and beyond. Just some of the departments supporting events this year have been the Black Cultural Center, Intercultural Center, Department of Educational Studies, Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility, Department of English, and Swarthmore African American Student Society. These departments and organizations have sponsored events such as a public conversation with Thomas Defrantz, an artist who created a dance about “The Black Magic of Living,” and an open mic night entitled “And Still we Rise” to highlight the black experience. In hosting these events, the campus is taking a collective role in bringing light to what it means to be black in today’s society.

As students, it is our role to attend these events and engage in the conversations around inclusion, strengthening our community, and taking action against injustices. Yet, it is also our duty to continue these conversations beyond the month of February. Not only do we as students need to purposefully engage with issues of race, both with our peers and with our acquaintances outside of Swarthmore, but we also need to continue to work with the BCC, IC and other groups on campus to facilitate events throughout the year that embrace the beauties behind diversity and fight the bigotry currently surrounding society.

The administration also needs to take responsibility for their role in reclaiming voices by listening to and prioritizing the voices of black students, who have in the past and continue to demand accountability and consideration. This means taking concrete steps towards creating a Black Studies department, not just a program. This means financially and symbolically supporting both programming and courses surrounding issues of race. This means doing better than before.

Maya Angelou once said, “Won’t it be wonderful when black history and native American history and Jewish history and all of U.S. history is taught from one book.” That day — the day where the histories of disenfranchised communities are represented fully and faithfully in textbooks — will indeed be wonderful. When celebrating black history month, we must keep in mind that day has not yet come, and there is much work to be done to achieve it.

Black History Month kick off prompts conversations about race and identity

in News/Uncategorized by

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.

Artist’s perspective: performing in “Lift Every Voice”

in Arts by

Performing is cathartic for me. It’s how I let things out: the good, the bad, and the ugly. The act of writing a rap, of finding the right flow and the right lyrics to weave into the beat is only half of the expressive process. On stage, delivering my psyche for an audience — that’s where it really happens. Whether it’s a song about racial injustice or turning up at a party or being in love, I put my all into the performance with the intention of releasing my thoughts and emotions to make some kind of impact on the audience. Coming out of a live set sometimes feels like I’ve just run a marathon. I want my audience to feel like they’ve run that marathon with me.

I was honored enough to be a part of “Lift Every Voice”, a performing arts celebration in recognition of Black History Month. Last Wednesday night at Olde Club, a group of students, professors, and administrators alike came to witness performances by acclaimed poet Leah Jackson, Swat alum and dancer Leanna Browne ’15, and everybody’s favorite afroed guitarist Dakota Gibbs ’19. Ms. Jackson, a guest performer, delivered several powerful pieces on her experiences and struggles as a black woman that recalled the tragedies of recent instances of racial violence and oppression. At the end of the show she invited Browne to perform interpretive dance while audience member Simon Bloch ’17 beatboxed to back Ms. Jackson’s intense, rhythmic spoken word. It was a powerful, unifying moment to bring the show to a close, after Browne’s moving solo dance piece and Gibbs’ stunning guitar solo.

Being on stage with these talented artists was a privilege, and only hyped up my energy for my set. I performed four original songs, pertaining to subjects such as mental health, institutional racism, and love. It was a unique experience for me not only because I was performing in front of administrators and professors, but because I was participating in an event honoring a culture I love: black culture. I was able to show my love and support for Black History Month by expressing myself in a genre of music created by black people, a genre of music we are proud to call ours. One of my songs, “feel that,” is about the psychological impact that police brutality has had on me as a young man of color. When I performed it live for the first time, I wasn’t just “rapping,” I was adding my voice to the conversation on police brutality, on institutional racism, on what it is to be young and black in America. I wasn’t just expressing my feelings; my feelings were being heard, being felt.

“Lift Every Voice”, for me at least, was about coming together as a community and participating in art, about sharing a cultural experience in celebration of Afro-American history. I am proud to be one of those voices and to have been able to share my voice with others. Performing that night became more than just cathartic. It was validating.

Treasure-filled BCC creates sense of home in Robinson House

in Campus Journal by

Swarthmore’s Black Cultural Center, located in the Robinson House, has been a cardinal place for students throughout the years. The BCC was founded after a series of actions from Black students who campaigned for increased representation in the student body as well as faculty. After a series of nonviolent protests including sit-ins, hunger strikes, and occupation, the Robinson House became the Black Cultural Center in January, 1969.

This activist history is embodied in the many framed photos that line the walls. On the living room wall, there is a photograph of the original Swarthmore African American Student Society members as well as a photograph of the group’s current members. The BCC is complete with a kitchen, a computer room, a library, a classroom, lounges, and study rooms. This hard-earned space  houses many artifacts and objects honoring Swarthmore’s Black history.

One of the most talked about objects in the BCC is Don Mizell’s, class of ’71, grammy. Mizell won the 2005 Grammy for Album of the Year as a producer on Ray Charles’ album, “Genius Loves Company.” He donated the award to the College in 2014. Mizell’s contribution to the BCC is particularly significant because, during his time here, he was among a large number of students who worked for Black acknowledgment on campus. The Grammy currently sits in a glass case on the dining room wall.

There are a myriad of objects that hold prestige, such as statues from student trips to Ghana as well as plaques commemorating students and alumni for their hard work in the community. However, it is the seemingly commonplace objects many students have warm feelings toward.

While giving a tour of the BCC, Al Brooks ’16 walked into the side room on the first floor and rested his hand against the upright piano. “I loved practicing with the gospel choir in here,” he said.

On the third floor, there is a closet full of old robes that former Gospel Choir members wore. “I always joke that I want the choir to perform in these robes one day, but no one else will do it,” Brooks laughed.

Brooks also pointed to Mjumbe, a literary magazine focusing on students and the African Diaspora, as well as the Muslim Journal. As he picked up a copy of the paper, he noted the importance of religious diversity within the Black community.

Brooks turned to the brown, paisley colored chair in the living room. “This chair,” he tapped it with his finger, “I remember Paul sitting in this chair, in his reign — sitting in quiet judgement,” he laughed.

The man Brooks was referring to was Paul Cato ’14. Now a graduate student at University of Chicago, Cato once held multiple esteemed positions on Swarthmore’s campus, including SASS President and ABLLE Co-advocate. He is also recognized on the plaques hanging on the wall for honors such as the Freshman of the Year Award and the Jerry Wood Memorial and Excellence in Leadership Award during his senior year.

As an alumni, Cato reflects fondly on his time as an active member of the Black community at Swarthmore. He was particularly thankful for was the BCC library and its wide array of books.

“As you go upstairs and take a look at the books in the library, you see that they aren’t just black literature or black history books. They’re books like Lester’s Look Out, Whitey! Black Power’s Gon’ Get Your Mama.”

Brooks is thankful for the BCC library as well, “You see the great contributions Blacks have made to the academic world–how much has been written about us, our community, and our struggles.”

Cato noted the historic significance of both the Robinson House and the BCC as a Swarthmore institution. Cato discovered the BCC during his weekend at DiscoSwat and fell in love with its revolutionary history as well as the memorabilia and artifacts.

“It was filled with the same kinds of artwork, books, posters and articles that you would find in a museum. But for some reason you could tell it wasn’t a boring ‘center,” Cato said, “Being from DC, I had a sense of buildings being more than just physical spaces — the White House, the Capitol, the Pentagon–all those represented more than just office buildings or living spaces, and the BCC was like that, but a home.”

Cato mentioned being particularly enthralled by the history of student activism that led to the BCC. “Being an angry Black high schooler at a rich, preppy, white high school in D.C., I was so inspired and I thought it was the coolest thing ever,” Cato said.

A student-made admissions pamphlet from 1969, “Black at Swarthmore,” described the Black Cultural Center as “a base for reinforcement and definition of Black identity, an anchor in a white sea, a psychological and geographical point of reference […] the center provides a situation conducive to meaningful cultural interaction. But obviously its main function is a place where you can be.”

The experiences of Cato and the Black students of yesteryear are not dissimilar. Ultimately, the atmosphere of the Black Cultural Center has served as a cultural mooring for many students, including freshmen.

BCC Intern, Julius Miller ’19 recalls the first time he set foot in the BCC, “As soon as you enter, you get this warm and cozy feeling. You see the kitchen and you see the living room — It really does function as a home.”

Jada Smack ’19 has grown particularly attached to the classroom on the second floor. “My favorite room in the BCC is the classroom upstairs because it’s filled with pictures of former Swarthmore students of color in learning environments and classroom settings. It reminds me that I belong here — that I too am meant to be here.”

Legacy is a consistent theme in the BCC environment. Al Brooks ’16 notes the importance of the legacy contextualizing his Swarthmore career.  “You know, it’s easy to think ‘I’m here. There was nothing here before me, and there won’t be anything after,’ but these articles and pictures, they prove that wrong.”

The Black Cultural Center is located in the Robinson House on College Avenue and is open seven days a week. For more information on the history of Black Activism at Swarthmore, visit the library in the Black Cultural Center or the Quaker Friends Library in McCabe.

 

McCabe exhibit proves and takes pride in Black life on campus

in Arts by
Bobby Zipp/The Phoenix
Bobby Zipp/The Phoenix

“It was as if blacks were invisible,” reads a quote from an anonymous Swarthmore alumna, understated and in tiny font on the wall directly across from the entrance to McCabe Library. Referencing the presence of Black students on Swarthmore’s campus and carefully lacking a timestamp — it could have been said yesterday — it is the introduction to an exhibition of Leandre Jackson’s ’75 work, entitled “Proof of Black Life,” which will be on display in the library until mid-March.

The goal of the exhibit is to bear audience witness to the life of Black Swarthmore students past the protests between 1968 and 1972. The images picture Black students playing piano, reading in the library, walking across campus. They are living, visibly, sometimes alone, and sometimes together.

One of the exhibit’s most effective artistic strategies is its combination of obviously deliberate pictures of students posing — on a tree in a composed lean, in front of the then-newly chartered Black Cultural Center — with candid snapshots of eating, reading, simply being. It is a look at a vibrant community that a majority had regarded as “invisible,” a community that is proud enough to pose and be shown in its most mundane, day-to-day proceedings.

“It was not so much that Black students were invisible,” the exhibition’s opening statement continues on to say, “as it was that many others at the college experienced a failure of sight.”

The exhibition powerfully contests the attitude of Black “invisibility” that manifests itself in statements like the one on the wall. They may have been believed invisible by their peers, but as far as the viewership of the images is concerned, the only students on campus were Black students.

The project was headed by Professor of History Allison Dorsey as part of the Black Liberation 1969 project. Dorsey worked in tandem with Cynthia Jetter ’74, the director of community partnerships and planning at the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility. She was familiar with and recommended Jackson’s work. Jackson is a prominent photographer, and most of his work is currently on display at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of the New York Public Library.

Jetter and Dorsey then scheduled a meeting for the three of them, after which, Dorsey says, “it was clear that the Black Liberation 1969 project needed access to the images from Mr. Jackson’s collection.” She managed to secure funding from Vice President for College and Community Relations and Executive Assistant to the President Maurice Eldridge ’61 for the exhibition, as well as for hundreds of Jackson’s images for McCabe’s permanent collections.

In tandem with Visual Resources and Initiatives Librarian Susan Dreher and Reference and Instruction Resident Jasmine Woodson, Dorsey began to get a vision of the kind of images that might be best to display and the installation best suited to the photographs.

The specific selection process of images from the expansive collection was incredibly involved. While the artist’s entire official collection of materials is likely as well done as the selections on display, the work in McCabe fits more specifically to Dorsey’s artistic and cultural visions, for the exhibition as well as for the underlying themes of her class’s project.

“I wanted to highlight certain themes in Black student life: academics, sport, creative expression in the form of music and dance,” said Dorsey. “I also wanted to capture images of Black students in moments of relaxation, fun and play, images which reflected the ways students experienced and enjoyed a sense of connection and community.”

These ideas are communicated expertly in the chosen photos. There is none of the upfront power of historical images of protest. It more closely resembles a personal photo album, with a friendly character spoken through the smiles or look of casual concentration on the faces of its subjects.

Sifting through the collection to find the most fitting was likely a daunting task, but Dorsey was not without some help.

“I had the assistance of Nora Kerrich [’16], who was enrolled in Black Liberation 1969 and has a very artistic sensibility,” said Dorsey. With Kerrich’s help, the final photo selections for the exhibition were made and the exhibition was primed.

The photos are undressed, sitting plainly on walls and in display cases with, at most, a brief description of what is pictured. They stand alone well in the absence of flourish or labored description. They may go unnoticed, in some cases, not unlike their subjects must have.

 

The BCC: a hard-earned space for everyone

in Campus Journal by
DSC_0090
Photo by Ian Holloway

It is an ordinary Sunday night in Robinson House, also known as the Black Cultural Center, on the corner of College Avenue and Cedar Lane. Overlooking Cunningham House and the rest of campus from its hilltop perch, the BCC appears quiet in the winter darkness. Inside, the Swarthmore African-American Student Society is holding its weekly meeting, all of its members gathered around to discuss issues within the SASS community.

This week’s meeting was on the issues of gender dynamics and sexism within the Black community and was facilitated by Violence Prevention Educator and Advocate Nina Harris and the BCC’s Director Dion Lewis. The meeting was tense as SASS members anonymously discussed the ways in which they had felt marginalized or victimized on the basis of their genders within the SASS community. The conversation lasted almost two hours as members conversed about the complexities and intersections of gender and race in the Black community both at Swarthmore and the world at large. Yet, when the meeting adjourned, members congregated, hugged, and chatted, laughing and smiling as a united community.

“For me, the BCC is a place where people who identify as Black can express themselves fully,” said Aaron Jackson ’15, a member of SASS. “I find it to be a place where you can bring the best out of each other whether it be socially or for academics or just come up with new ideas on how to make the community better. I’ve heard the word ‘community’ raised 50 million times, as has every Swattie at this point, and I’ve had a hard time trying to figure out what that means. To be here and to be able to have a smaller space, to actually be around people who identify in the same relations as you, it just feels… closer.”

This idea of the BCC serving as a safe haven for Black students has persisted for nearly 40 years. Negotiations between SASS and the Office of the President go back as far as 1968, when SASS members met with President Courtney Smith to discuss the implementation of a program in Black Studies. In 1970, as Robert Cross assumed the role of president after the passing of President Smith, SASS leaders opened further discussions for Black empowerment on campus through the creation of a unique, designated space for Black students. Originally given access to Lodge 4 as a temporary space, President Cross then suggested that Lodges 5 and 6 be allotted to Black students, but this was rejected by SASS, which claimed that the Lodges were not sufficient enough to house the growing number of Black students on campus, nor was the center well-zoned for its intended uses.

As the correspondence between SASS and President Cross continued into the spring of 1970, SASS demanded a tangible solution towards the creation of a Black Cultural Center capable of meeting all the expected needs of Black students on campus. SASS would use the Phoenix as a platform to discuss its interests in creating the BCC and to rally fellow students to its cause. However, it would take the occupation of the President’s Office on March 13, 1970 to eventually push the hand of President Cross and secure Robinson House, a former stop on the Underground Railroad, as the current BCC.

Since September 1970, the BCC has become the home of many student organizations such as the Gospel Choir, SASS, and the Students of Caribbean Ancestry. Equipped with a kitchen, library, two computer rooms, and a classroom, the BCC is currently used as both an administrative space, holding the office of the Director of the BCC and Dean of the Junior Class Dion Lewis and his administrative assistant Bonnie Lytle, as well as a space where courses are taught. In the evenings, the BCC remains open and student groups use its space for their scheduled programming.

Nonetheless, the house itself is not what draws people to the BCC. Rather, it is the sense of community and togetherness which it has come to represent in Swarthmore’s Black community. For Ariel Parker ’15, the BCC has become an escape from the hardships that come with attending a liberal arts college as a marked minority.

“I didn’t know it from that first SASS meeting, but the BCC would come to be a retreat for me,” she said. “I love Swarthmore, but there are spaces on campus where I don’t always feel welcome because of my identity as a Black woman. Certain spaces just don’t ring “home” for me. So if I had a bad day or if something was frustrating me, I knew I could always go to the BCC and find a friendly face or watch TV or play pool. So it served as a retreat for me.”

Serving as a space for Black students to feel welcomed and appreciated, as well as to demonstrate the rich history of the Black experience in America, the BCC, to many of its frequent visitors, has become a second home.

“What does the BCC mean to me? I’d say it’s a safe space, it’s a home away from home,” said Leanna Browne ’15. “It’s a space where I can connect with other Black members of the community and just feel like I’m surrounded by people who can support me and share in the same things that we may be going through. I always knew that I wanted to be a part of the ‘Black’ community at Swat so the BCC felt like a central place to start that.”

The legacy of the BCC is apparent to the students, faculty, and staff who walk its halls and occupy its spaces for their programming. While the center remains open to the entire campus community, members find it difficult to convince their friends outside of the Black community to visit the BCC, mostly because the space is believed to be “off-limits” to non-Black students.  While the history behind the BCC is connected to the establishment of a space of Black empowerment, the center is in no way discriminatory in its space reservation policy, nor is it limited to the uses of select student groups.

“I would like to see the idea of the BCC being more present and more on people’s mind,” said Browne, “because, going into senior year, people ask me, ‘Where is the BCC? What’s that?’ That’s still a problem, that we’re still sort of off the radar.”

 

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‘1969’ student projects enhance Black History Month

in Around Campus/News by
Photo by Bobby Zipp ’18

 

Students from Professor of History Allison Dorsey’s class “Black Liberation 1969” have begun to hold various events around campus as part of what Dorsey called a “takeover of Black History Month.”

The series of events includes interactive workshops, student-led discussions, art installations, and performances around campus that will take place through the end of February. Dorsey wrote in an e-mail that the takeover, led by students in her fall 2014 class “Black Liberation 1969,” is intended to educate the wider campus community about the Black student protest movement that occurred at the college over 40 years ago.

During that decade, the then newly-formed Swarthmore Afro-American Student Society came into conflict with the Admissions Office and the college administration over declining Black enrollment, the lack of an official Black Studies program, and the paucity of Black administrators and professors at the college. The friction between the two groups culminated in a SASS-led sit-in in the Admissions Office, which lasted from January 9-16, 1969. The events of the takeover are meant to remind the college of these events, and educate those in the college community that may not be aware of this history.

The thirteen students who took “Black Liberation 1969” with Dorsey all contributed to the events of this takeover. The course, offered exclusively in the fall 2014 semester, asked students to write the first accurate history of the protest movement, as well as to individually develop a creative project meant to educate the community about this history.

Students also conducted interviews with alumni involved with SASS during this period of Swarthmore’s history and compiled these interviews with other data, such as photos and newspaper articles in the Swarthmorean and the Phoenix, into an online database, now open to the public.

“The class, I think, has a strong sense overall that the college has been telling the wrong story, and … we are not correcting it to a new and better narrative, but we are creating access to more nuanced narratives that draw out a better understanding of the how and the why of direct action,” Nora Kerrich ’16 said during part of her creative project, a workshop series.

Kerrich’s project was the first event in the takeover and took the form of an interactive workshop on SASS at Swarthmore from 1968-1972 on Monday.

“This is geared towards getting a broad understanding of the Black power student movement, and it’s also about helping folks to know what’s available to them on the archive, and to build narratives around the SASS takeover,” said Kerrich.

She also said this particular workshop was intended to contextualize what was happening at Swarthmore during this time by providing details about Black student movements across the country.

The workshop centered on the discussion of a text set provided by Kerrich, which included media, such as a photo of Black Swarthmore students standing in front of the Admissions Office in protest, and several articles on the development of the Black student protest movement in the 1960s at Swarthmore and across the country. Kerrich allowed the discussion to center on areas of knowledge that the participants in the workshop wanted to know more about. The workshop discussed reasons why 1969 was the time that these events occurred, as well as the balance between idealism and practicality in these Black student movements.

Participants felt that the workshop had deepened their understanding of the events that occurred at Swarthmore.

Gabe Benjamin ’15 said that previous narratives of the Black student protests at Swarthmore lacked important historical context, and that this workshop was successful in adding some. He also said that thinking about more than just the events that happened at Swarthmore was essential in understanding this part of the college’s history.

As part of the takeover, five students presented their research projects on Tuesday afternoon. Laura Laderman ’15 presented a project focused on the definition of diversity at Swarthmore and how it came to be one of Swarthmore’s professed core values. She discussed the beginnings of diversity at Swarthmore, explaining how the rise of the national civil rights movement spurred the college to apply for a Rockefeller Foundation Grant in 1963, which was designed to increase access to higher education and alleviate poverty in Black communities. She concluded her presentation by connecting the issues of diversity in the past with those the college is currently facing.

“I think that for Swarthmore to really delve into issues of diversity that are always around under the surface, even in the moments that they’re not boiling over, we really need to critically examine how we think about diversity, what our purpose in having a diverse student body is, and how we are going to support that purpose,” said Laderman.

The other students on the panel also took time to connect their presentations to current events. Alis Anasal ’15 discussed “Black Philosophies of Liberation,” a student-led class created in 1969 that explored Black history and thought. Anasal believed that the timing of the creation of the course was essential to the significant impact it had on Black campus culture, and called it “a form of protest itself”.

Xavier Lee ’17 spoke about the establishment of an official Black Studies program at the college, detailing the story of how President Courtney Smith worked with Frank C. Pearson, the chairman of the economics department in 1968, and a committee of students to create the new interdisciplinary program. After Lee’s presentation, Maria Mejia ’15 analyzed class at Swarthmore and the way that it shaped Black students’ experiences and activism at the college. Allison Shultes ’15 closed out the panel by detailing how certain faculty at Swarthmore engaged in a “willing act of erasure” regarding the history and memory of the Black student movement at Swarthmore.

As the month of February continues, there are more events scheduled to occur, as well as several exhibitions in spaces such as McCabe and Parrish, all dedicated to educating the college community about the events that transpired during the Black Liberation in the 1960s. Among the events next week, Anisa Knox ’15 will present “Black Bodies Unmasked: Defining the Black Aesthetic at Swarthmore” in LPAC on February 16th at 4 p.m., and Haydn Welch ’15 will hold a discussion entitled “Origins of the Black Cultural Center: SASS’s Efforts to Make a Space for Black Students at Swarthmore” on Sunday, February 15 at 7 p.m. in the BCC. Martha Biondi, author of “Black Revolution on Campus,” chair of African American studies, and professor of African American studies and history at Northwestern University, will wrap up the month with her lecture “Black Students and the Transformation of Higher Education” on February 26 at 4:30 p.m. in LPAC Cinema.

The Black Liberation 1969 archive can be found at blacklib1969.swarthmore.edu.

Photography through a dark, powerful lens

in Arts by
Ian Holloway / The Phoenix
Ian Holloway / The Phoenix

As one of many celebrations of Black History Month at Swarthmore, the studio art department and black studies program have in conjunction brought Thomas Allen Harris’s recent film “Through a Lens Darkly” to campus. The work balances historical context while maintaining its focus on Black fine arts photographers. “Through a Lens Darkly” was financed by the Serendipity Fund of the Cooper Foundation, reserved for events with perceived extraordinary opportunity that are scheduled on short notice or are otherwise outside of the normal schedule for Cooper grant-based events.

The film’s mission is to elaborate on how the Black American identity has been shaped in a large part by photography. While centuries ago the distribution of photographs served primarily to solidify what the film argues is a “negation” of Blackness, as historiographic focus has shifted and advances in civil rights are made the use of photography has provided grounds for what Professor of Studio Art Syd Carpenter called “the upside of a new Renaissance.” She referred also to the role of technology in reversing the negation, referring to its power to “make contemporary Black life public.”

While the film didn’t manage to touch on the very recent developments in publicly accessible photography, it was still comprehensive. A decade in the making and covering a visual history of several hundred years, “Through a Lens Darkly” juxtaposes personal narratives of the filmmaker and the artists and scholars interviewed with coverage of historical moments.

The film opens with a narration from James Baldwin and a story about how the filmmaker, Thomas Allen Harris, became interested in photography and the arts, as well as introspection, which would enable him to express himself comfortably. He recounts a conversation with his father in which he was made to feel ashamed of his physical features. All the while, excerpts from family photo albums are on screen. History, Harris argues, is told very well in family photo albums.

“Through a Lens Darkly” focus on the idea that the aforementioned “negation” of Black personhood has been battling a legacy of self-affirmation and pride, and this clash is made visible in photos both of Black Americans and from Black Americans. After the brief introductory sequence, the film enters a narrative structure that alternates between a chronology of Black photography and interviews in the present, offering perspectives on prevailing historical understanding and insights on how they were inspired by a certain historical movement in Black photography.

It starts with an investigation into a series of daguerreotypes (early photographs in small frames) of captured slaves. The daguerreotype form has served as an inspiration for many of the Black artists interviewed in the film. The film then followed the photography of and by Black Americans through racist caricature, segregation, even gruesome shots of Emmett Till. It concluded with an overview of the work of contemporary Black photographers, legitimizing their contributions to academic and artistic discourse after being inspired by Roy DeCarava’s photographic/poetic opus “Sweet Flypaper of Life.”

“Through a Lens Darkly” was based on a book written in 2000 by University Professor and Chair of the Department of Photography & Imaging at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts Deborah Willis. Willis is a MacArthur Foundation grant recipient working as both a prolific artist and academic whose availability, event organizer Syd Carpenter said, was “unlikely”. Her book includes work from Swarthmore photography professor, event panelist, and Pulitzer Prize winner Ron Tarver.

Tarver, whose credits include photojournalism and fine art in addition to teaching, cited what he believed was an “exploitative” Life magazine story on a struggling community as initial inspiration for joining the photography profession. In a panel discussion session after the screening of the film, he said that his goal as a journalist was to share balanced truth about the “highs and lows of Black representation.” Tarver also mentioned being influenced by daguerreotypes.

Willis also gave a brief  speech about her career and her perspective on photography as a medium. She recounted her experience as an undergraduate, frustrated with the total absence of Black photographers and representation of Black people in photography exclusively in the context of labor. She described the success of her career, her book deal, her journey through graduate school and the power of photography as a source of love in place of abrasive conflict, a tool for understanding and peace where there was misconception and hatred. Her thoughts are communicated well by perhaps the most powerful line in “Through a Lens Darkly.”

“The gun is so easily accessible,” said one artist, explaining the complicated roots of his artistic spirit, “but then again, so is the camera.”

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