Freedom Now: Black History Month Comes to Campus

February marks the beginning of Black History Month, a month dedicated to the act of remembering and acknowledging. In other words, it is meant to celebrate black life and cultural contributions to all that is America.

Much like other heritage months, black history month is one marked by heritage museum exhibitions, faculty discussions and feature films/documentaries that make these identities and histories tangible and accessible. What is most unique to the month is the opportunity it afforded Afro-Americans at the turn of the 20th century to defend their right to full citizenship, and, in turn, resolve the seemingly contradictory identities of blackness and being American. At its inception, according to the archives of Library of Congress, Carter G. Woodson, through his organization The Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, “conceived and announced Negro History Week in 1925” to “raise awareness of African American’s contributions to civilization”. The response was “overwhelming: Black history clubs sprang up; teachers demanded materials to instruct their pupils; and progressive whites, not simply white scholars and philanthropists, stepped forward to endorse the effort.”

In its context, as well as throughout the Civil Rights Movement, the month gained its footing as a valuable vehicle of social change. Not until 1976, “the nation’s bicentennial,” was the celebration expanded to a month. President Gerald R. Ford urged Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”

This year at Swarthmore, Alaina Brown ‘13 and A’Dorian Thomas ‘16 worked tirelessly to organize a series of social events, faculty lectures, musical performances and student-led discussions that allowed for cultural, intellectual and collaborative engagement with black history/culture. This year’s theme, “Freedom Now,” has as much to do with tracing the legacy of black identity from slavery to physical freedom with questioning “how are black communities practicing freedom as seen in their community service activities, activism, etc” and in what ways freedom is still not afforded to them.

Central to this year’s theme, however, is the promotion of inclusivity in the exploration of history and discussion of contemporary socioeconomic issues still affected the black community. In other words function, they aim to demystify the common misconception that black history is a single, particular entity. As seen in the various events planned, this month will be also be used to contemplate the intersectionalities of race, gender and even sexual orientation as related to systems of oppression. Through a unique blend of cultural, intellectual, and collaborative events, “Freedom Now” offers students with different tastes and sensibilities experiences to learn about and engage with black history.

This month there will be a plethora of cultural events that will appeal to those who perhaps don’t want to get political but still be exposed to black culture. These events include a Steel Pan concert this Friday (a type of drum frequently used in reggae, and soca music) hosted by the Students of Caribbean Ancestry (SOCA), a gospel choir performance (traditional hymns and songs from the Bible), Sunni Patterson (a poetry reading presented by the Kathryn Morgan Festival) and a student talent symposium, Soul Shack (a fun place where poets, singers, dancers, musicians, etc of the black community showcase their talents in a supportive setting). In many ways, these cultural events use artifacts, in the form of music, of black and Caribbean heritage, to offer students some insight into and to really celebrate the diversity and beauty of black cultural production.

This month is predominantly marked, however, by intellectually-stimulating events, all of which, in having a political agenda, are provocative and in many ways combative, all in the hopes of incite conversation about black issues that quite frankly we need to be having. For example, the Paces takeover will stream clips of black people in songs, videos and other multi-media as artifacts of black life that will be used to moderate dialogues between students. As Alain explains, the “provocative clips” will “offer a forum to discuss the various “isms” that affect black life.” Alaina hopes that this takeover will engage “not exclusively black students” and instead allow the general Swarthmore community to be “less PC.”

In another attempt to engage a diverse group of students, Alaina and her cohorts organized a faculty panel featuring Professors Alison Dorsey (History) Cheryl Jones Walker (Education) and George Lakey (Peace and Conflict). Their conversation will be address issues of equality in a so-called “post-racial” society. I know what you’re thinking: this conversation is bound to step on some toes/to rub some people the wrong way. This is the beauty of the conversation, however.

As Professor Walker explains, she is participating because it is “important to engage in discussions on college campuses about African American history and contemporary issues affecting the wider Black community.” For her, a debate that particularly challenges the notion of a “post-racial society” allows her to address those who “question the need for affirmative action and other remedies for racial inequity.” As a Professor of education she is “fortunate to have the opportunity to address issues of social inequity and structural inequality in my courses and research” and stresses that “creating the space to have these important conversations and providing research materials that demonstrate the impact of racism helps some understand the legacy and the continued realities while it gives others a language to make the case that they know and understand.” This panel will offer students the facts needed to establish an educated stance on how racism still affects the lives of those in the black community. What is important to note about her opinion is her belief that these conversations not only empower black people to communicate their experience but also gives critical information about the issue to those of other ethnic groups who might shy away from taking her courses.

The final component of this year’s events is the myriad of collaborations between groups, all of which attest to the universalizing agenda of “Freedom Now.” From a lecture presented by Victor Ríos about incarceration brought by the Achieving Black and Latino Leaders of Excellence (ABLLE), to the lecture about Black Sign Language presented by Donna Jo Napoli of the Linguistic Department or the Matt-Armstead talk co-sponsored with QTC, it is clear black issues are not singular issues. These collaborations really prove not only the universality of the themes of oppression, exclusion and marginalization but also that categories of race, gender, and even sexuality are all components of any given identity.

Camille Robertson ‘13, opens up about her involvement in the Queer and Trans Conference (QTC) Planning Committee and the reasons QTC chose to collaborate for Black History Month: “QTC–Swarthmore’s annual student-run, weekend-long, free and public conference” provides the scene to “learn from and celebrate queer and trans-identified people of color…directly impacted by systems of oppression and yet too often silenced or not heeded in conversations about issues affecting queer and trans communities.” Due to the “deeply intersectional approach to promoting critical discourse around queer and trans issues” QTC supports “and stand[s] in solidarity with other groups that struggle against racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, homophobia, transphobia, and other forms of normalized fear and hate.”

Matt Armstead is described by Camille as bringing a perspective that “will allow him to facilitate a compelling and important dialogue about how we ask and demand that the communities and institutions we participate in see us as our whole selves–queer selves, black selves, multiple selves.” Camille paints a vivid picture of how the multiplicity of all identities gives this heritage month purpose outside of the realm of race; at the Matt Armstead talk, a wide range of students will be able to empathize with experiences.

This Black History Month Swarthmore students are encouraged to ask thoughtful questions and interact with students outside of their comfort zone.

When asked “Why should students engage in BHM?” Alaina giggled and replied: “you can take time away from school and learn in an interactive way and build a tighter Swarthmore community.” She also stressed that “BHM has everything to do with everyone. Black history is American history.”

This sentiment was echoed by Paury Flowers, faculty contact person of the BHM Committee. “The history of people of African descent is the history of our nation in my opinion so whether your definition of how we come together as a melting pot or salad bowl, we need to know the ingredients individually AND collectively,” she said.

Paury stresses that the “Freedom Now” theme prevents stale conversation. “The conversation only gets old when a diversity of opinions are not brought to the table. I hope that the BHM events prompt this kind of thinking and engagement.”

To what end is this conversation? Camille believes that “Black History Month demands that the Swarthmore community recognize the whole selves of its Black members and their immense intellectual, political, cultural, and social contributions to the College.” Be a part of this movement for mutual understanding and respect and most of all, celebrate the vibrant and complex culture of black people.

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