Black History Month Celebrates Achievements, Past and Present

Alex Howard, News Editor

Founded by abolitionists, a stop on the Underground Railroad and the first institution to award college degrees to African Americans, Oberlin College is firmly rooted in Black History and has been celebrating February as Black History Month since before its formal national recognition by President Gerald Ford in 1976.

Dianne McIntyre, choreographer, and Ntozake Shange, writer, demonstrate this year’s Black History Month theme of how Black women have shaped the United States in their discussion of McIntyre’s choreographing Shange’s choreopoem “Why I Had to Dance.”

Black History Month first started as “Negro History Week” in 1926 by the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. Founders Jesse Moorland and Carter Woodson designated the second week of February as the period for celebration so that it would coincide with the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. The Civil Rights Movement of the ’60s caused the transformation of Negro History Week into Black History Month on many college campuses nationwide. The Black Studies Department was established in 1967 at Oberlin and with it came the first celebration of Black History Month on Oberlin’s campus.

Each year, Oberlin designates its own theme in addition to the national theme for the annual celebration. Nationally, Black History Month in 2012 is specifically celebrating the ways in which black women have shaped the United States and its history. On campus, this month’s celebration is following the theme “Breaking (New) Ground,” seeking to remind the community of Oberlin’s history as a radical institution concerned with equality, inclusion and social justice.

“There are a lot of people that think that it isn’t important that we have Black History Month here,” said College junior Joshua Moton, Afrikan Heritage House resident and performer in Essence Dance Troupe’s Escape from New Babylon: Music of Alice and John Coltrane, the last event in Oberlin’s Black History Month celebration. “One thing that I would say to those people is that it is very, very important that we, especially at this place, remember the contributions that this college has made to furthering the rights of black people.”

Victoria Davis, Conservatory first-year and Afrikan Heritage House resident, agrees that it is especially important to celebrate Black History Month at Oberlin because of the College’s history.

“I think it gives other students a chance to remember what this school was founded on, what these people that founded the school based their code on, and that was equal education for all and serving others in the community which is what, in the black community, I think is really core. It’s about helping others and uplifting each other. I know that in A-House that is what we are about, lifting each other up, helping each other when in need and being there as a community,” said Davis.

While Moton and Davis view the Oberlin Black History Month celebration as important, they and others on campus feel conflicted about having a specific month designated to celebrating Black History. Moton says that while he thinks it is great that a month has been designated for this, he also sees it as problematic.

“In the academic curriculum, especially when you’re in elementary, middle, high school, it’s like, ok, here’s this one month when we’re going to segregate all the educational curriculum surrounding African Americans, and we’re not going to deal with it for the rest of the year; whereas, black people have contributed to this country and do contribute to this country and will contribute to this country every single day of every single year,” said Moton.

College junior Claudette Davis, on the other hand, says that she thinks having a month dedicated to Black History is vital.

“I think it’s really necessary in this country, given that this country built itself on black bodies, and it’s a marginalized community, and even though we’ve made strides we are still not free from oppression,” said Davis.

This year’s Black History Month celebration began Feb. 7 with an opening dinner at Afrikan Heritage House and will end on March 10 with the final performance of Essence Dance Troupe’s Escape from New Babylon: Music of Alice and John Coltrane. The show will take place at Warner Main Space and will feature College and Conservatory students directed by Ralph Jones, Faculty-in-Residence at Afrikan Heritage House.

Along with the bookend events, there are a variety of Black History events happening this month, ranging from musical performances to speakers to tomorrow’s Soul Session at Afrikan Heritage House. Musicians Thundercat, Austin Peralta and Justin Brown performed Feb. 10 as a part of Black History Month. The Blind Boys of Alabama will be performing in Finney Chapel tonight at 8:00, and the Soweto Gospel Choir is coming to perform Feb. 21. Various speakers, such as writer Ntozake Shange, have already visited campus and several more, such as civil rights activist Dick Gregory and poet and organizer Ana-Maurine Lara, are still to come.

Students have demonstrated exceptional excitement for Me’shell Ndegeocello coming to campus March 2. Ndegeocello is a singer and performer credited with igniting the neo-soul movement. She will be leading a discussion in Lord Lounge at Afrikan Heritage at 4:30 p.m. and is performing in Finney Chapel at 8:00 p.m that evening.

“Me’shell Ndegeocello has been one of my favorite musicians since I was an angsty teenage kid in middle school,” said Moton. “I’m floored that I’m going to have the chance to meet her.”

All the events of Black History Month are open to the entire Oberlin community. However, Moton and others are struck by the fact that very few people outside the communities of color on campus attend the Black History Month events.

“Part of the problem of having a celebration here is that it tends to be only within the [Black] community,” said Claudette Davis. “I bet you could go around to anybody in this cafeteria and only some of them would know that there are events being thrown everyday, which is part of white privilege on this campus that you get to walk around and not know about that stuff.”

College first-year Emily Fuller says that she hasn’t heard about campus events to celebrate Black History Month, but that if she heard about an event that sounded interesting to her she would definitely attend, even though she could “potentially be in the minority there.”

It seems that awareness is the primary factor of why, historically, few white students attend Black History Month events. While there are posters located in buildings throughout campus, these students say that more advertising of the different events may broaden the community in attendance.

Moton and Victoria Davis say that the lack of attendance by the white community can, in some cases, be attributed to a kind of prejudice that exists on campus outside of just Black History Month and comes from people being insulated in their own communities.

“I think a lot of what might be called prejudice on this campus isn’t so ridiculously dramatic as the prejudice like you have in places like Jasper, Texas, where someone got dragged behind a truck… I think the prejudice you find on this campus is more of a subtle, internalized psychological type of prejudice,” said Moton. “It’s a prejudice where one is born into a certain type of community, and so people never go outside of their comfort zone, they never go to challenge the assumptions that they have held deep inside of themselves … because of some combination of fear and disdain that have been inbred into them, fear at the difference of another culture and disdain for that culture that has been taught to them.”

Several students proposed that holding events in more centralized locations than Afrikan Heritage House would help increase attendance at events as well as the diversity of the audience. College senior Reuben Benzel says that he lived in Spanish House for his first three years on campus and experienced similar problems with events put on there. “When you’re putting on events in a program house, most people assume it’s only for people in that program house, but that’s really not the case,” said Benzel.

College senior Jillian Kron says that holding Black History Month events at Wilder would make them seem like larger, campus-wide events. She says that while Afrikan Heritage does not seem like a “particularly charged environment” to her, it “can seem very closed off.”

Claudette Davis says that she thinks efforts should be made to get more Oberlin students to attend these events, and she agrees that holding more events outside of Afrikan Heritage House and South Campus would accomplish this.

“A-House is a very safe space for POC (person of color) bodies. But inherently part of it being a safe space means it doesn’t have a lot of white people in it, which is great if you need a social step back from the life at Oberlin College, but when it comes to Black History Month and when what you’re trying to do is get more people to know about the history, it becomes important to open up the community,” said Davis.