Person of Color Column: Black History Month deserves a school-wide celebration

I was sitting in an Uber with my friend Sydnie when my driver started telling us about his childhood in Roxbury, Massachusetts. His story didn’t particularly interest me until he began to question us about Martin Luther King Jr.

“Yes, we know who MLK is,” I said, confused why he brought it up.

He continued to ask us more questions about MLK, such as his time preaching at the 12th street Baptist Church or his degree at Boston University. As he listed off more facts and questions about the history of Massachusetts, my friend and I sat stunned in the backseat. I didn’t know any Massachusetts black history facts. More importantly, I never encountered someone who wanted to discuss Boston’s black history until I met my passionate Uber driver.

While growing up outside of Atlanta, Georgia, I faced remembrances of black history every day. I attended middle school in Stone Mountain, Georgia. According to the Smithsonian’s website, Stone Mountain was a hub for the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan in 1915. The owner of Stone Mountain, Samuel Venable, was an active member of the KKK and allowed a cross to be burned on a mountain in the city. A year later, Venable began the construction of one of the biggest Confederate memorials in America—the carved faces of General Robert E. Lee, General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, and President of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis.  

The Confederate memorials never bothered me until I got older. In middle school, I associated Stone Mountain with tourist attractions like the Summit Skyride or the annual Fourth of July fireworks—not the Confederacy. However, when I entered high school, I learned the history of Stone Mountain through discussions with my friends. I wasn’t upset or angry about the memorial. While the memorial served as a horrible reminder of the hatred and bigotry toward African-Americans, it also represented the importance of African-American history.

In Atlanta, Black History Month is a sacred time when my family and I visit the Center for Civil and Human Rights, participate in our town’s annual Black History Month parade, learn about our history, and own our blackness. At my high school, we celebrated it through a pep rally with trivia on black history facts, speeches, poems on black culture, and African dance performances from our school’s dance and step team.

I didn’t expect my celebration of Black History Month to change as much as it did when I arrived at Emerson.

I knew celebrating Black History Month at home and at Emerson was going to be different because of the drastic racial demographic disparity between African-Americans and whites in both places. African-Americans make up 91 percent of the student population at my high cool, compared to Emerson’s 3 percent.

On Feb. 1, I eagerly waited, refreshing my email all day for President M. Lee Pelton to send out an email acknowledging and celebrating Black History Month. When the email never came, I was confused. At a school that strives for diversity and inclusion, I thought there had to be an email, flyer, or something that acknowledged the start of Black History Month. Additionally, Pelton is a black man, and I knew for sure he would acknowledge a month that celebrated his history and culture. With the arrival of Chinese New Year, Valentine’s Day, and the Venezuelan crisis in February, it seemed as if Black History Month became overshadowed.

At first, I was angry. How could Emerson, a school that puts an emphasis on students’ comfortability, not celebrate the biggest “holiday” for African-Americans? My anger began to fade when Emerson’s Black Organization for Natural Interests handed out a calendar with planned Black History Month events at our meeting. On the flyer, EBONI advertised a fashion show, an open mic night, a gala celebrating Black History Month and the student organization’s 50th anniversary, and a keynote speaker event with April Reign, the creator of the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag.

Throughout February, I modeled for the fashion show, watched my friends perform at the open mic night, and celebrated EBONI’s 50th anniversary at the Revere Hotel. I also learned more about my history by reading an article from Info Please titled “The History of Black History Month” and honored my culture by reading and listening to only black authors and artists. Even though Emerson didn’t formally acknowledge Black History Month, I didn’t let this inhibit the celebration of my history and identity as a black woman.

Black History Month represents a pivotal piece of my identity as an African-American woman. It is a time where I pride myself on my brownness and naturally curly hair and on being black in America. Black History Month should represent a time for everyone, including white people and people of color, to learn about the importance of black culture, the oppression African-Americans face, and the contributions we make in America.

Next year, I hope Emerson will do more to celebrate Black History Month. I want to see a celebration for our black professors and students, traditional black dishes in the dining hall, and flyers celebrating Black History Month on bulletin boards. Without EBONI, I am not sure Black History Month would have been celebrated at Emerson College, which is a thought that saddens me. However, after this year, I have hope that Emerson will do more to make their African-American students feel welcome.

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