On February 17, Sr. Coordinator of Alumni Student Recruitment & LEAD Scholars Phyllis Taylor invited the LEAD Scholars to the Alumni Center for an engaging discussion about Black History Month and the silenced social issues surrounding this celebratory time period. The event, described by Freshman Melissa Smiley as “eye-opening and inspiring,” featured guest speaker Professor Angela D. Dillard, who joined in on the viewing of an episode of the PBS series, African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, and led a thought-provoking discussion about the ways in which Black History is commemorated in today’s society. “How are things being celebrated and remembered in our country and why do we care?” she asks. “Is this really just a time for the country to pat itself on the back because somewhere down the line, the country “did the right thing?”
With all of the discussion happening on campus in regard to the Black Student Union’s seven demands, it is important to discuss the underlying social issues surrounding contemporary views of Black History. The topic is often presented to us as if all aspects of racial inequality have been since eradicated or fixed; as if the social, political, and ideological changes that provide blacks with true equal opportunity and comfort in a society dominated by whites were immediately activated by the end of the civil rights movement. While we notice the blatant misrepresentations of Blacks in the media, the disproportionate amount of incarcerated Blacks, the disparities in White and Black socioeconomic status, and the shockingly low population of blacks on this very campus, the way that Black History is memorialized implies that these existing issues are merely coincidental and thus do not need to be addressed in relation to the nation’s history.
Furthermore, Dillard argues that the ways in which Black History is commemorated through monuments and celebrations are often not accurate representations of history. Black figures such as Martin Luther King, James Meredith, Malcolm X and Stokley Carmichael are idolized for merely being associated with the Civil Rights Movement, all of their personal (often conflicting) ideologies and mannerisms aside. “Somewhere along the line, history can sometimes become two-dimensional. We lose the knowledge that history is made up lives and lives are made of people and people are complicated. I think the Civil Rights movement is something of a mythology,” Junior Matthew Williams said. James Meredith, for example, disagreed with beliefs associated with the civil rights movement and considered himself very far removed from the movement as a whole. Yet, the recently vandalized Civil Rights Monument at the University of Mississippi features a life-sized statue of Meredith Himself, the man who, as Dillard says, resented the movement as a whole.
Nevertheless, sometimes the impact that history is expected to make upon society cannot reach the desired intensity if history merely writes itself. “I think we sometimes lose sight of reality when we think of our history… I don’t think that is a bad thing, though. The civil rights leaders were great men and women, heroes even… We need giants to emulate, to aspire to,” Williams said. It would be wrong to lose faith in the individuals who exhibited such unabridged courage during the time when non-violent protestors were beaten and hosed, James Meredith was shot on the Mississippi border, Stokley Carmichael shouted “BLACK POWER” and LBJ championed the phrase “We shall overcome.”
However, there are pressing questions that should be asked. Who is being left out of Black History? What portions of Black history are our nation’s government deciding to portray and not to portray? Why was Rosa Parks not allowed to speak at the March on Washington? Why are the deeper issues in Black History often separated from White history? Why do many Blacks on campus feel unwelcome, unsafe, and simply out of place?
Just because our nation flaunts egalitarianism, because our nation is desegregated, and because our nation did, at some point, “do the right thing,” it does not mean that these questions are negligible. Contemporary goals for thorough integration and overall cultural competency must still be met, and discussions such as these are small yet powerful contributions to the cause.
University of Michigan
Residential College Class of 2017