This year, a school in Northern California decided to celebrate Black History Month by serving its students a lunch of fried chicken, watermelon and cornbread. Upon receiving an outpouring of criticism, the school apologized—Needless to say, these foods are merely stereotypical representations of African-American culture and a very inaccurate method of celebrating Black History Month.
This particular incident is clear evidence that there is still much to learn about celebrating Black History Month, and in an effort to avoid potential cultural conflicts, Professor Denise B. Santiago, director of multicultural affairs for the Office of Multicultural Affairs here at the University has made the decision not to endorse history months through OMA, preferring to not put a time frame on a topic that deserves year-round attention.
“I made the conscious decision not to do history months,” said Prof. Santiago. “I think that Black History and Latino History and all of these histories that merit attention are still in the margins, so you cannot regulate it to a month. …The goal through this office is to do programming around the year rather than just having it for one month.”
African-American Literature Professor Ellease Ebele Oseye acknowledged OMA’s programming that celebrates black culture through recollection of their past events: “The Office Of Multicultural Affairs invited activist authors Randall Robinson and Edwidge Danticat to enlighten the Pace Community,” said Prof. Oseye. “Director Dr. Denise Santiago has also organized panels to address the wrongful deaths of Trayvon Martin and Amadou Diallo.”
Prof. Santiago indicates that the University instead encourages students to take the reigns when planning cultural events regarding Black History.
“We let [Black History Month] fall within the domain of SDACA, The Black Student Union (BSU) and Sabor Latino, so if they want to do programming, what we’ll do is co-sponsor programming with them,” said Prof. Santiago, noting nevertheless that she would like to see more student organization involvement with OMA regarding cultural events, such as ones that pertain to Black History Month.
In the future Prof. Santiago would like to see students and student organizations have more interaction and programming involving OMA: “[Student Organizations] know that they can come here, but I guess they choose not to do so,” said Santiago.
Prof. Oseye believes, however, that the need for improvement stems from the curriculum regarding African American culture. “We need to upgrade our course offerings and provide departments dedicated to African Studies,” said Prof. Oseye. “African literature alone should involve at least seven professors; not knowing history, not knowing contributions to our immediate surroundings in Lower Manhattan will negatively impact our chances of achieving competency on a global level.”
Prof. Oseye advises students to celebrate Black History Month through education.
“[We must] educate ourselves [and] get to know ourselves,” said Prof. Oseye, adding “Everyone must read Black Reconstruction by W.E.B. DuBois.”
In addition, off-campus opportunities for celebrating Black History Month are bountiful, according to Prof. Oseye, who said, “Stay in touch with: The Schomburg Library which continuously provides excellent exhibitions and programs [and] The New Federal Theatre, where Woodie King Jr., director, offers excellent, informative plays. …[and] PBS has a number of excellent documentaries including the following: The Central Park Five, The Abolitionist, The Underground Railroad and The William Still Story.”
While progress is definitely needed in relation to celebrating and respectfully honoring Black History Month, it seems the University faculty is encouraging students to do so respectfully and inquisitively. Elizabeth Jennings, who is actually commemorated by way of a plaque in 41 Park Row, Carter G. Woodson, the founder of Black History Month and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., one of the pioneers of the black civil rights movement are just a few of the people who represent Black History Month. These figures are what should rightfully come to mind when approaching Black History Month, rather than the stereotypical images of Black Culture that we see everyday.