February is Black History Month, the annual celebration of the achievements by African Americans and an opportunity to recognize their role in American history. Although efforts to establish an official black history month began in the early 1900s and celebrations occurred across the nation in the 1970s, it was not acknowledged by the federal government until President Gerald Ford officially recognized the month in 1976 and called on Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” Since 1976, every American president has designated February as Black History Month.
There were a few ways in which John Brown University celebrated Black History Month. The Multicultural Organization of Students Active in Christ (MOSAIC), a student-led organization that “strives to develop and sponsor cultural, educational and social programming for their members and other JBU students,” hosted four showings of the Netflix Series “When They See Us,” as well as subsequent talkback sessions. “When They See Us” tells the true story of five young men of color who were falsely convicted of an assault in Central Park and details their experiences leading up to and following their conviction and time in juvenile detention and prison. Haley James, sophomore psychology major and MOSAIC leader, believes that the series can be used as an educational tool to inform people about issues happening today.
“We thought that Black History Month was a good time to show this film because police brutality and the mass incarceration of African American males is a real problem in our society today,” James said.
MOSAIC also used their social media pages to celebrate and acknowledge black history throughout the month.
“We relaunched our social media, so, on Instagram, I would post stories about prominent African American facts, black history facts, key figures and other things like that,” James said.
JBU Residence Life also celebrated the month with murals of black historical figures, including Maya Angelou, Malcolm X and Harriet Tubman. Walker Residence Life hosted a showing and talkback of the movie “Harriet,” a biographical film following the life and abolitionist work of Harriet Tubman.
Other JBU events acknowledging or celebrating Black History Month included a Martin Luther King Jr. chapel and talkback session with Mark DeYmaz, author of “Disruption: Repurposing the Church to Redeem the Community” and a visit from Urban Doxology, a musical ministry that focuses on racial reconciliation.
KK Khaliq, freshman psychology major and MOSAIC member, appreciated the events but said she believes improvements could be made to more fully embrace black history.
“When they invited the church group, that was amazing for me, but it feels like they’re just barely scraping the surface,” Khaliq said. “The events could be more inviting, too. That’s my thing with the movies—it’s hard to show a movie depicting black history month that’s not sad. And black history isn’t just sad.”
Khaliq said that placing a larger emphasis on Black History Month can pose challenges to an administration and faculty that is largely white. However, she believes that, ultimately, it’s a necessary area of learning.
“People get uncomfortable trying to teach about something that they know they don’t necessarily have a place speaking on. It’s understandable why a university such as this one didn’t go above and beyond for black history month,” she said. “But, a way that they could better address it is recognizing that if they as professionals feel discomfort with talking about these issues, imagine what the student population feels in understanding these issues. Your job is not to make your job more comfortable. It’s to educate and promote a safe environment that includes everybody.”
James said that she wishes there were more efforts at JBU to talk about black history and black issues outside of Black History Month.
“Why are we just doing this during Black History Month? It should be more of a collective and consistent effort,” James said. “Even though we’re the smallest group on campus our voices still matter. Keep that same interest throughout the year, instead of just having it peak during Black History Month.”
Outside of JBU, there were events in the Northwest Arkansas area centered around Black History Month.
Khaliq attended some of these events and was able to learn about and appreciate black history.
“I didn’t see anything in Siloam, but I do know that Fort Smith had a parade for Martin Luther King Jr. Day and I know that they also had some educational events happening at their local recreational centers,” she said. “We visited different African American churches in Fayetteville … I just tried to educate myself more daily on different facts that I didn’t necessarily get taught in high school.”
James also celebrated Black History Month outside of JBU events.
“I worked on the MOSAIC stuff and tried to get more education out there and then did my own personal research. I felt like I needed to do a little more digging into my culture and what it means to be an African American. So, I kind of embraced my culture more.”
Although Black History Month is coming to a close, the acknowledgment and celebration of black history remains important every month of the year.
Khaliq said that everyone can become more informed about black history by pursuing further knowledge and attending events such as the ones that were offered at JBU this month. “Don’t feel like you’re failing as long as you’re trying. It’s a lot to comprehend. The black advocate leaders in our community will tell you that they learn something new every day. It isn’t something that’s just gonna come overnight,” she said. “Take more interest in what your school is offering you so that what they’re offering you doesn’t suck. Because MOSAIC and JBU can do everything and students don’t show up.”
Graphic courtesy of the University of Iowa Multicultural and International Student Support and Engagement