Swarthmore Community Discusses “What Black History Month Means To Us”

In the Gallery Room of Swarthmore College’s Black Cultural Center (BCC) at 4:30pm on February 1st, 2018, Swarthmore students gathered to discuss the meaning of Black History Month. The communal celebration of Black History Month was organized by students on the BCC Programming Staff, Shiko Njoroge ‘21 and Terence Thomas ‘21. The organizers excitedly described the expectation of “[striving] for open communication as [they] hope to investigate personal, cultural, and societal influences that impact our individual perceptions on this month.”

The event began with remarks from each of the twelve students, introducing themselves to one another by name, pronouns, and an African-American hero, fictional or real, they look up to. From investigative journalist Ida B. Wells to fictional figure Janie Crawford in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, students named people in their lives, including relatives, who inspire them.

Beginning February 1st each year is Black History Month, an annual celebration of the achievements of African-Americans that recognizes the essential role blacks play in history around the African Diaspora. Black History Month originally began in 1926 as Negro History Week, created namely by historian Carter G. Woodson. The original week was chosen during the second week of February to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglas. It was a time for schools, churches, and neighborhoods nationally to hold celebrations, host lectures, and organize discussions and performances around honoring Black History. Later, black educators and students at Kent State University proposed in February 1969 to change the week-long celebration into a Black History Month. It took place one year later in 1970 and in 1976, the United States named it as an official observance.

Some students emphasized their wanting to learn more about the meaning of Black History Month and what Swarthmore will be planning for it, while others quipped about the ways in which Black History Month has long resonated with them since childhood.

“Black History Month means unity,” said Kahlaa Cannady ‘21. “It’s a time for us to celebrate our beautiful people.”

“I think it should be every month, honestly,” Cannady added.

“Often times [black people] are overlooked,” said Maleyah Peterson ‘21.  “It’s nice to have something that is ours.”

Paul Buchanan ‘20 described Black History Month as a nice and refreshing time to examine Black history and to build community with others. “[Black History Month] makes me feel closer to my blackness and black people,” Buchanan said.

When discussing what blackness means to them, the room had many different personal experiences that informed their own perceptions of blackness.

Thomas described his experience being told he “acts white” while in high school and asked the room if any others have had similar experiences.

Peterson described not only her own experiences being called “white,” but also her own perceptions of blackness in other people. “Ideas of blackness are projected in the media and other forms of entertainment,” Peterson said. “It’s so deeply rooted, but you only realize how much it hurts when it’s directed towards you.”

“Blackness took me a long time to figure out because my family and I moved every six years,” said Pempho Moyo ‘21, describing similar experiences. She described how her perception of blackness changed depending on who she was around, and emphasized that for her, speaking “eloquently” is not a white trait but is a part of her blackness.

Cannady challenges herself to ask what “acting black” means. “[Judging people based on their actions] is really subconscious,” Cannady said, sparking dialogue around cultural appropriation.

“Blackness is defined by black people individually,” Buchanan said. “It might not mean the same thing to me as it means to Maleyah, but it’s just as valid coming from either of us.”

“Part of the ‘you act so white, you’re an oreo’ situation is trying to put black people in a box,” Buchanan continued. “It’s trying to rob someone from their comfort in their blackness.”

The group later discussed the media tokenizing black people, further “putting black people in a box” and expecting a few black people to speak for entire black communities. Tokenizing black people can lead to issues such as Peterson addressed, as people outside the black community feeling comfortable with using racial slurs based on the opinion of only one black person.

When discussing if their blackness has ever been called into question at Swarthmore, people spoke extensively about code-switching, changing between two different types of language, whether done consciously or subconsciously. For some students, they felt the need to assimilate into white culture while others felt as though their sense of blackness was more comfortable here coming from predominantly white high schools.

Thomas asked the group if the racial demographics at Swarthmore influenced their college decisions.

“[Swarthmore] was a dream,” said Peterson, having not processed the percentage of black students since she had not expected her acceptance in the first place. Coming from a predominantly black neighborhood in Brooklyn, Cannady said Swarthmore is a huge change of pace. “I didn’t know what to expect.”

“Swarthmore is not majority white,” Buchanan said, chronicling when he saw the statistic that Swarthmore is mostly people of color. He described his surprise when he realized later that only six-percent of those people of color were black.

“It’s been an adjustment to reckon with that.”

All agreed, however, that they would still choose Swarthmore and hope to make it more accessible for other students in the future. When describing ways Swarthmore could garner a larger black population, students thought about ways in which Swarthmore could make themselves more known outside the local community to black students.

“I think it’s mainly exposure,” said Cannady. “The school shouldn’t only give info sessions to private schools, but also to inner-city schools.”

“It’s our job to talk to friends from our old schools or people we know to let them know what Swarthmore and other liberal arts colleges could offer them,” Cannady continued.

“Going into schools where people typically wouldn’t have heard of Swarthmore,” Meghan Kelly ‘18 said, is important, and also discussed the funding and visibility of programs like S3P that make sure students can adjust well when they get here.

“I never heard of Swarthmore until my senior year of high school,” said Peterson. “[Swarthmore] needs to go to more middle schools, too.”

“I think that if Swarthmore were to expand their reach into more [black communities] nationally, there would be much more interest from students,” said Buchanan.

The group also discussed the significance of seeing blackness in modern-day media. Black Panther will open in theaters February 16th, 2018, making it a huge event this Black History Month.  

“When there is a majority black cast and there is a history of not having black people represented, the expectation is not one hundred percent--it’s one hundred and fifty percent,” said Moyo, chronicling her own experience growing up with white mainstream media and expressing her excitement at seeing black people portrayed in a positive way. “All their efforts will shine in that two-hour movie.”

“I’m expecting a lot,” said Buchanan.

“[The filmmakers] know we’re expecting a lot,” chimed in Njoroge.

Admiring those in the movie such as Lupita N’yongo, students described using the right lighting and makeup to better accentuate black characters’ features. They also described colloquialisms that would establish a sense of familiarity in Black Panther.

“For me, Black History Month will feel important when we get to see what black history looks like today, finding our way into media and the music industry,” Njoroge added, mentioning modern-day events like the Grammys and the Black Panther movie opening. “Black History Month means community-building and being there for one another.”

As the month continues, there will be several more Black History Month events. Stay tuned in the Voices’ Bulletin as events are posted.