"Looking Back to Move Forward: The 50th Anniversary of the Black Cultural Center" Kicks Off with an Exhibit in McCabe

“Looking Back to Move Forward: The 50th Anniversary of the Black Cultural Center.” The name of the exhibit, which is currently featured in the McCabe Library Atrium, provides a vivid picture of what the collection of pieces hopes to accomplish. According to the Black Cultural Center (BCC) and First Gen/Low Income (FLI) Program Coordinator Nakia Waters, Sankofa, a bird-shaped word from the Twi language of Ghana, inspired the name of the exhibit.

“The bird is looking back to what’s behind them, but its feet are moving forward, so that’s kind of where it comes from,” wrote Waters in an email to Voices, who coordinated the planning the exhibit. “Our Black Excellence motto is ‘honoring our past, imagining our future.’ Looking back and acknowledging what happened, so we can move forward, that is how we are going to inform our future.”

The exhibit, which is on display until Oct. 11, features a collection of pictures and documents that range from the 1960s to the present and documents the BCC’s evolution from its opening to today — detailing the ongoing history of Swarthmore Black students’ organizing and showcasing the memories of their daily life.

For Waters, the exhibit brings to light the resilience of the Black student community at Swarthmore, displaying the accomplishments that came as a result of those students organizing and protesting. 

“I thought it was interesting to see the pattern of students using their voice throughout the exhibit. So when you look at the 60s and 70s’ case, it’s students saying, ‘hey there is not enough Black students here, we need the Black Cultural Center, we need more Black staff and faculty’, and how they got what they asked for.” She described various pieces in the exhibit that documented the history of Black students organizing, “And again in the 80s, they had to do a sit-in for wanting more Black staff and faculty, they got that. I am the first program coordinator of the Black Cultural Center, right? So it kind of feels like what they asked for, they got it, and it came to fruition. “

Sara Laine’ 21, a research intern with the BCC, explained her decisions in choosing some of the photographs that are on display. “There is an expectation… for Black Swarthmore students specifically… that we kind of all have to be doing this amazing groundbreaking work in order to deserve to be here. But I wanted to highlight that we have existed here as normal people as well.” 

Laine gave examples of those photographs that captured the ordinary moments: “a quiet moment between two Black Swarthmore students,” or “Black Swarthmore students in the BCC laughing,” saying, “so it didn’t have to be serious all the time.” 

Waters shared similar sentiments with the research interns that she hoped those who walk through the exhibit understand what the Black community has given to Swarthmore and the Black voice that persists at Swarthmore. She said, “I hope they see that we were here, we were happy, and when we weren’t, we stood up for the things that we thought were important.”

Angeline Etienne ‘22, another research intern with the BCC, also expanded on their opinions of what they want people to think about after viewing the exhibit, “I hope people take away from this exhibition that it’s not just Black history at Swarthmore, it’s Black existence, like we are here, we have a rich history, but we also live in the now. We don’t want to just be an exhibit on the wall for everyone to view. But we want to be able to use and uplift the history of Black life, Black resistance, and of Black joy here at Swarthmore, while at the same time giving space for that existence to continue to grow, and continue to make memories and history as we sit here, as we go to school here, as we get stressed out here.” They continued, “It’s just giving people the right to not just be stuck in the past, like, uplift the past, but giving space for now, and holding space for people. ” 

Etienne shared their perspective about what it means for non-Black people to give space for Black existence, “Making space is not always about being in a lecture discussion, and when they start talking about Black oppression, you fall back. Making space means physically making space for us, there is literally no other way I can describe it.”

On Sept. 10, the McCabe Library held a reception to celebrate the opening of the exhibit and gave participants a glimpse at the process of putting the pieces together. 

Waters stressed the hard work done by everyone involved in the exhibit. She recounted the long hours that went into researching and piecing together the exhibit in a way that was true to the team’s vision. 

Etienne also recalled the intense planning that the exhibit required, “It was a lot of reading. One of the branches of my research was online research: going through the article archives of the Phoenix…[and] the 1969 liberation site. Things like that. Another branch was physical documents: things from the BCC specifically or from Friend’s historical documents. Another branch would probably be a separate project where we interviewed people. Interviewing people helped me conceptualize all of the exhibit.”

Dion Lewis, Associate Dean and Director of the BCC, speaking at the reception in McCabe library on Sept. 10.

Dion Lewis, Associate Dean and Director of the BCC, speaking at the reception in McCabe library on Sept. 10.

Research projects by the BCC are not a new thing, and Etienne wanted to elevate the amount of time and effort a specific student has dedicated to this work. Etienne stated, “It was definitely a group effort, but I do want to reiterate and say that Joy George [‘20] is someone who has done a lot of the work to get this started. Her first year doing this it was only her and I really want to lift that up and say that. This work obviously... couldn’t have been done without the activism and the work of the Black students and the Black elders that came before us at Swarthmore, but definitely one of the people who really did a lot of work to make sure that I could do this work with her is Joy. I really appreciate that.”

The reception ended with the words of Dion Lewis, Associate Dean and Director of the BCC, who stated, “Don’t forget how much further we need to travel.” These words served as a reminder that even though a lot of progress has been made through the tireless activism of Black students at Swarthmore College, there is always room for improvement within the institution. 

Voices would like to recognize BCC and FLI Program Coordinator Nakia Waters, who supervised this project; research interns Catherine Williams ’19, Joy George ’20, Sara Laine ’21, Angeline Etienne ’22, Ayodeji George ’22; and the previous BCC Administrative Assistant Ms. Bonnie, whose archive has saved many historical documents and artifacts, for all their hard work and contribution to the “Looking Back to Move Forward: The 50th Anniversary of the Black Cultural Center” Exhibit.