By Setota Hailemariam
“Black History Month is in February … shortest month of the year, and the coldest — just in case we want to have a parade,” Chris Rock dryly remarked in a 2015 video for Essence.com.
The black experience in America has been marked by unfairness and inequality, and though that fact should not be ignored during the other 11 months of the year, this month, in particular, is a time to recognize it and to simultaneously celebrate those who have risen above those barriers to achieve greatness.
For the most part, the black community is united in this celebration. However, certain divisions exist within the community that proves to be highly explosive, and ultimately detrimental: dark skin vs. light skin, HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) vs. PWIs (Predominantly White Institutions), African vs. African-American, and so on.
The African Students Association and the Black Student Union at this university co-sponsored a meeting called “The Divide” Feb. 7 in which students could express their thoughts on the disconnect present in the black community, particularly between Africans and African-Americans.
With a screen in the front of the room projecting questions about how to determine whether someone is black and “whitewashing” of history books, opinionated attendees were prompted to speak up, passing a microphone back and forth as they shared their beliefs about why, exactly, some Africans have negative opinions of American-born blacks and vice versa — and where these views stem from.
Many attributed it to the lack of proper education about African history in schools, and the perpetuation of the stereotype that Africans “live in huts in the jungle,” among other harmful misconceptions. One girl shared an anecdote about how she used to go out of her way to distance herself from being associated with Africans due to being only African-American in her first-grade classroom. She has since changed her ways.
Identity and the issue of labels were also discussed as a few shared why they refer to themselves as black or African-American, citing lack of knowledge about their familial and cultural ancestry as a reason to refer to themselves as simply black.
The final question of the night was one of the most contested: “Do you think Africans can’t celebrate Black History Month?”
It soon turned into a debate about whether Africans can be celebrated during Black History Month, with the crowd agreeing “yes.” After all, black history didn’t start and end with slavery, as one audience member pointed out.
“It’s important to have these conversations to be able to de-condition ourselves of what we’ve been believing for years … we’re black and it’s Black History Month, so we should be enjoying each other’s cultures and appreciating each other, however different or similar we are,” said sophomore sociology major Nwando Arah, who is also on the executive board of the Black Student Union.
Also present at the discussion was Jennifer Hubbard, an external consultant on behalf of this university’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion. She spoke at the end to encourage students to fill out the Campus Climate Survey, an initiative launched on Jan. 29 to give students, faculty and staff a chance to share their perspectives on racial diversity and inclusion on campus.
“I’m trying to attend as many campus organization meetings as I can while I’m in town in order to get the word out to people … to share their perceptions about the campus so that we have the best information as possible in order to move forward from here,” she said.
For both the campus community and the black community, divisions are their biggest weakness, threatening to tear apart the fabric of something great — a true tragedy during this month that should commemorate not only black history, or black excellence, but black unity.
Featured Photo Credit: Courtesy of Newtown grafitti‘s Flickr page.
Setota Hailemariam is a sophomore journalism major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.