Black History Month raises awareness

by Beacon Staff • February 22, 2006

When Dr. Carter Woodson expanded "Negro History Week" into Black History Month in 1926, his greatest goal for the celebration of African-American culture was to see it become ultimately unnecessary, according to Dr. William Smith, executive director of Emerson's Center for Diversity.

"His hope was that as we become a more unified society, African history would become fully integrated into the society of the United States," said Smith, who is black.

Recent events at Emerson have suggested that there are still issues of race and prejudice in our society. Last spring, the racial epithets "tar baby" and "mud shark" were written on a white board on a door of a Little Building dormitory room.

Hurricane Katrina also sparked racial debate in the community. At a Nov. 1 Town Hall Meeting on Katrina, Race and Poverty, Dean of the School of Communication Stuart Sigman bypassed a line of students to challenge the panelists' notion that problems experienced in the aftermath of Katrina were solely based on racism, The Beacon reported.

Sigman apologized to anyone who may have been offended by his remarks at a later meeting, where he and several other college officials discussed how to better racial relations on campus.

Jag Ramdas, director of multicultural affairs, said diversity at the college is in need of improvement.

"If you're a white kid, you can go four years at Emerson College without interacting with a single person of color," said Ramdas, who is Indian.

Emerson College has a multicultural student population of just 13 percent, according to Registrar William DeWolf.

"I certainly won't see that day [when Black History Month can be abolished] in my lifetime," Smith said.

Many students interviewed said they were dissatisfied with the observance of Black History Month on campus.

"I don't feel a whole lot of the presence of what Black History Month is supposed to be about," said junior print journalism major Darren Sands.

Rather than "a superficial conversation about Toni Morrison," Sands, who is black, said he would like to see "more of the positives of our culture, like the accomplishments of hip-hop, political activism and the love and respect of our elders. Expressing that to the student body-to me-is more important."

Orson Oblowitz, a freshman film major, said he thought the purpose of Black History Month would be further realized if the college had a more diverse student body.

"[Emerson] projects an image of being a primarily Caucasian school," said Oblowitz, who is white. "Therefore, Black History Month has no relevance when the people it's meant to celebrate are not part of the community."

Smith said the perception that Black History Month matters for just a 28- or 29-day period is also problematic.

"The topic of race and ethnic diversity is not confined to Black History Month," Smith said.

Ramdas said he believes it's important for students at a school focused on communication to understand the role the media plays in racial issues.

"You look at the Million-Man March, and there really wasn't any coverage of it. We knew Al Sharpton had a role and we knew that [Louis] Farrakhan had a major role, but only as a Muslim leader. The media portrayed him as way out there, and the public viewed him as almost a terrorist," Ramdas said.

Ramdas also said that issues of racial equality are still relevant.

"People don't realize that the civil rights movement happened yesterday, that it's happening everyday," Ramdas said. "The 'colorblind' generation of today say that they don't see color, it doesn't matter whether someone is black, blue or green, they are all the same. If this was true, the US would truly be a place of equal opportunities, and Katrina's effect would not have been felt most heavily by African-Americans."

Ramdas said he believes that cultural diversity should be accepted and celebrated as a crucial component to achieving an integration of other cultures into American society.

"The other sad part of this is that this colorblind generation is also culture blind-meaning not only do they not see color, they don't see culture," Ramdas said. "Kids are coming into Emerson not aware of their own culture, not knowing what it means to be African-American in America."

Many of the events that Ramdas chose to sponsor as the Director of Multicultural Affairs attempt to elucidate "the roles that Africans played in the development of America and American History."

Earlier in February, the Cultural Center presented plays and films that focused on African-American history, including Martin Luther King, the struggle to be freed from the bonds of slavery and the struggle to survive after the Civil War.

Several observances, including an open-mic night sponsored by EBONI and Multicultural Affairs and a new Center for Diversity initiative that would recognize students and faculty that promote cultural diversity, are scheduled for the month.

Smith said he hopes the events will further young people's racial awareness, and although he doesn't think he will see the day when Black History Month will no longer be needed, he believes students will see this change in their lifetimes, if they work toward it.

"Students should be hastening the day when there is no Black History Month," he said.

Ramdas said he thinks there must be more progress toward racial understanding before such a day could happen.

"[Black History Month] was created in 1926, and here we are in 2006 and we still haven't integrated African-American history into American history," Ramdas said. "We still have hate graffiti at places like Emerson College."

Amanda Pinto contributed to this report.