Black History Month: Sharing unheard stories

Catfish po boy with arugula and cajun aioli was served as part of the Black History Month-themed meal for the University dining halls in 2013.  

By Masaki Sugimoto

There was something rich and hallowing about the untold stories of African-Americans that consumed Dr. Carter G. Woodson, leading him to dedicate his life to preserving African-American history.

Today, February has historic meaning in African-American history and is celebrated as Black History Month for a variety of reasons, some being to honor Frederick Douglas, Abraham Lincoln and W.E.B. Du Bois, who all have birthdays in February. However, Dr. Woodson and his commitment to the untold stories holds truer to the heart of the annual celebration.

“What are the two things that we learn about ourselves, as black Americans, when we go through the K-through-12 system?” asked Rory James, director of the Bruce D. Nesbitt African American Cultural Center (BNAACC). “We learn about American slavery, we were slaves, and then we hear about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Not to diminish how great he was, but those two things are very narrow minded in the grand scheme of our history. Black people have strong histories, even before our ancestors were brought on the shores of the United States of America.”

Dr. Woodson particularly felt that the lack of black history within the educational system was detrimental to society — especially to African-Americans.

He advocated for schools to begin teaching black history more extensively, and in February of 1926, Dr. Woodson and the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History, an organization he founded, launched Negro History Week, which promoted the study of African-American history.

The program continued after Dr. Woodson’s death in 1950, gaining momentum with the Civil Rights Movement, and in 1976, the program was expanded to become a month-long celebration.

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Today, Dr. Woodson’s and other prominent leaders’ legacies live on as February’s crisp commencement calls for the continued celebration of black history. However, for some, each February brings up issues still found in the African-American community.

“To me, every month is Black History Month,” said Loren Jones, public relations chair of Central Black Student Union and senior in LAS. “But I think Black History Month is an extra effort to learn more about ourselves and to educate people about our history that is deeply rooted in Champaign as well as the rest of the United States. It’s a great opportunity for us to come together actively for a month.”

James also encourages everyone on campus to learn about black history, regardless of race. He said he feels there are several African-Americans that have made great contributions to the country, yet many students do not learn about them during their formal education. February is a time to reflect on the contributions that African-American leaders have made, James said.

However, despite the widespread events on campus for the month, it can be difficult for some students to feel at home at the University.

“People don’t understand what black culture is; it’s really stereotyped,” Jones said. “I mean, just to even go out to the bars and hear certain racial comments like, ‘Oh, can you twerk?’ There’s just so much miscommunication between races that I see.”

Despite the perception that the campus community is working toward promoting diversity, Jones said there are still prevalent issues that remain on campus.

Events on campus throughout the month will aim to work toward the resolution of some of these issues. CBSU is specifically planning a Black Student Union address about recent events with Being Black at Illinois, an RSO that works closely with BNAACC.

In addition, several student leaders, advisors and James have started the discussion with Champaign, Urbana and the University police chiefs to find ways to move forward post-Ferguson in the community. James said these discussions will continue for the rest of the semester.

According to Jones, the lack of official University-sponsored events implies a sense of segregation for people from different races or ethnic groups because the events to honor the month are not visible in common campus locations.

“I think (the University) puts it into the hands of the black organizations,” Jones said. “I don’t see IUB or the big University units putting on things for everyone. It’s more like the black units of the University putting on things for Black people. So I think that’s an issue that we face during Black History Month. It’s more of a celebration for us, rather than for everyone — which is what it’s supposed to be.”

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Still, many organizations and student groups will also host events this month ranging from greek events and talent shows to parties and discussion sessions.

“This is not a way to separate us,” James said. “It’s a way for us to reflect on a certain demographic and a certain group of people … So many times the narratives have come from a white, male perspective, so black history is important because you’re getting the black perspective.”

CBSU will host events this month, including one of its largest events, Cotton Club Variety Show.

The 1920s marked the climax of the Harlem Renaissance, where sultry jazz music electrified the skin and even the most composed spirits came to life. It was an era, so distinctively soulful that many people today attempt to recreate that art, even if just for a few minutes.

Cotton Club Variety Show pays tribute to this era and the original Cotton Club, a white club that African-American entertainers performed at, in Harlem, New York.

“I think it is the biggest African-American event of the year. A lot of people look forward to it and come down for the weekend,” Jones said.

CBSU will begin with a fashion Show at 7 p.m. at Ikenberry Commons on Feb. 20. On Feb. 21, Cotton Club Variety Show will commence at 2 p.m. at Foellinger Auditorium. The show will feature actors, singers and dancers, as all performers attempt to recreate the original Cotton Club for the audience. The Official After Party will be held at CRCE starting at 10 p.m. following the variety show’s completion.

The dining halls will also have themed dinners to educate students about the history of African-American food.

“Soul food is bigger than just greens, fried chicken, macaroni and cheese … but we forget there’s West Indian food, Caribbean food, Creole food that’s apart of the African-American cuisine,” James said.

The first theme dinner will be a Southern Food Celebration on Thursday.

Carrie Anderson, the executive chef for Residential Dining Services collaborated with BNAACC throughout the semester to perfect the menus to offer students traditional-theme meals. The second theme dinner will be Neo-Soul Food on February 26. The theme dinners seek to bring the campus community together highlighting different RSOs, music and discussions about the food and its ingredients, Anderson said.

“It’s really just about comfort, familiarity, it is about evoking memories,” she said. “That’s what we are trying to do with a lot of the dishes that we serve-making students feel at home, regardless of race.”

Darrah can be reached at perryma2@dailyillini.com.