Black History Month

February 1, 2012 by staff 

Black History Month, For the University of Rochester — and for many institutions in and around Rochester — recognition of Black History Month goes far beyond posters of Rosa Parks and videos of Martin Luther King Jr.

As Rochester’s black community has changed, so have the events that honor its history. At UR, the diverse event schedule includes a panel discussion on Haiti and a lecture titled African Identities, reflecting the increasingly diverse black population of the institution, the state and the country as a whole.

Like New York state, the university, where the population of African-born students has risen from eight to 41 since 2005, has seen an increase in black immigrants in recent years.

As they forge their own history, the meaning and purpose of the month designated to celebrate black history is changing with the population itself.

The place of the quintessential icons of Black History Month — and, indeed, all history — is not in jeopardy: Harriet Tubman. W.E.B. DuBois. Jackie Robinson.

But some say it is time to expand who we celebrate during February, in light of the diversifying black population.

“The stage of history has all the main stars on it — the Lincolns, the Washingtons and the Jeffersons. That’s what we’ve been doing for the past 40 years or so,” said Larry Hudson, a professor at the University of Rochester’s Frederick Douglass Institute for African and African-American Studies. “We have to bring in the other supportive actors. You have to have Sojourner Truth and Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass, but sometimes you’ll just have an enslaved family.”

Hudson believes that our definition of heroes should begin to expand beyond those who were the pioneers in their fields.

“The vast majority of us are neither the best nor the worst, so the vast majority is somehow excluded from this (recognition),” Hudson said. “Black History Month is typically ‘the first so and so,’ and I’m personally tired of that. I think many black people are tired of that.”

He added that as our definition of heroes broadens, more people in the African Diaspora will be recognized for what they do for society.

“It would be great to have more highlights of accomplishments and trace the history of people from other nations,” said Michelle Thompson-Taylor, secretary of the Rochester Jamaican Organization.

Hudson agreed.

“You’ll learn so much from these other people that you’ll broaden and deepen what a hero truly is. Once we do that, we’ll put different heroes on the walls because we’ll see other people as having been brave, heroic servants to their community rather than just those people who typically are in the spotlight,” he said. “We will be changing the kind of representation of ourselves to non-African-Americans, and that would be really useful.”

In fact, several of Hudson’s students who have moved to the United States from Haiti or Jamaica don’t view themselves as African-Americans.

“They want to be Haitian-American and Jamaican-American … and I suggest to them that that’s fine,” Hudson said. “They need to speak up.”

Hudson is in a similar position. Born in Jamaica, he was raised in England and moved to the United States more than 20 years ago.

“It certainly doesn’t make me an African-American. Does it make me a black American? No,” he said.

Thompson-Taylor said calling February African-American History Month could also be divisive, causing some to question who belongs and who doesn’t.

“I think calling it African-American History Month almost causes people to question, ‘Is that person American?’” she said. Thompson-Taylor, a native of Jamaica, doesn’t consider herself to be an African-American — though she is a U.S. citizen.

Cilas Kemedjio, also a professor at the University of Rochester’s Frederick Douglass Institute for African and African-American Studies and a native of Cameroon, recalled being struck by how the African-American community mobilized following incidents of brutal treatment of blacks who were not necessarily African-American in New York City during the late 1990s.

In 1999, 22-year-old Amadou Diallo, an unarmed West African immigrant with no criminal record, was killed after being shot with 19 bullets by New York City police officers. In 1997, a 30-year-old Haitian immigrant was brutalized by a white police officer in Brooklyn. Both cases sparked widespread outrage in the black community.

“I see these two cases as the embodiment of the transition between African-American issues, that are rightfully central to the discourse in the United States, and a more transnational black consciousness,” Kemedjio said. “To some extent, practices on the ground are already moving away from a national agenda focused solely on African-American issues to a broader Pan-African agenda.”

As far as the future of Black History Month, many believe it is still relevant and necessary.

Michael Eric Dyson, who spoke at the University of Rochester last week to kick-off Black History Month festivities, said that the celebration is important to give the black community more exposure.

In speaking about Black History Month in the years to come, Hudson referenced a statement made by Bill Clinton in 1995 regarding affirmative action: “Mend it, but don’t end it.”

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