April 1, 2013

Black Students United Reflects on its History at Cornell

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When Frank Dawson ’72 arrived on Cornell’s campus as a freshman, he found a turbulent campus climate, politically charged and divided on issues regarding race.

Many black students, feeling isolated on campus, were galvanized to protest against discrimination and sometimes overt hostility they  felt they encountered at Cornell. Student-led demonstrations, mirroring the national Black Power movement, were commonplace on campus during that time, according to Dawson.

Though Dawson said black students were not “constantly under siege,” incidents of racism were nonetheless part of his experience at Cornell. On several occasions, as Dawson and his friends walked by dormitories, predominantly white fraternities or through downtown Ithaca at night, beer bottles and racial epithets were tossed in their direction.

It was moments such as these that reaffirmed Dawson’s decision to join Cornell’s Afro-American Society, a student group founded in 1966 that advocated for the needs of black students.

“There were overarching issues that forced us to really come together in one common voice,” Dawson said. “It seemed that some people in the Cornell community felt that as black students, we should just be happy to have been admitted. It wasn’t really our University.”

When Dawson and other members of the Afro-American Society occupied Willard Straight Hall in 1969, the Takeover –– which garnered national media attention –– was a reaction to a number of racially charged incidents on campus.

“For many people, there’s still a sense of accomplishment with the Straight Takeover,” Dawson said. “There was a lot at stake regarding our lives and our futures, but we stuck together, and we were able to accomplish something that, in the end, helped make Cornell more inclusive and relevant for everyone.”

That sense of unity has persisted within the organization for decades –– a reality reflected by its change of name to ‘Black Students United’ in 1979, according to BSU co-president Shannon Cohall ’14.

“Many schools have black student unions,” Cohall said. “[BSU changed the name] in order to be more inclusive. They wanted to be united as students, instead of being a selective group. They wanted to be united in this mission to really support and enhance the black community.”

Black Students United now serves as an umbrella organization for about 30 black student groups at Cornell, Cohall said. Its mission of unifying black organizations, however, was not fully realized until recent years, she said.

“[When I joined BSU in 2005], my impression was that it was a student group that advocated for black student needs, but that it wasn’t that active,” said Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo ’08 grad, who served as co-president of BSU between 2006 and 2008.

It was the election of Justin Davis ’07 as BSU president the following year that prompted the restructuring of the organization, Lumumba-Kasongo said.

“We started contacting the other black student organizations. The major motivation was that there were a lot of similar programs being held by these organizations, but there was no communication,” she said. “There was a lot of frustration [about] over-programming. Out of that frustration, [Davis] said we should have more communication.”

From this dissatisfaction, BSU’s delegate meetings were born, which drew between 30 and 40 student delegates who met monthly to talk about issues within the black community.

“These meetings helped us in our mission to be a united organization, where we’re taking experiences from all walks of life,” Davis said. “We made decisions about what we wanted to do as a community. We built coalitions with other student organizations, like Cornell Hillel and [La Asociación Latina]. I think it helped bring the entire Cornell community together.”

Though BSU’s role as an umbrella organization has helped increase the amount of programming offered by black student groups, the organization remains focused on acclimating black students to campus, Lumumba-Kasongo said.

“I think it can be hard for a black student who can feel isolated at Cornell,” Lumumba-Kasongo said. “BSU helps in that it’s a central organization that’s in charge of connecting the dots and putting together events that try to embody the spirit of what it means to be a black student at Cornell.”

Cohall cited the idea of “double consciousness,” a term coined by civil rights activist W.E.B. DuBois, to represent the reconciliation of African heritage with an American upbringing.

“As a black person in American society, you have to live in two competing worlds –– the general society and black America,” Cohall said. “At Cornell, BSU represents a home for students of the African diaspora that juggle these two identities.”

While BSU advocates causes that  it thinks are important to black students, its primary role has been one of support, according to BSU co-president Selam Gebre ’14.

“At the end of the day, it’s important to embrace your identity,” Gebre said.

Original Author: Kerry Close

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