February 3, 2009

Recent Events Highlight Black History Month’s Significance

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This year’s Black History Month comes at a pivotal time in the history of both America and Cornell. The first Black president was inaugurated in January, and this April marks the 40th anniversary of the Willard Straight Hall takeover.
Ernie Jolly ’09, president of Black Students United, views Obama’s inauguration as the top rung on a long ladder extending through history — an image displayed on the Black History Month flyers around campus.
The BSU is sponsoring a series of discussions and dinners this month, the first of which was held yesterday in Robert Purcell Community Center. The African, Latino, Asian and Native American Programming Board’s annual commemorative ceremony for the Willard Straight Hall takeover in April is likely to hold special significance this year.
“As African Americans, this particular Black History Month we’re celebrating change and a lot of progress, but we must also remember that there is a lot to be done,” Jolly said.
Justin Davis ’07, former president of BSU, sees this year’s Black History Month as a time for celebrating America’s steps forward.
“We’ve seriously made some great progress,” Davis said. “I think this month is an opportunity for people across the country to look at where we’ve come from in contrast to where we are.”
Where we are is in the middle of historic times, according to Prof. James Turner, Africana studies. The inauguration of America’s first black president this January was a great achievement.
“Black History Month will be celebrated with a greater sense of pride and energy because of this magnificent historic development: the election of [Barack Obama],” Turner said. “I think this is a wonderful development for the country. Millions and millions of young Americans will grow up having this as a part of their history.”
Turner expanded on the historical significance of the November election.
“It points to the history of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but not only him. Dr. King was one person who inspired a movement of hundreds of thousands of people,” he said.
Though Dr. King is highly recognized, Turner commented that there were many who came before him.
Ella Baker risked her life to campaign for the right to vote in the Deep South in the mid-1950s. Turner said that Rosa Parks, who was one of many women in Birmingham, Ala. in 1964, stood up to the discriminatory restrictions on public transportation. Fannie Lou Hamer led an interracial campaign from Mississippi to the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City to demand equal representation. Hamer risked her life and reputation for her beliefs in what Turner described as one of the “most dangerous states in the Union at that time” and a hotbed of the Ku Klux Klan.
Despite the milestone passed by America’s 44th president, the meaning of Black History Month for Turner remains unchanged.
“The significance [of Black History Month] is still as it always has been — that a great portion of the world’s history has been informed by people of African descent,” Turner said.
Dr. Carter G. Woodson started the black history tradition — initially only a week — in 1926. According to Turner, it was very common in America to argue that people of African descent simply had no history and no culture.
Dr. Woodson struggled for years working to promote black history and culture, Turner said. He graduated with a Ph.D. from Harvard, but like the majority of African Americans and women at the time, he could not teach at major white universities. Instead, he distributed pamphlets and spoke at public schools and churches.
“He felt that all young people deserve to have an accurate knowledge of American History,” Turner said.
Dr. Woodson chose February, according to Turner, because two prominent figures in Black History — Frederick Douglass, an influential black abolitionist, and Abraham Lincoln, a great U.S. president — were born in this month.
In the late 1960s, when black people started to gain acceptance in more significant numbers to prominent universities, students at Cornell brought Dr. Woodson’s questions back to focus.
Cornell students took decisive action in the takeover of Willard Straight Hall to urge the University to expand the curriculum of history, art and literature to include the African American point of view and create a more complete picture.
These students and others like them popularized the idea of Black History, leading to the month-long recognition we observe today, Turner said.
“I think the 40th anniversary of Willard Straight Hall is a mark of how far the work of Dr. Carter G. Woodson has spread,” he said. “It’s not uncommon now for us to have courses about African American history, culture, and literature.”
This April will mark four decades since Turner founded the Africana Studies and Research Center, which was not long after the Willard Straight Hall takeover.
“During this time we have at least established a basis of African American history and culture,” Turner said.
Turner cited another significant anniversary recognized this year: the 50th anniversary of Motown, a prominent part of black music and culture.
“It influenced everyone from Elvis Presley to the Beatles to the Rolling Stones and [Elvis] Costello,” Turner said. “People of African descent have always had an important presence in American life and culture.”