March 12, 2019

TAARIQ | Celebrating Black History Month at Cornell

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Black History Month, which was officially recognized in the 1970s, is not only a celebration of people and events throughout Black history, but it is also a reminder of the freedom now held by those in the Pan-African diaspora. An accomplishment I feel may be taken for granted. In our modern institutional settings, where Black contributions are oftentimes overlooked, the month of February provides us with an important reminder of where we have come from, and what we can achieve.

But what does the view of Black excellence look like from an ivory tower? Cornell University does have a historic commitment to diversity, which is in tune with its mission, “any person … any study,” created during the founding of the University. This history includes becoming the first co-educational school in the Ivy League (1870) and, more recently, enrolling its first class with gender parity to the College of Engineering (2017). Black history at Cornell is even more astonishing. The first African-Americans (after a four-year course of study) graduated from Cornell in 1890, the first African-American also graduated from Cornell Law School in 1890, the first Black Greek-lettered fraternity in the nation was founded at Cornell in 1906 and the first African-American woman to receive a Ph.D. was granted that degree by Cornell University in 1936.

Countless successful and inspirational Cornell graduates of color precede those who remain on campus today. Every year starting from 2015, we are alerted that Cornell is welcoming the most diverse freshman class, and this is supported by the stats. Today, there are more female than male undergraduates, and 45 percent of the undergraduate population are minorities — which includes Asian, Black, Hispanic, Native American and multi-racial U.S. citizens or legal residents. Although there are just over 1,000 students who identify as Black or African-American currently enrolled, there has been an outstanding effort by minority organizations to provide spaces for celebration. This includes food sales, screenings, performances and discussions from a range of organizations that focus on things like Black students in STEM, academic success, unity and Pan-African cultures.

These opportunities to celebrate different cultures from the diaspora, and have hard conversations about what it is like to live with our identity, are especially important today. For Black students, it is hard to escape microaggressions and implicit bias wherever we go — even at Cornell. Imposter syndrome, which is the feeling of fraudulence and not belonging frequently experienced by students of color attending predominantly white institutions, is something that should not be ignored or downplayed. For those that are first-generation college students and/or first-generation Americans, there is an extra weight we must carry. Not all students of color are socioeconomically disadvantaged, but those that are can feel even more disconnected from their community. It is important that students feel as though they belong to a community, in order to facilitate a healthy academic experience. However, there are boundaries to this claim.

As important as being in a community is, the tendency to self-segregate into different categorizations of minority identity only weakens us. As someone who identifies as half African and half Black American, I see no need to identify with and operate under just one community. Whether we are African/African-American, Black American, Caribbean or Afro-Latinx, we all need to celebrate each other’s cultures and unify — because in unity there is power. Showing up to minority-oriented events and supporting our peers in their efforts is the first step. We can only create an impact and construct representation if we are in solidarity.

Looking at the greater undergraduate community, I see the same applications. The tendency to associate predominantly with the culture we identify with only broadens our separation. Of course, this is not to say that students of different backgrounds do not build strong friendships; it is only a critique of how students interact with different cultures. I am not exempt from this. There needs to be more engagement with outside communities in cultural events. Celebrating where we come from gives us that feeling of being home, but attending events only within one minority community seems to me like preaching to the choir. Why don’t we see that many unfamiliar faces at certain events? Why don’t we attend and learn from events from unfamiliar cultures? In our effort to graduate “any person” from “any study” with a global perspective, there needs to be more intercultural engagement.

On the University’s part, there are other changes that should be made as well. A more diversified faculty — which include mental health counselors and professionals — is something that is often discussed as an important initiative, but has not been sufficiently implemented. There is also a lack of representation of all underrepresented minorities in our academic curriculum. We can boast about creating a space where anyone regardless of their identity can learn, but if we are not learning about different traditions and cultures while we are here, what are we achieving?

Celebrating Black History Month at Cornell made me realize that celebrating the successes of a culture is just as important as sharing it. When we arrive there is an emphasis on our differences, and where we can find our sub-communities. Looking forward, we must emphasize the value of the experience and knowledge gained from engaging in every single one.

Aminah Taariq is a sophomore in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at I Spy runs every other Wednesday this semester.