Looking Back to Find the Way Forward
For a third consecutive February, I’ve made the conscious decision to have a discussion, through our organization’s blog, about the importance of Black History Month. Each time, the subject weighs on me that much more.
This is a month that now stands for me as being woefully inadequate to address the deep systemic racism that pervades our country’s educational system, despite remaining as one of the few widespread initiatives that creates accountability for state legislators and school administrators to find curriculum-based solutions.
This follows a truly harrowing year where Black students not only endured the deaths of larger-than-life figures such as Kobe Bryant, Chadwick Boseman, Katherine Johnson, and John Lewis — whose efforts were depicted on movie screens across the country in recent years — but also found themselves on the front lines on social justice, protesting the deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Oluwatoyin Salau, and other Black victims of violence.
It reminds me of the legacy of Kent State University, which used 2020 to commemorate its 50th anniversary of observing Black History Month. That inaugural celebration, a perfect storm of activism and academic reform, was birthed by Black United Students, whose initial protests of police recruitment on campus culminated in the takeover of KSU’s Student Activity Center on November 13, 1968. The takeover by BUS was accompanied by a list of demands, one of which was the allocation of space for a Black cultural center.
This space became known as the Kuumba House, which for those familiar with the sixth principle of Kwanzaa can be easily translated as the House of Creativity. The efforts derived from that space informed the transition from the final celebration of Negro History Week for Kent State students, into the birth of a month-long dedication to fostering Black culture and providing a curriculum that discusses Black achievement. That history allows us to name Kuumba House the birthplace, and the Black United Students as progenitors, of Black History Month.
What resonates about this historical context for me is the efforts of Black student advocacy in the face of state-sanctioned violence and tragedy. In February 2021, we are standing at the precipice of watching the college attainment and completion gap widen for Black students yet again, and many of the same socio-emotional horrors that proceeded Kent State’s inaugural history plague our community’s youth today.
I had a recent conversation with our Director of Community Mobilization, Chris Rutherford (who is no stranger to the concept of protest for accommodation of physical space at a university), about the young people we support in AdviseMI, those service members who are dedicated to taking on the challenge of advocating for postsecondary education to these students who are uncertain about their future in the face of certain chaos. Those advisers, along with our partners at MSU College Advising Corps and Michigan College Advising Corps, are quite frequently serving high school students with technology gaps and a dearth of resources compared to schools in neighboring, wealthier districts.
I shared with him my distaste for the idiom “boots on the ground” to refer to these young leaders, because very seldom do people use this militaristic connection to assert that there is adjunctly a war for students of color to gain access to educational and economic pathways. The pitfalls of white supremacy often surface as a result of refusing to openly and actively name it as such — and if no one calls the above dilemma as a war, the romanticization of those involved does little to solve the problem.
I have much pride and appreciation for the service members who are passionate about the student-facing work, largely because their impact can grow and provide the resources that lead to the solution. In many ways, the strongest connection I could take from the Black United Students’ legacy of advocacy and systemic change was found in the form of my most anticipated film this year, Judas and the Black Messiah, which was directed by Shaka King and is based on the surreptitious efforts by COINTELPRO to disrupt the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, which lead to the assassination of its leader Fred Hampton.
This is significant to me for two prominent reasons, the first being that Black United Students’ protests were largely influenced by the BPP’s struggles against police brutality in Oakland, Calif. The ideal of self-efficacy resonated with those students, and those results led to a month we nationally recognize in the present day. There are similar factors over the past year to believe that those who dare to organize, especially in the realm of education, can kickstart the process for systemic change that helps close this attainment gap.
The second reason is the legacy of Hampton himself, who at the time of his murder was 21 years old. When I was that age, and just beginning to do student-facing work, I wanted to have that combination of charisma, intellect, and resolve as a leader. At 35, I find myself confident to follow behind young leaders who have that passion for the people they serve — to use what I have learned to help guide them, but to also provide the platform for them to identify issues in education, advocate for those changes, and be supportive when they lead. They can foster community with their ideas, cultivate new programs, and bring accountability to inequitable systems; we should listen to them when given the chance.
The advisers who have endured the tumult of working with under-resourced students and families in our community this year, collectively, have the leadership traits to create an impactful legacy that prepares the next generation of Black students, along with those from other communities who we have resolved to work with through our mission. I want to use this month to set the stage for the partners in our community, as well as higher education institutions, to hear more about their perspectives this Black History Month. I’m inspired to think of how we can provide more support for them from this day forward.
If my blog this year feels like a protest, then let my “demands” be clear — through the blogs and webinars we’ve prepared to spotlight their voices this month, embrace the words of these young leaders and let them resonate within each of you. It is imperative that we allow their vision to drive us to think deeply about what change looks like.