College News

CAS News  Back to CAS News

Black History: More than just a month

TAMPA, Fla. -- Some comedians joke that February was chosen for Black History month because it was the shortest but the truth is, in coming up with the idea, Carter G. Woodson followed a tradition in African American communities of celebrating the births of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. What started out as a week in 1926 -- called Negro History week -- was expanded to a month 50 years later.

The full story from the Association for the Study of African American Life and History notes that Woodson looked forward to the day when the celebration would no longer be necessary because the knowledge of Black contributions to society would be presented to everyone all year long as part of American and world history.

This may take a lot longer than he had hoped.

USF’s Department of Africana Studies and the university’s Institute on Black Life faculty welcome the annual nod in their direction in February. The events and special programs that mark Black History month come and go with a flurry of stories meant to highlight the history and accomplishments of an assortment of African Americans such as the customary noteworthy personages: George Washington Carver, Harriet Tubman, Booker T. Washington, Sojourner Truth, Martin Luther King, Jr. -- great men and women. But there’s a great deal more to Black history than one month and a few famous names could ever hope to reveal.

Cheryl Rodriguez, executive director of the USF Institute on Black Life said, “It’s very simplistic to think that you can acknowledge any people’s history in a month.”

However, there’s some resistance to overcome.

Some of the world’s most celebrated scholars were told as children, like just about everyone, that Africa and Africans had no history or culture to speak of or what little there was to know about Africans wasn’t worth studying. John Hope Franklin, John Henrik Clarke and Lerone Bennett -- to name just a few -- went on to prove otherwise with groundbreaking scholarly achievements. And, of course, Woodson created and launched the month-long celebration that helps in its own powerful way to chip away at those negative beliefs -- to everyone’s benefit.

“As the world becomes more diverse and global in perspective the absence of cultural literacy will be a greater liability,” said Deborah Plant, the chair of USF’s Department of Africana Studies. “Without cultural literacy people will not be as effective as they could be in any career they choose.”

And with those words Plant gets at why Black History Month only scratches the surface of what constitutes cultural literacy and points to the importance of Africana Studies.

Plant, Rodriguez and their colleagues have spent decades soldiering on one student and one doubter at a time against ignorance and outright hostility at times. And they do so without holding any hard feelings, simply armed with patient determination, a love of research and teaching and satisfied by the delight of seeing students go on to careers of their own. Nonetheless, educating students and educators alike is something of an ongoing battle.

“I’m sometimes surprised at how resistant people are to changing how they think about blackness,” Rodriguez said. “But there’s nothing wrong with us talking about and acknowledging that there’s still work to be done.”

This applies to one touchy subject in particular -- racism. According to H. Roy Kaplan, it’s too soon to think this problem has come to an end since the 2008 election. He teaches the courses Racism in American Society and the Global Challenge of Diversity and has just published “The Myth of Post Racial America: Searching for Equality in the Age of Materialism.”

“Just because we have a person of color in the White House doesn’t mean that we’ve solved our racial problems,” Kaplan said. “In fact, his election elicited a torrent of racist comments and contributed to an increase in the number of hate groups in the United States. The balance of political and economic power is still in the hands of white males in the U.S. Senate, the Supreme Court and the Fortune 500. Sure, things have improved, but we still have a lot of work to do.”

Rodriguez agrees. “The post-racial talk is an effort to erase history and the extent to which Black people have played an important role in this country’s social changes,” she said. “We should be past the notion of race. There’s only one race, the human race. Race is a social construct that has been harmful to a great many people. What we study is ethnicity in all of its dimensions.”

Black history and Africana studies departments are relatively new on the academic scene and struggle to be taken seriously in a world where ignorance of Africa’s contribution to civilization and world history is widespread even among the best educated. They came into being as an extension of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. As a discipline, Africana/Black studies is part of the curricula at every major university.

“There are people who want to separate out Black history, not out of recognition for its distinct place but to keep its subject matter invisible and silenced,” Rodriguez said. “We exist to study what has been neglected for too long.”

USF’s program stands out for its attention to the applied skills component of what is taught here.

“We’re focusing on health and economic disparities, public health, human rights, education and developing collaborations with information sciences as well as international affairs and community development all with an eye toward strengthening the preparation we offer our students as they go out into the world to work in various careers,” Plant said. “People who don’t see the bigger picture ask, ‘What can I do with that degree?’ when talking about the liberal arts but even more so with Africana studies. But the relevance becomes self-evident.”

In addition to exploring territory never seen before, scholars in this field find themselves battling stereotypes and questioning assumptions in courses that they stress are not for or about Blacks only. They accept that the burden is on them to prove their case and only ask for the chance to do so.

“Often it’s just to fulfill a requirement but students can’t help but discover how rich this field is,” said Plant, whose research on Zora Neale Hurston has produced three books, with another one in the works. “Once they take a course, they get hooked and want to learn more.”

An anthropologist, Rodriguez is writing about African Americans in Tampa and encourages students of all backgrounds to study African Americans in local communities, the state, the region, the nation and other countries.

“There are so many stories of participation, courage and accomplishment, stories that are waiting to be told -- data that is waiting to be collected and analyzed,” she said.

Contemporary issues deserve attention as well. Course offerings range from hip-hop culture to health disparities, Black women and Black male identity.

“We need to interrogate why there are such high numbers of black men dropping out of school and ending up in prison as well as why their numbers are so low in college,” Plant said. “Any part of our society that is not functioning well will be problematic to the whole. We need to know why and help come up with solutions.”

Kersuze Simeon-Jones, an assistant professor with joint appointments in Africana studies and the Department of World Languages, teaches courses on the Francophone Diaspora and the Black Diaspora. In addition to the national focus of Black History Month, she suggests an expansion to include international concerns.

“Our students and our communities have much to gain in grasping the broader and in-depth context of Black struggles and achievements throughout the world,” she said.

Eric Duke, an assistant professor in the department, agrees wholeheartedly. He teaches courses on African American, Black Diaspora and Afro-Latin American/Caribbean history. His research focuses on American and other Black freedom struggles in the 20th century. Duke thinks there is much to learn by internationalizing understanding of Black History and by examining intra-racial, rather than simply interracial relations -- lessons that also hold contemporary relevance.

“Many students, of all races, are often surprised to learn that peoples of African descent are not a monolithic group,” Duke said. “Unfortunately, there still seems to be an assumption by most people that all Black people are the same. While recognizing many of the overarching similarities between and common struggles of Black peoples across the globe, which of course was a significant basis for international cooperation between different Black populations, I also challenge students to understand the ways in which issues like class, gender and nationality affected Black communities and freedom struggles.”

He goes on to point out, “By recognizing the historical realties of diversity underneath the umbrella of ‘blackness,’ I hope that students and others can understand the inherent shortcomings of assuming there is only one Black problem and solution for all Black people, and one Black leader or voice for all within Black communities. People rarely assume that for other groups -- why should they for Black peoples?”

Other courses offered by Africana Studies do just that, examine the global dimension of Black History, such as Simeon-Jones’ Afro-Diasporic Literature and Political Movements, which looks at Pan-Africanism, Garveyism, Indigénisme, the New Negro Renaissance, Négritude and Afrocriollo. She also currently teaches a course on Haiti in direct response to the lack of knowledge of the connection between that nation’s history and its current condition, which became evident after the devastating earthquake.

Associate Professor Edward Kissi is a world-renowned expert on genocide and human rights and teaches about these topics as well as African history. His book “Revolution and Genocide in Ethiopia and Cambodia” has been hailed by scholars as “a model for the comparative study of genocide.” He has recently developed a Genocide and Human Rights Graduate Certificate within the department. Kissi is currently in Ghana doing research for his next book and will return in June.

In addition, along with USF’s Confucius Institute, the Patel Center for Global Solutions, the Institute for the Study of Latin America and the Caribbean, Center for Indian Studies, the Department of World Languages and a vast variety of opportunities to study and visit other cultures around the globe, across nearly all disciplines, the Institute on Black Life’s Center for Africa and the Diaspora helps to expand knowledge of the world by encouraging and supporting research and scholarship on issues directly relevant to African people in Africa as well as in Latin America, the Caribbean and Europe.

“We play an important role in promoting Africana scholarship,” Rodriguez said. “We’re in the business of thinking and conceptualizing about the intersection of critical thinking, culture and history. Students discover a world they never thought about or imagined from trained scholars, many with interdisciplinary backgrounds and walk out of these courses with a multidimensional view of the world.”

A statewide conference is being planned that will do its part to add to the discourse on Black history. Duke serves on the organizing committee. This conference hopes to bring together the numerous faculty and students who work in Africana Studies, as well as others with similar research interests on Black-focused issues in other departments, across the state and nation.

“We want to create a statewide organization centered at USF that brings such students and faculty together for annual conferences,” Duke said. “For many years we were the only graduate-level program in the state of Florida, and we intend to remain a crucial location within the state and beyond for the foreseeable future.”

And so, in a way Woodson’s hope for year-round study of Black History has reached a crucial stage with programs like USF’s, poised for the day when it is part of American and world history -- with a long way to go.

“It’s surprising how many people don’t have knowledge of the world and its many peoples,” Plant said. “We have our work cut out for us.”


Filed under:Arts and Sciences Africana Studies School of Social Sciences Institute on Black Life  
Author: Barbara Melendez