Black History Month Has Ended and The Past Continues to Haunt Us

As Black History Month ends this year, education has been playing a larger than usual role in the national conversation about race. Take the fear and trembling provoked by Critical Race Theory.  When I first started teaching, I was amused by the anxieties aroused by Postmodern Theory in people who really cared little about philosophy and literature, but that was nothing compared to the reactions to CRT. Around the country people have been convinced that they must protect their children from a body of scholarship that they know almost nothing about. And they’ve demanded their representatives in government or on school boards do something about it. What’s going on here? It seems that efforts to block CRT are meant to forbid discussion of any scholarship about anti-black racism that doesn’t see it as a wild aberration from the norms of American history. Some of the bills making their way through statehouses or school districts forbid “divisive concepts” that might make a group of people feel uncomfortable or guilty.

Historians know that our understanding of the past is always subject to revision, either because we discover new facts (which rarely happens), or because we have new interpretive frameworks with which to make sense of the facts already familiar to us. This doesn’t mean anything goes, or that inquiry is divorced from reality; it just means that history is a product of interpretations that resonate at a particular place and time. These interpretations are subject to criticism, and through this process our sense of the past evolves in relation to our present. It’s hard to think of a reframing of American history in the last hundred years that has been more resonant — and more subject to criticism —  than Nikole Hannah-Jones’ 1619 Project. Debates about its framing of the American Revolution, and hence, of the American experiment, will go on for some time, as they should. But the vehemence and nastiness of much of the criticism has little to do with her treatment of sources or her understanding of events. For many, the 1619 Project is a narcissistic blow – a shock to the self-image of the nation. Efforts to ban the work or to marginalize those associated with it are a reminder of how difficult it is to change thinking about one’s national identity. The repression of the Project and the vilification of Hannah-Jones is a sad reminder this month of how far we have yet to go to integrate Black History into the dominant narratives of American history.

In higher education, there is a great deal of worry that the Trump-packed Supreme Court will bring affirmative action to an end. Today, colleges and universities are still free to develop admissions policies that take race into account in relation to a number of other factors in their efforts to create a diverse educational environment. Promoting access to a high-quality education has been key to turning American rhetoric of equality into genuine opportunity. And throughout our history, elites threatened by equality, or just by social mobility, have joined together to block access for groups striving to improve their prospects in life. In the 20th century, policies were enacted to keep immigrants out of colleges and universities and to limit the number of Jews who enrolled. In more recent decades, referenda and legislators in states red and blue have attempted to block consideration of race in admissions at public universities, undermining opportunity for minorities, especially African Americans. Today, higher-ed institutions need more (not less) diversity broadly conceived ― including intellectual diversity ― and we should enhance our efforts to make them inclusive, dynamic places of learning through difference. A retreat from affirmative action will result in more “opportunity hoarding,” and return us to the orchestrated parochialism of the past.

Watching history repeat itself has been especially troubling this month as several HBCUs were forced to evacuate buildings and suspend classes because of bomb threats. Terror has long been used to keep African Americans from pursuing their educational goals, and it has also been used to limit voting rights. The FBI is investigating the bomb threats, but efforts to keep blacks from voting are happening in plain sight. Recently, Trump’s justices ensured that Alabama could solidify its long-standing marginalization of black voters through blatantly racist gerrymandering. Of course, politicians from both parties seek political advantage by redrawing voting districts. This is just a sad fact of American history. But racist efforts to limit the franchise has an especially egregious history, and it is happening again as state legislators pass laws to make it harder for African Americans to vote. History won’t go away. At least not on its own.

We don’t have to stand by passively as forces of racism and oppression emerge from the past.  As Black History Month comes to a close, let us stand in solidarity to defend the right to vote by supporting voter registration efforts across the country. Colleges and universities should inspire their students to take the field, as in the Freedom Summer of 1964, to help people participate in the electoral process. Librarians and other educators should stand shoulder-to-shoulder to stop the banning of books just because they cause discomfort. Professors and administrators should make common cause to defend the right to discuss uncomfortable subjects and to explore new visions of American history and Black history. As we leave Black History month behind, it is vital to remember that how we imagine the past affects how we build the future.



Black History Month


This week I heard some wonderful talks as we celebrated Martin Luther King Jr’s legacy at Wesleyan. From incisive investigations of power and race to conversations about inclusion and design, the first events of Black History Month were challenging and powerful. Here are some of the upcoming events from Ujamaa, the Wesleyan Black Student Union:

In preparation for a full and fun black history month, your Wesleyan Black Student Union (Ujamaa), has planned a month with activities for you all to participate in! This year we want to honor Black Joy, so our theme this year is adequately named “Joy: Survival Beyond Healing”

IF YOU WANT TO KNOW MORE ABOUT THESE ACTIVITIES, WHO WE ARE, AND HOW YOU CAN PARTICIPATE visit our WesNest Page  and attend our first event on February 8th, 6pm at Malcom X House: “Black History Month Kickback.”

The RESOURCE CENTER is also sponsoring events this month. Here are two:

  • Restorying Our World: The Narrative Act for Collective Healing and Liberation / Tuesday, Feb. 8th from 4:30pm-6pm (Zoom Meeting ID: 926 1947 7396, Passcode: 970976)
    • This workshop/webinar series explores how stories have shaped our world, and how we can use them to identify and transform conflicts. It helps us see the power of stories in our day to day lives, as well as the dominant narratives and myths that define our societies. We will practice new storytelling methods to imagine new narratives. This is what we call re-storying our world: the narrative act for collective healing and liberation.
  • Combatting Anti-Blackness and Fatphobia with Da’Shaun Harrison / Thursday, Feb. 17th from 5:30pm-7pm (Zoom Meeting ID: 993 4804 6118, Passcode: 314930)
    • To live in a body both fat and Black is to exist at the margins of a society that creates the conditions for anti-fatness as anti-Blackness. Hyper-policed by state and society, passed over for housing and jobs, and derided and misdiagnosed by medical professionals, fat Black people in the United States are subject to sociopolitically sanctioned discrimination, abuse, condescension, and trauma.  In this workshop, Da’Shaun Harrison–a fat, Black, disabled, and nonbinary trans writer– will offer an incisive, fresh, and precise exploration of anti-fatness as anti-Blackness, foregrounding the state-sanctioned murders of fat Black men and trans and nonbinary masculine people in historical analysis.

Thinking About Movies in Black History Month

Wesleyan students, staff and faculty have been mounting a series of interesting events and discussions to mark Black History Month. This week the College of Film and the Moving Image continues its film series Awareness 17 with a showing of 13th, a documentary by Ava DuVernay on the intertwining of race and mass incarceration. I first heard about the film from Jelani Cobb, who visited Wesleyan not long ago to talk about the Black Lives Matter movement, freedom of speech and campus politics. Michelle Alexander’s work has an important role in the movie — the Wes class of 2020 read her The New Jim Crow before coming to campus this year. The film is being shown Tuesday, February 21st at 8:00 pm in the Powell Family Cinema. Prof. Charles Barber will lead a talk back after the screening.

I am traveling and will be meeting with many members of our Los Angeles alumni film community early in the coming week. Unfortunately, that means I will miss the campus screening of 13th. Kari and I did manage to see another powerful documentary on race, politics and social justice recently. I Am Not Your Negro is a searing film that is inspired by the life and work of James Baldwin. Wesleyan faculty member and New York Times chief film critic A.O. Scott had this to say about it: “Whatever you think about the past and future of what used to be called “race relations” — white supremacy and the resistance to it, in plainer English — this movie will make you think again, and may even change your mind.”

At Wesleyan, we have much rethinking to do about race —  about white supremacy and the resistance to it. Doing so will help us take concrete steps to make our campus community a more equitable and inclusive place. This would be the best outcome of Black History Month.


Black History Month

We’ve just passed the mid-way point in February, which means that there have already been a number of interesting events celebrating Black History Month. Students and faculty have been planning lectures, concerts, and social events that commemorate important events in the history of African Americans and other groups in the African Diaspora.  This Sunday at 5 pm at Crowell Concert Hall is Jubilee, an annual event that celebrates the talents of students, faculty and community members. Wesleyan’s Center for African American Studies has a long, distinguished history of scholarship and activism, and you can find out more about events in Black History Month by visiting the Malcolm X House at 343 High Street.

I had lunch today with Ann duCille, Professor of English, who for more than two decades has been teaching students about literature, race, history, gender and theory. We talked about the changing landscape for Black Studies, and about the potential for doing some exciting things at Wesleyan in this field, in creative writing, and in our diversity efforts across campus. Ann’s interests range from Barbies to black feminist theory, and she has deep roots in the arts and academia. Ann has decided to retire at the end of this year, and she will be sorely missed by students and faculty alike. Only after I left the lunch did I realize that it was Ann’s birthday! To make up for this gross oversight, I’ll extend these birthday wishes publicly!!