Black History Month, for as long as we have been students at Wesleyan, has been the only time during the year that Ujamaa has had a significant and visible presence on campus. This is in stark contrast to the historical roots of Ujamaa, which was formed to serve as a space for the Student of Color community to build relationships and community with one another and really strengthen themselves against a campus that at the time (and more often than we’re willing to admit now) was systematically separating, tokenizing, and in no uncertain terms, oppressing them.
Black History Month, then, was a space for community development, education about critical issues going on in the African diaspora, and a reclamation and centering of topics that weren’t being taught on Wesleyan’s campus. It served as a reflection of the state of the collective and the state of the Student of Color community.
This is still true. However, the efforts of community development, education, and campus awareness have not been the premise of Ujamaa’s current mission. Before we have a Black History Month, the events that take place during this month should be reflective of the community that it represents. Last semester, however, there was one Ujamaa collective meeting. The planning of Black History Month has taken place completely within the confines of the Ujamaa board members. This does not mean that the events would necessarily be bad, but it does highlight that Black History Month is not reflective of the community as a whole.
Black History Month, as it stands on campus, is a performative activity. We believe that the lack of a sense of urgency about creating a community, rather than a sense of urgency to create events for the sake of creating events for the month of February, is troubling because it creates an artificial sense of community that isn’t there. It also assumes that the entire Black community at Wesleyan would be just fine with the programming that would be presented throughout the month. While consensus isn’t necessary for events to go on, there has been no discussion among the supporters of Ujamaa about what, for example, the theme would be, the keynote speaker, or issues that are at the forefront of the Black experience on campus. This indicates a lack of transparency within the Black History Month planning process and, more importantly, within the Student of Color community.
It’s important to pause here and make a couple of points clear. The board doing this work is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. We have both been (and still are at times) student leaders doing very similar planning work; we acknowledge and honor the fact that this work does sometimes require unilateral decision-making. The month will probably still be great. Additionally, there is no way that anyone or any group can appropriately encompass and represent all of the individual experiences and views of an entire population of people. However, that’s not the point of this article.
The point is that Black History Month should not be the most important thing that Ujamaa does throughout the year. That title should go to the actual creation and nurturing of a community that feels the need and desire to invest in the month, in planning, attending, and supporting in whatever way they feel equipped to do.
That’s why we feel we shouldn’t have the month. It places so much pressure on the board to plan an entire month of events where attendance is uneven at best. Simultaneously, it doesn’t do enough work to critically engage and develop a sense of buy-in from SOC into the project of both affinity group membership and the larger project of social justice on campus.
In 2013, we saw yet another Professor leave the African-American Studies Program with another set to depart at the end of this semester. With almost no fanfare, the Malcolm X House came within an eyelash of losing its name and going through a forced re-evaluation without the consent of its residents. All the while, Ujamaa (and to be completely honest, every SOC affinity group) was not engaging us in dialogue about what these things meant to us as individuals and parts of a larger community. At the end of the day, there will be a Black History Month 2014. We reached out to the Ujamaa board with similar sentiments to the ones expressed here, and they did not want to engage in this dialogue with us. We can’t say we blame them. It’s a hard dialogue! But it’s still one that we believe is necessary. We truly hope that this doesn’t mean that this community is at a point where the only thing that it’s not willing to give up is Black History Month.
—Christian Hosam ’15 and Maurice Hill ’14