Black History Month festivities have fresh motivation

Recent discussions regarding racism and police misconduct give celebrations a new tone.

Parker Lemke

The Black American National Anthem, drumbeats and dancing filled Coffman Union’s Great Hall on Tuesday evening as about 100 students kicked off Black History Month.

The annual observance comes amid a national debate on race and police brutality. Set off by the shooting of a black teenager, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Mo., there have been protests across the country and the Twin Cities in recent months, including a 2,000-person march in January.

Now, University of Minnesota departments and student groups hope to use the momentum to promote black history and culture on campus, and stir discussions on the lingering effects of racism.

“In times of crisis, we all seek to find community,” said Black Motivated Women president Fata Acquoi.

Assistant Vice Provost of Student Experiences Lamar Hylton said he hopes this year’s commemoration will promote solidarity and help people come together to address recent injustices.

“What you will see is that black lives do matter, through our programming and through the messages that are delivered,” he said.

The monthlong celebration will feature both social and educational events, including film screenings, discussion panels, guest speakers and performances, said Hylton, who co-chairs the University’s Black History Month planning committee.

“I think it’s a great mix,” he said. “I think you’ll find that there’s something that speaks to everybody on the campus, whether you’re black or not.”

It’s important for black students to see their heritage reflected in University programming, Hylton added.

Student groups will focus on themes like remembering past challenges, moving forward and promoting professionalism in the black community, Acquoi said.

The recent coverage of high-profile police shootings may help drive participation in Black History Month events, said Catherine Squires, an associate communications studies professor who researches race in the media. She also volunteered on the planning committee.

Along with the energy of the Black Lives Matter movement, the release of a University campus climate report last month furthers the discussion, Squires said.

The report, which outlines plans to address campus diversity problems, found that students of color are less likely to feel welcomed and respected on campus compared to their white peers.

“Because the campus climate process is going on at the same time, it’s serendipitous,” Squires said. “There’s going to be these overlapping conversations.”

At Tuesday’s kick-off event, biochemistry senior Arnaud Batchou said the month is not just about showing how far the black community has come but also how far it has left to go.

He said the Ferguson shooting can serve as an example for discussing disparities in the judicial system and possible solutions to them.

“Hopefully it’s going to bring more attention to the issues that [black people] face,” Batchou said.

Sports management senior Kodjo Attisso agreed that Ferguson could draw attention to the month’s themes.

“It probably will make people more aware of racial injustice in America,” he said.