Martinez: Students can find ways to celebrate black culture both on, off NU campus

Marissa Martinez, Assistant Opinion Editor

Back in grade school, Black History Month was associated with some basic elements: a few history lessons about heroes like Martin Luther King Jr. or Rosa Parks, some sort of culturally significant gathering or talks held by the Black Students Association, and maybe a mandatory assembly or school function. Essentially, all operations were surface-level and seemed just as much a performative gesture as genuine appreciation.

This model was an OK introduction into the world of black history, but ultimately failed to give a nuanced look at black achievements, past and present, and doesn’t acknowledge wider aspects of black culture as much as it should. However, I always chalked this gap up to limited time or funds, as well as a general lack of interest in encouraging diversity.

As The Daily Northwestern’s editorial board discussed last week in its editorial about the embarrassing lack of official Northwestern events, it’s been made clear that students are forced to pick up the slack and create their own programming to celebrate the month. While topics like slavery or the civil rights movement are important, February is 28 days of highlighting black culture, and one vital step in accomplishing this is going beyond just academic talks and analysis. It is possible to focus on modern accomplishments and leaders and still honor the past.

There are many ways to participate in Black History Month on and around campus beyond attending University talks — Chicago is home to dozens of curated black culture hubs, big and small, that hold special events in February. The DuSable Museum of African American History, located in Hyde Park near the University of Chicago, hosts performances and celebrations almost daily in February in addition to their regular black history exhibits. The Museum of Science and Industry holds the longest-running annual exhibition of juried black art until the end of the month. A quick Google search will show other functions geared toward college students and young adults around the Chicago area. Despite being at a school that offers little programming for the month, supporting these efforts by Chicago’s organizations is a great way for students to interact with a city that has a large black population and ensure that events like these can prosper into the future.

On campus, students can support student-led programming and achievement through fundraisers, discussions or engagement with black student groups. There are opportunities to hold conversations in the classroom as well, even in courses that don’t seem related to black history.

One problem many nonblack students face when trying to get involved is thinking that these events are not made for them. This is a common misconception, but one that can be easily remedied. There is a difference between dominating and monopolizing black spaces with nonblack voices and uplifting and supporting Northwestern’s small but powerful black community. Simply attending public events affirms the importance of having a diverse campus, reminding students that their efforts to celebrate their culture are noticed by the entire NU community.

And this level of support should not be limited to Black History Month — larger efforts should be made to invest in student programming for other months, like Hispanic Heritage Month in September and October or Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month in May. As our university looks to increase its diversity, these are easy ways for all of us to participate in cultural activities and truly live up to our own claims of inclusion.

A tired line is, “We should celebrate black history every month, not just during February.” While that is true, there is also great value in dedicating a specific time period for community members of all backgrounds to leave their comfort zones and interact with black pride festivities. It’s vital to have meaningful months focused on underrepresented groups throughout the year, but in order to get the full value, Northwestern has to fully endorse them, and all students, in turn, have to engage in them.

Marissa Martinez is a Medill freshman. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.