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Black History Always

As Black History Month draws to a close, it’s important to acknowledge that the values it upholds don’t have an expiration date. While February is the officially recognized month to celebrate, learning about and appreciating Black history should not be confined to a 28-day span. 

Placing an emphasis on learning, education, and knowledge has always been central to the Black Lives Matter movement, and traces its origins back to historic leaders of the 20th century like Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois. They recognized that one of the most powerful ways to achieve social and political change was through educating and inspiring the upcoming generation. 

This is why it is so disheartening to see that simple attempts to shed light on Black history’s greatest figures in school settings are being blocked. On January 19th, the Florida Department of Education (FDOE) told the College Board that they would not allow the new AP African American Studies class to be offered in its state. They think that the course “significantly lacks educational value” (New York Times). The FDOE’s rejection of the AP African American Studies course was preceded by Florida governor Ron DeSantis’ “Stop W.O.K.E.” Act, which aimed to restrict discussions of racism in schools and workplaces. Critical race theory, for example, is prohibited from being talked about in Florida schools. DeSantis hasn’t only targeted racial minorities, though, which he proved with his “Don’t Say Gay” bill from last year. But this most recent move was yet another reminder that for every one step forward, there seem to be another two steps taken back. 

As a college, we here at Siena must be aware of this cultural context. As a higher education institution, we obviously need to be better than Florida’s schools. We need to be better than superficially advertising the “Franciscan” value of diversity on our website and social media, but then coming up short in actually fostering diversity on campus. 

One of the bright spots for diversity on campus is our Black Student Union (BSU), led by president Cynthia Isaac Douge. I asked Cynthia some questions about the importance of education to Black History Month and about how Siena fits into that equation. 

She said that growing up in Queens and Brooklyn, her middle and high schools made sure to include Black history in their curriculum. She was regularly exposed to the work of Black artists like Richard Wright, Alice Walker, and Langston Hughes. She participated in Black History Month showcases where important moments in Black history were performed on-stage. Experiences like these are crucial to showing students from various backgrounds the importance of celebrating diversity. 

As for Siena’s role in Black History Month, Cynthia is proud of the work BSU has done so far. Ms. Bettie Mae Fikes was welcomed to campus to talk about the power of song and storytelling in achieving racial justice. A group of students also gave back to the local community by visiting the Albany Boys & Girls Club to speak to the kids there about the benefits of going to college. They’ve also partnered with the Siena Muslim Student Association to begin an important dialogue about the unique perspectives of Black Muslims. Lastly, she appreciated Saga’s efforts to incorporate new dishes that celebrate Black culture into their menu.

For anyone interested in getting involved with this great organization, Cynthia said that their mission is “to enhance the educational, social, recreational, cultural, and psychological environment of the Siena Community by promoting activities that are relevant to ethnic minorities, particularly Black students.” BSU is especially excited about their upcoming event, Expozé, which is a multicultural talent show. Check it out on April 1st at 8 p.m. in the MAC!

Leaders like Cynthia and the entire BSU show us the importance of fostering diversity, staying educated on current events, and perhaps most importantly, celebrating joy. Far too often, we are taught about Black history in a vacuum of negativity. We learn about Black historical figures in the context of continued struggles, strife, and trauma. Of course, we need to learn these things because we have to understand history as it happened. But we should also try harder to honor the positive moments of Black history. This means discussing the groundbreaking achievements and successes in the face of prejudice rather than solely the oppression itself. When the only way we are educated about Black people is in the context of suffering, then our institutions are failing us.

We can start right here at a college like Siena by changing the discourse in our classes. We can diversify the authors on the syllabus and the moments in history we choose to focus on. We can support and join clubs like BSU. Cynthia is proud of how far her club has come and the steps Siena has taken to improve, but she also knows that “the work is never done and we should always strive to do better as a community.” I couldn’t agree more.