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“History, Heritage and Hope”: A Black History Month oasis in Champaign County

“You can tell a great deal about a country and a people by what they deem important enough to remember, to create moments for — what they put in their museums and what they celebrate.”

— Lonnie Bunch, Founding Director National Museum of African American History and Culture

I was invited to serve on my daughter’s Black History Week planning committee at her school. Among other tasks, I volunteered to work with another parent to put together a calendar of events happening across the community that families could attend throughout Black History Month 2019.

First, some background. What we now know as “Black History Month” began as “Negro History Week” which was  founded by Dr. Carter G. Woodson, son of enslaved parents, and the second African American to earn a PhD (History) from Harvard University. In an effort to expand on the limited amount of information available on Black Americans, Dr. Woodson founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, now called the Association for the Study of African American Life and History.

Anxious to spread African American history to school children, Dr. Woodson launched Negro History week in 1926. He chose the second week of February to observe Negro History Week as it coincided with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. By 1976, “Negro History Week” expanded to become “Black History Month” and the month continues to be supported by individuals and communities of all races and backgrounds interested in the Black experience.

As our planning meeting ended, I mentioned casually to our planning committee convener that “Oh, pulling this calendar together should take no time at all as I know there are all kinds of activities being offered locally.” I assumed that because Champaign County sponsored such robust Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. commemorative programming from mid-to-late January 2019, that the county’s Black History Month calendar would be just as busy. She responded skeptically “OK, I wish you luck. I’ve done a quick search myself and I just haven’t found many activities.”

Unfortunately, as I researched Black History Month 2019 across Champaign County organizations, I initially found the same.

I searched the calendars of the both cities and both libraries, and found just two programs hosted by the Champaign Public Library: Black History Month Bingo, and “Battle of the Books” For the latter you have to be in 3rd-5th grade to participate.

On February 1st, I received a flyer with UIUC Black History Month events, primarily being hosted by individual Black Student Unions and taking place in UIUC Residence Halls.

I continued to cobble together a schedule based on a few additional reminders I’d seen of other events on Facebook. ChambanaMoms also had a brief listing.

Fortunately, I remembered that a new friend, who moved here last July, sent me a text about Parkland events that she wanted us to attend during the month. I went to Parkland’s calendar and was delighted to find an array of programming on offer under the banner “Parkland College Celebrates Black History Month: History, Hope and Heritage:  Looking Forward.

Interestingly, the calendar focuses not only on the past, but includes very timely discussions of contemporary issues such as the Obamas’ legacy via portraiture and biography, the film Black Panther & Afrofuturism, President Trump’s record in the African American community, along with food, fashion and spoken work offerings, and more.

So, I reached out to several of the presenting faculty and staff coordinating the events to find out what explains Parkland’s vibrant calendar of offerings. I also asked about the relevance of some of the upcoming presentations to Champaign County residents in particular.

Nick Sanders, from the Black History Month Planning Committee stated that “For programming, the Black History Month committee gathers opinions from all stakeholders across campus which would include faculty, staff and students. I think we have compiled some great programming that does a great job of educating everyone and having some fun…Two of our presenters this year will be Dr. Maritza Quinones from the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, who will be speaking about the portrayal of Afro Puerto Rican Women in popular culture and Nate Stephens from UIUC, who will speak about stress and trauma in higher education and how that impacts students of color. Typically, we have not had presenters from other campuses, but we are happy to have them!”

Evelyn Reynolds, Associate Professor of Sociology at Parkland commented that “Parkland’s Black History Month planning committee has been in place ever since I began working at Parkland almost 9 years ago….We are always thinking about ways to draw student interest and frankly they are tired of the same old same old when it comes to Black History Month.  Our history is more than slavery and Civil Rights. It’s time to live Black history and embody the characteristics of those that came before us.”

In regard to her presentation, “Black Muslims In The US,” Reynolds stated that “Black or African American Muslims make up a sizeable portion of the Muslim population in the U.S.  Yet, Black American Muslims also face unique circumstances in the U.S. compared to other Muslim groups such as South Asian or African immigrant Muslims. I have never seen a presentation on this topic outside of a Muslim convention, so it’s time for such a presentation.”

Marietta Turner Ed.D, Dean of Students, will be presenting on “Leaning In and The Black Experience” where she will examine the arguments of both Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In:  Women, Work and The Will To Lead ” and Michelle Obama’s “Becoming”. Turner observes, based on her career and experiences in corporate America, that the “Leaning In” movement has merit in creating more community and collaboration among women. However it still (as did the earlier women’s movement) lacks cultural humility by not understanding the societal challenges for Blacks trying to prioritize their careers and lives. Once again the Black experience was left out of the book, the discussion, and the movement.

Turner continues “…We can’t talk about women’s advancement without including all women’s experiences, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, socio economic status, or gender orientation. Thus, I just thought we should talk about these issues in the Parkland community.”

Lisa Costello, Director of Giertz Gallery and Laura O’Donnell, Art History Instructor at Parkland will be co-presenting “The Art of Kehinde Wiley: Painter of the President Obama’s Official Portrait.”

According to Costello, “For people who follow contemporary art, we knew of Kehinde Wiley already. He had become well-known for painting anonymous young African American men in their own clothes and strategically re-creating famous art historical paintings. By doing this he re-appropriated the meaning of the original work to talk about complex contemporary issues of power and who has the ability to be depicted in an artwork. In our talk we will be exploring the life of the artist as well as his body of work that led him to paint the Presidential Portrait.”

O’Donnell discussed the importance of Wiley’s portrait for the artists they train at Parkland: 
“For the most part, previous presidential portraits follow a traditional, realistic formula and are not particularly memorable. The Obamas broke the mold. Their portraits clearly reflect the individual styles of the artists who painted them as well as presenting images of the President and First Lady.

It is important for students at Parkland and members of our community to see that art has a power to reflect our cultural identity. Kehinde Wiley’s artworks call attention to issues of authority and historical representation by remaking works from the art historical cannon to include black and brown people, he expands this dialogue.”

You can find specific information about the presentations above and the full listing of programs on Parkland College’s 2019 Black History Month Calendar. The events are free and open to the public. 

In his reflection on the continued importance of Black History Month, Lonnie Bunch stated:

“…While America traditionally revels in either Civil War battles or founding fathers. Yet I would suggest that we learn even more about a country by what it chooses to forget — its mistakes, its disappointments, and its embarrassments. In some ways, African American History month is a clarion call to remember. Yet it is a call that is often unheeded….”

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