Jamison Guice, Campus Carrier features editor
Kelsee Brady, Campus Carrier asst. features editor
In fall 2018, only six percent of Berry’s undergraduate student body identified as black or African American, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In comparison, 79 percent of the student body identified as white. On a campus where there is little diversity, junior office coordinator of Student Diversity Initiatives Melody Creamer said that celebrating Black History Month allows for the students to acknowledge and celebrate the work of African Americans.
“One of the ways that I think it is important to celebrate Black History Month is that a lot of the times you get asked, ‘Well why should we support African American artists or African American musicians,’” Creamer said. “And not seeing the fact that the systemic bias is still here. We are in a place of higher education where the majority of people are white.”
Creamer said that black history, like women’s history, is not a topic that often fills young students’ classrooms. She said that these subjects are often overlooked because they are not the “mainstream” history. Instead, students learn these subjects when they are chosen as an elective. As a result, she said, unless black history is celebrated, it could be lost.
One way the Student Diversity Initiatives office celebrated Black History Month was by partnering with other departments on campus and hosting the National African American Read-In. This event took place on Wednesday and allowed faculty, staff and students to read African-American literature like poetry, short stories or excerpts from books.
Creamer said that the read-in allowed the campus to look at African American authors and the diversity and depth of each work that was presented. She said the event reaches beyond the surface level of popular African American texts and instead looks at more unknown works.
Some readers who presented at the read-in included faculty members such as Jim Watkins, associate professor of English, and Associate Professor of Biochemistry Quentin Johnson.
In particular, Watkins read Jesmyn Ward’s memoir “Men We Reaped.” The autobiography focuses on the death of five men in her Mississippian town due to community violence. Watkins said that he chose to read these excerpts because he enjoyed Ward’s writing and wanted to share it with others.
“My life has been changed throughout the years by the many great African American writers that I’ve read,” Watkins said. “They were the ones that helped me start to see from my world of white privilege, through the words that they chose and how their experiences were different from mine because of their race.”
Creamer said that the read-in aims to promote diversity within the area specifically for African Americans. Unable to change history, she said that this one day allows the campus to highlight African Americans. She also said that even after Black History Month is over, students are encouraged to connect with the Student Diversity office and continue supporting other students of color.
Senior Genesis Leggett, president of the Black Student Association (BSA), said that Black History Month is a time that people can pay more attention to black leaders and past events that have shaped the black community. She said appreciating and respecting black history is a year-long event, not just a month. However, February is a special time that allows for non-black supporters to actively participate in spreading love, positivity and awareness.
Leggett said that while it is hard to say what impact Black History Month has on the campus, the national observance creates a more encouraging and comfortable environment for non-white students.
“Having Black History Month events and things going on campus makes me feel more comfortable, especially because my freshman year was the election year,” Leggett said. “So, coming from that and not really knowing who’s for me and who’s not, and having events and stuff like this, it kind of brings those people who are on your side and who are there for you out of the woodwork.”
While Leggett advocates for more year-round events that offer representation, she said the read-in and the Larry Lester event offer an important chance for campus members to experience the black perspective.
“A lot of times, and even black artists will say you don’t see black people in the work,” Leggett said. “You don’t see it from their own perspective. You get the black perspective from somebody who isn’t black a lot of times and that can be dangerous because that gives someone else who has no idea a different perspective that is not always true. That’s where we get stereotypes and things like that. Having black voices tell black stories is always really important.”
U.N.I.T.Y., short for Unique Nubian Intelligent Thriving Young Women, is in its inaugural year as a club, and sophomore Shanice Amos, one of the co-presidents, has played a large role. Amos first saw a need for the club through her involvement with BSA.
According to Amos, U.N.I.T.Y. has celebrated Black History Month in many ways. The club had a sister social earlier in February, and they helped out with the African American Read-In.
Amos said that she began celebrating black history at a young age with monthly assemblies during her elementary years that celebrated lesser-known African Americans and their contributions.
“My demographic I grew up around was predominantly black African American so Black History Month was a big deal,” Amos said.
Celebrating Black History Month is important to Amos because it raises awareness about the role that African Americans have played in history.
“Black History Month gives us a month to talk about things and people that a lot of people just don’t know or don’t recognize,” Amos said.