Learning from history: making our voices heard

By Tinbete Ermyas

Remembering can be difficult. And yeah, during Black History Month, Remembering is almost a necessity. At least that was the theme of the kick-off event to Black History Month that was sponsored by the American Studies Department last week.

The evening was a nice departure from the theory-laden courses most students are used to taking and allowed the attendants to speak about their personal experiences of dealing with the racism we face on a daily basis.

After the event was finished I found it hard to leave such a comfortable space, knowing I had to face the cold world that was waiting to capitalize on some of anger that had built up over the past 2 hours.

And I’ll tell you, some of that anger was downright warranted.

One man shared his story of participating in a 1950s segregated Army and seeing how black Americans were relegated to inferior positions as they were fighting for the supposed rights granted to them in the Constitution.

One professor spoke about her experience growing up in a racist Ohio school system. She reminisced' on the days when her teacher used her as an example to the other students on how people shouldn't act, noting that she was a prime example of a well, let's just say it rhymes with trigger. <br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br />Another professor recalled the time when he was in college and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had just been assassinated. One of his floormates proceeded to rejoice in the fact that that "negro" agitator was now gone. <br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br />And what saddened me most was that these experiences were not specific to the adults in the room. Many students shared their experiences of living in a post-Civil Rights era marked by subtle racism.<br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br />One student shared his experience about being harassed by cops because he was entering his house and they thought he was breaking in. Another student spoke about how she experiences racism on this very campus due to some rather inappropriate comments that rendered her experiences as an African-American female silent and unimportant. And of course, we all are familiar with thedriving while black’ stories. Those were alive and well at this discussion too.

Yeah, remembering can be pretty difficult.

But what struck me the most out of the night was not the fact that racism is still present in our society, I hope that is evident to even the most cynical of people. I think what got to me was the differences between the new school' andold school’ experiences that were shared that night.

Sure, we as minorities are no longer being hosed down by the police or even attend schools rooted in de jour segregation. But at the same time, I feel as if students today are told to keep their mouths shut when it comes to talking about racism, the thing that was supposedly cured by the Civil Rights Movement.

Is that not indicative of a society steeped in racism? It seems as if living in a post-race' United States translates into one thing: remembering can be difficult, so why do it? After all, it's all over, right?<br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br />Wrong. And I think that the experiences shared by students that night speak directly to that fact. <br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br />But the other thing to disturb me that night was the topic of leadership. I commented on the fact that our generation, the supposedpost-Civil Rights’ generation, has no one figure to look up to like our parents and grandparents might have had in the 50s and 60s. It was almost a yearning of sorts, a cry for someone to come along and liberate my people.

It was then, however, that history professor Peter Rachleff commented on his experience as a student growing up in Connecticut. He said that black students in his high school wanted to be called black instead of negro and that a particular teacher wouldn’t listen to their requests, silencing their concerns with each utterance of the word negro.

Rachleff went on to say that these students protested this teacher’s ignorance by not responding to the term negro. Eventually the teacher changed his ways and started calling them black, just the way they wanted.

This gave me hope.

I began to think about how we don’t necessarily need a figure towering over the nation telling us what is right or wrong. As is evidenced by Rachleff’s anecdote, the average student not unlike ourselves has the capacity to create change.

The world in which we live is one where students of color are challenging systems of oppression each day. Creating a revolution each time they raise their hands, question the status quo, and share their stories, making sure their voices are heard.

It is these students to whom I am grateful. They are stepping up to the new challenges that the post-Civil Rights world presents us.

And though it may be difficult, it is something we surely will remember.