The Wayne State University community is celebrating Black History Month virtually this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic – giving many an opportunity to create and attend more events in celebration of Black history.
Black History Month is very important because there is still a lot of ignorance and misunderstanding about Black people in the United States and worldwide, said Ollie Johnson, Department of African American Studies chair and professor.
“It is a time for us to concentrate our efforts to explore, study and celebrate the Black experience,” Johnson said. “Unfortunately, now more than ever, we need this type of effort.”
The May 25, 2020 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the plan to kidnap and execute Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol all have one thing in common –– white supremacy, Johnson said.
Historian Carter G. Woodson created Negro History Week in February 1926 ––just under 100 years ago–– in the midst of Jim Crow segregation, widespread racism and active violence against Black people, Johnson said. Even though much progress has been made, there are still some challenges to work through, to put it mildly.
The Department of African American Studies, student organizations and the Office of Multicultural Student Engagement have organized many virtual events for the WSU community to participate in this month.
“We've been all hands on deck all year,” said Jeremiah Wheeler, president of WSU Black Student Union. “We've had an event almost every week since the start of this school year celebrating Blackness, so we're not just now getting busy, but we are getting a new level of energy in Black History Month.”
Wheeler said WSU’s efforts to support Black students have mostly been organized by students.
“It's kind of hard to see if we don't keep our finger on what is changing and what is really just staying the same,” Wheeler said. “Something that was pushed from the Student Senate last year was getting Juneteenth recognized as an official holiday. That was a great effort that (BSU) supported. That was student-led.”
WSU announced the creation of the Social Justice Action Committee on June 30, 2020, following the death of George Floyd, aiming to examine policies, practices and procedures at WSU to identify bias that may affect “historically marginalized peoples.” Changes recommended by the SJAC could occur immediately or over time. Findings of the SJAC and what changes need to be implemented have yet to be released.
Wheeler said the creation of the SJAC marked a positive step, but change remains necessary.
“Black students at Wayne State have stayed active despite the pandemic – that's also celebratory,” Wheeler said. “We are still organizing with each other, still finding a way to connect with each other, still showing up to events, we're still having open mics, we're still having conversations, we're still putting on programs, we're still collaborating… we are not just learning Black history but we are actively making Black history.”
Other WSU student organizations, like Black 3utterfly Association, are collaborating to support one another and reach a wider audience, said B3A co-founder Euphemia Wardlaw. B3A and the Black Student Union University of Michigan-Flint chapter are hosting a virtual event via Zoom on Black and African American identity on Feb. 23 at 6 p.m.
Allocating resources is one of the main things B3A wants to aid student organizations with, Wardlaw said. A lot of organizations have the purpose to help students or give them a community but just need some guidance on how to do that.
“I feel like we can reach more people when we work with other schools, which is amazing,” Wardlaw said. “It is a real-life setting, other than just like school, that shows people how to organize and how to connect.”
WSU BSU also has a virtual event on Feb. 13 about “Black Convergence.” The event is a collaboration with Black student organizations across Michigan to come together, have fun and connect, according to BSU. BSU has virtual programming arranged for the rest of this month.
“We're Black all the year, every day of the year, obviously, but there's no apology needed for taking time out to celebrate ourselves,” Wheeler said.
Non-Black people can get involved and become members of community and student organizations, Johnson said. Allies should also study on their own and do research on Black history and culture.
“Black History Month isn't only for Black folks, it really is for everybody, so I would encourage Wayne State faculty, students, and staff to attend events,” Johnson said. “We're still in the coronavirus pandemic so almost everything is virtual and online so I would encourage folks to attend events to support.”
Nour Rahal is news editor at The South End. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Cover art provided by Euphemia Wardlaw.