A place in history
Chico State kicks off celebration of Black History Month
Until he moved to the United States, Samuel Akinwande had never heard of Black History Month. “Every day is black history day to us back home,” said Akinwande, who grew up in Lagos, Nigeria, as a member of the Yoruba tribe. “So, when I first moved out here, I found it very weird that it’s like a month that’s dedicated to celebrating my people.”
Akinwande, who’s majoring in social work at Chico State, said he initially wasn’t sure what to make of the decades-old American tradition. “At first I was like, ‘Maybe there’s Mexican History Month or Asian History Month.’ Then in my history class, my history teacher was like, ‘No …’ and then she broke it down for me. And I was like, ‘OK, now I know why they celebrate.’”
Observed annually in February, Black History Month (aka African-American History Month) pays tribute to the achievements of black people in the United States and around the globe. It originally began as a week-long celebration in 1926. A group of students at Kent University in Ohio extended the celebration for an entire month in 1960. Then, as part of the nation’s bicentennial in 1976, President Gerald Ford recognized the students’ efforts and embraced the idea of a national celebration.
Chico State kicked off its series of events on Wednesday (Feb. 1) at Selvester’s Café by the Creek. The theme of this year’s festivities is The Black Arts Movement, a nod to the artistic expression inspired by the Black Power Movement of the 1960s and ’70s. It also refers to a bygone black arts festival in Chico, says Charles “CC” Carter, the university’s director of Student Life and Leadership and Cross-Cultural Leadership Center.
In addition to an art show in Kendall Hall, the month’s festivities include a poetry slam, student-led empowerment workshops, a gospel choir concert, conversations on diversity and inclusion, and a dance party dubbed the “Black Ball” at the Chico Women’s Club on Feb. 25. The CCLC will also screen movies such as DOPE, Poetic Justice, Baby Boy and Hustle and Flow, followed by discussions about the cultural and historical significance of the films.
In years past, the success of individual events has varied, said Tray Robinson, director of Chico State’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion.
For instance, people turned out for Chico State’s reenactments of rent parties of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and ’30s, where people threw parties that raised money to pay their rent. Those were a hit, Robinson recalls, because they offered guests soul food, music and dancing. Other events, however, were not as successful.
“One time I facilitated an event on HIV in the black community,” he said. “Nobody showed up. That’s not a topic that people are ready to talk about, unfortunately.”
The topics for this year’s student-led workshops are yet to be determined. Egypt Howard, assistant program coordinator in the CCLC, says one idea that’s floating around is honoring unsung heroes. Some well-known black heroes, including civil rights leader Angela Davis, former President Barack Obama, and his wife, Michelle, may be discussed, she said. Several lesser-known heroes could also be highlighted, including muckraking journalist Ida B. Wells; the female mathematicians at NASA who inspired the recent Hollywood hit Hidden Figures; or one of Akinwande’s heroes, Mansa Musa, a 14th century African emperor who “literally fed countries,” he said.
“The dude, he was the definition of a humanitarian,” Akinwande added.
Whatever people do to celebrate during the month, Akinwande suggests they should do it with “a pure heart,” rather than using it as an excuse to “go turn up”—i.e., party—like some students do on César Chávez Day.
The celebrations may be different each year, but the same question always comes up, Robinson said.
“The argument often is: Why do we have a month? Why isn’t it celebrated throughout the year?” he said. “I would support that argument. But I think that as a society, as a nation, we’re still at a place where I don’t think that we are honoring and celebrating the contributions of all of our citizens.”
He said he hopes a day will come when the histories of all people are recognized on a daily basis. But, he added, it will always be important to dedicate time to reflect on the contributions of blacks in American society.
Given that this year’s celebration is the first under President Donald Trump, Howard says she doesn’t want any of the events to be derailed by his rhetoric. Instead, she wants the focus to be on black empowerment. “We have to learn to continue to fight and move forward … whoever is in office,” she said. “If they’re not serving our communities—which they haven’t been, ever—we need to learn to fight. So, it’s another year [of Black History Month], but it also does open up more opportunities for us to be more visible in our fight for justice.”
Akinwande said he isn’t much of an art fan, save for the music of Louis Armstrong. But he’s looking forward to attending the Black Ball with his girlfriend and learning more about black history.
“Our history, our heritage, is everything we have,” he said. “For me, I feel it’s important to know your ancestors. It’s important to know what your people have done—your place in history.”