ASU faculty on the history of celebrating Black History Month
The Black Lives Matter movement started way before 2020, but last year forced many to see the reality of racism in all its shapes.
From Black people disproportionately suffering in the pandemic to the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and Dion Johnson — a few among thousands that are part of a legacy of centuries-long state-sanctioned violence against Black and other non-white bodies — Americans' eyes have been opened like never before.
The protests around the world brought the commitment of many people fighting and educating themselves about Black history, culture and heritage, through social media, books, podcasts and TV programs.
Every year, as part of that same commitment, Arizona State University celebrates Black History Month, a celebration of achievements by African Americans to recognize the central role that Black people played and continue to play in U.S. history.
ASU News spoke with three ASU faculty members — Pardis Mahdavi, dean of social sciences in The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and professor in the School of Social Transformation, Lisa M. Anderson, associate professor of women and gender studies and deputy director in the School of Social Transformation, and Mako Ward, assistant professor and faculty head of African and African American studies — about the origins of Black History Month, how people can participate in this year’s celebrations and what resources are available to fight racism.
Question: Why is Black History Month even more important this year?
Ward: What started as Negro History Week, Carter G. Woodson’s homage to the intellectual study of Black life and history, has transformed into Black History Month. Woodson’s vision was greater than the celebration of African American traditions; he championed for the full integration of Black history in public education across all levels. We see this liberatory vision in the movement for Black lives and the demands for economic equity, investments in education and health and reparations for past and continuing harm.
Anderson: I don’t know if Black History Month is more important this year than any other year, but I think there is certainly more attention and interest this year. It is always nice to take time to reflect on the challenges, obstacles and accomplishments of Americans of African descent. There are so many things available right now that reveal little-known aspects of the history of Black people in the U.S., everything from The 1619 Project to television shows like "Lovecraft Country" and "Watchmen."
Q: What can we expect from Black History Month 2021 at ASU?
Anderson: There will be quite a few events for Black History Month at ASU this year. In the School of Social Transformation, we are planning several events, with the key event a talk with Dr. Lewis R. Gordon on his new book, "Freedom, Justice, and Decolonization." The (school's) monthly book club is reading N. K. Jemisin’s latest novel, "The City We Became."
Mahdavi: Innovative, intersectional and thoughtful approaches to celebrating this most important month.
Ward: We have a dynamic series of events featuring students and scholar-activists and we’ve partnered with a wide range of colleges, schools and centers, in the spirit of what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called “the beloved community.”
Q: How can people be more involved in celebrating Black History Month?
Mahdavi: Educate yourself! Attend our events, learn from suggested readings and engage in the JEDI (Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion) work that is needed to not just be an anti-racist, but to celebrate Black history.
Anderson: There are lots of ways to be involved in Black History Month. First, participate in the amazing events in the School of Social Transformation and across campus. Second, take the opportunity to find out more about African and African diaspora history, culture and knowledge production.
Consider immersing yourself in fiction, poetry, film and television developed by Black people. Third, share the new things that you discover with others. Consider taking a class in African and African American studies — perhaps in B session – to learn even more. Remember too that Blackness is not monolithic, and there are many different Black perspectives and histories and stories.
Q: What resources would you recommend to understand racism in the United States and elsewhere?
Anderson: Understanding racism is a deep endeavor. There are so many places to start, but I often recommend things that are accessible to many people. One of my favorite books is Isabel Wilkerson’s "The Warmth of Other Suns," which documents the Great Migration and is a wonderful look into the lives of Black people who left the South in the early to middle of the 20th century. I love films by Black creatives – documentaries and feature films – that reveal the lives of Black people. Julie Dash’s film "Daughters of the Dust," John L. Jackson’s documentary "Making Sweet Tea" – these are a couple of my favorites. There are lots of books out currently about what kinds of things you can do to live as an anti-racist person. And of course, you can read the academic and public writings of ASU’s Black faculty.
Ward: The Office of Inclusion and Community Engagement compiled a wonderful resource list on understanding race and racism.
Q: What are other actions can we take to fight racism?
Mahdavi: Gain a deeper understanding of structural violence and structural racism. Look inside to be reflexive about our positionality, and figure out how to be a part of the structural changes that need to happen in our world. Be a part of the change. JEDI work is everyone’s work.
Anderson: Aside from educating ourselves, we must speak up when we see or hear racist speech and actions. It is important for non-Black people to speak up in their communities and not leave it to Black people to always bear the responsibility for speaking up.
Ward: Get involved in student organizations, like the members of the student coalitions. This allows you to build community with others who share a vision for social justice. Take courses in the School of Social Transformation to deepen your understanding of the issues, politics and history of injustice and social inequalities.