After reading the recently posted Wesleying article, “On Black History Month” I stopped to take some time to reflect upon a wide array of issues, not only those that were addressed in the article, but also those that surrounded when, how, and why it was posted in this fashion. I must begin by saying that I hold respect for both authors of the article, and that I have worked with both of them throughout my time as a student leader at Wesleyan. With that said, I feel that the writers have taken a misguided approach to understanding both the larger concept of Black History Month, as well as the real issues that student leaders are facing at Wesleyan.
During my first two years of Wesleyan I served on the Board of Ujamaa, the very student group that the authors chose to target in their article. Since my time on the Ujamaa Board, I have since become a chair of the Invisible Men organization. I believe that although the writers sought to take the leaders of Ujamaa to task, they have in fact targeted the methodology of many student groups both within and outside of the student of color community. Their article suggests that student leaders of our time are no longer concerned with building community, supporting our collective membership, and fostering productive dialogue around issues that are important to our communities. This is simply untrue.
The assumption that as a student leader, the Collective, in accordance to the organization’s mission, isn’t the top priority is very presumptuous. Using Invisible Men as an example, every semester we begin with a social, community-building event called Get Fresh. These events are always by far the most attended by our collective members. Although this event is largely social, we do try to set goals for the semester and revisit the group’s mission when necessary. With such a strong collective start to the semester, we assume that the energy will continue into the first month. However, just a few weeks later when we hold our first few collective meetings to discuss the direction of the group or to talk about possible future events, no one shows up. Not only does no one show up, no one bothers to send an email offering up suggestions. As leaders, there is only so much outreach that can be done. Even when email, Facebook, and other social media sources fail, we turn to face-to-face interaction, and we see the same result.
Now this is not to say that the collective is completely inactive. There are often a handful of students who consistently support events and show up to meetings. To those people we are always grateful. What those in leadership positions try to do is maximize the time and effort of those that DO show up. There are many students within our community RIGHT NOW who are ready to be proactive, efficient, and effective. However, it appears as though the writers of the previous article would like for us to literally stop progressing until everyone is in the room. Realistically, we will never have everyone in the room; and for most groups, that isn’t the goal.
The authors make the claim that Black History Month is no longer reflective of the entire student of color community. The question that they seem to avoid is how exactly they expect for a month that doesn’t receive support from the entire community to be reflective of the entire community. When groups hold collective meetings with attendance rates of less than 10 people at any given meeting (more commonly closer to 2-4 collective members), how can the leaders hope to garner an understanding of what the “collective” would like to see in events? This issue extends further when we think about the lack of responsiveness of said collective members to outreach.
I believe that the authors are speaking to issues faced by most, if not all, affinity groups of our time. We are currently suffering from community wide problems regarding how people self-identify. We are also encountering a growing group of students with an aversion to leadership. We see this both in the reluctance from students across class years to take new leadership positions, but also in current leaders receiving much more pushback for their community-driven efforts. Now, while I fully support movements that attempt to be non-hierarchal and promote activity throughout a group, we must remember the system that we are working within. As student groups, we work within a system that requires at least moderate group structure (you can’t even register a student group without identifying two representatives), advanced planning, and outcome-oriented event structure.
I do not defend Ujamaa for not consulting the Collective on what the theme for the month should be or for what events should be sponsored. I do, though, think that we must identify all the stakeholders in this issue and hold everyone accountable. If the authors of this article felt so strongly about what they wanted Black History Month to encompass, why didn’t they approach the Board last semester? Why didn’t they email the board (or the Collective) with theme or event ideas, or simply put pressure on the Board to organize a Collective meeting? I think that we must all recognize our agency in these issues. Student groups are board-centric because we allow them to be board-centric; because quite simply, there are only a handful of people who actually want to put in the work to make an event, or an affinity month, come into fruition. However, when it’s time to critique and say what went wrong, everyone wants to join the party.
I also feel that the argument brought forth in the previous article makes its largest assumption in suggesting that if SOC groups were to suddenly stop holding events, that people would care! The idea that people who have never been personally invested in Black History Month, its legacy, or the events that are held during February would suddenly be in an uproar if things came to a halt, falls fairly flat to me.
In the grand scheme of things, Black History Month represents something larger than Wesleyan and the many communities within it. Using a lens that focuses only on student activism on our campus, or the lack thereof, we miss the bigger issues. Should we work to make sure groups that primarily consist of students of color are represented throughout the year? Yes. Should we work to build some sense of camaraderie within a student of color community that is becoming increasingly diverse (although not necessarily increasing in SIZE or becoming more EQUITABLE)? Yes. Should we question the tradition of jam-packing our affinity months with events without consideration from members of the communities we want to represent? Yes.
Should we stop the show because we don’t have 100% participation from all members within the loosely defined student of color community? Not at all. Despite whatever problems may exist within this university, we cannot possibly believe that stopping the show will be the ultimate solution. We have a complex problem that we must acknowledge. I believe that when we finally do, we will realize that we must also offer a complex set of solutions, and we must all be willing to hold ourselves accountable to see them through.
Alexander is a member of the class of 2014.