Lessons that should be learned from black history month
Opinions Column: Midweek Crisis
In Black History Month, we reflect on lessons of leadership from black revolutionaries. We celebrate the lives and legacies of Sojourner Truth, James Baldwin, Dorothy Height, Martin Luther King, Jr. and many more of the powerful black figures in American history. But it’s not often enough that we also critically engage with the themes and ideas discussed during black history month and examine the ways in which all of us (black people, white people and non-black people of color) are responsible for a future of racial justice and equality.
Rutgers University prides itself on having one of the most diverse student bodies in the nation. “At Rutgers,” according to its Web page on diversity statistics, “we know we all benefit when we live, learn, work and just spend time with lots of different people.” But when we break down that ambiguous lump of “lots of different people,” here’s what it is: a student population that is 43 percent white, 26 percent Asian-American, 12 percent Latino and just 8 percent African-American. The remaining 5 percent identify as “other.”
Perhaps the fact that less than 50 percent of the student body identifies as white is cause for Rutgers to celebrate this vague accomplishment of diversity, but in its attempts to use that diversity as a marketing tool the administration overlooks the unique challenges that various marginalized groups face and does little to lend its support to important social movements to support those groups. While the administration might be failing to facilitate meaningful change, we have our own responsibility as students to recognize the common struggles we can draw upon from our own communities for self-empowerment, support and unity. It’s just a matter of communication and organization.
The environment at Rutgers and around New Brunswick is particularly conducive to coalition building. There are countless student organizations ranging from religious, political, humanitarian, cultural and recreational clubs, and all of them should be (and often are) invested in each other’s work. From the Muslim Student Association and the Black Student Union (more than one-quarter of all Muslims in America are black), to Students for Justice in Palestine and United Students Against Sweatshops, all are limitless opportunities for us to learn from, be involved in and draw support from each other’s causes.
We should not allow the complexity of the black experience in America to be diminished through the implicit and explicit erasure of other identities. Do not overlook, for example, the fact that Malcolm X was a black Muslim man, or that Audre Lorde was a black gay woman. Acknowledging the intersections of sexuality, class, gender and race (among other identities) in black history and the history of civil rights in America is crucial to understanding how we can move forward today. If we understand how deeply these systems of oppression are interconnected, it becomes apparent that a perceived victory over one social inequality is incomplete without the others.
Surveillance and detention, racial prejudice and violence, misogyny and homophobia — these issues target specific communities in different ways, but the power structures that drive such injustice are the same and demand our collective action. There are important lessons that people of color and other historically marginalized groups must learn from in the context of black history month. By acknowledging how much we owe to the black and African-American community for its history (and its present legacy) of resistance and revolution, we should be able to understand that we face the challenge of achieving a total, collective liberation.
At the same time, it’s important not to cross the line and co-opt a movement. The goal is not to campaign or protest or demand action on a people’s behalf, but rather to work with them in whatever capacity is necessary to provide support. Solidarity isn’t about appropriating the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag (#MuslimLivesMatter, #BrownLivesMatter, #WhiteLivesMatter, #AllLivesMatter … don’t do it) — rather, it involves addressing inequalities that are deeply rooted in a history of violence and oppression.
This month offers a learning opportunity for everyone — possibly even more so, in fact, if you are not black and are not aware of the lived realities of black people even today. Take advantage of the focus on black history to become more educated from African-American writers, poets and revolutionaries. As Rutgers continues its “Revolutionary” 250th anniversary celebrations, keep in mind that the definition of the word is not just about a new way of thinking. Revolution is radical, transformative change and that is what we need to learn from Black History Month.
Sabah Abbasi is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in political science and public health with a minor in Arabic. Her column, “Midweek Crisis,” runs on alternate Wednesdays. She is a former opinions editor of The Daily Targum.
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