Rutgers professors discuss Black History Month, pursuing passions

Associate Professor in the Department of History Dr. Donna Murch has taught 20th century Black history since 2004.
Photo by Rutgers.eduAssociate Professor in the Department of History Dr. Donna Murch has taught 20th century Black history since 2004.

For Associate Professor in the Department of History Dr. Donna Murch, Black History Month is twelve months a year.

“Black History Month has historically been important for providing a way to remind us of the importance of Black history,” she said. “I recognize the need for it in the past and I think it’s important to preserve the tradition but I’m thinking about Black history all the time.”

Murch has taught 20th century Black history at Rutgers since 2004. Black history, she said, is a long span of time and is not limited to the United States. 

“Especially in this historical moment where we have such virulent racism that we remind ourselves that the United States is not a white country,” she said. “Black history and other histories of oppressed people are extremely important and we need it to think about what’s happening in the United States right now and what our way forward is.”

Dr. Derrick Darby, Henry Rutgers Professor in the Department of Philosophy, said Black History Month is an opportunity to celebrate the contributions Black people have made to America in areas ranging from literature to athletics to medicine and law.

It is also a chance, he said, to ask ourselves why we have a Black History Month.

“When you ask that question, you can’t help but think about the history of this country and the history of Black people in America. Once you think of that history you have to think of 1619 when the first slave ships came to North America or the U.S. You have to think about the legacy of racial segregation that was instituted after that,” he said.

Like Murch, Darby said understanding and commemorating Black history should be part of our daily lives.

“I think the really important thing to do is, rather than to find a thing to commemorate and call it a week, a day or month, we should have ongoing education about all of the aspects of our history: the good, the bad and the ugly,” he said.

Students, faculty and student organizations, Murch said, should work together to celebrate Black history year-round and stand in solidarity with vulnerable groups.

“I think that right now, across the board we need to think about how to be in solidarity with people whether it is on issues of racism or immigration status or gender identity,” Murch said. “It’s important to figure out ways to build coalition, and one of the ways we do that is by learning about each other’s history and recognizing that we are both different but thinking about the places of intersection.”

The Rutgers Department of History is ranked number one in the country for Black history, she said. Majoring in history or taking classes in history is a way to think about Black history throughout the year.

Though, Murch said she understands University students who feel they have narrow choices in the things they study due to student debt.

“Even though there are enormous financial pressures, you can find ways to put together a course of study that will help you in your future and that will also give you time to learn about the things that matter for civic engagement, that matter for finding your own passion,” she said.

As college students, both Murch and Darby did not think they would become college professors.

While she had always been interested in history, Murch first got the idea to pursue the arts after getting involved in a community center as a teenager. 

“The way that I grew up, I didn’t know any professors. It never occurred to me that I would become a college professor,” she said. “My father was an engineer and a lot of the ideas in our family were about doing something that we thought was really practical and that would be engineer, nurse, maybe a teacher.”

After deciding to pursue a creative field, Murch said that an undergraduate fellowship for minority students helped pave the way for her to become a professor.

Today, Murch has written a book on the Black Panther Party and is working on a new book on the crack crisis and war on drugs in Los Angeles, she said. Her work has been featured in documentaries like Stanley Nelson’s “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution.”

As a young man, Darby grew up in Queensbridge, New York, and credits much of his interest in political philosophy, hip hop and philosophy and social justice to his experiences in the Projects, he said.

“I lived with young people who were rapping about what life was like growing up in the ghetto and the problems and challenges that we faced and how to think about ways of making the world better so that we might improve our circumstances,” he said.

In college, Darby said he aspired to be a Supreme Court justice, and his hero was Thurgood Marshall. But at Colgate University, a professor inspired him to pursue philosophy.

“All of us, when we’re students come across those professors that really have a big impact on us,” he said. “I had a professor who I absolutely adored, his name was Jerome Balmuth. He saw the potential in me to do philosophy at a high level and he basically encouraged me to go to graduate school.”

Years later, Darby said he has chosen a path he loves and would not rather be doing anything other than teach young people philosophy and contribute to democracy through his work. His goal, he said, is to empower students to take on leadership roles and embrace social justice.

“Don’t defer to the older people,” he said. “This is your time to shine now, you and your classmates. You’ve got to embrace it and go forward, and there’s going to be lots of people there to support you guys when you go for it,” he said.

Darby is set to lead the new Rutgers Social Justice Solutions Research Collaboratory. In 2021, he will also teach a signature course on social justice through the School of Arts and Sciences.

“I’m really excited to have a chance to get this thing off the ground and make it a real force for positive change at Rutgers that will empower faculty and students who want to do this important work,” he said. 

On-campus social justice movements like UndocuRutgers are also supported by the faculty and graduate student unions, Murch said, through programs like Rutgers One.