Living black history at Rochester

February 17, 2014
Akan Nelson speaking at a podiumAkan Nelson ’15 introducing former NAACP president Benjamin Jealous as the 2014 MLK Commemorative Speaker in Strong Auditorium on Friday, January 24.

Each February, the University of Rochester is proud to join millions of people around the world in celebrating Black History Month.

“With something like black history, it’s important to show the many different aspects of the black experience through time,” says Alexandra Poindexter ’15, who is president of the Black Students’ Union (BSU) and secretary of the Douglass Leadership House (DLH).

Using a variety of lectures, speakers, concerts, film screenings, and performances the range of Black History Month events and activities reflects the diversity of interests within our global community at Rochester.

statue of Frederick Douglass

The statue of Frederick Douglass in the Douglass Dining Center is one of the oldest statues on River Campus.

Learning from the past

“In order to move forward, we need to understand and learn from the past,” says Akan Nelson ’15, who is from Lagos, Nigeria, and is acting president of the Pan-African Students Association (PASA) on the River Campus. “Black History Month is a chance to come together to deliberately discuss and think about issues such as the Civil Rights Movement, trans-Atlantic slave trade, and media representations of Africa and African-Americans.”

Nelson introduced this year’s Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Address speaker: Benjamin Todd Jealous, the youngest president in the history of the NAACP. The annual address, sponsored by the Office of the President and the Office of Minority Student Affairs, was instituted in 2001 and promotes issues of diversity, inclusion, freedom, civil rights, and social justice.

“Having Ben Jealous on campus was inspiring,” says Amber-Danielle Baldie ’15, president of the Douglass Leadership House. Jealous is credited with revitalizing the NAACP and connecting with a younger audience. “He was the right speaker at the right time and holding the right conversation.”

Embracing black history in modern ways

In addition to conversations about history and politics, many students think it’s also important to go beyond traditional Black History Month events and engage students and the local Rochester community artistically and creatively.

The Black Students’ Union Annual Step Show, for example, brings together area high school step teams for a competition on campus. Before the show, members of BSU and representatives from the Office of Admissions and Financial Aid talk to the students about the importance of a college education and the college admission process. During intermission, Indulgence, the University’s multi-ethnic hip hop-based dance group, performs.

Another example is the second annual “My Black Is Beautiful” program, a weeklong series that features special talks, a networking reception, and even a Zumba class. Most of the events are free and open to the public.

“These kinds of programs help acknowledge the many positive things that our community has to offer,” says Shaquill McCullers ’14.

More than a month

“Having a month designated to honor black history is great,” says Makia Green ’14, “but it’s important to recognize and celebrate diversity all year long.”

Green is president of the Minority Student Advisory Board (MSAB), which promotes inclusiveness through awareness and education, and supports all of the underrepresented student organizations on campus.

Two years ago, Green spearheaded the effort to bring Ntozake Shange’s iconic play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf to the University. The proceeds from the play went to support Alternatives for Battered Women, an area not-for-profit agency that provides services for victims of domestic violence.

Ultimately, diversity initiatives on campus have a similar goal: to raise awareness, to educate, and to effectively connect and build community with others on and off campus.

“I recognize my relationship to my community—as a woman, as a black woman,” says Green. “I also recognize the people who came before me and made sacrifices so that I could do this. Participating in MSAB, Black History Month, For Colored Girls—these are my ways of giving back.”

Benjamin Jealous poses for a photo with Rochester students

Former NAACP President Benjamin Jealous meets students outside the Frederick Douglass Leadership House.

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