What is culture? Who has culture? How do we celebrate culture without alienating others? These are the kind of questions the staff and students at the Cultural Resource Center and the Black Student Association are asking themselves as they prepare to host events for Black History Month.
AU has a history of recognizing the season in a variety of ways, whether by open-mic nights, student-led discussions or guest speakers. This year, it takes the form of a free film festival open to all students.
Every Thursday throughout the month of February BSA will host a film showcasing a famous African-American screen talent or story. Starting with “The Great Debaters” last Thursday, the festival will cover a wide variety of themes and topics, including the Tina Turner biopic “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” The leadership of BSA hopes the festival will be an opportunity for students to remember not only the true stories presented in some of the films, but also the ground-breaking work of African-Americans in the field of cinema.
The CRC is also sponsoring a special screening of the highly anticipated film “Race,” and will be giving away a limited number of tickets to interested students. The film, starring Stephan James and Jason Sudeikis, tells the story of Olympic runner Jesse Owens’ struggle for greatness at the infamous 1936 Olympics.
The purpose of these events, coupled with posters and banners around Decker Hall, is not only to educate AU students about the contributions of African Americans to history and progress, but also to encourage students from all backgrounds to value and celebrate their heritage.
Rev. Mike Thigpen, director of the cultural resource center and multicultural student services, asked leaders in each academic department to search for and recognize an African American figure who made an important contribution to their field. He is quick to point out, however, that Black History Month “is not just for black people, it’s for all people. Black history is American history. We’re all a part of this.”
Linda Robertson, manager of the CRC offices, international student services and multicultural student services, echoes this sentiment and feels that celebrating other cultures is an important step in recognizing and appreciating one’s own culture as well.
“I think it’s important for everybody else to learn about other people’s culture,” Robertson said. “I sometimes think that Caucasians have lost their sense of culture and so when we see other people excited about their culture it helps us remember we do have culture. ‘Caucasian’ is not a culture, it’s a generalization.”
Neither Robertson nor Thigpen want their enthusiasm about Black History Month to detract from other cultural events on campus. Thigpen wanted to remind students that “just because we have Black History Month does not mean celebrations of other cultures stop.”
On Feb. 8, the new Asian-American Student Association had its first event commemorating the Eastern tradition of the Lunar New Year, and in March, AU will host its annual Heritage Week to raise awareness about other global cultures.
Between the black, Asian-American, and Hispanic-American student associations, AU students are expanding their efforts to express their heritage and the university’s potential to be a leader in campus cultural competency—a term referring to behaviors, systems and attitudes that promote effective cross-cultural interactions. Thigpen hopes that, as students become more aware of their own culture and that of others, AU will become a center of cultural appreciation and cooperation. “Our job at the CRC is to expose, celebrate and educate,” he said.
The month—or, at least, the idea of it—can be a divisive one among some, but rather than creating an “us vs. them” attitude, Thigpen hopes that Black History Month can help students understand the achievements of African-Americans and even those of Caucasians and others who fought for racial equality.
“Often in our American journey we get very timid about Black History Month because we naturally go to slavery,” Thigpen said. “I ask students about it and they often say it’s a reminder about the worst part of American History, and I try to challenge that and remind them there are plenty of Caucasians who helped.”
Of course, past and present racial inequality may often be a topic of discussion during February, but Thigpen’s goal is primarily learning.
“I’m just excited about students being educated. Every time we can engage culture, and the things that make us uneasy—[that] can make for great moments,” he said. “Hopefully it won’t be something that just came and went but it will be a time of engagement and introspection.”