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ISSUE 118 VOL 1 PUBLISHED 9/17/2004

Seek, and you shall find

By Diana Frantz
Copy Editor


Friday, September 17, 2004

February may be designated Black History Month, but black history is woven into every day of every week of every month of every year. Without black history there would be no light bulb, there would be no refrigerator, no traffic light and no ironing board. What makes February special is that residents of the U.S. are invited to discover and celebrate the intellectual, cultural, social and spiritual contributions of the African-American community with the hope that newfound knowledge will make its way into daily life. A time of learning, Black History Month fits seamlessly into scholastic environments like St. Olaf.

"The concept of Black History Month itself is academic," Lauretta Dawolo `04, former President of Cultural Union for Black Expression (CUBE), said.

Black History Month was founded by Dr. Carter G. Wilson. While working on his doctorate at Harvard, Wilson was disturbed that the history of his people, the black American population, was virtually ignored in textbooks. Wilson encouraged Americans to reflect on black history, and the indispensable role it plays in U.S history. Dawolo characterized Black History Month as a time to ask, "Where is the black part?"

In 2004 during Black History Month an important event in American academic history is remembered. Fifty years ago Brown vs. The Board of Education established a legal precedent; the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the racial segregation of public schools denied black children equal educational opportunity. Count back fifty years to 1954. The civil rights movement was far from over when Linda Brown was given the legal nod to attend a white school. Even in 1964, 10 years after Brown vs. The Board of Education declared segregated schools "inherently unequal," only one percent of African-American students in the South attended desegregated schools.

Joan Hepburn, assistant English professor, claimed that reflection on Brown vs. The Board of Education begs a few questions. "Are legislative changes enough? Or is an attitude change necessary?" Hepburn asked.

These questions may be directed the nation and this campus. It is no secret that St. Olaf is making efforts to diversify. The Administration and Admissions offices are certainly making "legislative changes," but the fact remains that the St. Olaf student population is only about 10 percent minority.

"St. Olaf, on the surface, has progressed a lot, Dawolo said. She reported that St. Olaf began actively recruiting minority students following the civil rights movement. Do not assume that students of Norwegian descent are the only legacies. Dawolo's sparents, her mother an African American from Ohio and her father an African from Liberia, attended St. Olaf during the 1970s. Dawolo cited St. Olaf's decision to hire a Dean of Community Life and Diversity, a position filled by Eida Barrio, as positive step toward creating a more culturally diverse community.

The class of 2007 also represents progress. "This year St. Olaf admitted the most people of color in the last 10 years," said Dawolo. She attributes the change to a growing recognition that St. Olaf must change to reflect the changing face of the country.

Bill Green Sr., assistant dean and director of Multicultural Affairs and Community Outreach (MACO), said that knowledge of the changing face of the United States is necessary for students who want to find success in the career world. He spoke of cultural competence, a heightened awareness and appreciation of cultural, social and ethnic differences as a necessary part of a St. Olaf education.

"Teaching cultural competence is the crux of my office. The demographics of our country are shifting. Unless students have global education and cultural competence, it will be hard to get a job," Green said. Black History Month signals that February is a fair time to address issues of cultural competence and a global vision.

Green said that students sometimes become discouraged while organizing Black History Month events at St. Olaf when the student body at large seems uninterested. "The biggest challenge is to get students to get out of their comfort zones. To get students to talk about issues of race and culture is still a challenge. We're not able to draw the majority of students into the celebrations," Green said. He believes that students are unaware that Black History Month is for the whole community.

The students preparing for Black History Month are also conscious of the community's tendency to believe that the issues of Black History Month are "for someone else." They have gone so far as to omit the words 'Black History Month' from posters advertising celebrations or presentations so that students will not assume that the events are for African-Americans. Part of Black History Month is seeing that black history is part of American history. There is no American history black history.

After 18 years at St. Olaf, Green has seen the "ebb and flow" of student participation in diversity celebrations like Black History Month. He says that student leaders, like Senators and Student Body Presidents, have an enormous impact on the community's response to cultural celebrations.

"Student leaders engaged in multicultural affairs make a big difference. Simply by addressing it and making it a priority," Green said. He recalled two past Student Body Presidents, who roused the community's interest in diversity. Mark Pristash `00, a Caucasian student from Wisconsin, founded the Diversity Celebrations Committee. Russell Ballew `91, an African-American student who is also from Wisconsin, raised interest in cultural celebrations and education through his view of St. Olaf as a heterogeneous, but unified community.

Dawolo suggested that the faculty can also have a large impact on multicultural issues at St. Olaf. "I think that we would see a rapid change if St. Olaf hired more faculty members of color."

Associate English Professor Joseph Mbele is a native of Tanzania. He emphasized that Black History Month originated in the United States so although he is black, it is incorrect to assume that he observes Black History Month in the same way as black Americans. "I am not an American. I do not really have a clue about Black History Month. And that is the answer you will get from people from Africa. We don't have Black History Month in Africa. We don't have Black History Month in Tanzania," said Mbele.

Jeremy Hoover `06, a Caucasian student born and raised in Congo, Africa expressed views similar to those of Mbele concerning the relationship between Africa and the United States. "I have a connection with other students from Africa because I am from Africa, but about African-Americans, I am clueless," Hoover said. However, he voiced great appreciation for Black History Month as an opportunity for heightened awareness and learning. Mbele saluted African advancements. "They have Black History Month. That is a lot of progress given where they have come from."

Similar to Green, Mbele emphasized community and a global perspective. "When I teach my course Africa and the Americas, I ask my students to take a global perspective. When I talk about Black History Month, I want people to take a global view. There are black people all over the world. The father of Russian literature, Pushkin, was African -- Alexander Dumas, he is also an ancestor, Mbele said.

Black history is a part of St. Olaf life every single day. What would Russian literature be without Pushkin? What would the French literature, or the film industry for that matter, be like without Dumas? This month is one of the times we can deliberately celebrate and reflect on the fact that our lives are richer because of racial and cultural diversity.





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