Celebrating Black History: Promoting Diversity and Tolerance through Open Dialogue

Photo courtesy of CU Public Affairs

Vicky Smith
Managing Editor
@pinkwritinglady

At 6 p.m., Feb. 1, in the CETES Conference Center, Cameron University hosted an annual kick-off ceremony marking the beginning of Black History Month, also known as African-American Heritage Month.
Department of Education Assistant Professor Dr. Marco Columbus served as guest speaker, and Mayor Fred Fitch signed a proclamation declaring February 2016 as African-American Heritage Month.
According to cameron.edu, Black History Month is a “federally recognized, nationwide celebration that provides the opportunity for all Americans to reflect on the significant roles that African-Americans have played in the shaping of U.S. history.”
Columbus said community members must synthesize their efforts to make a change in the Lawton-Fort Sill area.
“It’s my generation’s chance to give back to the community – [to] hold everybody responsible, from the people behind me to the people ahead of me,” he said. “There’s work that needs to be done to protect our children [and] to help them grow.”
Professor of history Dr. Sarah Janda said Cameron University has one of the most diverse campuses in the state of Oklahoma, making it an ideal place for discussions about diversity.
“One of Cameron’s core values is to promote diversity and tolerance,” Janda said, “so I think especially in our current atmosphere, it’s really important to look at different cultures.
“One of the great things about college life is to be exposed to new things, so for a lot of students who don’t know a lot about African American history I think it’s a great opportunity for them to see a snapshot of important contributions.”
Janda said history is not the only lens through which students can look at African American culture.
“There are wonderful things to study in African American poetry and artwork and all of these different kinds of cultural expression,” she said. “Maybe somebody really likes music, or they really like art. These are great ways to open up and get into discussions about tolerance and race.”
Janda said Black History Month is an opportune time for students to engage in necessary conversation.
“Racism and race relations have transformed in a remarkable way in the last 40 years, but that doesn’t mean they’re perfect,” she said. “After President Obama was elected, I think it’s easy for some people to say, ‘Well, clearly racism is not a problem anymore because we have a black president,’ which I don’t think is the case.”
Janda said although racism has become less obvious and more subtle in society, it is still prevalent.
“It’s still there,” she said, “and it still influences a lot of interpersonal relationships and a lot of attitudes. … You see this in different perceptions of law enforcement. You see this in different perceptions of a host of different aspects of American life.”
Janda said although conversations about race may be difficult to have, they are vital to a healthy community.
She believes looking at the past will help people to make better sense out of the current tensions that exist.
“These are sometimes uncomfortable and challenging conversations,” she said, “but I think it’s too easy to just ignore racial divisions.
“I hope that one of the things Black History Month can do is to create the possibility to discuss some of those ongoing tensions and different perspectives that does lead to greater acceptance – greater change overtime.”
Janda said while national figures in African American history are important, students should be aware of the sacrifices made by historical people in their own hometowns.
“[Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.] is a really important figure, but he’s not the whole movement,” she said. “You also have all of these nameless, faceless people in communities all across the country that risk their lives to promote integration.
“There was a group in Lawton that called themselves ‘The Group,’ primarily of Native Americans, blacks and whites, who went around and integrated most of the city.”
Janda said while laws and Supreme Court decisions have been instrumental in setting a foundation for civil rights, they cannot change the hearts of people.
“In terms of how you overcome something like racism, you can’t pass a law that says, ‘It’s illegal to be a racist,’ and people say, ‘Oh, okay. Well, I won’t do that anymore.’
“It’s really about personal relationships and mutual understanding, so that’s one of the things I like about looking at what happens locally: it gives people something real and tangible to connect to.”
For more information about African-American Heritage Month events in the community, visit http://swoknews.com/entertainment/several-events-slated-lawton-celebrate-black-history-month.

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