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Black History Month kicks off with seminar

by Yelena Dzhanova

The opening event featured videos about cultural appropriation and the challenges faced by black students. Photo by Connor Henchey

The opening event featured videos about cultural appropriation and the challenges faced by black students. Photo by Connor Henchey

Marissa Mathieu, Finance Committee member of the National Association of Black Accountants, hosted the “Opening Ceremony: Black Studies Seminar” to kick off Black History Month on Feb. 7.

The Multipurpose Room, set up in a semicircle lined with chairs, served as a platform for marginalized students to speak up specifically about their experiences as black or Latino people.

The event doubled as a seminar, in which students were able to participate and respond to questions posed by Mathieu and a slew of other hosts.

Representatives from many clubs that center around black empowerment were present and took turns leading and moderating the discussion. Prominent speakers included members of NABA, the NABA chapter within Baruch College, and the president and vice president of Black Student Union.

Mathieu’s introduction consisted of a prelude in which she alluded to topics of natural hair, police brutality and post-Obama legislation. The opening question asked the audience to describe what it means to them to be black. A plethora of similar answers rung out. Participating students yelled out statements such as “to be magical,” “to be unique” and “to have the biggest hair in the room.”

A video about cultural appropriation appeared on the projector screens after the chorale of voices ceased. The video featured a young Barack Obama emphasizing that, “what is truly American is black culture to a large degree.” The nation’s former president took time in the video to explain how black culture became prevalent in the United States and how civil disobedience was a powerful tool that laid out current legislation protecting against discrimination.

A second video played select clips from School Daze, the politically charged musical about students attending a historically black college. The clips shown outlined the prejudices and challenges that may accompany students of color.

When the projector screens were not in use, quotes from inspirational and influential black people were strewn across. Among those whose names graced the screen were Jay Z, Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey.

The event maintained an uplifted and proud tone after the videos stopped playing and the hosts regained attention from the audience. A conversation had begun about the successes of black people, which sparked a multitude of anecdotes and engagement among the crowd. Nigel Barker, a senior and finance major who attends Queens College, gave a brief pitch to the crowd about why black people are inspirational to him.

“I was telling my sisters the other day that when you let black people into certain things, there’s a lot of domination. I told her, ‘Look at tennis.’ I said, ‘Look at golf.’ I said that we didn’t even create basketball and we took over the sport.”

His words elicited cheer and applause from supporters in the crowd. He continued to say that black people have been highly influential in music just as well as they have been in the field of athletics. However, Mathieu disagreed with the statement. She indicated that gospel, jazz and rhythm and blues are musical genres that developed from already existing music that was usually listened and performed by white people.

The conversation then shifted toward appearance. Mathieu started out the discussion by referencing the nonfiction book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander.

“With appearance comes targeting. In the book The New Jim Crow, [Alexander] speaks on when the guys sag their pants, they’re automatically targeted by the police. Even though we don’t really do that right now, at a point that was part of black culture and because we dress like that, we’re automatically targeted,” said Mathieu.

Mathieu then set out to determine how many people in the audience felt protected by the police. Her question prompted similar responses among the seated members, who either articulated their thoughts or nodded in support and solidarity. President of BSU Tinea Smith spoke out against feeling protected in her own neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant.

“A couple of years ago, my mother would say that it made no sense to call the police because they would never come. Now, when there’s a lot of gentrification in my neighborhood, they want to protect us there. You don’t have to call them now; they’re just always there.”

Smith elaborated on the topic of knowing that the police are in her neighborhood. “I don’t think they’re standing on the corner because they’re trying to protect someone. I think they’re standing on the corner because they’re trying to scope out the corner and protect the gentrifiers.”

In response to a hypothetical query regarding whether white cops should stay in white neighborhoods and whether black cops should stay in black neighborhoods, an audience member explained his dismay at both possibilities.

“It doesn’t matter whether they’re white or black. It’s the culture of the police department to belittle the black community. To me, it doesn’t matter what color the police officers are. It’s just their culture.” Other audience members expressed the same sentiment.

Professor Arthur Lewin of the Black and Latino Studies Department gave a brief historical anecdote about racial demographics within Baruch College. He said, “I remember years ago—you wouldn’t believe this—but the percentage of Baruch students was 40 percent black and Latino. We were all over campus. We didn’t have to call a special event to get together, because they were just bumping each other in the hallways.”

He said that the nation has changed a lot during his time spent in New York. Two decades ago, he said, every single major city in the United States had a mayor who was black but that is no longer the case.

After having briefed the audience of upcoming events for the duration of Black History Month, a medley of performances ensued.

On Tuesday, Feb. 14 during club hours, YouTube content creators will be part of a panel discussion tackling expectations, history, myths and trends around beauty and black hair. That same night, the bookstore cafe will play host to a more artistic environment where performers will be allowed to come up on stage and share any experiences or thoughts. Workshops with more gravity will be held in various venues throughout the month.

February 10, 2017

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