Black History Month 2021 is a Time for Both Celebration and Urgency

Just a month into 2021, we have already witnessed a number of defining moments that demonstrate the duality of where we stand as a country. On one hand, the elections of Kamala Harris, the first woman, Black and Asian American person to become Vice President of the United States, and Raphael Warnock, the first Black Senator from Georgia, represent major milestones in American politics. However, for many, the deadly Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol building, where many of the participants brought Confederate flags and other racist paraphernalia, represented the resistance to this progress and terrorism Black people have faced throughout American history. As Representative Cori Bush points out, even the election of VP Harris is bittersweet because it means there are no longer any Black women in the Senate.

As we recognize Black History Month 2021, we are called to balance our rightful excitement over a number of Black history firsts with the sense of urgency this moment in time demands. The preservation and proliferation of Black stories is that much more important in the face of these large scale efforts to silence marginalized people.

This starts with the history and purpose of Black History Month itself. The observation originated as “Negro History Week” and was conceptualized by Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. It became a month-long celebration, recognized in February, in 1976. While we celebrate and study Black history all year long, Black History Month provides a special opportunity to put Black achievements and contributions to the fabric of the U.S. in the spotlight.

At the University of Oregon, this observation is an opportunity to specifically highlight and discuss the historical contributions of Black people at the UO, in the Eugene community and throughout Oregon. It’s also a time for us to assess the work we still have to do and explore how we can make the UO a more equitable, inclusive and antiracist campus for Black students, staff and faculty.

It’s no secret that 2020 was a difficult year for everyone. The COVID-19 pandemic in particular changed a lot about how the UO was able to operate. For some, this put a damper on historic developments like the opening of the Lyllye Reynolds-Parker Black Cultural Center. However, we’re proud of how Dr. Aris Hall and her team at the Black Cultural Center staff were able to adjust and continue doing the work of creating a better experience for Black students. Some of the virtual offerings that came about as a result of these difficult circumstances include Super Soul Tuesdays, the Black Grad Writing Circle and Nuanced Griot: Community Conversations.

Even in the midst of the pandemic, the UO was able to launch its minor in Black Studies program this past fall. This is a testament to the vision of student organizing as evidenced by how the implementation of Black Studies was a demand made by the UO Black Student Task Force in 2015. Now, after years of working with administration to see their list of demands through, another game-changing effort has come to fruition. A new group, the Black Faculty Collective, is also working to build on the initial programmatic design for Black Studies and to enhance a deeper sense of community for Black Faculty at the UO.

Stories of persistence and ingenuity are common throughout the Black story in America. It’s important, however, that we look at this within the context of data at the UO to hold ourselves accountable as an institution. Black faculty, staff and students still constitute less than 3% of the population, while Black faculty and staff continue to exit the institution at rates that are disproportionately high. Let’s use this February to recommit ourselves to the campus-wide work of eradicating the inequities that undermine progress and sustainability for Black faculty, students and staff on our campus. 

As part of that work, we invite you as well to celebrate and participate in the great Black History Month programs and activities, including guest speakers like Nikole Hannah-Jones, Kimberly Johnson and David Walker. Black History Month events also include Black Greek 101, and a discussion on scientific racism and eugenics. We hope you can join us and the UO campus community in celebrating Black History Month 2021!