Alongside many other efforts to highlight the importance of equity and inclusion, students, staff and organizations at William Jewell College have come together to honor Black History Month despite the challenges that COVID-19 presented this year.
To account for the decreasing number of students on campus and the need for socially-distanced events, organizations have modified traditional events and piloted unique celebrations in the month of February.
One organization, the Black Student Alliance (BSA), is set to host their annual Jewell Kitchen event Thursday, Feb. 25, to celebrate local foods and Black culinary influences, according to BSA President Tavarus Pennington, junior communication and English major.
The event will take place on the floor above the cafeteria in rooms 221 and 222 of the Yates-Gill College Union. BSA will provide adequate space for all attendees to eat socially-distanced and the food will be served by the Fresh Ideas staff. Pennington explained that BSA wanted the event to remain “as true to tradition as safely possible,” and he hopes that it will look similar to the current Jewell cafeteria experience.
Students can purchase tickets for the event in the Union during Jewell time until Thursday or until all tickets are sold.
Additionally, Student Life hosted a Black History Month Jeopardy night Feb. 8 in the Melrose lobby. However, with limitations on in-person gatherings, many celebrations were moved onto social media.
On Instagram, the Gender Issues and Feminism club (GIF) celebrated Black womxn who had “contributed to the advancement of black people and worked hard to create spaces where black bodies are appreciated and free,” as they wrote in their #WomenCrushWednesday post Feb. 3.
GIF honored Tarana Burke, founder of the #MeToo movement and activist against sexual violence, Feb. 3; Maya Wiley, founder and president of the Center for Social Inclusion and racial justice advocate, Feb. 10; Majora Carter, founder of the non-profit environmental justice group Sustainable South Bronx, Feb. 17; and Alicia Garza, special projects director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance and co-creator of #BlackLivesMatter, Feb. 24.
Additionally, they held an event on Black feminism on Feb. 24. Lydia Enge, senior political science and communication major and GIF’s communications chair, led a presentation and discussion on Black feminism, which included definitions of Black feminism, a brief outline of its history and supplementary videos which further described the importance and origins of Black feminism.
Although the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed BSA’s ability to generate sustained interest in the organization itself, Pennington explained that Black history carries importance regardless.
“To me, celebrating Black history is a solemn act of self-reflection and humble appreciation and respect,” Pennington said. “The ethos of solitude that the pandemic presents us with seems to be perfect for any productive ‘celebration’ of Black history. With that said, obviously the pandemic has made it very difficult to plan engaging material activities to do with Black History Month. That’s not even to mention the bitter and downright dangerous cold this month has brought us.”
Vice President for Access and Engagement, Dr. Rodney Smith, reiterated this sentiment as well, emphasizing that Black history and Black History Month is more than just a celebration to many.
“It is important for Black people to know about themselves and about our ancestors, even in the face of a pandemic,” Smith said. “We still need to find ways to continue to celebrate because it’s important to people’s psychological mental health, to people’s beliefs about themselves [and] to people’s self esteem. It also contributes to this idea of self-efficacy, [which] means a belief in your ability.”
In Smith’s first year at Jewell, several projects intended to supplement the college’s Radical Inclusivity efforts have surfaced and propelled forward with several significant developments, many of which are aimed at amplifying historically-accurate and diverse perspectives.
Recognizing that Jewell was founded as an all-male, whites-only college, these efforts, in addition to Black History Month, can assist students and staff in taking a moment to honor the history behind the institution from which they benefit.
This semester, Jewell implemented a new history course, HIS 204: Slavery, Memory, and Justice, which is taught by Associate Professor of History Dr. Christopher Wilkins to encourage informed conversation on Jewell’s history with slavery and highlight the importance of historical accuracy. Overall, the course is intended to investigate Jewell’s connection to the ubiquity of slavery in the area at the time of its inception.
After realizing that slavery likely played a role in Jewell’s founding, Dr. Smith explained the impact that this revelation had on him.
“And it just dawned on me,” Smith said. “ A few weeks ago as I was walking across campus, I looked over at Jewell Hall, and [I thought], if that is indeed true that enslaved Africans helped to build that building, could they ever imagine me? Could they ever imagine a descendent of enslaved Africans being a part of the leadership on their college campus? It’s a pretty humbling thought from my vantage point.”
To further diversify perspectives, students from various organizations and staff, including Pennington and Smith, launched the Critical Foundations Collection in Curry Library that focuses on amplifying the voices of people and authors from marginalized demographics. The collection features books about BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, feminism, religions alternative to Christianity and more. Sophomore digital communications major Claire Henry, senior physics and Oxbridge history of ideas major and engagement chair for GIF, Catherine Dema, and others were also involved in the initiative.
BSA was one of the leading organizations in developing the Critical Foundations Collection, and according to Pennington, the organization plays an important part in vitalizing Black history given the context and culture at Jewell.
“The importance of black history to BSA is supercharged particularly within a context where we attend a predominantly white institution that boasts a critical approach to liberal arts thinking alongside a predominantly white faculty and core curriculum,” Pennington said. “It seems the natural role of BSA is to contest this sort of culture.”
With such a heavily-Eurocentric curriculum for K-12 and most higher-education institutions in the United States, Smith echoes the importance of diversifying perspectives and highlighting Black history.
“In order to be considered an educated individual or to be thought of as being well-read, you have to read certain pieces,” Dr. Smith said, “and the pieces that we are saying we have to read, historically, have not been very diverse; they haven’t come from a diversity of perspectives. I’m beginning to believe and understand that you’re not [actually] well-read until you’re reading a diversity of perspectives. That fact alone heightens the importance of black history.”
Overall, Smith elaborates, these efforts to honor Black History Month as well as the achievements in permanently including historically-accurate and diverse perspectives can go a long way in inspiring new generations to pursue opportunities of their own.
“How do we gain beliefs in our ability? We gain [self-efficacy] through a couple of ways,” Dr. Smith said. “One of the ways is through vicarious influences: if you see somebody else who looks like you, who is doing this thing or who has done this thing, then it triggers something in you to say, ‘Well, maybe I could do that too.’ It’s important for us to continue to visit those vicarious opportunities so people can see themselves. History gives us an opportunity to expand those opportunities and expand those incidences where [we] can see reflections of ourselves.”