Cynthia Arroyo | Staff Writer

I am not a black American. I am a mixed-race woman of color who has made it her honest and humble goal not to allow Black History Month to slip from Azusa Pacific’s collective consciousness. I believe empowerment can become a vague word when repeated for a thousand different circumstances. To empower is to legitimize something, like your own ability or belonging. And in the case of America’s Black History Month, empowerment necessitates celebration.

I dare say that for many people in the United States, February comes and goes without a thought about the accomplishments of African-American men and women in history. Sometimes, though, there are people who will ask, “Why is it okay to have a ‘Black History Month’ and not a ‘White History Month?’” unable to recognize their own privilege.

To answer this question, someone would have to recount the centuries of systematic brutality inflicted on the descendants of Africans abducted from their homeland. They might explain that the Civil Rights Movement was only 50 years ago, an incredibly recent event on the historical timeline. They may mention Dr. Carter G. Woodson, who founded what is now known as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History in 1915, and who kick-started the tradition of recognizing black achievements in February. Woodson began the quest just 100 years ago to put African Americans back into the historical accounts and to bring recognition to their achievements. Finally, someone might also speak of the shooting of young black men by police officers, who justified their acts by claiming they acted in the moment and out of fear.

It is admirable to have pride in yourself. This is including white, heterosexual males in a eurocentric America. It is commendable to love your background. It is even more commendable for those who find pride in themselves in a country that has a history of trodding upon their inalienable human rights. This pride is a defiance, a strong shove against the system.

Frederick Douglass Artwork by Jenna Jacobs

Frederick Douglass
Artwork by Jenna Jacobs

Jamilah Relf, an African-American student and President of APU’s Black Student Association said that she first thinks about “blackness” when she thinks about Black History Month.

“I think when you think about blackness you think about our hair or our music, our fashion our food,” Relf said. “There’s so many ways that blackness has contributed to our society and how blackness has formulated who we are as people. I think about how multifaceted that is and I also think about our history. Our resilience is really empowering.”

Relf went on to say, “The life that we live now, in some way, was contributed to by a black person, whether that’s through inventions or whether that’s through… black women during slavery who raised the master’s children. Some people’s parents and grandparents were raised by black women. Even on that level, in some way all of our lives either directly or indirectly were influenced by black people.”

According to Relf, the best way to celebrate Black History Month and African-American culture as a whole is to become familiar with those who know it best.

“Reach out and show interest,” Relf said. “A lot of times you don’t really know if someone is interested in your culture unless they ask questions or unless they go out of their way to come to meetings or things like that… when it comes to my culture, I don’t feel like any question is a dumb question. Come in contact with people who have that openness and come to BSA. Reach out; don’t be afraid.”

In addition to reaching out on campus, appreciating Black History Month includes learning about African-American men and women like Frederick Douglass, Shirley Chisholm, Bessie Coleman, Martin Luther King Jr., Angela Davis, Leah Ward Sears and many others.

Vice President Dr. Kimberly Denu, Chief Diversity Officer for APU’s Center for Diversity, Equity and Inclusive Excellence, talked about these achievements. As an African-American woman, Denu says the first thing to come to mind when Black History Month is mentioned is “legacy.”

“Maya Angelou, the poet, has a famous quote that she used to say, ‘I come as one, but I stand as 10,000,’” Denu said. “And what that means is when people see me they only see one person, but I would not be here, I would not be doing diversity work today if someone had not stood in the gap for me.”

Bessie Coleman Artwork by Jenna Jacobs

Bessie Coleman
Artwork by Jenna Jacobs

Denu is a first generation college student, a Fulbright scholar, an ordained minister, a professor and a seasoned traveller. She says, “Those are achievements that I have only been able to do because someone else made a sacrifice. Black history for me is remembering the legacy, remembering the debt I owe because of my ancestors and others who were willing to lay down their lives for me.”

Denu says that February is a time, “To pause and reflect on the history of America, and not to repeat the sins of the past.” She says, “It’s important for us to remember that black history is American history. It’s so intertwined… really the wealth of the nation was built on the backs of black people, because they were the free labor, the forced labor.”

After encouraging students to see “Hidden Figures” in theatres, Denu also adds to “be intentional, educate ourselves, read a great book or attend a great workshop or session about African-American history/American history. Most importantly, don’t rush through the month.”

In “The Souls of Black Folk,” W.E.B. Du Bois conceptualizes the “double-consciousness” among African-American people. This “double-consciousness” is a two-ness of sight; it is the idea that African Americans sees themselves from their own perspective and also from the perspective of a white America. Regardless of the shade of your melatonin, the only way to celebrate Black History Month is to try to learn about and imagine what this “double-consciousness” must be like. Look for it in literature, in movies, in historical accounts and in other people.

Allow yourself to remember the remarkable history. Be empowered by the celebration of Black History Month.