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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Prof. shines light on history of Black History Month

<. R. L’Heureux Lewis opened Carleton’s African American History Month convocation with a common statement – that out of all months of the year, the shortest month is chosen for remembrance of the events in black history.  The Assistant Professor of Sociology and Black Studies at City College of New York stressed that “Black History Month is more just about African Americans – it’s about all Africans” and remarked that there exists a tendency to “only concentrate on twenty-eight days of Black history, which is insufficient, and should instead be every day of the year to learn and tackle the issues facing blacks and their history and culture.” Lewis stated that these common interpretations have created an environment that only focuses “on the surface of history” – that only the achievements of Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King are acknowledged, without further recognition of the history of Africans as a people. He argued that “the ‘I Have A Dream’ speech is just a small part of the significance” of Black History Month.

Lewis, whose area of expertise is educational inequality in contemporary America, emphasized that despite visible accomplishments – the largest black middle class, the highest number of  black students in college in history, and the election of a black president – there are still gaping holes, such as “the widening gap between blacks and whites, and more blacks falling under correctional control.” Lewis argued that these factors all contribute to “a new reality of Jim Crow laws,” and that this manifests itself as a problem with the public, because “We have a leader who is black – but how many black Senators? Don’t let the representation of one illustrate the conditions of many.” Here he segued into the issue of education and how it is “certainly a tragedy that one’s college chances have to be determined by one’s zip-code.” He lamented the problems of the system at large and how “quality education now in 2011 is not a constitutional right,” leading to the current situation in public schooling where an increasing number of black students are separated into failing institutions. Lewis argued that because of this we are “living in an archaic system: in 2011 our educational institutions – public schools – are more segregated than in a Jim Crow cell.”  

Another facet of Black History Month on which Lewis focused was the “sanitation of our leaders.” He illustrated the common misconception that “King’s dream was the American dream” and that Americans only know him in the context of his famous walk on Washington but nothing regarding his life’s work or views. The same went for Rosa Parks and her triggering of the Montgomery Bus Boycott; “many people think she was tired that day and refused to give up her seat. She was not tired. She was a lifelong activist, but sadly most of us only graze the surface of history. We neglect the deeper nuances.”

In conclusion, Lewis commented on the role of students and educational institutions such as Carleton. He emphasized one crucial element of creating history, that of the “collective struggle,” noting the common mindset that “we come to college, and all we do is focus on our GPA or securing that internship. But really it’s about the bridges we build here.” He mentioned how the Harlem Children’s Zone, a community-based organization serving thousands of children and parents in New York City, was “built in the dorm rooms of Bowdoin College” and that such a vision “came out of a space just like Carleton.” Lewis contended that here remained the challenge, for “unfortunately we mostly do not have a vision in the first place,” and said that the way to break out of this is to deepen the bonds and relationships we have with different people from various backgrounds.“You must take advantage of dialogues and move out of your comfort zone. If you walk out of Carleton with the same group of friends, then Carleton has failed you,” he said. By inviting us to “struggle collectively for Carleton” and create a new college campus, where “students are connected to love and create like they never had before,” Lewis hoped to see a new legacy of commemorating history begin with us. 

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