“The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it with us. ... History is literally present in all that we do.”
For many, Black History Month is a time to celebrate the black leaders of the past who paved the way for a freer society. But for faculty and students across the San Francisco State University campus, it’s about more than looking back.
“Black History Month is a moment for those of us who engage the history on a daily basis, to take time to commemorate mindfully,” said Associate Professor of Africana Studies Dawn-Elissa Fischer. “For those that have never engaged it at all, it’s an invitation to begin engaging it on a regular basis. There are so many resources, so why wouldn’t we?”
Fischer points to campus groups such as the Black Student Union that celebrate black culture and history on an ongoing basis. As Black History Month draws to a close, other members of the San Francisco State community shared what it means to them and how they’ll be keeping its spirit alive year-round.
During the era of segregation, Professor Yumi Wilson’s father escaped Jim Crow laws by joining the Army to travel the world. While some of the repressive laws he was running from are gone, many of the issues he faced as a black man in America have not disappeared.
“The struggle is real. It’s not yesterday,” Wilson said. “It’d be great if we could talk about this historically and be able to say today that it’s gone, but it’s not.”
As president of the Journalism and Women Symposium, a national group that promotes diversity and the empowerment of women journalists, Wilson says she’s able to speak up for what she believes in. For instance, the group recently stood up for female journalists including CNN’s April Ryan by denouncing President Donald Trump, who publicly insulted her.
“Some things you wait patiently for, and some things you need to call out and bring attention to,” Wilson said.
She says historical figures like Rosa Parks have influenced the way she lives her life.“She’s on a bus and says, ‘I’m not going to move today. I’m going to stand up for what I believe in in this moment,’” Wilson said. “That to me is something I look at and say that’s what we all need to be doing. Not waiting for permission. In the moment when you’re forced to confront an injustice or challenge, how do you respond? That’s where we are right now.”
SF State student Stephren Ragler says he never thought much of school while growing up in San Francisco’s Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood. But after connecting with Upward Bound, a federally funded program that helps students in their pursuit for higher education, he got on track while learning about the importance of black history. A pivotal moment came when he witnessed a bit of black history in person.
“I got to see President Obama speak once,” said Ragler, who currently serves as vice president of facilities and services for the campus group Associated Students. “It was amazing just to see him in person. He’s a great speaker, and as a communications major it helped me because I try to learn from all of the great black leaders and how they communicated. It makes me a better leader.”
Now Ragler uses those communication skills to inspire young people. As a youth worker for the 100% College Prep community program servicing San Francisco’s housing projects, he walks elementary school students to school every morning in an attempt to improve their attendance. He says it’s his way of giving back and remembering black icons of the past.
“I’m a big Malcolm X guy,” said Ragler. “I relate to his story of going from the hood to being an educated man, and finding purpose through lifting up his community. ... So I honor his history all year long. I’m not black for just one month. I’m black every day of the year.”
Through courses like Women in Literature and Modern American Novel, Professor Sarita Cannon introduces SF State students to the stories and experiences of black people. Some of the writers she highlights, such as poet and activist Audre Lorde, are dead, while others, such as Toni Morrison, remain active today. Yet Cannon says voices from both groups still reach her students loud and clear.
“For Lorde, I’m always struck by the fact that it’s not just women or black students or LGBTQ students that respond to her work. There’s something about the specificity of her struggle and her language that allows her to reach people,” Cannon said. “And Morrison is a Iiving legend in my estimation — so prolific writing about the lives and histories of black people.”
For Cannon, Black History Month shouldn’t just be another opportunity to celebrate writers like Lorde and Morrison. Voices from other cultures should be heard, too — especially the ones that have been ignored in the past.
“There tends to be a focus on black American historical figures, which is great, but I feel that umbrella term of ‘black’ can encourage us to think more globally about black people,” she said. “Ideally, we would be celebrating the accomplishments in history of historically marginalized groups every day, and that’s something that I try to do in my courses.”
When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed in April 1968, Professor Mark Allan Davis was a child. He recalls his mother sobbing uncontrollably for weeks, but also remembers how black artists responded by using public platforms to honor the fallen civil rights leader.
“Diana Ross and the Supremes and the Temptations created a live album and a musical tribute that I listened to for almost the entire year,” Davis said. “Here are these young black performers in their 20s, and they’re honoring Dr. King on television. It was a very big deal at the time.”
Growing up as a black gay man, Davis continued to see a connection between black history and the arts that inspired him as a theatre artist and now as an educator. Today he encourages his students to explore their identity through their own art, while remembering the sacrifices people made in the past.
“Black history isn’t a month. It’s everything about America, because there would be no America if there were no slaves,” he said. “History is cumulative for everybody. It’s ours, so we have to take responsibility and move forward together.”
— Ivan Natividad