The African American Studies program at Mississippi State University will host four events to celebrate Black History Month.
Don Shaffer, interim director of African American Studies, said it is important for MSU to celebrate Black History Month.
“I think it’s important because we live in a state that is the birthplace of African American culture,” Shaffer said. “African American culture has become such an integral part of Mississippi culture and Mississippi history, whether it be the blues or gospel music, or the rich literary tradition that this state boasts that includes a number of African American men and women like Richard White, Margaret Walker Alexander, or more recently, Jesmyn Ward or Natasha Trethewey.”
To kick off the line of events, a panel discussion will be held from 3:45 to 5:30 p.m. Feb. 12. This discussion, “A Tough Row to Hoe: Black Farmers and a History of Struggle in the South,” will be held in the Fowlkes Auditorium on the third floor of the Colvard Student Union.
Shaffer said people can expect to learn much from the history of African Americans.
“I am really looking forward to sharing with our students and faculty and anyone who comes the rich history of African Americans,” Shaffer said. “And also give them a chance to see some of the great work that is being done by scholars in the field of black studies. It sort of reveals a critical practice of African American studies, as well as a celebration of African American culture and history.”
One week after the panel discussion, award-winning author Kiese Laymon will discuss his life and work at 6 p.m. Feb. 19 in the Turner A. Wingo Auditorium in Old Main. Laymon will share his life experiences as the Black History Month keynote speaker.
Following the keynote speaker’s address, the “Imitation of Life” photographic art exhibition will be available for previewing from 7 to 9 p.m. Feb. 20 in the Colvard Student Union. The exhibition will be held in the Second Floor Gallery; however, a reception will be held in the Second Floor Old Main Lounge.
“We get to showcase the work of our students in African American Studies,” Shaffer said. “Folks will get to see the amazing work that our students are doing, and some of the opportunities that we are trying to provide for our students in African American studies who are a part of this amazing organization of African American studies.”
The final event of the Black History Month celebration has been rescheduled to take place in April. This event will celebrate three high school students who will win the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drum Major for Change essay writing contest. The winners will have the opportunity to meet with MSU President Mark Keenum at the luncheon.
“It (essay competition) gives us a glimpse of the future, what the future is going to look like, the next generation of social justice warriors, activists, leaders, inventors and business folk are going to move the needle of social progress and will pick up the charge of social justice,” Shaffer said. “It’s high school students who are going to be honored by writing essays about King’s legacy of social justice and love overcoming hate. I’m just really excited to hear what these young folks have to say.”
With a variety of events being offered, junior Dondreia Blanchard, a communication major, believes the importance of MSU recognizing Black History Month is something everyone should celebrate.
“There are so many African Americans that have contributed to a lot of inventions—a lot of things that we still use today, that all Americans use,” Blanchard said. “It wasn’t just for us to use; it was for everybody to use. I think it should be celebrated. I think it should be honored. As a university with so much diversity, all students should be involved, and I believe all students should take African American courses because we are all involved together in the society.”
For Shaffer, Black History Month is not only celebrated in February.
“Personally, if you recall for me, moments when I was a young boy, my mother bought me a set of black history encyclopedias,” Shaffer said. “She did it because she wanted to supplement my knowledge and understanding of African American history, because she understood as an educator that there were huge gaps in our school curriculum around African American culture, history and experience. Every February, I was always a little bit amused because everyone was focusing on black history, and that’s a great thing, but it was yearlong for me. There was always a feeling of deep pride and relief when February would roll around and everyone was doing the thing that I had been doing all year. I could finally share with them the kind of things I was engaging with on a routine basis, and have that opportunity to have that dialogue exchange with people about the importance of this history.”
Black History Month highlights the success African Americans have achieved in this nation. Blanchard said she has learned of the history through her grandparents.
“Being a generation from sharecroppers and cotton planters, my grandparents told me stories about how they set in at the lunch counters and had to go to the movie theaters downstairs, and different things of that nature—not being able to drink out of the same water fountain,” Blanchard said. “These are not things that I have to see on TV, this is information that I have gotten from my own grandparents who are almost 90 years old. To be a student here at Mississippi State University and to be a parent of my own adult children, it is really making me appreciate my history, but it isn’t just for my culture or my race. We are all here together. We are all here on this earth to be better people.”
With various perceptions of Black History Month, Shaffer feels everyone could benefit from these events.
"I think there is this perception that African American history, and particularly Black History Month, is for only black people, and I think that couldn’t be further from the truth," Shaffer said. "This is our history. I think it’s been an overlooked history. It’s been a neglected history, which is one of the reasons why we still celebrate Black History Month. I think if folks come out, they’ll see that black history is American history. Its human history. I think it behooves all of us black, white, Latino, Asian to come out to these events and benefit from what they have to offer.”