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Be proud, don't invent history

By Maxwell Price

Section: Arts

February 8, 2008

dc02070802.jpg“What I want to do today is probably the weirdest talk you’ve ever heard,” declared Dr. Ibrahim Sundiata at the opening ceremony for the Brandeis Black Student Organization’s (BBSO) celebration of Black History Month on Monday night.

While this preface proved to be a slight exaggeration, the speech that followed was every bit as provocative and challenging as might be expected from an address whose theme was “Abolishing Ignorance.”

Dr. Sundiata is a distinguished Brandeis professor in the Department of African and Afro-American Studies as well as a former chair of the Department of History at Howard University. He is the author of Brothers and Sister: Black Zion, Black Slavery, 1914-1940 (2003) among other works and is the recipient of Ford, Woodrow Wilson and Fulbright Grants.

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The majority of Dr. Sundiata’s lecture focused on addressing claims made by last year’s keynote speaker, John McWhorter. He incorporated arguments from McWhorter’s Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America into his own critical commentary on what African American history truly means today.

Dr. Sundiata suggested that while Black History Month has often been devoted to lionizing black heroes and heroines, we should reach beyond these icons to explore the past struggles and innovations of black society as a whole. “Let’s look at the communities that people lived in and built,” he contended.

In order to illustrate this point, Dr. Sundiata described historical moments such as the growth of African American businesses in 1920s Harlem and the influence of African American music on American popular music beginning in the late 19th century.

Nevertheless, his speech recognized the tendency of African Americans to romanticize or embellish their own past. “We have a proud history,” he exclaimed. “We don’t need to invent history.”

The roots of Black History Month date back to 1926 when Carter G. Woodson, an influential educator and historian, established Negro History Week. His goal was to enhance awareness of and appreciation for African American heritage.

Yet in recent years a debate has emerged over the symbolic and practical significance of such a celebration. Some critics feel that designating a single month for black history is akin to racial segregation and marginalization. Others claim that corporations manipulate Black History Month to enhance marketing efforts among African American consumers.

Dr. Sundiata, whose conversational and anecdotal style directly engaged the audience, did not shy away from similarly controversial issues. He discussed the portrayal of African Americans in film and the struggles with stereotypes. Recognizing the desire of many African Americans to discover their homeland, he expounded upon the implications and limitations of DNA testing.

In summary, he asserted that in order to abolish ignorance about African American history, “We all need to be aware of our own biases and limitations to find our collective truth.”

Nearly 50 students and faculty members attended the event, which was held in the Gosman Sports and Convocation Center’s Napoli Room. The overall reception was clearly enthusiastic.

Anwar Abdul-Wahab ’11, a member of BBSO, found Dr. Sundiata’s message particularly compelling. He agreed with Dr. Sundiata’s argument that Black History Month needs to redefine its objectives. “We should celebrate the community,” he explained, “ordinary people like me who achieved extraordinary things.”

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