BBSO teach in features Dr. Muigai and Dr. Hunter

February 9, 2018

As part of their month-long programming for Black History Month, the Brandeis Black Student Organization (BBSO) hosted a teach in event on Monday evening featuring two new Brandeis lecturers, postdoctoral fellows Dr. Wangui Muigai and Dr. Cory Hunter.

Muigai, a historian of science and medicine, teaches in the African and Afro-American Studies (AAAS) and the Health: Science, Society, and Policy (HSSP) programs. Hunter, a musicology expert, teaches in the American Studies department and offers classes on subjects such as the black church and gospel music. Both professors gave presentations on their fields of study and facilitated discussions about Black History Month through the lens of science and protest music.

Muigai opened the teach in by referencing the Google Doodle image for Black History Month as a way of addressing how this four week long commemoration came to be. Student attendees were able to identify some of the icons of the abolitionist or Civil Rights Movement figures depicted in the Doodle, but none could place the central figure in the image. Muigai revealed the figure to be Carter G. Woodson, considered to be the father of Black History Month.

As Muigai explained, Woodson’s lifelong ambition was “chronicling, researching documenting and publishing the achievements, struggles, and feats [of] the people of the African diaspora” in a time when there were no black voices in academia to offset the popular lie that black people were “intellectually inferior.”

Woodson brought the facts of black history into the public eye by creating the first Journal of Negro History and the first national Negro History Week, later expanded to Black History Month.

Transitioning to her area of expertise, Muigai acknowledged that history and science are not commonly discussed together, but said they have every reason to be. “Health and illness are major drivers of historical change,” said Muigai. Her interests lie in exploring how sickness and race intersect in the black experience.

She cited the death of Eric Garner, who was held in a chokehold by the NYPD, as a compelling example of this intersection. Muigai observed the duality of contexts in which “I can’t breathe,” Garner’s last words, related both to Garner’s literal suffocation as well as the general feeling of suppression and distress in the black community. She described his final words as a “rallying cry” that sparked a national recognition on police brutality.

Muigai also cited Erica Garner, the daughter of Eric Garner, who recently died after giving birth due to a heart attack, the ensuing coma and resulting brain damage. This incident brought the treatment of black mothers publically into question and further solidified the notion of a “public health crisis facing black Americans.” Muigai concluded that the adequacy of hospital care and appropriateness of police responses work in conjunction with political and social rights.

Hunter spoke about protest songs of the Civil Rights Movement and conducted an interactive exercise of “decoding” lyrics of historical and political significance. He explained his academic interest in gospel music history began when he noticed a lack of scholarship on the subject. He felt responsible for putting such works into existence and proving that gospel music is “worthy of intellectual inquiry.”

Hunter explained the benefits and the critiques surrounding protest music of the 1960s. It was effective because it could be cross-generationally relevant, persuasive, and motivating. Protest music, however, could also be misinterpreted, appropriated, over-simplified and non-solution oriented, he said.

Due to the pressures of “crossover appeal,” artists had to alter lyrics or keep them vague to attract and satisfy both black and white listeners, said Hunter. Protest musicians encrypted their more provocative and political messages within symbolic lyrics that otherwise sounded harmless.

Hunter’s decoding exercise featured the songs “People Get Ready” by Curtis Mayfield and “Promised Land” by Chuck Berry.

In “People Get Ready,” the word “train,” is a popular term in black spirituals that signifies upward social mobility as well as the path to heaven. Hunter also explained the biblical allusion in the title of Berry’s “Promised Land” and noted how the mention of specific cities in the American South refers to stops along the Freedom Rides.

Both of Muigai and Hunter’s lectures involved student participation. Students commented on their own experiences with problematic medical treatment in correlation to the stereotype of “black strength”—black people being less sensitive to pain than white people. The decoding exercise also allowed attendees to read lyrics out loud with each other and draw upon their personal knowledge of black history to make inferences on meaning.

In closing her presentation on Black History Month, Muigai invited attendees to reflect on a Woodson quote: “We should emphasize not Negro history but the Negro in history.”

One student then said that “black history is American history.” Hunter also discussed the
“individual identity” of black people and spoke about resisting the practice of generalizing black experience.

Muigai also brought up Woodson’s radical vision for a future where Black History Month is no longer necessary. “This kind of education should be intertwined year long,” she said. She concluded, “92 years after the first Negro History Week we’re left with this provocation…what does it mean to do black history every day?”

This event was a part of the BBSO’s programing for black history month. The BBSO is hosting two more events this month: a black career panel on Friday, Feb. 9 where panelists will discuss diversity hiring, recruitment, interviewing and underrepresented minorities, and “Shades of Blackness,” Saturday at 6 p.m., a performance event featuring a variety of student organizations.

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