The Africana Studies major at SIUC is just one step the university has taken to bring diversity to the campus.
Though the subject includes far more than can be taught in a month, Black History Month will be observed throughout February and will feature events coordinated by the Africana Studies department.
For some at SIUC, the month’s history carries a lot of meaning.
Joseph Brown, director of Africana Studies, said the celebration has come a long way since he was introduced to it.
“I’m the oldest person in the building, and I remember when there was Negro History Week,” he said with a laugh.
Negro History Week was established by historian Carter G. Woodson in 1926. In 1976, it underwent a name change and became an annually observed month in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom.
This year’s theme is “Black Women in American History and Culture” and features speakers, discussions, poetry readings and film screenings.
Lower Grinnell Hall will present a week-long “Tunnel of Oppression” demonstration from Feb. 19 to Feb. 25 showcasing the oppression of various groups throughout American history.
Brown said the changes made to Black History Month since its conception are linked to developments in Africana Studies in colleges across the country.
At SIUC, Africana Studies has been offered as a major for the past year, but Black Studies has been part of the curriculum since the 1960s.
Brown said there were not enough tenured faculty in the department to qualify the study as a major until a year ago. He said despite this, it is an old field of study.
“As long as there have been colleges in America, there have been Africana studies,” he said. “At the University of Virginia, they had grant money to study the negro before the First World War. You couldn’t let the negros in, but you could study them.”
Brown said the first person to bring Black Studies to SIUC was Betty Fladeland, a professor in the history department. She decided she would teach a black history class in the 1960s, he said, because she saw a need for it on campus. Brown said her first class drew hundreds of students and eventually inspired people to come down from Chicago and establish black organizations and study programs at Southern.
“We built this program here out of the sheer energy of the community and students and like-minded professors,” he said.
Brown said more than 200 United States colleges and universities offer undergraduate degrees in black, African, African-American or Africana Studies.
The Africana Studies program averages about 250 students per semester in all courses and has six students majoring in the field.
Michael Washington, a senior from Chicago studying Africana Studies, said he chose the major because he wanted to learn more about African culture from an Afrocentric perspective instead of a Eurocentric one.
Washington said the material covered in his courses challenges what is typically taught about racism, culture, oppression and government.
“It’s an important field to study because it has the potential to inspire young Americans to change their perspectives on African-American culture and oppression in the world,” he said.
Washington, who is working with the department for Black History Month, said the month can be restrictive in educating Americans about black history.
“In my opinion, the history of African-Americans shouldn’t be limited to just one month, because black history is American history,” he said.
Many of the month’s activities are geared toward teaching students about the histories often ignored in the average American history class, Brown said.
Frank Chipasula, professor of Africana Studies, said the point of both Black History Month and Africana Studies is to challenge what citizens’ idea of America is.
“What is American?” he asked. “Who is American? America really is a structure imposed upon the nation.”
Brown said activities such as those available through Black History Month, as well as the curriculum within Africana Studies, gives students a strategy for connecting the dots in their educations.
“If you’re smart at all, you know something’s missing and you need to figure out what it is,” he said. “That impulse to go find out what’s missing will take you to Black Studies, Women’s Studies, Native American Studies, Latino Studies and GLBT Studies, because it’s not an incorporation easily blended into the curriculum.”