Campus News

Celebrating African American History

February 6, 2013

Marvin Krislov

Marvin Krislov
Photo credit: John Seyfried

Welcome to second semester! I hope everyone is off to a good start. Even though snow covers the ground, this semester always seems to pass fast. So please take some time to think about your summer or post-Commencement plans. Whether you are graduating this year or have a ways to go, Richard Berman and his colleagues in our Office of Career Services are eager to help you build a bright future.

February is National African American History Month. This year’s celebrations coincide with the anniversaries of two major events in the struggle for civil rights: the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation issued on January 1, 1863; and the 50th anniversary of the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” which culminated with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963. The actions of Oberlin students, faculty, staff, and townspeople, and the college’s commitment to access, inclusion, and co-education helped bring about those historic landmarks.

Much has been written over the years about Oberlin’s role in shaping black history. That topic continues to fascinate authors and readers. You can read more about it in two recently published historical novels by eminent authors. In Stephen L. Carter’s latest novel, The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln, the heroine is Abigail Canner, a 21-year-old black woman with an Oberlin degree. And in The Last Runaway, Tracy Chevalier ’84, explores Oberlin’s involvement with the abolitionist movement and the Underground Railroad through the experiences of Honor Bright, an English Quaker who moves to Oberlin in 1850.

That mix of historical fact and literary imagining fits well with the theme of Oberlin’s 2013 African American History Celebration, Black Arts, revisited. The lectures, recitals, dinners, discussions, performances, and exhibitions aim to remind us of the power of the arts throughout history to increase awareness and understanding, to honor innovation and talent, and to bring disparate people and cultures together.

Oberlin’s African American History Celebration kicks off this week on Thursday with a dinner at 5:30 p.m. at Lord Saunders. This will be followed by an exciting Convocation gathering titled Identities and Art: Who am I and What is it? A Convocation with Kwame Anthony Appiah & Dr. Johnnetta Cole. The Convocation will begin at 7:30 p.m. in Finney Chapel.

I urge everyone to attend if possible. Kwame Anthony Appiah is professor of philosophy at Princeton University, president of the PEN American Center, and an internationally acclaimed public intellectual. His book In My Father's House and his collaborations with Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.— including The Dictionary of Global Culture and Africana— are major works of African struggles for self-determination. His seminal work Cosmopolitanism won the Arthur Ross Book Award, the most significant prize given to a book on international affairs.

Dr. Johnnetta Cole ’57 earned a PhD in anthropology after graduating from Oberlin. A trailblazer, she is president emerita of Bennett College for Women and Spelman College. She is the only individual to have served as the president of the two historically black colleges for women in the United States. Dr. Cole is the recipient of 55 honorary degrees and numerous awards. She is currently the director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art. Dr. Cole is the author or of several books and scholarly articles, a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a member of the American Association of Museum Directors.

I’m very much looking forward to hearing what Dr. Cole and Dr. Appiah have to say. And their conversation is just the beginning of a month-long series of events celebrating African American history.

While studying history requires us to take a critical look at the past, it also serves to remind us that history is constantly being made and that we all can play a role in its making. As President Barack Obama wrote in his proclamation “National African American History Month, 2013:”

“Today, Dr. King, President Lincoln, and other shapers of our American story proudly watch over our National Mall. But as we memorialize their extraordinary acts in statues and stone, let us not lose sight of the enduring truth that they were citizens first. They spoke and marched and toiled and bled shoulder-to-shoulder with ordinary people who burned with the same hope for a brighter day. That legacy is shared; that spirit is American. And just as it guided us forward 150 years ago and 50 years ago, it guides us forward today. So let us honor those who came before by striving toward their example, and let us follow in their footsteps toward the better future that is ours to claim.”

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