One year after a Black History month fraught with in-classroom incidents which helped launch a historic sit-in at Evans Hall, some of OU’s Black student leaders and faculty are hoping for a broader appreciation of Black history in curriculum and campus culture beyond a single month.
With the implementation of some demands from the sit-in — including the introduction of new faculty, staff and student diversity trainings and a semester-long diversity course currently set to launch in fall 2021, according to Belinda Higgs Hyppolite, OU vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion — campus has seen some progress.
Jamelia Reed, an African and African American studies senior, said her time at OU leading up to these small changes has served as both a learning and teaching experience in Black history.
Reed said her book “Changed Mentality,” where she wrote about self-reflection and understanding society, helped her learn that being able to tell what is right from what is normal is a key part of achieving progress in racial equity.
“When we talk about K-12 education, it's really streamlined,” Reed said. “Most often we have these standardized tests, and these tests must demonstrate that you understand this. Well, we don't tend to focus on whether or not what this test is giving is correct.”
Reed said her own background was a perfect example of a streamlined education, where the discussion of slavery and the Civil War became a debate rather than a lesson.
“I grew up in the state of Texas, so I took Texas standardized tests, and one day my teacher was saying, ‘This is the right answer on the test, but this is actually wrong,’” Reed said. “We talked about the Confederacy. We don't talk about state independency — which I'm not saying states should be independent of federal government or have their own say — but any historian will tell you that the reason the Confederacy left the Union is because of slavery.”
Reed also said American history often neglects the contributions of people of color, choosing to focus on familiar faces, instead. When contributions of Black figures are discussed, Reed said, finer details are often glossed over.
“We often focus on George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, but no one talks about Benjamin Banneker, who helped construct the DC metropolitan area,” Reed said. “We talk a lot about Malcolm X and (Martin Luther King, Jr.), but we have this whitewashed version. We can't forget that MLK was being studied and being searched ... by the FBI. We have Malcolm X being patronized as a violent man, but later on in his life, if you read his autobiography, he was thinking of more peaceful options.”
Reed said the mainstream view of American history that most students learn in K-12 education is not sufficient if the focus is to learn more about the contributions of people of color. She said the teaching of Black history should not be restricted to every February.
Reed also said because of OU’s motto, "Civi et Reipublicae," which means for the benefit of the citizen and the state, community members should strive to understand all people — not just in Black History Month — in the hopes of reducing harm toward others.
“Beyond Black History Month, we should still be learning, growing and unlearning the harmful topics and opinions we may have developed or have been given to us while we were at a younger age,” Reed said. “As college-educated people, we should be pushing ourselves to understand more than what's the status quo.”
Reed said her knowledge of Black history is equivalent to many of her peers in her major, but being a part of the Black Emergency Response Team has helped her become a better activist.
Reed also said past events on campus, such as two OU professors' usage of a racial slur in class and the BERT sit-in in Evans Hall that followed, have made OU students more aware of the world around them.
“I’ll say that, in this past year, there has been a lot of growth on both sides,” Reed said. “BERT has received new membership and leadership. Besides that, it has been great to have this recognition and see #BlackLivesMatter in the world.”
Reed said she does express some caution when she sees #BlackLivesMatter, saying it can be a symbol of performative allyship.
“It’s great that we recognize it exists, but you can say someone is in pain yet still do nothing,” Reed said. “Now, the next step is to work against this habit to stop it from occurring and making equitable decisions.”
Reed said, in her opinion, the OU community is playing the waiting game for the university’s response to Evans Hall protestors’ demands
“The question now is: Is this being done fast enough? and is it being done in a timely manner,” Reed said. “I would say things are progressing when you look at the culture. You're seeing a lot more student recognition and acknowledgement of things going on.”
Reed said she is not ignorant to the fact that the use of racial slurs or racially targeted actions may be still happening in community members’ homes with no one to monitor that behavior. She said proper education can make a difference.
“I think we will all benefit from a better education system,” Reed said. “If a person asks ‘Why do we need a Black History Month?’ that just shows us all why we need it in the first place.”
Instructors like Kalenda Eaton, an associate professor of African and African American Studies, said they are working to provide transparency and accurate teaching of Black history every month. Eaton said her areas of study are based in humanities and culture, which helps in her classes when students talk about how people in the past spoke.
Eaton said she’s shifted her approach to language in the classroom over the years, making clear what appropriate words to use are and aren’t, despite what they may be reading in historical text.
“A student may come across a reading or something that's assigned that may have a racial slur in it,” Eaton said. “I mean, of course we're not uttering this learning in class, but we have conversations about what does it mean ... to actually see that word there, rather than just, you know, pretending, of course, that it's not there.”
Eaton said she sees more awareness of issues concerning Black history through literature, as well as growth in understanding and education surrounding these topics.
“The classroom becomes a space of enhancing that which we know, that which they have questions about or learning on their own,” Eaton said. “Then we're able to have a richer conversation.”
Eaton also said she hopes to increase students’ awareness of what was going on in the background of the Civil Rights movement as well, focusing on motivations and planning of groups like the NAACP, rather than more well-known figures like King.
“If we think about something like the Montgomery Bus Boycott which, to this day, there are still ways of explaining that moment in time,” Eaton said. “There are people who have been organizing these protests for a long time that we don’t learn about.”
Eaton echoed Reed’s thoughts by saying K-12 education often doesn’t cover the full context of key events.
“People were strategically placed on the bus, there were things that were happening that were very well calculated behind the scenes — but that story isn't the one that gets told right,” Eaton said. “The story that gets told is that Rosa Parks was tired one day, she didn't feel like getting up, but the fact that she actually was an activist and active within the local chapter of the NAACP, that this was something that was planned. You don't know that unless you are a scholar of that history — you don't know these things.”
George Henderson, a civil rights activist, professor emeritus and the first Black resident of Norman, also said the type of response from educators, administrators and students he has seen in recent years was previously long-absent on campus
“I see the kind of sincerity that has been missing to a great extent,” Henderson said. “By sincerity, I mean not just words, but top level administrators — taking positive actions that will be fruitful for not just this next year but the coming years.”
Henderson said he felt encouraged by the actions of President Joseph Harroz and OU’s administration, who he said have a commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion — but the extent to which this stated dedication will translate into lasting change is still unclear.
“The proof is in the pudding, it remains to be seen,” Henderson said.
Henderson also said the university has an obligation to push for inclusion.
“I want them to be relevant to the time and the spaces that people are in. By that, I mean what are our greatest needs today?” Henderson said. “We talk about hiring, we talk about diversity training, we talk about having responsibilities and accepting obligations to be social justice activists, not just in departments, but every department at the University of Oklahoma should accept responsibility for the diversity and inclusion initiatives.”
Henderson said whoever is the administrator of campus groups at OU should ultimately be held partially responsible for what they do to carry out diversity and inclusion initiatives.
“What's missing from the discussion is the fact that we still have to have Black History Month, (which is) the shortest month, by the way,” Henderson said. “I say that facetiously, but seriously. What's missing is thinking that if you just hire Black faces, and if you just talk about Black people during that month, then we can start over again after the month. I guess it's kind of like social communion.”
Henderson said he doesn’t want diversity initiatives to act as a social justice confession booth, but he wants people to not have to come back and apologize for what they have or have not done.
“In weekly or monthly reports, whatever reports the departments give or don't give, there should at least be an opportunity in every agenda for someone to say, ‘Okay, how are we doing in terms of diversity and inclusion?’” Henderson said. “If nothing has changed, say it. At least now what we've done is we've gone public in our private meetings in terms of what we have and have not done, and that keeps us in the forefront of our thinking.”
Henderson also said OU needs to focus more attention on lesser-known champions of diversity .
“I think we need to focus less on the named people like George Henderson or Ada Louis Sipuel Fisher and Clara Luper, two of my favorite colleagues and friends, but focus on the unsung heroes at the university,” Henderson said. “What wonderful things or what significant things have the students done — let's feature those things. Let's feature staff members — not the known people, but the lesser-known individuals.”
Henderson said he believes his work as a civil rights activist has benefited those outside the Black community.
“To me, Black history is reminding us that all of us are part of this and that it’s not just Black people,” Henderson said. “I was part of the civil rights movement, and as you know our anthem was ‘We shall overcome.’ Well ‘we’ was an inclusive word, and ‘we’ meant all of the Black and brown and the other ethnicities and people in those movements.”
Henderson also said the recognition he’s received at OU has been because of some of those lesser-known figures.
“In the marches, the first two rows in it were the celebrities — they finished the march first, but the many rows behind the first two were just common ordinary people who perhaps we never thought about or gave mention to,” Henderson said. “The meaning, of course, is I've received more recognition than any person at the university deserves. Every single award and honor that I've received at the university has been because I've had wonderful students, and I've had a few colleagues who were supportive and staff members that I always made a point of saying thank you to.”
Henderson said sustained effort toward racial equality is more important than the results of those efforts.
“I’m reminded of this part from ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest,’ where he said ‘I'm going to lift this water cooler up and throw it out the window and escape this insane asylum,’” Henderson said. “He couldn't lift it. He tried and he tried, but what he said at the end, he said ‘At least I tried.’ I want to be the people that at least we tried, whether we succeeded or not.”
Students are ultimately crucial to the future of racial diversity at OU, Henderson said. He said he would have accomplished far less without them.
“George Henderson would be nothing without his students,” Henderson said. “I guess what I'm saying is that the face of the university should be all of our faces.”