Alex: Hello, and welcome to Reporter Podcast. I’m your host, Alex Meddin, and today we’re discussing an article form our February issue, “Black History Matters.” Before we jump into our discussion, first we’re going to listen to a phone conversation I just had with Sharitta Gross-Smith. She is the assistant director of student programmatic initiatives and development at the Multicultural Center for Academic Success. It’s a mouthful. So we’ll slip into that real quick, and hop back over here.
Alex: So, I’m speaking to Sharitta Gross-Smith. Sharitta, could you share your role please.
Sharitta: I am currently the assistant director for student development within RIT’s Multicultural Center for Academic Success.
Alex: Great, thank you very much. So we’re having this conversation about Black History Month. Um, so just to start us off, it would be great if you could share a really brief history of where Black History Month comes from.
Sharitta: That’s a very loaded question. I imagine it’s kind of personal in nature. From my perspective, as most of my answers will be, of course, I think that Black History Month comes from the realization that Black culture wasn’t being acknowledged to the extent that it needed to be. If you want to go back even further to the unfortunate threads of racism, slavery etcetera that marginalized black people to the extent that we were not considered fully a human being, even looking at actual documentation that proclaimed we were only half of a person, so really getting away from that kind of characterization if you will and really taking an acknowledgement, or a moment to acknowledge a really rich group of persons and history.
Alex: And I think we all understand that the role of Black History Month is to fill in a gap in, I guess, what history has taught, you know, typically around schools and stuff, right?
Sharitta: I guess it should to an extent, because it’s only for one month, which is kind of problematic, because you can’t possibly encompass everything that black people have contributed to U.S. history or the world in general in a month. Even if you spent 24 hours a day doing that. Because there’s so many different things that we contributed from the the smallest fun things like the Super Soaker gun, to traffic lights to peanut butter — peanut butter products if you will, so it is to fill a gap but it is something that really should be part of the fabric of who we are, just acknowledging Black culture. It should not be just relegated to a month, it just so happens that we have one.
Alex: So, you mentioned some historical black figures, you know inventor of the Super Soaker and others. How did you see major black historical figures represented in society?
Sharitta: That’s another loaded question because there were so many, I mean if you want to just look at one of the most historical figures, former President Obama, I see him represented as someone who had extreme grace in his position because at every turn he encountered combativeness from the country, greatest respect in some regards as well, but yeah he made great strides, and just was very much a gentleman, with no scandal. While he was in office there was nothing that would have him to be looked at as less of a husband or less of a man in regards to how he conducted himself even when he was pretty much short of being spat on whenever he had some kind of idea that he wanted to present. So it’s just that health plan, Obamacare, everything’s not going to please everyone, right? But there were many people that were positively impacted by some of the decisions and initiatives that he made. So I see him being presented in a very positive way, and being in some ways the epitome of grace. Because it’s very difficult, I believe, to continue to be gracious and patient and articulate your feelings in a way that’s not going to offend or scare certain people when you’re kind of at your wit’s end with what people are saying and how they’re making you feel when you're just trying to do what you believe is the right thing for the masses, not just for one group of people. Because he’s the president of the United States, not just the president for the black people.
Alex: So Barack Obama is I guess a pretty recent historical figure. Do you see maybe in your lifetime that there’s been some sort of change in how these figures are seen and represented and how even Black history as a whole is seen by the greater public?
Sharitta: I think that now, there is definitely a difference because of the political climate, in how much racial tension we have from interaction with law enforcement to immigration laws and how they’re impacting people’s families unfortunately, literally tearing them apart, to education systems locally, how there’s so much broken within that as well as our poverty level here in Rochester. So I do think that’s it’s changed, I think it’s become … there’s been a little bit more emphasis on Black History Month, and adjustment even, where we’re trying to be inclusive with that and calling in Black Heritage Month, we recently decided to do within my department, and just thinking about how that word “heritage” would help us to include the African diaspora as opposed to just “black person.” So I think it has evolved, and there’s more emphasis on it, because there is a time now where we really need more unity and we also need to continue to take the time to really look at Black culture as I mentioned earlier for the rich group of persons that we are and that we’re not combative. I think there’s so many stereotypes that are out there in regards to our abilities and how we’re portrayed. There’s a lot of negativity. I remember seeing an article recently about a young man who helped a woman who’s disabled and the first thing that the article mentioned was that he’s a former felon. Not anything else about this young man, but his felony history. That’s not relevant, he wasn’t robbing her, he was helping. So that’s one of the things that I see happen in the media a lot, when it comes to someone of color, the first thing that might be mentioned is that person was a drug addict, or a felon or things of that nature. So it’s just very interesting too to see how the media plays on race relations as well, which I think again brings a need for there to be a continued effort to recognize and to really find collaborative ways to address Black history, not just for one month, but making it a part of the fabric of who we are and what we do.
Alex: So especially this month, the topics we’re discussing are pretty relevant to educational spaces. So what do you think educators can do to be more inclusive?
Sharitta: I think one of the things that is really important is to truly try to create a sense of equity in the classroom. So how you respond to students or how you don’t respond. The time that you make for your students. So if you have a line of students that are in front of you, and let’s be clear, RIT is a wonderful global institution but it is predominantly white. So in the STEM field, you have students who … if you are a female in STEM, that’s part of the underserved population. If you are a transgender student, that’s part of the underserved population. If you’re hard of hearing, that’s part of the underserved population. Females in STEM, underserved again. So I think as a faculty, move forward and educating students, just being aware of those different student groups and how they might feel ostracized before they even come into the classroom, worrying about how they’re going to fit in, or how to communicate with faculty and staff, people assume that students come in knowing how to interact with faculty but then you also have to consider just at RIT alone, maybe five to seven percent or so come in college-ready. Part of college readiness is the ability to communicate effectively with faculty. So taking into consideration that communication gap and also just thinking about getting along the lines of equity, just making sure that you’re available to all of your students, and being able to ask the tough questions such as “how do you identify” when you’re talking about transgender students. So having a tough conversation I think also creates a more inclusive environment.
Alex: I appreciate you speaking with us today. And I think we’re gonna wrap up the conversation. I hope we didn’t take too much of your time, and I hope you have a great day.
Sharitta: Thank you, not a problem.
Alex: Alright, thank you very much for listening. We’re now going to introduce today’s guest. We have here Taylor Goethe.
Taylor: Yes, hello, I’m Taylor Goethe, I’m the views editor for Reporter.
Alex: As well as Shay McHale.
Shay: I’m Shay McHale. I was the writer of the piece.
Alex: Alright, so just before we get started too much, Shay, can you briefly explain what the piece is about?
Shay: So the piece just talked about an overall sense of what Black History Month has come to mean, the history of it, and the impact that it’s had on society and what it can do today.
Alex: In the conversation, you mentioned that Black History Month — and actually one of my favorite lines was that it’s “a stepping stone, not a lens” — do you guys feel like Black History Month is growing out of the month, finally?
Taylor: Um, if anything, I feel it’s being a little bit more condensed, because Black History Month is that thing where people say, “Oh it’s that time when we finally remember that black people exist and we get to celebrate them and go all out” but we don’t see that same energy throughout the rest of the year. I feel that we need to have a new dialog about Black History Month and be more proactive and integrate it with our education and the rest of our history because it’s still very segregated at this point in time.
Alex: Um, do you guys feel like Black History Month is kind of almost … given to black people by like a white power structure, as like a pity thing even?
Taylor: I wouldn’t say that, because Black History Month was started by black people, but it was in 1926 when they barely had any rights, and it was more to teach culture within the Black community to prove that they just weren’t slaves, to prove that they had contributed to American history, that they had fought in every war, that they had invented a lot to contribute to the United States. But now since then it’s been growing and changing.
Shay: Yeah, one of the things that I really experienced in my school — cuz I went to a predominantly white high school and we did celebrate Black History Month and the thing that was perhaps the purpose at the start was that the students, all of the black students at the school were actually hearing about figures from their history that we were not getting any of the history classes that I took. And so the fact that they were learning about their culture was really important but I think it was almost more important that all of the predominantly white school was also hearing about these figures.
Alex: Do you feel there’s a way that white people should read Black History Month?
Taylor: I think for one, white people need to realize that Black History Month involves them, that Black history is a part of American history, and literally the United States would not exist, the United States would not have its economy if it was not built off of slave labor. And they need to recognize the role that African Americans have played, and be more proactive in understanding that the history that they were being taught is a whitewashed version of history, and there’s plenty of figures from every culture that have not been included in their education.
Alex: It’s interesting that you brought up inclusiveness because Sharitta brought that up as well. Um, as RIT students, do you guys feel like you’re seeing the type of inclusiveness that you should be?
Shay: I personally have not seen a lot of it, because I guess I haven’t seen any like, promotion of Black History Month or anything even as an effort to teach students about the figures in Black History Month, the actual history of the month or any of the culture that comes along with it.
Taylor: I think it’s a hit and miss. Sometimes RIT does a lot of events like we just had the King’s Legacy Expressions and we’re having upcoming talks like the Black Tax, or we had Black Lives Matter come. But every time I go to these events, it’s all black people. And that’s the problem, like, our communities are diverse, but we’re not integrated with each other, we don’t go to each other’s events and we don’t celebrate each other’s cultures.
Alex: So you’d like to see a little more integration, but you like, I guess, the direction we’re going, and that kind of brings me to the question I wish I had time to ask Sharitta, but real quick, because we're running out of time, do you guys feel like Black History Month is on the way, maybe in the university or at large, to becoming what it should be, which is that Black history is as much a part of our history education as other history.
Taylor: Personally I'm a little bit of a cynic, and I know that all textbooks pass through certain barriers and it’s the same old white dudes who’ve been in charge of it for many decades, the same old companies. So I feel like until there’s a push in the structure and who is owning the textbooks and who is writing them, that change won’t be happening anytime soon without more protests, without more activeness and without more of us speaking up against it.
Shay: Yeah, I agree that there is progress but, right now although it is pointed in the right direction, there is still a long way to go before we have the ideal Black History celebration.
Alex: Alright, well thank you guys very much for coming to speak with me today. So before we sign off I’d like to ask our listeners to follow us on social media so you can see when the article hits the stands or goes up online at reporter.rit.edu. On Twitter, Facebook and Instagram we are @reportermag and we are reportermag on Snapchat. And of course, like always, I’m gonna ask you guys to call RINGS. Remember when YikYak was a thing? You could like, post whatever you want, it was anonymous and everyone was excited about it. We got the same energy going on over here. You call RINGS or text RINGS and you might get a little blurb in the magazine. The number is 585-672-4840. Thanks for listening.