Recognizing Black History Month at a predominantly white university

By Amelia Leaphart
Executive Editor

As Sewanee celebrates 55 years of Black Alumni, current student leaders of the Black Student Union and NAACP reflect on how Black History Month is significant to them. 

Britney Ogbunugafor (C’22) said, “For the longest time when I was younger, I didn’t really love the color of my skin. I’m Nigerian-American, and I didn’t really like that I was African. I didn’t like my hair. So I guess when I really started to love myself for who I am, I started being more in-tune with my culture and where I came from. Black History Month was a part of that, it serves as a reminder for how far I’ve come for me individually and how far Black people across the globe have come. I take it very seriously.”

Obgunugafor works as the secretary for the Black Student Union and as a member of Sewanee’s NAACP. She decided to get involved with identity-based groups because she knew upon arriving in Sewanee that she wanted to be a part of groups that shared her identity. 

Obgunugafor feels like engagement with students has improved in recent years, but hopes for more involvement, yet she feels like students who are a part of the organization are doing their part. 

“For me, I wish that [Black History Month] was naturally included in Sewanee discussions. I feel that now, it’s kind of like a section. Black history is not only celebrated in one month, it’s celebrated throughout the year to a lifetime. I feel that we shouldn’t just limit ourselves to only one month to celebrate Black history. I feel that during conversations, especially about Sewanee’s history, we include Black history, because it’s a part of everything that is a part of us.”

Growing up in a predominately Hispanic and Black community, coming to Sewanee was a culture shock for Ogbunugafor.

“I think it’s a struggle for other non-white students. Adapting to it was hard and a struggle many of us face,” she observed. We don’t know how to handle it or know who to speak to at times. We’ve kind of worked on that with organizations people can join people with similar experiences.”

Klarke Stricklen (C’22) is the vice-president of the Sewanee unit of the NAACP for her second year. 

“I think a lot of the time, we can be so cut off from the world, we wanted to not only elevate problems in America, but also use some of the structures in the leadership of the NAACP to advance causes at Sewanee as well,” Stircklen said.

She praises how the NAACP at Sewanee allows access to national and state resources as well as resources from the University that foster effective campus leadership.

Stricklen especially loves the history behind Black History Month, beginning with Carter G. Woodson inventing the concept of  Black History Week. 

“He actually wanted to separate Black people from this constant theme of bondage. I think that’s very important because when some people think of Black History Month, they think of slavery and this emphasis on trauma,” Stricklen said, “For him to create Black History Month and a way to celebrate different contributions from Black people in America without always having to over-emphasize slavery. While we do want to recognize slavery, we also want to recognize achievements outside of trauma.”

Tija Odoms (C’22) is the president of Sewanee’s NAACP, says, “Black people’s accomplishments in the world are oftentimes unnoticed. I feel that every year during Black History Month, I learn something new about how Black people contributed to society.” 

The recognition of accomplishments, from Shirley Crisholm to Kamala Harris, opens spaces Odoms felt previously excluded from.

“It’s a time for people not just like ourselves, but for people outside of the racial group, to recognize accomplishments of Black people globally.”

Many around the world saw the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor as awakenings to how deadly violence against Black Americans remains prevalent in the United States today. 

Stricklen says this violence was nothing novel to her.  

“We see these things happening all the time. We see police brutality happening all the time. It’s just that when you’re in the middle of a pandemic, the whole world saw it because there was no way for them not to confront it,” Sticklen said. 

Odoms specifies gun violence as a repeating conversation among Black students at Sewanee as a prevalent issue in the Black community. 

“How often do we have a conversation at Sewanee about gun violence? Other than terrorist acts or mass shootings. Some students at Sewanee are living in communities flooded with gun violence, and their childhood friends are dying, and they have to show up to class as if nothing has happened,” Odoms said. 

Stricklen further highlighted the sacrifices Black students make to attend Sewanee. 

“We don’t have facilities to take care of our needs, such as hair-care. We have to go off-campus to take care of ourselves. It can be exhausting to always have to do that. I think people should understand that we don’t always get to be students all the time. If we want a program, we have to initiate it for ourselves,” Stricklen said. 

Outside of events dedicated to 55 years of Black Alumni, any event relating to Black History Month has been organized by Black students. However, organizations on-campus created numerous activities for Valentine’s Day. Both Odoms and Stricklen feel the pressure of always having to explain the need for resources for Black students at Sewanee.

In reference to the 55 year anniversary of Black Alumni, Stricklen mentions Black students in the 1970s who created the Black Student Union. 

“That was a tough thing to do back then. If you go back to Sewanee Purple articles, there are writers who don’t necessarily agree that there should be activity funds dedicated to a group like Black Student Union.”

Odoms said that although they are not living in the same times as early students, they still confront many of the same issues they had to address, and Sticklen agrees. 

“Black students and other students of color still deal with racism on campus,” Stricklen said, “Whether coming from students or different people in the university, there are still problems with racism and prejudice.” 

Odoms finds herself resisting challenging students who arrive at Sewanee from different backgrounds and who may be unaware of problematic statements they make on race or campus culture. 

“I don’t want to come off as the ‘angry Black woman,’” Odoms explained.

NAACP events include economic literacy programs, voting engagement programs, or screenings and discussions regarding mass incarceration. The last screening for Black History Month, sponsored by the Sewanee NAACP in partnership with the Cinema Guild, will show Da 5 Bloodz, directed by Spike Lee, on February 24.