In 1976, Gerald Ford became the first U.S. president to officially recognize Black History Month, urging the American public to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
At BC, Black History Month programming surged in the following decades, with new lineups of theatre performances, lectures, poetry exhibits, and more. But even now, students feel the BC community can better engage with Black History Month.
“I don’t think a lot of students engage with it who are not part of any other marginalized identities,” Ivana Wijedasa, the former co-director of the anti-racist group FACES, told The Heights after an event last year. “We’re doing [events] all throughout the month, but you don’t usually see a lot of the BC community really engage with them.”
America and BC in Change (1980s)
On-campus reporting of Black History Month rose during the ’80s, as coverage of guest speakers, art exhibits, theatrical performances, and social events for Black History Month increasingly populated the pages of The Heights each February.
James O’Toole, a retired BC professor and author of Ever to Excel: A History of Boston College, said this increase reflected greater cultural changes at both BC and in the United States overall.
“I think with the general rise in awareness in American society as a whole that ‘Look, there’s a lot of racial injustice that’s been going on for a long time, and we’ve got to play our little part in trying to combat that,’” O’Toole said.
In 1989, civil rights activist Jibreel Khazan visited BC as part of University Housing’s celebration of Black History Month.
“The goal of University Housing, in conjunction with the Residential Life Staff, is to show their recognition of the significance of Black History Month and the educating potential presented to all those who wish to partake in the programs,” the article read.
More steps still need to be taken to fully reach this “educating potential,” according to O’Toole, including getting students outside of these multicultural clubs to be more involved.
“Getting people beyond just the self-definitions, getting people who don’t share those self-definitions to also be engaged—I think that’s an ongoing task,” O’Toole said.
A Community Not Fully Engaged (1990s)
The University took more steps to acknowledge and celebrate Black History Month at BC in the ’90s, but students continued to voice concerns regarding a lack of community engagement.
In 1990, the Black Student Forum (BSF) and several other campus groups held Black History Month events throughout February, aiming to involve the broader BC community in the celebrations.
“My main concern is that the whole student body should know about our culture,” Anderson Manuel, the president of the BSF at the time and BC ’90, said.
Manuel said up until that point, no one had ever attempted to involve the whole University in Black History Month programming before.
Today, Manuel looks back at the Black History Month events he planned as an important opportunity where BC students introduced themselves to cultures different from their own.
“It was a great opportunity to bring in, you know, the music, the food, the culture, and to provide kids an opportunity to really immerse themselves in it and ask questions,” Manuel said. “Why is that music important to you? Why do you like this? Why do you like that? And … it’s because a lot of the things that I’ve found out is that these kids have never had an opportunity to be with a person of color.”
Manuel said this cultural exchange is a crucial experience for students to grow in their understanding of others.
“When someone has not had the opportunity to listen to someone’s history and to listen to some of the things that they’ve gone through, there is no way that they can really feel what that person is feeling,” he said.
Further into the decade, the same concerns surrounding the BC community’s lack of involvement with Black History Month persisted.
A 1996 Heights column titled “Viewpoints: Opinions from students on current issues” asked students whether or not they thought BC adequately celebrated Black History Month.
The first respondent Brad Donohue, BC ’98, said no.
“I think the fact that I don’t know says a lot,” Donohue said. “Obviously whatever functions the school has set up, there was not enough publicity.”
Another student Don Schuerman, BC ’97, similarly said that BC’s observance of Black History Month was lacking.
“What is there is good, but there needs to be more of it, more publicity, and more involvement of the BC community,” Schuerman said.
New Millenium, Same Problems (2000s)
Nearly a decade later, a 2005 feature reported student concerns about the BC community’s continued lack of participation in Black History Month programming.
“Black History Month is good to recognize, but Boston College should make events more eventful,” Christine Mulligan, BC ’05, said.
Students also said that the University put too much of the planning responsibility on student groups rather than itself.
“The University tends to put it on groups like Black Forum and the AHANA Leadership Council. The University itself should address it, not student organizations,” Christine Crawford, BC ’06, said. “Students are worried about midterms, so BC needs to be more active in organizing the events.”
“What We Do Is Not Just for Ourselves, but for Everyone” (2023)
Today, the same struggles to engage BC’s white students with Black History Month events and programming persist, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Because of COVID, I know a lot of culture clubs didn’t really get a chance to throw their annual events like, you know, they used to,” said Kaylee Arzu, treasurer for the BSF and MCAS ’24.
If anything, however, these setbacks give the BSF an opportunity to experiment with the programming offered this year, according to Arzu.
“We’re taking this chance to really rebrand and show that the events that we did in the past were great, but you know, we can make them better,” Arzu said. “We can make sure that students are not just, you know, coming in to have discussions—which is important—but are also just having fun.”
The African Student Organization (ASO) will hold its annual fashion show, a showcase of African culture through performance and visual arts, according to its vice president, Osasenaga Owens, CSOM ’24.
“We invite everyone because we see it as a way to kind of educate our fellow peers around campus about how diverse the African continent is in terms of, you know, music and style, and it’s also just a fun night overall,” Owens said.
Arzu also highlighted the BSF’s “Wild’n Out” show, slated for the end of February, as a particularly exciting event on this year’s schedule for everyone on campus—not just the AHANA community.
“What we do is not just for ourselves, but for everyone,” Arzu said.