Celebrating Black History Month at Whitman

Nazaaha Penick and Sara Marshall

Members of Whitman College are celebrating Black History Month by embracing the concept of Black joy and recognizing the contributions and achievements of Black individuals. With a variety of events, workshops and activities, Whitman is creating spaces for students, staff and faculty to come together and celebrate the rich history and cultural heritage of the Black community.

Black History Month takes place throughout the month of February. The celebration was originally observed by the U.S. but has spread throughout the world with official recognition from countries like the United Kingdom and Ireland. The national 2023 Black History Month theme is: “Black Resistance.” The nationwide focus this year “explores how African Americans have addressed historic and ongoing disadvantage and oppression, as evidenced by recent events.”

The Intercultural Center at Whitman plans to host many events in celebration of the month. These events include informational lectures, screenings, games nights and discussions about the Black experience. The Whitman Black Student Union also plans to celebrate the month on campus with its members through Hair Workshops, Family Feud Night and even a spirit week from Feb. 6 through Feb. 10. 

The president of the Association for the Study of African American Life, Dr. W. Marvin Dulaney,  who is responsible for choosing Black History Month’s national themes, talked about the relevant theme of resistance due to the politically charged environment regarding race.

NPR reported Dulaney’s opinions regarding recent resistance in states such as Florida, which have recently declined to adopt a new Advanced Placement course focused on African American studies.

“Starting in the ’60s through the ’70s, we were very successful in integrating African American history of culture into the curriculum,” Dulaney said. “Now, here we are, back having to push that agenda again … [against those] trying to suppress the teaching of African American history and culture.” 

Director of the Intercultural Center Tebraie Banda-Johns addressed the national theme of “Black resistance ” and what it means to him as a Black man. 

“It’s about learning how to resist and what that means for the community, and also what that means for yourself as a Black individual,” Banda-Johns said.“How do you resist the negativity coming in through the media, through community members and your friends; how [do you] live authentically to who you are?”

Sophomore Margaret Kanyoko views Black History Month as a method of correcting historical inaccuracies and erasure.

“I think it’s important to tell history from the perspective of all people that have participated in it,” Kanyoko said. “I think sometimes we’re taught to look at everything from the perspective of white people and the white people that we’re supposed to praise for creating our institutions, while the people of color are not really actors.”

Kanyoko emphasizes the reclamation of historical narratives as an avenue of resistance and reassertion of pride.

“Historically, Black people were viewed more like objects, not subjects. Things happen to them, but they don’t do things in a lot of ways,” Kanyoko said. “I think it’s good to show Black people as agents in history and also show how they have affected history.”

Mabinty Quarshie, USA Today reporter, writes in a newsletter titled “This is America” her response to the killing of Tyre Nichols. She emphasizes the importance of prioritizing Black joy as a form of resistance. 

“This Black History Month, I’m choosing joy. Black joy is Black resistance. It’s my salvation” Quarshie said. 

Banda-Johns spoke about an event hosted by the Intercultural Center on Feb. 15 focusing on mental health for Black faculty, staff and students. He sees providing resources and support as a way to reach out to the campus.

“We will be checking in with Black faculty and students, anyone identifying with the African diaspora. It’s been a rough year, and being here in Walla Walla or at Whitman can feel isolating for folks,” Banda-Johns said. “The Intercultural Center wants to do a simple check-in like, ‘Hey, how are you? Where are you at, and how are you feeling?’ and provide some resources that folks can utilize to help make them feel like a part of a community.” 

Banda-Johns encourages participation, emphasizing the convenience of the events for the community on campus. 

“I would encourage folks that if you want to learn, if you want to celebrate Black people, this is an easy way to do so. These events are free and you don’t have to travel far, so there [should be] no hesitation,” Banda-Johns said.