Doctor Josie R. Johnson – a recognized civil rights activist and leader – spoke as the Black History Month chapel speaker on Thursday, Feb. 13. Johnson is a recognized civil rights activist and leader. Her talk, entitled “Why Do We Celebrate Black History Month?,” addressed the historical and contemporary importance of Black History Month in the culture of St. Olaf and U.S. society. Johnson both reviewed American perceptions of African American history and challenged students to practice understanding and inclusivity at all times in their lives.
Dr. Johnson first addressed the relevance of African American history in current American society. According to Johnson, perceptions of history influence contemporary values and institutions. Moreover, antiquated justifications and ways of thinking still infiltrate American culture.
For instance, the slaveholder mentality, which justifies the inhumane treatment of African Americans, still pervades contemporary societal thinking.
This mentality holds that the white owners “were better than the people they enslaved” and that these slaves “deserved the treatment they received,” Johnson said.
Johnson claimed that the process of challenging this mentality began 88 years ago with Doctor Carter G. Wilson, a St. Olaf professor who brought together a group of students to study and document an honest African American history. Their writing encouraged the youth of the 60s to fight bravely against racial injustice despite grave personal danger. Still, according to Johnson, a mentality of inequality persists today.
“What we are observing today is the deeply entrenched psyche that we as [African Americans] did not deserve justice,” Johnson said.
Johnson held that this psyche both results in and is reinforced by a societal desire to control the African American people, a desire which is deeply ingrained in American society. This desire manifests itself in American government, policies and institutions. Moreover, this inequality runs counter to constitutional values of justice which hold that all people and groups are a part of the United States. While unfortunate, Johnson also sees this trend as reversible.
“You have a responsibility during this month and throughout the year to pay attention, to listen carefully, to think together, to reason together and to understand why a society needs to have critical thinkers,” Johnson said.
Johnson also charged the students in chapel to act as models for younger generations.
According to Johnson, the students’ responsibility is to be an example of what is possible for those younger than them, showing them “how to behave in a civil and meaningful society.”
These responsibilities are ones that should continue beyond Black History Month and into the coming year. Johnson expressed hope that during this year, students will take opportunities to listen to divergent points of view, appreciate the historical reality of exclusivity and pay attention both to what is said and what is not said. Next year, students should be able to testify both in word and action to how they have changed their mentalities and behaviors, thus illustrating inclusive and understanding society.
Johnson’s talk was one of the events put on by St. Olaf’s Office of Multicultural Affairs for Black History Month. Other events this month included “Daughters of Africa,” a solo music and dance performance by the Mixed Blood Theatre. “Daughters of Africa” took place on Saturday, Feb. 15th and celebrated the achievements of historically overlooked African American women.
Upcoming events include a showing of the film “12 Years a Slave,”a historical drama adaptation of the 1853 memoir of Solomon Northrup, a free African American who was captured in New York and sold into slavery. The film showing will take place on Thursday, Feb. 27 in Tomson Hall 280.
On Feb. 28, there will be a film showing of “White Like Me,” followed by a lecture by Assistant Professor of Social Work Su Smalling. The final event of the month is a spoken word competition taking place in the Lion’s Pause on Saturday, March 1.
The Cultural Union for Black Expression CUBE, in partnership with other on-campus organizations, is in charge of planning Black History Month at St. Olaf.
Photo Credit: VALENTINA YANG/MANITOU MESSENGER