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Seeking to expand Black History Month

Keynote speaker James B. Peterson (left), director of Lehigh's Africana studies program, commends conference organizers Ralph Jean-Noel '15 and MyTresa Taylor '15.

Leaders from Lehigh and other Lehigh Valley colleges gathered at the University Center last Saturday to talk about expanding the definition of Black History Month.

About seventy students and faculty members attended the fifth annual Bridging the Gap Conference, which was sponsored by Lehigh’s Black Student Union and Africana Studies program.

The event, titled “Redefining Black History,” featured four workshops and a keynote address by James B. Peterson, director of Africana studies and associate professor of English at Lehigh.

This year, students from other LVAIC (Lehigh Valley Association of Independent Colleges) schools were invited to the conference for the first time.

Kwame Essien, assistant professor of history and Africana studies, asked participants to connect Black History Month to the African diaspora in his workshop, which was titled “Black History Month is Here Again: Where Are the ‘Other’ Black Folks?”

The role of black people from Africa, the Caribbean and other parts of the world outside the United States, said Essien, is often missing from the annual celebration of Black History Month in America.

“In every black story, there is an African,” Essien said. “We must remember the Pan-African alliance—the connection of different groups that have the same struggle.”

Essien called on African-Americans and Africans to take initiative in honoring this kinship. He spoke of notable American and African leaders who advocated for Pan-Africanism, such as Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of Ghana, and W.E.B. Du Bois. Du Bois (1868-1963), a historian, sociologist and cofounder of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), lived out his final years in Ghana, serving as a symbol of this Pan-African connection.

In his keynote address, titled “African Peer Review Mechanism as a Way of Redefining Black History,” Peterson also advocated improving ties between those who make up the extensive network of black people.

“We need to do a better job at embracing our diversity within our own community,” Peterson said. “There is no substitute for our own initiative around issues of social justice.”

Peterson encouraged engagement and awareness in a more specific American context: the media.

“The media has an important role to play in any human rights issue,” he said. “People such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X used the media strategically for their social and political movements. However, the media is not always our best answer.”

For example, Peterson compared the extensive coverage of the current crisis in Kiev to the lack of media presence in Africa. He cited a conflict between Muslims and Christians in the Central African Republic, the sex trade in coastal Kenya, and a bill prohibiting public displays of homosexuality in Uganda.

“The media has completely skewed our perception of Africa,” he said, “and everyone is susceptible to it. There is work that we have to do if we are not thinking critically about these images and portrayals.”

Lloyd Steffen, professor of religion studies and university chaplain, led a workshop titled “The School to Prison Pipeline.”

Steffen told stories of wrongfully convicted black people in the United States, such as Kalief Browder, 20, who was jailed in New York City from 2010 to 2013 for a crime for which he was never convicted.

“The criminal justice system is a place where racism is alive and well in its purest form,” said Steffen, who is director of Lehigh’s Center for Dialogue, Ethics and Spirituality and also of the Lehigh Prison Project.

The pipeline from school to prison, Steffen added, “pushes minorities, especially those who are already at a disadvantage, out of school and into the American criminal justice system.”

Other workshops included “Strategies of Reclamation: By Any Means Necessary” led by Monica R. Miller, assistant professor of religion studies and Africana studies, and “Re-imagining Malcom X” led by Khurram Hussain, assistant professor of religion studies, and Imaani El-Burki, post-doctoral fellow of Africana studies.

The event was planned by Lehigh juniors Ralph Jean-Noel, a global studies major, and MyTresa Taylor, who majors in supply chain management.

“I hope that the lines of communication that started here continue on and don’t die out,” Jean-Noel said.

Peterson congratulated those who had participated in this year’s conference.

“I have never before seen the depth and breadth of programs as have been put on this year for Black History Month,” he said. “I’m inspired.”

Photos by John Kish IV

Story by Jaime DellaPelle '14

Posted on Friday, February 28, 2014

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