By Alycia Gilb
“I’d like to call this the first annual so we can have one every year,” Dr. Piper Williams beamed as she welcomed attendees to the African American Studies Teach-In, one of the College’s Black History Month events. This event shed light on the research of three of the College’s young Black professors.
The African American Studies Teach-In took place on Friday, Feb. 12 and garnered an audience of 190 people, including students, faculty members, and even a couple family members of the speakers. Topics ranged from the importance of graffiti to the effects of incarceration on Black fathers.
Celebrating Black History Month at the College is exciting for Williams, who graduated from Spelman College, a predominantly Black school in Atlanta. For Williams, Spelman College was the very first time she was taught by Black women.
“I know [the same thing] happens to students [at the College] ‘cause I’m sometimes my students’ first Black female professor,” she said. “New Jersey is segregated. [There are] lots of towns that are almost all white, and lots of cities that are almost all brown and Black. And that’s intentional. It’s so interesting for students coming to campus.”
Williams pointed out that while the College is working tirelessly to be an inclusive campus, it is still a predominantly white institution.
“I know that [the College is] working and working and working to try to be a better place for all kinds of people,” she said. “I think we should bust out of February, I mean in African American Studies we do, but at least we can get some kind of concentration this month and I think that’s good.”
Williams got the idea for an African American Studies Teach-In when the Criminology department held their own teach-in this past fall.
“I’m a little nervous and excited for how it’s gonna come off,” Williams said, referring to the event. “It’s good for [our junior faculty] to get their research out and have people question them about it.”
The junior faculty members – professors who are not yet tenured – speaking at the event were Alma Khasawnih (Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies), Michael Mitchell (Criminology and African American Studies), and Adaurennaya Onyewuenyi (Psychology). With a wide range of disciplines, the presentations given by these three professors were both engaging and enlightening, shedding light on topics not usually covered in typical courses at the College.
Starting off the presentations was Mitchell, whose research focused on the effects of incarceration on parents. A graduate of the historically Black institution, Texas Southern University, Mitchell was inspired to become a professor after a mentorship, where he “started to look at the criminal justice system in a more critical lens.”
During his presentation, Mitchell shared an emotional testimony from one of his participants: a father whose daughter had been molested by her stepfather. The man said that the whole experience “messed with him,” especially as he was still in prison as these events were occuring, and he couldn’t be there to protect his daughter. Mitchell stressed that, even though these men and women committed crimes, they’re still just human beings underneath it all.
“We often reduce these individuals to ex-offenders, ex-convicts, but to be honest, these individuals are fathers, brothers, sons. They have roles that are integral to their beings that do not have to do with their sentence,” Mitchell said.
Bringing statistics into a more personal light, Onyewuenyi followed Mitchell by sharing her research on “complicating our understanding of blackness at TCNJ.” Onyewuenyi’s research focused on 251 black-identified students of the College. She described “blackness” as what black people eat, how they dress, and “fighting over who makes the best mac and cheese.” All of these things factor into blackness, and blackness is a different experience for everyone.
In her research, run by Onyewuenyi and some of her students, 184 Black Americans and 163 Black immigrants were studied. Onyewuenyi shared that this study covered around 66% of the Black community at the College.
“Blackness is not just steeped within trauma and oppression – it’s also about joy, resilience, perseverance, and the relentless fight for black liberation,” Onyewuenyi said.
Alma Khasawnih finished out the presentations with her research about the importance of graffiti. Khasawnih, a professor in the Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies department, explained how graffiti is labeled as vandalism, but it is important as it spreads important political and social messages.
While the African American Studies Teach-In proved to be a success, Mitchell shared his excitement for the upcoming events, including one that he would be hosting. On Feb. 24, Mitchell will be hosting an event with three of his colleagues. The event will be based off of an article written by his colleagues about the challenges black incarcerated women – specifically Black mothers – face. He hopes to have an engaging discussion about black women and their experiences in and after prison, delving into the topic of criminal justice reform.
Other speakers in the lineup for Black History Month include RahK Lash, speaking about the etymology, history, and usage of the “N” word, and Eddie Glaude, a professor of African American Studies at Princeton University. The month was kicked off on Feb. 5 by the raising of the Pan-African Flag.
“There’s a few more events that have a direct connection to the department [of African American Studies], which makes me excited, and there’s some real prominent people,” Williams said. One of these prominent people is Alicia Garza, co-creator of #BlackLivesMatter and the Black Lives Matter Global Network.
Since the creation of BLM, the organization has sparked a movement pushing for social reform and the end of white supremacy.
While BLM blazes trails in the present, Black History Month dates all the way back to the 1920s, when Carter G. Woodson realized that Black history was being underrepresented in classrooms. The first nation-wide Black History Month was celebrated in 1976, after a decade of colleges and universities celebrating the tradition.
Black History Month continues to be an important part of American culture 45 years later. As for the College’s latest Black History Month event, Williams and Mitchell hope that its attendees took away both new knowledge and understanding of both the department of African American Studies and of the Black community as a whole.
“I hope people will be able to see how African American Studies is interdisciplinary,” Williams said. “I hope they see this wide variety of ways that you can interact with African American Studies from different perspectives.”
Mitchell wants people to understand that events like these are crucial to the development of the College.
“It’s important because, as a campus that’s becoming increasingly more diverse, we have to become more inclusive,” he said. “You can have students and faculty of color on campus, but if we’re not being inclusive and if we’re not becoming anti-racist, then the progression of our campus culture will be stagnated.”