The University of Rhode Island will celebrate Black History Month this February with a series of events to celebrate black poetry, art, film and culture.
The Multicultural Student Services Center kicked off the month on Feb. 5 with the annual luncheon for Martin Luther King Jr. Unity Week. The luncheon featured keynote speaker Omekongo Dibinga, a poet, talk show host, rapper and diversity educator. He spoke about nonviolence and peaceful movements, which Martin Luther King Jr. preached about during his life and resonates far beyond his death.
The theme of the week is to remember, celebrate and act. Director of the Multicultural Student Services Center, George Gallien, said of Dibinga, “We felt that he could best connect with our students and deliver the message.”
To end MLK Jr. Unity Week, there will be a showing of the Academy Award nominated film “Selma” in the Hardge Forum at 7 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 8. The historical drama is based on the 1965 marches from Selma to Montgomery, which were led by King and other civil rights leaders of the time.
The Multicultural Center will also hold a Black Open Mic Night on Feb. 15 from 7-9 p.m. and a Soul Food Night on Feb. 22 from 4:30-7:30 p.m. Both events will be held in the Hardge Forum.
In collaboration with URI’s Race, Violence and Democracy Colloquium, the Department of Africana Studies is presenting a lecture by Olympic athlete, scholar, activist and author John Carlos on Feb. 13 at 6 p.m. in the Thomas M. Ryan Family Auditorium, which is located in the Center for Biological and Life Sciences. The lecture is titled “Cultural and Symbolic Protests in the Context of International Human Rights.”
Carlos gained international attention over 50 years ago at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, when he and fellow United States Olympian Tommie Smith won bronze and gold medals respectively in the 200-meter sprint and stood on the podium raising their black-gloved fists with their heads down while the anthem played. The athletes were protesting the unfair treatment of black people in their country. This iconic moment was captured and became one of the most recognizable sports images of the 20th century.
Professor Robert Dilworth of the Africana Studies Department felt that Carlos would be an appropriate speaker with a topical lecture seeing as how even 50 years later athlete protests of racial inequality continue to make headlines with Colin Kaepernick and the controversial “take a knee” movement across sports.
“You see a real direct link to that and to what’s going on right now,” Dilworth said.
The University itself has a history with racial tensions and protest, most notably in 1992 when 200 students led by a newly-formed Black Student Leadership Group took over Taft Hall. The students had a list of demands that discussed their concerns with campus racism as students of color.
Dean Earl Smith III, assistant dean for Student Affairs, College of Arts and Sciences, said that at the time of the protest “Due to the climate, [they] weren’t really presented with any other reasonable option actually to be heard.”
While there have been changes, partially because of conversations facilitated by the University, particularly within Africana Studies and through the Multicultural Student Services Center, some believe there is still more room for change and growth.
“No matter how much improvement the University itself has made, with the national climate the way it is, the responsibility is even greater to have these discussions at all levels,” Smith said.
Having attended URI himself, Smith is very aware of the changes that have been made since his freshman year and the changes that still need to occur.
Dilworth expressed similar sentiments to Smith, saying that it almost needs to be a daily conversation in order to make the campus a welcome, inclusive and diverse environment for all.