For the month of February, the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (ODEI), the Black Student Union (BSU) and several other organizations are continuing a Kenyon tradition which goes back more than forty years by hosting readings, talks, screenings and vigils to mark Black History Month.
“I don’t think we’ve ever had a loss for programming,” Associate Dean of Students and Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Chris Kennerly said, “because we do a lot of programming here at Kenyon. It’s not just the responsibility of ODEI. It’s a campus-wide effort.”
Some events had already been planned by other organizations, but were later added to the Black History Month calendar, such as the keynote address given by Buddhist priest and activist Rev. angel Kyodo williams Sensei and a lecture on Mount Vernon’s black history hosted by the Rural Cause and delivered by Ric Sheffield, professor of sociology and legal studies and Mount Vernon native. Altogether, there are 11 events scheduled throughout the month of February. “It’s a short month,” said president of the BSU Michaela Jenkins ’19, “and spring break comes right after, so it’s kind of a tight fit to do all the things that people are interested in doing.”
This February holds a special significance at Kenyon, as it marks the BSU’s 50th anniversary. Although the organization was officially recognized by the administration in 1970, it was in 1969 that the group which later became the official BSU presented their list of demands to President William G. Caples. In its first year, the BSU quickly catalyzed progress on campus: It secured an organization lounge, added black studies courses to Kenyon’s curriculum and advocated for solidarity and financial support to Jackson State University, where two students were killed during a civil rights protest.
Public celebrations of the anniversary have been pushed to 2020, as 2019 is the 50th anniversary of the year that Kenyon became co-educational. BSU will be hosting a private dinner on the 15th, where they have invited some of the BSU’s founding members to talk over video chat about their time at the College.
One of those invited to speak was Eugene Peterson ’70. Peterson remembers feeling alienated when he arrived at Kenyon in 1966. “Kenyon was my first choice,” he said, “but arriving on campus, it was difficult, because we were cut off from our culture, cut off from our familiar surroundings. We tried to fit in as best we could, but folks sometimes didn’t really want us there.” Peterson recounted many disagreements, both between the BSU and the rest of the student body and amongst members of the BSU themselves. “We did it the oldfashioned Kenyon way — we had spirited discussion and respectful debate,” Peterson said, “and we developed our demands.”
Although Kenyon has hosted black speakers for several decades — Langston Hughes gave a reading on campus in 1947 — the first recorded Black History Month programming was a 1978 screening of the film “The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings” in Rosse Hall. Since then, Programming has expanded greatly.
Two events this month, a reading group discussion on the collected writings of gay civil rights activist Bayard Rustin hosted by ODEI and a lecture on James Baldwin hosted by the African Students Association (ASA), highlight the intersections between black and LGBTQ+ identities.
“I think it’s really important that Black History [Month] talks about the vast variety of blackness that occurs around the world,” said Jenkins. “James Baldwin is an important part of that. Queer history is an important part of that.”
Although programming changes every year, two events have been held annually for an extended period: a vigil held on the steps of Rosse Hall, and the African diaspora reading. The reading, which has been held for over a decade, invites community members to read from the works of authors of African descent. The vigil is held in the name of Trayvon Martin for victims of police violence. “[The vigil] is one of my strongest memories of my first Black History Month here, and I also always love the African diaspora readings,” said Jenkins. “It’s always cool to see the work that people bring, what resonates with people.”
Jenkins also stressed the importance of the celebration. “Black History Month programming is important for everyone,” she said. “All of our events are open to the student body, and to the community as a whole.” Although the first two weeks of February have come and gone, Gambier can still look forward to the majority of the month’s upcoming events, offering a wide range of voices from both inside and outside the College.