The written record for Kenyon’s observance of Black History Month dates back to the second half of the 20th century, when students gathered in Rosse Hall for a 1978 showing of “The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings.” A look into the Collegian archives reveals the complicated trajectory that the College has followed over the past several decades to recognize events and social movements associated with Black culture, identity and history.
This February, the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion organized a schedule of 15 programs throughout the month that celebrate Black History Month. These included a Black Student Union (BSU) open-mic, multiple Steve Fund workshops, annual African Diaspora readings from volunteers and several other events. Every year, Kenyon hosts a vigil, “For Trayvon and All Those Before and After Him” and a celebration of life.
Before the first recorded celebration of Black History Month at Kenyon 45 years ago, Langston Hughes visited Kenyon in 1947 to deliver a formal talk and reading. A Collegian news brief reported that Hughes asked, “Why aren’t there any Black people at Kenyon?” The next year, Allen Ballard ’52 and Stanley Jackson ’52 became the first two Black students to attend Kenyon. On campus, Ballard was a football and lacrosse player and political science major. In 1973, he published a book that recounts his experience on the Hill. In The Education of Black Folk: The Afro-American Struggle for Knowledge in America, he wrote, “For eighteen hours a day our manners, speech, style, and walking were on trial before white America. … Social life revolved around fraternities from which we were automatically excluded. The cumulative toll, both physically and academically, was heavy.”
On Jan. 30, 1969, the Collegian published “Kenyon’s Black Neglect,” an editorial that raised awareness about the College’s lack of commitment to creating a safe learning and social environment for Black students on campus. RCB, the writer, stated, “Not too long ago Provost Bruce Haywood said that Kenyon could no longer tolerate the imbalance of one-sex education. It is time we stopped tolerating what amounts to one-race education.” In advocating for Kenyon to bring more Black students and professors to campus, the writer noted that the real problem was not whether Kenyon could afford to admit more students, but rather that the institution neglected to create an inclusive or diverse environment in Gambier. RCB propelled Kenyon to expand its curriculum to more accurately embody a liberal arts education.
One year later, a group of Black Kenyon students published a statement calling on the College to hire more Black professors and faculty, admit more Black students, provide more financial aid for Black students and adjust the curriculum to focus on Black culture. It wasn’t until 1975 that Professor of English Kenneth Bluford joined Kenyon’s faculty as the College’s first Black professor. Two decades later, in 1996, the College’s tenured Black professors totaled a mere two, with Professor of Sociology & Legal Studies and Distinguished Professor in Diversity and Inclusion Ric Sheffield and Associate Provost for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, Special Advisor to the President and Professor of English Ted Mason, according to a Kenyon Alumni Bulletin.
By the end of 1969, Kenyon students formed BSU on campus. Ruben Pope ’70 and Eugene Peterson ’70, two of the organization’s founding members, were close friends on the Hill, an American Studies project at Kenyon said. According to the project, Pope described the campus as socially isolating for him as one of the few Black students on campus at the time: “He felt that he was constantly on display, and forced to ‘represent his race.’” Peterson told the Collegian in a 2019 interview that BSU was a space for productive conversation and action on campus: “We did it the old fashioned Kenyon way — we had spirited discussion and respectful debate,” Peterson said, “and we developed our demands.” In May 1970, the Collegian published part of a statement from BSU, which proposed several programs for Kenyon to institute immediately. Included in that list was the installment of courses in various departments that discuss the Black experience and the creation of a Black student center.
A February 1988 issue of the Collegian reveals how Black History Month programming evolved on campus since the 1970s. That month, BSU sponsored several programs, including various movie showings, a poetry reading by Alice Walker a discussion by Historian John Hope Franklin and an all-campus party. “The reading was an affirmation of the power and depth that Afro-American literature has, a shared experience that will hopefully become a Kenyon tradition,” a Collegian article said.
Despite invitations by BSU for students to attend Black History Month events, the celebrations have not always been honored by all community members. In the early 2000s, the Collegian published an op-ed, “Is Black History Month the first step towards ‘color-blind existence’?” In the piece, guest columnist James Lewis suggested that while Black History Month can reaffirm success in the Black community, the Kenyon community should instead move toward a color-blind world. While the writer proposes readers exercise a color-blind racial ideology, many sociologists argue that this ideology only further perpetuates racism through the choice to ignore discrimination. In fact, Sheffield and Mason pointed out that “no place in American society is color-blind,” according to a Kenyon Alumni Bulletin.
While Kenyon has made progress in hiring more Black faculty and advancing a more diverse student body, the College has a long way to go in amplifying Black voices inside and outside of campus to adhere to its commitment to diversity and inclusion. In February 2021, the Student Council and Office of Student Engagement initially denied funding for BSU to host author Mikki Kendall due to a claim that they could not bring a speaker on campus, the Collegian reported. Eventually, the event was able to take place, but only after appeals from BSU.
Before February wraps up, students are encouraged to partake in upcoming events such as a film screening of “Late Expectations and Belonging” in the Community Foundation Theater on Feb. 23 and an Afro-Peruvian Sextet Concert in Rosse Hall that night.