A conversation between Associate Professor of English Guy Mark Foster and Assistant Professor of Government Chryl Laird kicked off this year’s Black History Month and Beyond programming Wednesday evening, covering topics ranging from politics to the Oscars.
Amani Hite ’20, who is president of the Black Student Union (BSU), moderated the conversation titled “Black Contributions to Culture, Politics, and American Life.”
Both Laird and Foster emphasized the crucial contributions of Black bodies and minds to aspects of modern American life, including cuisine, entertainment and language. Foster underscored the importance of Black people in the creation of some of the most salient cultural and political infrastructure in America.
“Michelle Obama, at one point, acknowledged … when she and her family entered the White House, it didn’t escape her that she was entering into a building that was constructed by Black people,” Foster said. “And I think when Black people mention those types of contributions, they’re all then met with pushback.”
Laird added that, far too often, Black contributions to American culture are only recognized and appreciated when they appear in white culture.
“There’s so much stuff that goes on within the Black community. And then you see it pop up in the mainstream and people act like that thing is brand new, and you’re like, ‘but people have been doing that for a long time,’” said Laird.
Laird sees the entertainment industry, specifically film, as an especially good avenue for celebrating Blackness. She cited film director Matthew A. Cherry’s short film “Hair Love,” which depicts the relationship between a Black father and his daughter through hair care, as one of the prime examples of how film can serve as a vehicle for showcasing Black culture.
“Hair care for many Black women is a very loving, caring experience. And [Cherry] wanted to demonstrate that through this film,” said Laird. “He fundraised through a GoFundMe or a Kickstarter … and it’s now nominated for an Oscar. Like, that’s wild.”
Foster disagreed with Laird’s statement, questioning whether or not white institutions should be considered the benchmark for Black achievement.
“I would like for us collectively, people of color and white, progressive thinkers to … actually stand up and turn our backs to the Oscars,” Foster said. “If we did that, perhaps things might change.”
The conversation also extended to the role that Black voters play in the current political climate. During the exchange Laird alluded to the content in her latest book, “Steadfast Democrats: How Social Forces Shape Black Political Behavior.”
“Black Democratic loyalty … is not a sheep behavior,” Laird said. “The fact that [Black people] may be aligned in our partisan values has a lot to do with our race, the communities that we’re in, the socializing that we’re doing and the social ties that we have.”
Foster reminded the group that, despite having their culture constantly usurped and appropriated by white America, Black Americans have been characteristically resilient.
“There’s a kind of ‘always keep going forward,’ ‘always moving forward’ [mentality] for Black people as a collective,” Foster said. “I like that kind of ability of our culture to continually revise and reinvent new things.”
Hite was happy with the discussion but wished it could have been longer.
“The talk was so short, and I wanted more time,” Hite said. “But even with a ten-hour talk, it wouldn’t be enough time to talk about the Black experience.”
BSU, along with Africa Alliance and the Student Organization for Caribbean Awareness, sat on the Black History Month Committee which has been responsible for planning and executing this February’s programming.
“We try to make sure that all of the programming is very well-versed and very diverse,” Hite said. “The talks are always catered to what is happening in the world right now.”
Hite encourages the Bowdoin community not to confine the celebration of Black history to one month. She stressed that only genuine and sustained student participation will lead to meaningful engagement.
“After the end of February, the Black experience does not stop,” said Hite. “Learn, grow, educate yourself and come to these talks as well, but know that these talks are just setting the foundation for what could be a more fruitful conversation.”