Black History Month: MSU students, faculty reflect

Contact: Zack Plair

Brittney Robinson, a sophomore communication major from Ackerman, takes pride in her African-American heritage and said that Black History Month reminds her to push herself to be a mentor for others. (Photo by Megan Bean)

STARKVILLE, Miss.—Brittney Robinson represents more than herself as she pursues her degree at Mississippi State.

A sophomore communication major with an emphasis in theatre, the Ackerman native and valedictorian of her high school class is the first from her household to attend college. She said she wants to make her family and community proud. Beyond that, Robinson, who is African-American, said she wants to proudly represent her race.

“I want to be a role model for young black people to show them they can be anything they want to be and that college is an option,” she said.

Sometimes, Robinson admitted, the pressure of trying to be that role model can become heavy. But she said months like February, when Americans observe Black History Month, galvanize her purpose and push her to try even harder with her studies.

“Knowledge is power,” she said. “You have to know where you’ve been before you know where you are going.”

More than 200 years after the nation’s founding, 150 years after a U.S. constitutional amendment abolished slavery and half a century since the legal end to racial segregation, celebrating Black history remains important, said Stephen Middleton, professor and director of African-American studies at MSU. For him, it’s not specific to race. Rather, it’s a reflection of the nation’s social progress.

“It’s a celebration of what it means to be Americans, not just African-Americans, and it speaks to the freedoms we have as a nation,” he said. “What you see are stories of our nation’s evolution that illustrate how society can blossom to one that will expand, enlarge and include.”

Middleton acknowledges the racial inequalities of the past, as well as instances of discrimination – racial and otherwise – that persist today. Truly moving forward from those issues, he said, will come when people stop looking at how they are different and instead focus on how they are alike.

Specifically, he warns against employing race as a value standard for humanity or a rallying cry for action. He suggests instead a “balanced view” that makes it clear that skin tone has nothing to do with what people can achieve if they are afforded opportunity. Black history studies, he said, provide a wealth of examples of people who proved just that.

“The color of skin is one of many problems civilization struggles with, but it’s not the only one,” Middleton said. “When we insert race into our dialogue, we are automatically making it combative and polarizing when it doesn’t have to be. Our society needs a policy of non-discrimination (to assure equal opportunities), but what I believe we will discover as we continue to progress and evolve is the oneness of humanity.”

He encourages people of all races to challenge their thinking as to why skin color even matters in society. Once people start to see each other as simply humans instead of “Black,” “White” or “Other,” he said the social construct of racial division will begin to lose its power. That process starts with love.

“Even a dog, who is scared, has been beaten and starved, responds to love,” he said. “Why can’t we do this for human beings?”

Meanwhile, Robinson presses on, scared to fail and determined not to. She knows relatives and friends who dropped out of college, and she feels that puts that much more of a charge on her to finish.

Ultimately, she dreams of being a professional singer or someone who works in television production. Whenever she gets to where she’s headed, she said she will have a degree from MSU on her wall – for herself, her family, her community and her race – regardless of the challenges that lay ahead.

“I want to feel like I did my part,” she said.

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