What’s on My Mind: Black History Month as a call to action

"What's On My Mind" illustration of Chancellor Nicholas S. ZepposWe are in the midst of another year of powerful events and programming to celebrate and honor Black History Month at Vanderbilt. I hope you will all take part in the incredible lectures, dialogues, movie screenings and excursions taking place in the coming weeks. Black History Month is a critical time for reflection, for compassion, for improvement—but it is not and must not be the only time. We can always do better, and we can always do more.

This month, student, faculty and staff leaders are hosting events that will spark both reflection and action. The Bishop Joseph Johnson Black Cultural Center kicked off the month on Friday with a cultural celebration. Other highlights include the BCC’s inaugural Black History Immersion Excursion trip with students, faculty and staff to Montgomery and Selma, Alabama, a keynote lecture by The Hate U Give author Angie Thomas Feb. 13 regarding personal and political activism hosted by Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, and a moderated discussion Feb. 19 with The Sun Does Shine author Anthony Ray Hinton, who spent 30 years on death row for a crime he did not commit.

These and other upcoming events cover a full spectrum of themes: from difficult history to pressing topics of today; from collective empowerment to personal obstacles; from the oppression of injustice to the power of art to lift spirits.

My hope is that this year and every year, these thought-provoking events do not serve as ends within themselves, but instead ignite an ongoing quest for understanding and growth, the kind of growth that often only occurs through interpersonal dialogue. We should seek out the perpetual opportunities for more informal conversations with those around us. This month and every month, we should better ourselves through learning about others and sharing our own stories; we should better the present through learning about our collective past.

That need to inform our future through a deeper understanding of our past is what inspired the Vanderbilt Trailblazers Project, an installation of four portraits depicting African Americans who bravely broke down boundaries at Vanderbilt. Created by artist Simmie Knox, the portraits will hang in Kirkland Hall until this fall, at which point they will be installed in their permanent homes around campus, and the Kirkland will welcome new portraits of trailblazers. I invite you all to come to take a look at them for yourself. I think you’ll agree that the works underscore the power of art—with its delicate blend of subjectivity and objectivity—to open doors to new perspectives and to show our history in a new light.

This time last year, I wrote about the origins of Black History Month, and how we strive to honor the past, perseverance and influence of the black community on our campus and beyond. Even with so many opportunities—in the present—for engagement, we must remember that “history” is still an operative word in Black History Month.

When harnessed thoughtfully, history is the gateway to asking productive questions, to thinking differently, to making progress. It expands far beyond the milestones emphasized in textbooks. It applies to our own lives, the pastimes that have shaped us, the mistakes from which we have learned, the privileges we have or lack, the sequence of moments that build each hour of our days. History is inevitable, it is cumulative, it is inherent; it follows us wherever we go, and we must acknowledge it. We must make it count.