Making Every Month Black History Month: A Q&A with Intercultural Center Director Monique Atherley
In February, MMC’s Intercultural Center partnered with campus departments and student organizations for a month-long celebration of Black history and culture. The lineup included a day trip to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., a Black History Month Showcase in the Great Hall, panel discussions, and more. Here IC Director Monique Atherley explains the intention with which they greeted Black History Month—and, as it closes, how to engage in learning and allyship all year long.
The theme for this year’s Black History Month celebrations was ‘Magical, Yet Real.’ How did you arrive at that?
MA: Since the pandemic, it’s been important for us to think about ways to replenish the communities disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, which were predominantly people of color, predominantly folks within the Black community. In 2021, our theme was Black Futures because we wanted to have students think about themselves in the future—we had just gone through two years of folks not knowing what would happen to them or their families, and we wanted to get back to a place of dreaming and possibility.
This year’s theme speaks to a reality that we frequently see: Black folks being hyper-visible in a space, be it the classroom, the stage, or a profession, but not being given the grace to be their full selves. Oftentimes, because of implicit bias, when a Black person makes a mistake—because we’re human like everyone else—they’re condemned or criticized more harshly than people with other identities might be. So, we wanted to look at the duality of Black folks being able to be magical, to be great, to be glorious but also needing to demand that they be seen as the multi-faceted beings they are, who should have space to thrive, fail, make mistakes, grow, and evolve.
How do you hope this theme and other lessons from your events will extend beyond Black History Month?
MA: Our work doesn’t begin or end with the recognition months we celebrate. Engaging with and learning about different communities—particularly the advocacy, visibility, and amplification of those communities—shouldn’t be confined to those four weeks. I’d recommend people ask themselves, ‘How do I engage members of this particular community in supporting them and learning about their journey? How can I be an accomplice in disrupting systems of oppression that continue to impact these communities?’ Once Black History Month is over, are you still taking the opportunity within your own identities to learn—or unlearn—things that will help you to be more equitable, supportive, and authentic? Or will you wait until February 2024 rolls around? It’s about consistency.
We’ve seen the study of Black history come under attack in various ways, from book banning to Florida’s rejection of a new AP African American Studies course. How can members of our community speak out and work to counter that?
MA: I would challenge folks to consider how these issues appear in their home communities—they can show up very differently depending on where you’re from. An important piece, too, is educating yourself. So, for example, in Florida and other states, we’ve seen the banning of critical race theory in K-12 classrooms. But not enough people know what CRT is to have a discussion about it.
Educate yourself, and as you do, ask, ‘In the places and spaces where I exist, how can I be a medium to share this information or help people understand it?’ We’re in a very dangerous era of social media where misinformation gets spread widely, and oftentimes we go off sound bites that don’t have a lot of context.
There are also different roles that folks can play in supporting historically excluded people. At MMC, you could work with student leaders to bring awareness or look to your skillset and, for example, design flyers to help promote events. That’s why an initiative like our Social Justice Ambassadors Program is instrumental—we had a session last fall that looked at different roles students can play in movements.
What have been some of the high moments of your BHM events?
MA: We view recognition months not only as a place of learning but a place where these particular groups are affirmed and connected with resources according to their needs. Our first program of the month—which is also the start of a series focusing on Black and Brown bodies in the arts—explored the dynamics of being Black in dance. We brought in folks from the field who are vastly experienced so that our students could connect with people who are doing what they want to do and look like them. It was tremendously powerful—people stayed until 10 pm talking. Going to the National Museum of African American History and Culture was another highlight—this was the first time we’ve been back since 2020. It’s breathtaking but also overwhelming. There’s so much to process, so we incorporated a lot of quiet time toward the end of the trip. And this week, we brought in a certified trichologist to focus on haircare in Black and Brown communities. We held the same program last year, and students requested we bring it back.
Overall, I would say we’ve been successful because even when students can’t make the events, they tell us, ‘I couldn’t come, but I’m so grateful that you created this space, because this is something we needed.’
For details on remaining Black History Month events, check Engage.