Black History Month - Guest Column
"She is worried about how the language she dreams in, given to her at birth, is handled, put into service, even withheld from her for certain nefarious purposes. Being a writer she thinks of language partly as a system, partly as a living thing over which one has control, but mostly as agency—as an act with consequences . . . We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives "—Toni Morrison, Nobel Peace Prize winner.
Guest Column by Rashidah Muhammad, English Professor
When I arrived at Governors State University in 1995, many of the students in my Black literature classes were White. I was honored to teach them as they sat alongside Black students learning about iconic writers, such as Langston Hughes and, one of my favorites, Toni Morrison. These great voices came together in chorus to tell of the pain of poverty and segregation, and of the oppressive hatred for dark skin.
These are beautifully written, though dreadful tales that tell a collective story—black history. Many students never learn of African American history in school and I always remind my students that without African American history, there is no American history.
I still believe that some two decades later, but now I am even more grateful for the opportunity to help African American students find and develop their own voices through the arts. We're living during a time when the voices of African Americans are being ignored, if not silenced, so we have to seize every opportunity to tell our story and keep creating our history.
That’s why the African American Read-In is so significant and one of the longest running traditions at Governors State during Black History Month. The Read-In is a 31-year-old tradition started by the Black Caucus of the National Council of Teachers of English to make literacy a significant part of Black History Month. Today the initiative has reached more than 6 million participants around the world.
At Governors State, the Read-In brings together deans, faculty, staff, and students from all corners of campus. We've had readers as young as six and as old as 83 who perform poetry, essays, and historical pieces that speak to them. I do an intrepreation of the acceptance speech Dr. Morrison gave for the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize in Literature in which she considers the consequence of language through the eyes of a fictional character:
"She is worried about how the language she dreams in, given to her at birth, is handled, put into service, even withheld from her for certain nefarious purposes. Being a writer she thinks of language partly as a system, partly as a living thing over which one has control, but mostly as agency—as an act with consequences . . . We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives. "
As a word-worker I know how language can be used to tear-down or build up, used to disenfranchise or inspire––those decisions are up to us.
Dr. Morrison is one of my favorite authors, but we welcome a variety of works from African Americans authors, including short stories, poems, speeches and songs. There are many gems to choose from right here in Chicago, home to writers like Gwendolyn Brooks, the first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize and the state’s Poet Laureate for more than 30 years. And, Lorraine Hansberry who was born in Chicago in 1930. Her play, "Raisin in the Sun" was the first piece by an African American artist to make it to Broadway.
Every year, we look forward to hearing new or returning interpretations at the Read-In. Please join us this year. Pick your favorite artist or work and lend your voice to the mix.
This year’s Read-In will be held Feb. 19 in the Hall of Honors. If you would like to read this year, please contact Dr. Muhammad to sign up.