Acknowledging a Painful Past

By Meshell Sturgis


On January 14th 2019, a week before Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the Center for Communication,
Difference, and Equity (CCDE) along with a host of campus partners, welcomed the Black History 101 Mobile Museum’s ‘Signature Series’ for two days in the Mary Gates Hall commons. Monday afternoon, Khalid el-Hakim, curator of the mobile museum, presented a lecture entitled, “The Truth Hurts: Black History, Honesty, and Healing the Racial Divide,” where he spoke about several of the items on exhibit. The message of mobile visit: although the truth hurts, we must look at the history made evident by the 150+ artifacts on display to fully understand the importance of great Black leaders like Martin Luther King Jr..

The lecture juxtaposed modern day instances of racism in offensive university mascots, party
themes, and political campaigns alongside old advertisements for soap. Performing a media
analysis of the advertisements, el-Hakim traced the imagery of black-face, where a young boy is
scrubbed “clean” by the soap except for his “dirty” face to global advertisements for bleaching
creams and then to modern day Dove soap commercials. Our own media scholar, Dr. Ralina
Joseph, has similarly looked at the ways in which the images in our media carry racist tones in
today’s world, like the Serena Williams cartoon or the image drawn by a child at Roosevelt High
School. Regarding that image, drawn for the cover of the Roosevelt High School newspaper, Joseph states, “The student who made this illustration might very well not harbor any racial animus, but his drawing… show[s] how easy it is to spew the racist stereotypes that live deep within all of us … not because we’re ‘bad’ people, but because we live in a society that is racist” (2019). Having el-Hakim visit campus to talk about the history of racial divide in our country, is just one of the ways that the CCDE works to helps students learn how to unpack racism while at school, not just the racism of the past, but the kind present in our modern day lives as well.

From shackles, whips, and hoods, to photographs, newspaper articles, and autographs, the mobile museum filled the large study space with visitors and passersby all stopping to take in the artifacts that document the painful past of our country. el-Hakim’s visit and lecture resisted an over-commercialized national holiday, which precedes Black History Month in February. In remembrance of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., el-Hakim spoke about the Reverend’s bibliography, noting the lesser known works by Dr. King including Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story (1958) and Why We Can’t Wait (1963). He encouraged students to not just celebrate the man’s life, but to expose themselves to the reasons why he is celebrated. Furthermore, el- Hakim drew attention to those less remembered like Harry Belafonte and Elijah Muhammad asking students to celebrate those who worked in concert with Dr. King. el-Hakim’s campus visit critically asks how celebrating Dr. King’s on a sanctioned day, might allow some to participate in the false notion that racism is “solved” or “no longer” which is clearly not the case. While there is a discourse building around what is true and what is false, the Black History 101 Mobile museum works to preserve certain truths, even when those truths hurt.

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