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Citizenship marks

MU Black History Month explores the history and status of Americans from the African diaspora

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  • Story by Karen Pojmann
  • Photos by Jarrad Henderson
  • Published: Feb. 2, 2009
Professors Wilma King and David Brunsma

Professors Wilma King and David Brunsma, interim director and assistant director of the MU Black Studies Program, discuss the fall 2008 Black Studies Conference. Both serve on the Black History Month Committee that plans February's events.

February 2009 heralds a new era for Black History Month celebrations at American universities including Mizzou.

Forty years ago, when the first black studies programs were established on campuses nationwide, a movement toward inclusion and diversity in academic life was just beginning. From 1968 to 1970, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the end of segregation in the South, Mizzou students founded the Legion of Black Collegians, and Mizzou administrators hired the university’s first black full faculty member, Arvarh Strickland.

In 2009, the climate has changed. The United States is led by its first black president, the percentage of black scholars in Southern universities surpasses the percentage of black residents in the South, and black student enrollment at Mizzou is at a record high.

This year Americans are both reflecting on history and making history.

Prophetic theme

Students in class

MU student Roger Smith takes notes during the fall Black Studies Conference. This year marks the 40th anniversary of black studies programs at American universities.

Each year the scholarly celebration of Black History Month revolves around a theme set in advance by the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. The 2009 theme, “The Quest for Black Citizenship in the Americas,” has reverberations both for U.S.-born African Americans and for immigrants now struggling with an increasingly contentious legal system and social climate.

“It’s interesting that this would be the theme this year. Here we are 40 years from the ’68 election and there’s a person of African descent who receives a nomination from a national political party and is successful in winning the presidency,” says Wilma King, interim director of the MU Black Studies Program. “When we think about Barack Obama and of his father, an immigrant in this country, we may think of  the struggles for citizenship that have been very much a part of the national conversation over time.”

Throughout February, MU’s Black History Month Committee presents a series of academic and artistic events exploring aspects of African American citizenship in periods ranging from the slave trade to the 21st century. Check the MU Black History Month calendar for details. Here are some highlights.

Special guests

  • Ishmael Beah was a child soldier forced to fight during the civil war in Sierra Leone. His memoir, A Long Way Gone, has garnered international attention, acclaim and controversy. He visits Columbia with human-rights activist Laura Simms for four days of presentations, including two at Mizzou. 
  • Hanes Walton Jr., a professor of political science at the University of Michigan, is a co-editor of the book Letters to President Obama: Americans Share Our Thoughts and Dreams with the First African-American President, to be published in April. He gives a talk titled "The African American Voter in the Historic 2008 Primary and General Election."
  • Noliwe Rooks, the associate director of the Center for African American Studies at Princeton University, is the author of White Money/Black Power, which looks back at the origins of black studies programs. Her talk, “Back to the Future: Black Studies in the 21st Century,” looks forward. 

Film series

MU English Professor Anand Prahlad presents three screenings of films addressing the marginalization, assimilation and integration of people of the African diaspora in the United States and abroad.

  • Daughters of the Dust follows the story of an isolated black family living on the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina as they prepare to leave Gullah culture and assimilate into mainland and mainstream life in the early 1900s. 
  • The Spook Who Sat by the Door looks at racism in the CIA in the 1960s and ‘70s through the story of a “token” black agent who discovers his inner revolutionary.
  • Ups and Downs, a short film made by MU student Daniel Willis, shows with two other independent shorts, Nice Colored Girls and A Different Image.

MU David Brunsma presents Faubourg Tremé: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans, an award-winning documentary about a neighborhood known as both the oldest black neighborhood in America and the birthplace of jazz.  

Lectures and discussions

  • Emigration, Immigration, Citizenship and the (Un)Natural Process of Becoming (Black-) American. In panel discussions, MU professors Christopher Okonkwo, April Langley and Sheri-Marie Harrison of the English Department and Mamadou Badiane of the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures share personal immigration experiences and analyze issues such as bureaucracy, foreignness and racial identity.
  • Crime, Conventional Wisdom and the Court: The Judicial System’s Response to Selected Offenses Involving Enslaved Children. As part of the Chancellor’s Diversity Initiative's "Diversity in Action" presentation series, Professor Wilma King gives a lunchtime talk that doubles as a sneak preview of her new undergraduate course, African Americans and American Justice. 
  • Haitian Immigrants in the United States and their Quest for Citizenship. Flore Zephir, a Haitian immigrant and chair of the MU Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, discusses her extensive research and writings about Haitians in the United States.


  • The MU Theatre Department presents Flyin’ West, directed by MU Professor Clyde Ruffin. Penned by Pearl Cleage, the play follows four women from the post-Civil War South to the all-black town Nicodemus, Kan.
  • StepAfrika, the first professional dance company dedicated to the tradition of stepping, performs in Jesse Auditorium.
  • Throughout February MU faculty and staff members take part in the "Famous Speeches by African Americans" series, reading works by great orators such as Shirley Chisholm, Stokley Carmichael and Barack Obama in the Bengal Lair.
  • Professor Anand Prahlad reads his poetry as part of the Orr Street Studios “Hearing Voices” series.

Read more in:  Arts & CultureEducationBusiness, Law & PoliticsFamily & CommunityOn CampusSpecial Features & Series

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Last updated: June 6, 2013