Critical conversations, cultural celebrations punctuate Black History Month on campus

LaVell Monger, Ashlee Roberts and Demetrius Reynolds

Among those collaborating on UMSL’s Black History Month 2016 lineup are (from left) senior anthropology major LaVell Monger, president of Associated Black Collegians, Assistant Director of Student Life Ashlee Roberts and Demetrius Reynolds, a graduate assistant in the Office of Student Life. (Photo by August Jennewein)

In his five years at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, Demetrius Reynolds has always been involved to some degree with campus efforts related to Black History Month. But this year his role has expanded, as has the annual observance’s relevance in his view.

For one thing, he’s taken the lead on planning this year’s Soul’d Out celebration, a Feb. 12 evening event that can be difficult to sum up in just a few words.

“The vision is to highlight the African American influence on art, popular culture, song and dance – and also recognize the past and the history, particularly local history,” says Reynolds, a musician who earned a bachelor’s degree from UMSL in 2014 and is now pursuing a master’s degree in higher education administration at the university. “So I’ve been working with some big-name talent around St. Louis. We’re going to have dance, a short play, singers, different artists, painting, drawing and fashion design, and we’re also trying to bring light to African American history in our community and in our country.”

Far from alone in those aims, Reynolds has worked closely with a variety of UMSL student organizations and with Ashlee Roberts, assistant director of Student Life, to help put together a full month of campus happenings in honor of Black History Month. The schedule includes everything from Soul’d Out and documentary screenings to panel discussions and even a “ShondaLand Night” on Feb. 18.

“I think the university, and specifically Student Affairs and student activities, has been making a lot of great strides to have critical conversations about issues affecting not only the campus community but the surrounding community as well,” Reynolds says. “With us being so close to Ferguson [Mo.], just the issues of race and police brutality – we’ve had a lot of conversations about that and cultural appropriation and things of that sort. We’re living in a very interesting time, and I don’t think that we are meeting the expectations that were set years ago.”

UMSL's Black History Month 2016 lineupSome of the UMSL-sponsored events, including Soul’d Out, align closely with the national theme for this year’s month-long observance, which is “Hallowed Grounds: Sites of African American Memory.”

“Demetrius [Reynolds] is tying into those local spaces where art has taken place,” says Roberts. “There are a lot of great artists that are from St. Louis, whether it’s comedy like Redd Foxx or Dick Gregory or W.C. Handy, who did the ‘Saint Louis Blues’ here. And then we’re also working on giving students a space to explore concepts or buzzwords that are part of the national conversation and bring that to campus in different ways. Those discussions are about getting them to just explore – it’s not about telling them how to think, ever – it’s really about getting students to explore those concepts that they may or may not be exploring in class.”

Senior anthropology major LaVell Monger, president of Associated Black Collegians, notes that the overarching goal in the planning has been to ensure that all students take away a learning experience.

“Many of the programs are inclusive of other members of the UMSL community from various organizations that will be contributing time and service to the community,” he says. “Additional organizations like the Minority Student Nurses Association, Pan African Student Association, the Multi-Greek Council, PRIZM and more have all provided programming to make this year’s observance memorable.”

Paralleling that diversity of contributors, Roberts emphasizes that the campus’s observance is open to all – something that may not always be well understood.

“I really think that the thing that stands out to me is that sometimes people think they can’t come if they’re not black,” she says. “But actually it’s a great opportunity to come out and learn and engage, and we try to keep it balanced, where some things might be a little heavier and some things are lighter. As we talk about creating more cohesive campuses and communities across the nation, building relationships starts with just sitting down and saying hi. But you have to show up first.”

She’s especially looking forward to the documentary screenings, including “Brother Outsider,” which will be shown at noon on Feb. 23 in the Millennium Student Center.

“That one is about Bayard Rustin, who was not able to be on the forefront of the civil rights movement because he was openly gay,” Roberts says. “He’s actually the person who really orchestrated the March on Washington. So that’s a little-known fact, and it gets at those unsung voices. There are so many stories we don’t hear.”

For more information on Black History Month happenings at UMSL, click here.

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