By Steven Adamo
Black History Month at East Los Angeles College ended last week with two talks focusing on clearing up eurocentric takes on black history, and possibly the creation of a Black Student Union on campus.
Melina Abdullah, chair of Pan-African studies at California State University, Los Angeles and co-founder of the Black Lives Matter’s Los Angeles chapter– spoke to ELAC students Wednesday about black and brown unity throughout history. The event was organized by ELAC Students for Political Awareness.
During the discussion, Abdullah asked for seven volunteers, (the amount needed for a club to be chartered by the school), to create the BSU.
“50 years ago, [Black Studies] was founded on a struggle of community,, and students and faculty working together to disrupt an oppressive educational system,” Abdullah said.
According to Abdullah, going to college isn’t about memorizing names and dates, but about engaging with each other and creating work that is useful to our communities.
Part of that work includes educating communities about their true history and combatting inaccuracies in textbooks.
One example provided by Abdullah was the Combahee River raid, a Union Army military operation in which Harriet Tubman helped over 700 people to freedom. She spoke of Harriet Tubman, saying that the number in many textbooks say 300 people were freed, but should be close to a thousand or more.
For Tubman, being free herself wasn’t enough— “she was “‘claiming the humanity of our people,’” Abdullah said. “How can I be free if my brother or sister is enslaved?”
Abdullah said that if there’s only one take-away from the discussion, it’s to cease using the term “slave” to describe a black person. “My ancestors were not slaves, they were enslaved people,” she said.
Following the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865 and the end of the Reconstruction era in 1877, Abdullah said that the amount of murders against black people increased because they “posed an economic threat to white capitalism.”
Abdullah said that Ida B. Wells, an investigative journalist, joined the anti-lynching movement when a friend and part owner of the People’s Grocery, Thomas Moss, was murdered along with two other workers by a white mob.
Abdullah talked about the violence against Wells including the burning of her newspaper, her home and attempted assassinations. She said there was a wide-range of ideas in the civil rights movement, from Martin Luther King Jr.’s non-violence stance, to people like Wells and Robert F. Williams, who advocated for black self-defense through ownership of arms.
After the murder of an unarmed black man named Matthew Johnson, Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale founded The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. The two men were community college students when they founded the movement, Abdullah said.
Quoting A. Philip Randolph, retired ELAC professor of Political Science and African-American studies, Dr. Anthony Samad said “If you are comfortable with my oppression, then you are my oppressor.”
During his discussion on Thursday, Samad talked about the 500-year shared history between black people and Latino people that predates European.
Samad said that Mexican and Asian communities both are impacted by “colorism,” or discrimination against another person based on the shade of their skin color. The darker skin color, Samad said, is because slavery was in New Spain two centuries before it was in British-America.
Both Samad and Abdullah talked about how the celebration of black history is often focused on a few key people like Martin Luther King Jr., but Abdullah said that these larger-than-life figures are also human beings capable of making mistakes. “You can be fully human, you can be an imperfect person, and really transform the world,” Abdullah said. “It’s important that you understand that change has always come through regular-ass people.”
Ultimately, transforming things is the goal, Abdullah said. “Our vision of success means all of us have all of what we need and most of what we want.”