Student of color performance at UNI's Maucker Union

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Black History Month and America's Debt

A message for Black History Month from the Chief Diversity Officer

The two are nearly inseparable: Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the words "I Have A Dream." The speech he delivered at the historic March on Washington nearly 60 years ago ended with that refrain: I Have A Dream. Many of us can repeat parts of the "Dream" from memory, we've read or heard it so often. Yet, the dream was only King's way of wrapping up the speech. His famous address actually was about his perception that "America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked 'insufficient funds.'" That analogy of the check was about justice and the civil rights promised to each American via the Constitution. But even as he referred to that check as being returned for insufficient funds, he was optimistic, refusing to believe America's bank of justice was bankrupt.

As we observe Black History Month, I'd like us to think of this debt in terms of education. When I speak of this debt, I'm referring specifically to one created by the cumulative impact of fewer resources and other harm directed at students of color. This is a concept conceived by Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings, a faculty affiliate in the Department of Educational Policy Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She presented last fall at a virtual forum promoting racial equity in educator preparation that was sponsored by UNI.

I recognize that recent events may have led our Black and other minoritized students to believe that the check our country has written to cover their educational debt is about to be returned for insufficient funds. For the last year we have been navigating a "new normal" created by a pandemic that has been decidedly more deadly for people of color. Then, the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol building offered a stark contrast to the peaceful protests led by Dr. King and the leaders of civil rights movements since. The shootings and strangling of Black people by law enforcement sent a shockwave around the world. Despite these tragedies and shortcomings, I do not believe that we lack the fortitude to create an education system that addresses this debt. Like King, I insist upon being an optimist.

King shared his confidence and hopefulness that the United States of America was morally wealthy and brimming with enough sheer courage and determination to make good on that check. He would end his speech with recitations that painted a better country; one that recognized this owed debt and was willing to pay it.

I see light at the end of this tunnel. Fittingly, on the first day of Black History Month the Black Lives Matter movement was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Of course, we cannot overlook the fact that King was awarded this prestigious honor in 1964 for opposing racial discrimination. That was nearly 60 years ago, and here we sit, having not eradicated racial injustice and therefore in need of those to fight it. As King often wondered, "How long, oh Lord?"

King's response to his own query, spoken more than half a century ago, still rings true, searing and indispensable as ever: "This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. ... Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children. It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment."

I encourage each of us to honor Black History Month 2021 by doing instead of talking, learning instead of guessing, and loving instead of hating. In doing so, we pay the debt and live the dream.

Gwenne Berry

UNI Chief Diversity Officer

Gwenne Berry profile photo


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Students of color chatting at the University of Northern Iowa

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Students may seek assistance through the UNI Counseling Center. Shantila Caston is the mental health therapist for Diversity Outreach and can be reached at 319-273-2676.

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The DIS is staffed by individuals steeped in knowledge around racial trauma and they are happy to talk with anyone in need of support. For more information, contact the director, Jamie Chidozie, at 319-273-2250.

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