Toward a More Inclusive Black History

A year after a new lecture was established to honor Middlesex’s first Black faculty member, the Kenneth E. Whitlock, Jr. Black History Month Speaker Series brought its second guest, educator and author Ric Sheffield, to campus on February 28, 2023. A professor emeritus of sociology and legal studies at Kenyon College, Professor Sheffield reviewed the current traditions that have become associated with observing Black History Month and encouraged his audience to go beyond these standard practices, to “build bridges” that will make Black history more inclusive, contemporary, and relevant to today’s students.

“I’m a contrarian when it comes to Black History Month,” Professor Sheffield said, clarifying, “It’s too important to give short shrift to.” For many, he noted, the experience of commemorating this month consists mainly of learning “a litany of notable people and events” that seem like “relics of a distant past.” While granting that it’s important to know about pivotal figures like Harriet Tubman and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., he stressed, “If that’s all you know, it’s not enough.”

As a fan of architectural bridges – from the Brooklyn Bridge to the Golden Gate – Professor Sheffield reflected on their power to connect; in turn, he discussed different methods or “bridges” that might keep Black history from being “relegated to the dusty past.” Updated textbooks and inspirational films may be helpful, he allowed, but are still not enough “if we really want to know history.” Underscoring the significance of that knowledge, Professor Sheffield said, “History gives us a foundation. It’s a reflection of what came before and allows us to acknowledge the challenges that still lie ahead.”

One current challenge that he mentioned is the effort in some schools and libraries to remove certain children’s books, including The Sneeches by Dr. Seuss, because they often lead to questions and conversations about race.

“Black history should be a bridge to modern life,” Professor Sheffield said. To encourage Middlesex students to “go beyond the dates and names of historic figures,” he gave them an assignment: “Learn about the Black people in the communities you come from. What you will find will speak volumes about why it’s important and relevant to you.”

Additionally, he urged students to learn more about Middlesex and the first Black students, teachers, and staff members to come to the School. “Make it personal: Get to know these people and schedule interviews,” Professor Sheffield suggested. “Ask them, ‘What it was like?’”

And from there, he continued, students might head off campus and explore Concord’s Black history – or Latinx or Asian history. “It’s about moving to understand all of us,” he said.