February is Black History Month. It is an occasion to affirm the importance of Black lives and celebrate Black communities whose voices are all too often erased in whitewashed accounts of history. And for the Tufts community in particular, it should be a moment to emphasize that Black history deserves acknowledgement within the histories of Boston, Medford and Somerville and that Black voices deserve amplification in Tufts’ faculty and student body.
To its credit, Tufts has spent this month recognizing this occasion, with a flurry of events and guest speakers. But at predominantly white institutions like Tufts, where Black voices are often drowned out in a sea of white noise, the task of amplifying these voices should be an ongoing effort that the whole community embraces. Tufts students must educate themselves about Black history during this month and beyond, and the university community must vocally celebrate the efforts of Black student groups and the research of faculty studying the African diaspora.
Tufts students need not walk very far to find this history. Medford’s own Royall House and Slave Quarters — “believed to be the only surviving freestanding slave quarters in the Northeast,” according to its website — is less than a mile from the heart of campus. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Royall House offered in-person tours, and starting on Feb. 24, a virtual video tour will be available. As both a National Historic Landmark and a museum, it is an important site for learning about the history of slavery in Massachusetts.
Another way to learn about local Black history is through exploring the African American Trail Project, inspired by the work of Tufts Professor Gerald R. Gill and created with input from students and faculty. The trail includes over 200 landmarks across the state of Massachusetts that highlight the heritage, history and successes of Black individuals in the United States. Stops on the trail include the Zipporah Potter Atkins site, dedicated to the first African American landowner in Boston, and the 54th Regiment & Robert Gould Shaw Memorial, created to commemorate the first all-African American military regiment in U.S. history.
If we as Tufts students are to live up to the principles of active citizenship that our university so frequently espouses, it is our responsibility to learn about the history infused into the land of our community. Taking part in these activities is a powerful way to study that history.
Affirming the importance of Black voices cannot just be an exercise in studying the distant past; Tufts students who have not already done so should explore how their classmates celebrate Black culture and artistry across the African diaspora. Tufts is home to plenty of student groups that showcase the vibrance of Black performing arts, including two a cappella groups (The Ladies of Essence and S-Factor) that specialize in music of the diaspora, two step teams (BlackOut and ENVY) one African dance group (Children of Cultures of Africa) and one Caribbean dance group (ROTI and RUM). Onyx, the school’s only literary and visual arts magazine of the Tufts African American community, is in its 37th year of publication; much of the archive is available in the Tufts Digital Library. For all Tufts students, recognizing Black history should also mean celebrating the present artistry that lives around us.
Recognition of Black voices at Tufts should not end with the arts, however; it must extend into the political sphere as well. This means that non-Black students must listen when institutions like the Black Student Union, African Students Organisation and Pan Afrikan Alliance voice their stances on community issues, and students who are able should support the efforts of racial justice groups like the Student Coalition for Anti-Racism and Tufts for a Racially Equitable Endowment. For the same reasons that it is important to elevate Black voices from history, it is also critical that the Tufts community use collective political action to elevate contemporary Black voices.
Finally, Tufts students can educate themselves about historical and present incarnations of the African diaspora through Tufts’ own academic programs. The Department of Studies in Race, Colonialism, and Diaspora is home to numerous scholars who have dedicated their careers to these subjects. By enrolling in these professors’ courses, students can take this opportunity to study race from local, national and transnational perspectives; their distribution requirements may not demand it of them, but their civic responsibilities do.
For students who may not have devoted their years at Tufts to this kind of engagement with race and diaspora, let Black History Month be a gateway to doing so — both in studying oppressive systems of racism and colonialism and in celebrating Black joy and excellence in our community. As students, the responsibility is ours to honor Black History Month in our communities and educate ourselves (and for white students, not to rely on Black people to teach them). The local community has ample resources and historical sites for students to educate themselves about Black history, and within Tufts there is a plethora of academic opportunities to study it.
Many of these may demand more time than most students have in the rest of February, but that should not be a problem — Black History Month should be the beginning of a critical learning experience in students’ lives, not the end of one. To truly celebrate Black History Month, Tufts students — especially white students — must go beyond simple performative acts, instead taking on the long-term work of unlearning harmful practices, educating themselves and amplifying Black success and excellence amid systemic injustice.