The Staying Power Of Black Cultural Centers
The first Black cultural centers appeared on predominantly White college campuses toward the end of the 1960s. The activities of civil rights organizations and other progressives ushered in an awakening on campuses to the idea of being culturally pluralistic, and the Black cultural center became the symbol of this new inclusiveness.
Today, while there have been voices of reaction and resentment on campus, Black cultural centers appear to have gained a permanent foothold at some universities. They are respected and responsible institutions for the promotion of scholarship, education and understanding.
In the last few years, major universities like Maryland, Purdue, Ohio State and Pennsylvania State have constructed multi-million dollar facilities for their cultural centers, and others schools are beginning plans for new construction. Some campuses have undertaken efforts to upgrade existing facilities including Indiana State, Miami University (Ohio) and North Carolina State University. Does this investment portend greater acceptance of cultural centers as integral units within educational institutions? Or will universities use cultural centers as the focus of their “diversity/multicultural” efforts and redirect the emphasis from African Americans to all underrepresented groups?
The first cultural centers to be formed were the result of action, agitation and awareness on the part of Black students. Those activities along with the events of the times — the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the passage of civil rights and voting rights bills, the launch of the Black power and Black arts movements — moved many college administrators and trustees to implement compensatory programs, which often included cultural centers designed to present, promote, protect and preserve the many manifestations of African American culture. The cultural center was to be the place where attitudes, values, knowledge and skills could be compared, debated and shared. For some students, it was to be a safe haven, a place to retreat from the perceived hostility of an unwelcoming campus community.
Cultural centers, like Black Studies programs and departments, have been assailed by some as unnecessary and as vehicles for the “resegregation” of the academy. One must ask when did the desegregation of many campuses take place? Not only are many campuses still hotbeds of racial segregationist mentality (Auburn?), but even some of the more enlightened and celebrated campuses have yet to really welcome faculty and students of color in meaningful ways. Cultural centers and Black Studies have been successful in broadening the perspective of the academy and enhancing the university’s mission to expand knowledge. Through national organizations like the Association for Black Culture Centers and the National Council for Black Studies, the legitimacy, universality and necessity of these units within the academy has been established.
As we commence a new millennium, the staying power of Black cultural centers will surely be tested. There is now and will continue to be pressure to move from “Black” to multicultural, and the rationale for such a move must be addressed. Some campuses have included culturally specific centers for Latinos, Asians, American Indians and other underrepresented groups. Other campuses represent several groups in a single center. Whichever model best fits a particular campus, the goals should be the same — knowledge, understanding, interaction, respect and dignity.
In America, we have experienced and witnessed the damaging effects of cultural subordination on people. We also know the healing qualities of cultural affirmation and assertiveness. The Black cultural center can be a bridge from a distorted past to a magnificent future of human interaction and understanding. Is that not one of the primary functions of education? Is that not the creation of the greater good?
— Lawrence W. Young is director of the Paul Robeson Cultural Center at Pennsylvania State University. Michael D. Hannon is assistant director of the center.
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