By: Mira Costello
In 2023, Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and the efforts of abolitionist Frederick Douglass may feel like distant history, only as real as the screens on which we read about them. Although we have accomplished leagues of progress since the 1860s, you might not know that in 1926, those two men – Lincoln and Douglass – inspired Black historian Carter G. Woodson to create what would become what we now know as Black History Month.
Unfortunately, like so much Black history, I didn’t learn that in school. Instead, I sat down with IU South Bend’s own Dr. Theo Randall, who you might find teaching courses ranging from Medical Anthropology to African American Culture.
Originally from Springfield, Illinois, Dr. Randall found his way to IU South Bend in 2007 after earning his Master of Public Health and a Ph.D. in Anthropology. Despite countless research publications, though, he’s certainly done more than hit the books; before becoming an educator, he also served as an operating room technician and a combat medic in the Army National Guard.
As one of only ten Black professors at IU South Bend – which has over 250 full-time faculty – I decided to speak to Dr. Randall about the meaning of Black History Month; not just because of his anthropological background, but because, in his words, he has “53 years of Black history in [his] shoes.”
As we continue to develop our efforts in diversity and inclusion, some might say Black History Month is no longer necessary; however, Dr. Randall believes it is, now as much as ever.
“It informs the world of what we have gone through, what we have done, what we have contributed,” he said. “Black history is American history. Some people would say, ‘why do we need a Black history? We don’t have a White history.’ But oftentimes, that’s what history is – they’re telling the story of Whites and not of other folks.”
And, though some stories may seem far removed from current problems, Dr. Randall said that our modern culture and our history are inextricably linked.
He gave the example of George Floyd, whose murder under the knee of Minnesota police officer Derek Chauvin sparked sweeping protests and cries for justice from a community that has lost so many lives.
What the news often told us about that case was that Floyd was a drug user who had previously served time in prison and struggled with job insecurity.
What it didn’t tell us was that George Floyd’s great-grandfather was a slave, and that after being freed, he accumulated 500 acres of land in North Carolina and built a life for his large family. That land was stolen by White farmers, and because of their illiteracy, Floyd’s ancestors had no legal recourse.
Dr. Randall said that maybe, Floyd’s station in life would have been drastically different if his family could have passed down that generational asset. This, he said, is the legacy of racism.
According to Dr. Randall, these three elements – culture, history and racism – exist in constant connection.
“Culture is shaped by history, and history is shaped by racism,” he said. “We need to open our eyes and be honest with ourselves about reality – why are Black people poorer? One thing I say to make my students laugh is, is it because we’re lazy, weak and stupid? Or is it the legacy of racism?”
Dr. Randall cited a 2015 study in which the median household net worth – not income, but assets like savings, homes and cars – for Boston was $247,500 for White families and only $8 for Black families. This, he said, is an example of how important it is to acknowledge the intersectionality of class and race in the Black community during Black History Month.
“No one should be known as a victim – that’s not empowering. But racism has something to do with [this disparity],” he said. “There’s an African American political scientist named Adolf Reed, and he calls it cultural inheritance; we inherit the culture to be successful, and that’s the advantage. In my courses, I rarely use the term “White privilege,” but there is an advantage culturally that some groups have.”
So, how can we be mindful of how we celebrate Black History Month? In Dr. Randall’s book, it’s most important to be curious – which can start with reading. In spite of the towers of books lining his office, Dr. Randall had a recommendation to give me right away: Caste: The Origins of our Discontents, by Isabel Wilkerson.
You can also check out a Black History Month reading list from the Innocence Project at innocenceproject.org/books-black-history-month.
Still, there is more to learn than what can be found in books alone. Dr. Randall said another key element of educating ourselves is simply being with and listening to others.
“Do the footwork, not just the bookwork,” he said. “Ask yourself – why do you feel the way you do about race? Almost more important than learning the history is to hang out with people who don’t look like you; not just because they look that way, but to find what people have in common.”
In essence, Dr. Randall said, learning history is an exercise in understanding ourselves. Taking a page from Carter G. Woodson’s book, he said,
“One reason why Black folks are the way we are, good and bad, is that we don’t know our history. If we were to know our history, we would develop a pride in ourselves that we probably don’t have right now,” Dr. Randall said. “We would learn that we have done, so we can do.”
For those looking for an additional opportunity to explore Black history, Dr. Randall is helping to organize a trip called the historical Black Michigan tour. On April 7, a bus will leave to take students and some community members (in partnership with the Civil Rights Heritage Center) to see historic sites in southern Michigan, including part of the Underground Railroad in Cassopolis, a church where Booker T. Washington spoke, the Sojourner Truth monument and more.
Members of the Black Student Union will be prioritized for the trip, as seating is limited, but any interested students are welcome. If you would like more information, reach out to Dr. Randall at firstname.lastname@example.org.