By Richard Mayne
In celebration of Black History Month, and as part of the 5th annual African American Read In Day and ALANA Preview Day, Worcester State University hosted Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum. An audience gathered for this discussion on race relations and diversity on Wednesday, February 6, in the Banquet Hall of the May Street Building.
Dr. Tatum spoke in front of a capacity crowd, which in itself was quite diverse, not only demographically, but also in terms of age and gender. Students from the Worcester Public Schools were on a city-wide field trip to the event. Many students from Worcester State were also present; some were required to be there as part of a class, others as part of extra credit. Furthermore, given Dr. Tatum’s national recognition in her field, people who had prior experience in hearing Dr. Tatum speak were also present.
The event was opened up by Dr. Tatum speaking about her father’s struggle as an African American WWII veteran living in the state of Florida and the unfair treatment he received in pursuing his education. His journey eventually led him and his family to Bridgewater, Massachusetts where Dr. Tatum’s father became the first African American professor at Bridgewater State University, then known as Bridgewater Teachers College.
Dr. Tatum then mentioned how she had an “insider-outsider” experience growing up in Bridgewater. Many times she was the only African American in her classes. And while she and her family were members of the community in Bridgewater, Dr. Tatum still had an “outsider’s” experience being an African American woman living in a predominantly white town.
The discussion then turned to Dr. Tatum asking the audience about their first experience with race. She asked at what age did it happen, the emotion they felt attached to that experience, and whether or not they had a discussion about the experience. Staggeringly enough, only a small portion of the audience had held a conversation about their experience.
This was Dr. Tatum’s segue into telling the crowd that people simply flat out don’t want to talk about race. She added that race was a toxic topic, a stigmatizing issue, and later in the event she used the example of race being the proverbial “elephant in the room” we as people choose to ignore.
Dr. Tatum relayed the impact that income and affluence has on race relations and education, and in many cases, when one is born into poverty they stay in poverty. Dr. Tatum mentioned that the quality of public education one can receive has a profound impact on one’s academic career going forward, not only in terms of the quality of education itself, but also the impact it has in terms of opportunities when networking with others.
As an example, Dr. Tatum spoke about how it’s easier to find a summer job if the student can network with another student of affluence they might have met previously. A student whose parents own their own business or have a position within a company can influence decisions regarding employment. On the other hand, it’s hard to find a job if everyone around you is unemployed, or underemployed.
The event concluded with a Q&A session with questions provided by crowd members. Many of the questions were based in Dr. Tatum’s background in psychology, as well as a question about the notion of one being trans-racial (a relatively new idea that asks whether or not it’s possible to identify as a certain race even if that person wasn’t born that race). Finally the event was brought full circle, in which Dr. Tatum broke down how the past affects the present and the future, something she mentioned in the opening few minutes of the event.
Worcester State University President, Barry Maloney had the following to say on Dr. Tatum’s visit.
“Dr. Tatum’s visit yesterday was a welcome addition to our campus’ ongoing dialogue and efforts around improving our campus climate for all members of the WSU community. Given she is a nationally recognized expert, I was excited to expose our campus to her knowledge and perspective on race and race education. I thought the program was a huge success.”
The week of Dr. Tatum’s visit was also Black History Month Spirit Week at WSU, which included a variety of other events. There was a Student Only Forum, in which the defiling of a poster in a residence hall last month was discussed, and was followed by a dinner. There was a day in which students were encouraged to wear hoodies in honor of the 7th anniversary of Trayvon Martin’s death, a day to appreciate black hair and black fashion, and a screening of Roots (further screenings of Roots will take place throughout the month as well).
Events yet to take place at WSU in celebration of Black History Month include: A workshop with Charles Clayton Daniels Jr. Friday, Feb. 15 which requires an RSVP to attend. African Dancing Fitness on Wednesday, Feb. 27. And finally, Black History Month Poetry Slam on the final day of the month, Thursday, Feb. 28.