Stony Brook University kicked off Black History Month (BHM) on February 1 with an Opening Ceremony in the Student Activities Center Ballroom, the first in-person BHM celebration in three years.
This year’s theme is Sankofa!: Celebrating the African Disaspora, and the opening featured music, spoken word poetry, guest speakers from across campus and a keynote delivered by alumna Stephanie Brumsey ’09, an award-winning producer at MSNBC.
Black History Month co-chair Cheryl Chambers, associate dean of students and director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs, began the ceremony by acknowledging the efforts of co-chairs Ric McLendon, assistant vice president and dean of students, and Judy Jaquez, associate director for Multicultural Affairs, and welcomed those in attendance.
“It’s so good to have an in-person audience again,” said Chambers. “Today and throughout February our students, faculty, staff, alumni and guests come together to acknowledge and celebrate the contributions of African Americans in this university, this country and around the world.”
Judith Brown Clarke, Stony Brook’s chief diversity officer and vice president for Equity and Inclusion, addressed the gathering and said, “As you look around, you see that Stony Brook leadership includes people of color who represent you. It’s extremely important to understand that your voice is heard and is represented in every conversation that we’re having at every level.”
Clarke also addressed today’s difficult political and social climate, noting that the funeral of Tyre Nichols, a Black motorist who died after being beaten by Memphis police, was taking place at the same time as the opening ceremony.
“You can be angry, you can be frustrated, and you can be sad,” she said. “Our students are the emerging pipeline of leaders. We know that you’re going to take these messages forward with your degree and make meaningful change. One person can facilitate change, and each of you can be that person.”
The Stony Brook Gospel Choir followed with a stirring performance of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” considered the Black national anthem, and Anthoni Haynes ‘24, a member of the Black History Month committee, followed with his spoken word poem, “Is This What We Become?”
Brumsey then took the podium for her keynote address, relating her experience at Stony Brook and in the workplace and offering students words of encouragement and hope.
“As I was thinking what I was going to say today, I kept coming back to the theme of Sankofa,” she said. “Sankofa is an African word from the Akan tribe in Ghana. The symbol literally translates to ‘it is not taboo to fetch what is at risk of being left behind.’ It symbolizes the quest for knowledge. This quest is about our shared history and how we can move forward together. It’s fitting that I learned that here at Stony Brook. I interpreted that as ‘we don’t know where we’re going unless we know where we fit in.’”
Brumsey majored in journalism and was part of the School of Communication and Journalism’s second graduating class.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew what I was good at,” she said. “I’m nosy and I can ask all the questions. That comes back to Sankofa, and how African storytelling is an art by which communities pass down their history and their culture. We continue to feel that and learn that history. I say this because it’s important to embrace your student voice now. Know who you are. It’s the difference between the history created by others and the history that you get to write yourself.”
Brumsey noted the diversity in the ballroom, but also said that newsrooms across America “are still very white, and very male. It’s just the reality of the world. And we have to fight harder to make sure we get stories told from different perspectives. That could mean as a woman, as a member of the LGBTQ community, as a Black person, as a Hispanic person, as an Asian person, whatever.”
Fortunately, Brumsey has been able to use her voice at MSNBC to help influence coverage on major news stories that have been traumatic, including coverage of the Black Lives Matter movement and the George Floyd murder.
“It’s important that we give each story the same discernment and opportunity for thought and care,” said Brumsey. “We need to open up opportunities for different storytelling to other communities with different angles and questions. Those opportunities aren’t given unless we’re in the room. And that’s why I am encouraging you to create your own legacies and tell your own stories.”
Brumsey also urged students to take advantage of opportunities at Stony Brook, including its student-run newspapers, radio station and television studio, as well as joining clubs and organizations that provide opportunities to interact with a diversity of students.
“You’re the next generation of leaders and innovators and creators,” she said. “The less you participate in your community, the less you are prepared for participating in the greater community when you step out with your diploma. Black History Month is an opportunity to find your voice, to use it to find your communities, to learn from them, to grow, to reconsider a world and the history that we have learned, the history that we could shape.”
Black History Month is coordinated by the Office of Multicultural Affairs, the Department of Africana Studies, and the Black History Month Committee. Visit the Black History Month website for more information and for a complete list of events and activities.
— Robert Emproto