Getting Thoughts on Black History Month into ‘Formation’

Photo posted by Beyonce | Instagram (@beyonce)

The Formation video. The Formation performance at the Superbowl. “The Day Beyoncé Turned Black” video. If you’ve been paying attention, you know that pop culture has been very active this Black History Month, and with good reason.

From Black Lives Matter and police brutality to the ongoing battle of who can say the ‘N-word’ to the actions and words of Rachel Dolezal, Raven Symone and Stacey Dash alike: all of this and more in the last year have constituted the ingredients for an interesting and pertinent talk on race relations in America. Now that Black History Month is upon us, not to mention the fact that it is an election year, the conversations that have been and will continue to take place in February, and hopefully for months beyond now, exist in an effort to both understand the past and lay the foundation for a better future.

To that end, this week, Valley Magazine spoke to two African-American students, fifth-year Oluchi Egekeze and senior Diamond Bennah, in an attempt to capture a small sample of Penn State’s black community’s feelings about Black History Month, being #blackoncampus and Beyoncé.

“[Black History Month] is a time period of recognition, time to acknowledge what we’ve done as a people in the past and how it’s impacted what we are able to do now,” says Egekeze, a Material Science and Engineering major. “A time to be thankful, as well as compare what urgency there was to accomplish things back then compared to how complacent we are in this modern time.”

Bennah, a double major in Pre-Med and African Studies, says that Black History Month is a time to reflect on the past while looking towards the future and what is still to come.

Looking at how Black History Month is honored here at Penn State University Park, Egekeze says that she believes black students celebrate well within their own community and other minority communities, but that the campus as a whole does not.

Bennah says she thinks black history isn’t taken seriously because Penn State is a predominantly white university.

“I look at everything from a global perspective; Penn State is like a microcosm within the larger world, so black history is overshadowed here, just like in the real world,” Bennah says. “If you go to a predominantly white school, black history is just not that important. [People forget that] even though black people are few in the United States, black people are not few in the rest of the world.”

For Bennah, she says that this mindset on campus makes her feel small, as if she and her identity as a black person and a black student, don’t matter.

“It feels like I have to overlook who I am or have to put myself to the side to please the greater society,” Bennah says.

That is a common feeling among not only black students, but many other minority students as well. To avoid covering up an identity in which you fully accept yourself and your culture, for a personality that is more mainstream and palatable for the non-minority masses, can be difficult.

Black History Month is, among many things, often used as a time to analyze that internal struggle. Bennah says that it isn’t enough time to do so.

“The fact that we have to dedicate a month to a group of people, to a history that is so deep; I mean, a month can’t do that,” Bennah says. “The fact that we even have to do that, it says a lot about our society in America.”

One person that has cast a new round of scrutiny on the topic is Beyoncé, with her abruptly dropped Formation song and video combination.

Despite not being a Beyoncé ‘stan’ and missing the initial debut of the song and its subsequent Superbowl performance, Egekeze says that she was impressed by the video. Egekeze goes on to say that she enjoyed the imagery and the message that Beyoncé was trying to send, specifically about the average black person’s appearance and how it is perceived in today’s society.

“She’s talking about her child’s hair with ‘I like my baby hair with baby hair and afros,’ and that’s good because when Blue was born, up until about a year ago, people were like ‘Why don’t you comb Blue’s hair?’” Egekeze says. “With this it was like [Beyoncé] was saying, ‘Let my child be great, let her curls flow.’”

Bennah says that she also is not Beyoncé’s greatest fan, because she believes that Beyoncé has had a very hyper sexualized career and a subsequent oversexed image.

However, Bennah says she enjoyed and appreciated the way Beyoncé challenged mainstream impressions of black people.

“Lots of people already know these things [Black Lives Matter, etc.] were going on, but she used her popular platform well.” Bennah says. “As far as bringing awareness to [these situations], she succeeded. As far as making people care about it? That’s a different conversation.”

Egekeze agrees that people may not care about the message.

Speaking specifically on non-minority students here at University Park, Egekeze says that some students tend to find things they like in hip hop and will latch onto the music without delving into the deeper message that it is built around.

“I feel like it happens everywhere; there are some people who are going to take the message whether they be white, black, Hispanic, Latino or Asian and actually will enjoy the music and understand the message and there are some people who will most likely be like ‘Oh my God, it’s Beyoncé!’” Egekeze says. “She could sing about pizza and people would still be like ‘Oh my God, this is the hottest song in life.’”

Bennah agrees that when considering someone’s ability to take something away from Formation, the race of the listener doesn’t matter as much as their integrity.

“I don’t think her song is going to change anything, but I do believe she was able to tell the world what is going on in an artistic way,” Bennah says. “I do think that people relate to art a whole lot better than they relate to a speech, but people can [still] choose to overlook [Beyoncé’s message]. It depends on the person.”