Black Heritage Month was commemorated on Feb. 1 at Montclair State University with a procession led by the University Police Department, a gathering of the campus community and people from all around and the annual flag raising. The Pan-African flag, sometimes known as the Black liberation flag or the Afro-American flag, flew alongside the American and New Jersey flags, in front of Susan A. Cole Hall to the Student Center Flagpole.
The theme of this year’s observance is “Champions on the Bridges that Carried Us Over,” as members of the campus community highlighted the notable Black people of the past and present, the triumphs they’ve overcome that brought us to where we are now, but also emphasizing the harsh reality of how far we need to go in this world.
During the procession, Sandra Lewis, a professor in psychology and director of African American studies, and Saundra Collins, the associate director of African American studies, performed the annual ritual of pouring libation, something that is done in remembrance of Black ancestors. It is an African form of prayer that involves pouring liquid on earth while verbally calling on assistance from the realm of spirit for manifestation in reality, both in the African tongue and in English.
“In ancient Kemet, it was said to pour libations and for your fathers and mothers who rest in the valley of the dead, God will witness your action and accept it,” Lewis said. “Do this even when you are away from home as you do for your children. So we pour libation today, for those whose shoulders keep us standing tall.”
As Lewis spoke, Collins highlighted notable Black people, the activist Fannie Lou Hamer being one of them.
“For [Hamer], remembering her uncompromising stand against discrimination at the National Democratic Convention in 1964 in New Jersey,” Collins said. “It is in her memory that you must go out and vote.”
The crowd then responded to each statement of libation, with the word “Asé,” meaning a word of affirmation, life force and the power to create in what you speak.
Following the annual libation, GaDa Lambert sang the Black National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Afterward, University President Jonathan Koppell said a few words about the civil rights activist, feminist and journalist, Ida B. Wells, whose aim was to expose violence against Black people. After his speech, the proclamation was read by Koppell.
“Her life and her work is a reminder of two things,” Koppell said. “One, that for every bit of progress, there’s equal and sometimes overwhelming pushback of those who reject that progress and want to see history turned back. Second point, she was an active suffragist [who] worked hard for women’s rights. She rejected the idea that people couldn’t work on multiple fronts at the same time. Her work has incredible resonance today.”
The flag was then raised by Eyv Matthews, the president of the Black Student Union (BSU) and a sophomore psychology major, reciting a speech answering the question of why we celebrate Black History Month, the beauty of Black people and the legacy of notable Black pioneers in the past, who encourage Black people today to achieve their dreams so they can too, defeat the odds.
“We celebrate Black History Month to celebrate our creativity and divinity as a people. We celebrate Black History Month for those who lost their lives,” Matthews said. “We celebrate Black History Month because every brother and sister that I’m looking at today is or will be a Black legacy.”
Collins closed the flag-raising by acknowledging Montclair State’s police department.
“I want to thank the University Police Department,” Collins said. “I must say and acknowledge them because we are looking at some very difficult times regarding police and community relations around the world. And at the same time, our campus policing calls and says, ‘Listen, we are really saddened by some of the things that are going on in the world. And we apologize for those who are among us, but not like us.’”
The ceremony was followed by students and faculty presenting notable Black people who fought for triumph in the midst of tragedy.
David Jocelyn, a freshman justice studies major, reminisced on the ceremony.
“I think this event was really insightful not just for Black people but for people of all demographics,” Jocelyn said. “It informs us of America’s past and helps us see how we can grow [toward] a better future.”
Lewis explained that while it’s important for Black people to know about their heritage and have a voice, she also emphasizes having people of different backgrounds attending this event furthers awareness of how important Black heritage is for everyone.
“When people get inspired, they shift how they move in the world,” Lewis said. “They also shift the way that they see people who look like that person. If the only images you see are negative images, then somehow that impacts the way you think.”
She explained that she wanted the ceremony to be so that Black people are not confined to a box.
“When we have something like this, we actually get people to expand on how they see Black history and heritage and how it’s relevant to everybody,” Lewis said. “I think we moved beyond just telling the history of facts, but to creating a culture of evolution and personal growth.”