Honoring Black History Month
Reflections from Northwestern professors.
Posted Feb 28, 2019
In honor of Black History Month the Faculty of Counseling@Northwestern, the CACREP Accredited Master of Arts Counseling Program at the Family Institute at Northwestern University, share their thoughts about how they have been impacted by individuals in their lives and reflect on how these people have inspired them to continue creating change in the world in their roles as counselors and professors.
Doug’s Impact on Dr. Eric Beeson
When I think of Black History Month, I remember the people who had a direct influence on my life. These people are also not written about in books and do not have name recognition like Dr. Martin Luther King, but their contributions to my life have been no less impactful. As I reflect this month, I would like to share a story about the first Black man that I knew, and also, the first time I became aware of racism and prejudice in my community.
It was springtime and little league sign-ups were just around the corner. My friends and I were preparing for another season of our nation’s pastime. As we prepared for the draft, my friends and I decided we were going to spy on the coaches meeting when they would be selecting teams. This meeting included five coaches, one of which was the first Black man I ever knew, a coach whom I will call “Doug.” At this point, I would say I was more than naive and “colorblind,” not in a way that disregarded diversity, but in a way that did not realize the differentness on how people treated one another. I certainly was not aware of my own privilege as a white man nor my own inherent racism. As we listened to the little league draft, I heard what I now know to be microaggressions and of course, Doug was randomly selected to pick last. Not only did he seem to embrace this position in the selection process, but also seemed to be picking the players from a lower socioeconomic status and who were not at the top of the scouting reports. I was one of those players.
I quickly learned that Doug was the person who arrived at the fields early to prepare the grounds for each game. In the months and years to come, I would get to our games hours early to ride along with Doug as he prepared the fields. He would tell me about his life and while he never complained, I heard stories about how he and his family were treated differently. Doug quickly became a father figure for me, and I began to witness the prejudice he faced on the little league field that I know extended to his life outside of little league. This was when I started to notice the otherness that Doug felt.
Doug never had the best equipment for the team, nor did he have the support of all the parents or community. Nonetheless, his heart, passion, and commitment to this ragtag bunch of players inspired us, especially when we played the top-ranked teams in our league. Although we were normally last in our division, we always seemed to squeak out a victory against the first place team. We didn’t have the fanciest equipment, we weren’t the most athletic, but we had heart and were inspired by Doug. We relied on the values of hard work, teamwork, and creativity that Doug instilled in us rather than innate athletic ability that many of us brought. Our team was so committed to Doug that we requested to play on his team year after year.
As I reflect this month, I am grateful for this experience and my relationship with Doug. While I did not know it at the time, our experiences in the field were a metaphor for his life. In a way, I believe that we played so hard for him on the field because we knew that it was “on the field” where he had allies and support against the oppressive systems that existed in our small community. I often wonder what happened to Doug, and only hope that he would know the impact he had on my life. As I reflect on this Black History month, I am reminded of the countless unsung heroes that face adversity daily while still contributing to the lives of others.
Dr. Russell Fulmer honors Bass Reeves
I am a history buff and enjoy reading about the American Wild West. This charismatic time usually evokes images of cowboys, bar stools, and covered wagons. Names like Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and Jessie James strike a chord with the imagination. Let’s face it, most people who come to mind when recollecting this era have one thing in common: They are all White. My favorite figure from the Wild West is a relatively unknown Black man named Bass Reeves. He was born into slavery, and in the 1800s Mr. Reeves become a U.S. Marshall. One more thing, Bass was a badass.
In a time of grit, Reeves was as tough as they came – and other descriptors that come to mind are courageous, determined, and perhaps most of all, principled. A thorough biography of Bass Reeves is beyond the scope of my reflections here, but I encourage everyone who reads this to look him up. Reeves patrolled what is now Oklahoma and brought some of the nastiest outlaws around to justice. I simply cannot fathom the inner fortitude it took for Reeves to fulfill his responsibilities at that time of our history. He deserves our utmost respect, but today he is largely forgotten.
What can a contemporary counselor learn from a lawman who lived 100 years ago? Plenty. Some virtues never go out of style. Here’s one – tenacity, the ability to overcome obstacles. Good luck finding a professional counselor whose journey is marked solely by roses and rainbows. The next time you question your efficacy or reconsider fighting the good fight, think of Bass Reeves and summons your inner badass. Sometimes, life requires no less.
Dr. Katie Atkins Reflects on the Importance of Celebration of Black History and Black Culture
When I reflect on Black History Month, many experiences, people, and stories come to mind. The first is that of Black American history being rooted in struggle and heartache yet defined by individuals who continually overcame seemingly insurmountable challenges. Without these examples of sacrifice and achievement (and let us not forget the countless others that will never receive the recognition they deserve), Black Americans would not have the freedoms and rights that are enjoyed today. Black History Month calls for a remembrance of their stories and connects the inspiration in their struggle. As Americans, I want us all to remember that more unites us than divides us.
Yet, Black History Month means many things to me. It is a time to specifically celebrate the historic leaders of the Black community, Black history, and Black culture, advocate, and increase awareness for all people, and recognize that Black history is Black history. I have also come to realize that Black history means something different to everyone. What I would like to share here is one of the most powerful stories I have read to date, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Coates’s story is one that is written as a letter to his son and relays difficult conversations that black men have with their sons in America.
Coates (2015) said, “Americans deify democracy in a way that allows for a dim awareness that they have, from time to time, stood in defiance of their God. But democracy is a forgiving God and American’s heresies—torture, theft, enslavement—are so common among individuals and nationals that none can declare themselves immune” (p. 6). In our efforts to gain equality and fairness, we continue to marginalize the Black community. Coates was accused of stripping Black Americans from the American dream. However, I often wonder how that could be when racism is ever-present. Coates said, “Racism—the need to ascribe bone-deep features to people and then humiliate, reduce, and destroy them—inevitably follows from this inalterable condition” (p. 7). As long as there is an injustice, the civil rights movement will live, and we must continue to work towards eradicating racism and injustice. In a world that stresses we can do anything, in a country that claims we are all created equal, we must embrace one another with open arms and begin to heal the pain that has taken place through hearing one another’s stories. The time is now to act and do what we can to make a difference. Ta-Nehisi’s vision of moving forward despite the givens of birth instills hope for me and for society.
Dr. Michele Kerulis Draws Inspiration from Fellow Chicagoans
When I reflect on Black History Month I think about the past, the present, and the future. When I think about the past I think about the struggles and triumphs of famous Black Americans and the continued impact their sacrifices and passion have on our lives. I, like many of my counseling colleagues, dedicate a great deal of time to advocacy efforts both on national and local levels and am continually inspired by members of my local community who also value advocacy. When I think about the present, four people in my community come to mind who share ideas related to decreasing stigma related to mental health, encourage people to talk about race and Blackness, inspire young girls to learn about STEM and culture, and a woman who helps people understand the importance of healthy minds and healthy bodies. I have had the honor to meet three of the four people who inspire me.
It was during a meditation class when I first met Brandon Breaux, a Chicago artist who is well known for his work that “focuses on identity, the subconscious mind and the fragility of the human psyche.” Brandon’s artwork in itself is a creative expression of emotions and experiences, and he shares his love for art with children in the community. Brandon founded Field Trip, during which he takes children to art museums as a way to spark their creative minds through art. Brandon’s commitment to decreasing the stigma related to talking about mental health through the Mental Health is Real campaign has two amazing outcomes: one is that it opens a conversation about mental health and the second is making a difference by donating a portion of the proceeds to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
A second amazing Chicagoan is Kenyatta Forbes, a former Chicago Public School Teacher, and creator of Trading Races, a card game about Black culture and Blackness. Kenyatta takes her understanding of educational theory and creates safe spaces for people to have uncomfortable conversations. Kenyatta is also the founding artist of Urban Macrame Fibers and I was awed to see her beautifully sculpt glass and create a small neon sculpture when we took a glass-blowing class together. I am inspired by her openness and support for people to express their emotions through different ways, including exploring issues related to mental health on her podcast Middle-Aged Millennials.
Another inspirational woman is Dr. Eve Ewing, an author, qualitative sociologist, and professor at the University of Chicago. I met Dr. Ewing after her talk Superheros Unmasked during which she discussed her role in writing Ironheart, Marvel’s Black teenage engineer superhero. Eve described the ideas behind the character: "Riri Williams is a teen girl from the South Side of Chicago who copes with both great trauma and great talent, and as Ironheart, she fights for justice as a new addition to the classic roster of beloved Marvel heroes. She’s brilliant, she’s awkward, she’s tenacious, she’s relatable, and she’s earned acclaim from both diehard comics fans and new readers." Eve has may impactful pieces of work, including her book, Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side. Eve’s delivery method of introducing the academic theory and tying it into her messages leaves her audiences excited to follow their dreams.
Finally, Michelle Obama, our first Black First Lady of the United States, Chicagoan, author of Becoming, and fitness enthusiast, is a role model of grace and achievement. As a former fitness instructor and personal trainer, I love hearing Michelle’s advocacy for fitness and health across the lifespan as she encourages people: “Let’s Move!” While I have not yet met Michelle, I can only imagine her intense charisma and would love to have a conversation with her about her recommendations and reflections on our past, present, and future.
We encourage you to celebrate Black history, culture, and inspiration throughout the year. Our lives have been impacted and we thank you for taking the time to learn about those who have and who continue to inspire us.