What is Black History Month and why should postdocs pay attention?

Feb. 12, 2018, 5:00 a.m.

Did you know Dr. Carter G. Woodson had only received his doctorate from Harvard three years before he started the movement to codify Black History Month? By all academic rights and current standards, this would mean Dr. Woodson was a postdoc when he began to work on actualizing an annual celebration of Black history at a national level. A postdoc, who fiercely believed in the importance of his area of research (i.e. Black and African-American history) and was not afraid to use his expertise in this area to speak truth to power. And in the spirit of Dr. Woodson, SURPAS (in collaboration with SBPA) would like to take a moment and “put you on game” about Black History Month, which started February 1st. Because, though the reasons for observing and celebrating this month are numerous, the following thoughts hold particular relevance to postdocs currently living this life.

  1. Dr. Woodson’s goal in creating Black History Month was to address the obvious lack of Black and African-American History taught in K-12 education. A goal that most would agree has not yet been fully realized and highlighted by the BHM 2017 theme, “The Crisis of Black Education.” It should not be lost on any postdoc that Dr. Woodson’s academic career was dedicated to utilizing his position in the Academy to dismantle and decolonize an unjust educational infrastructure. Postdocs are uniquely intertwined in a system of education and innovation, a system which we are both the product of and are constantly building. We, therefore, exist in a rarefied and privileged position to be a nuanced force of change to those around us, be they students, friends or family. And as we work in settings in which Black experiences remain minoritized and overlooked, it is our responsibility to work towards equity and just infrastructure. As postdocs, we shape the present and future of academia and industry, and it is our responsibility to do better, be better.
  2. Dr. Woodson envisioned celebrations that would acknowledge contributions made by people, not simply or primarily by great men. Perhaps this was related to Dr. Woodson being only the second African-American to earn a doctorate from Harvard, maybe not. Regardless, the juxtaposition of Dr. Woodson’s rarity in his field and the tenacity with which he sought to substantiate BHM speaks greatly to contemporary issues of diversity and inclusion in higher education. Every postdoc, independent of phenotypic characteristics or geographical origin, is a critical fiber in the fabric of science. We must stand in solidarity with each other if we are to provide the best shoulders to stand on.
  3. Black History Month at its core is about visibility. Dr. Woodson adamantly stated that full recognition of the broad contributions of Black and African-Americans was essential to dispelling misrepresentations and false stereotypes. BHM is a political and moral project to educate and make visible the clear and not- so-clear contributions of Black people that have shaped America thus far. Postdoc, I know you know what it feels like to deeply desire recognition for your achievements and visibility of your efforts. Now imagine watching a Supreme Court Justice question the importance of diversity in STEM classrooms or never being taught by a professor whose journey mirrors your lived experience. As the future of the Academy, postdocs are instrumental in shaping the “New Guard” of the professoriate. We must strive to make visible the contributions of members in our respective fields that may have been obscured by prejudice or bigotry to ensure our Academy is reflective of all members.

Taking a page out of Dr. Woodson’s playbook, SUPRAS will be dedicating our February Mailer to highlighting the work of colleagues in the Black Postdoc Association (SBPA), as well as the variety of community spaces and events where conversations and ally-ships can be started. We encourage the postdoc community to get involved with on- and off-campus BHM activities (don’t forget to send us photos to post). Importantly, while we believe Black History Month is an occasion to be marked, we hope it is only the renewal of year-long appreciation and support for our Black community.

Stay tuned in solidarity,
The Stanford Postdoc Association + Stanford Black Postdoc Association

Deb Karhson, PhD; Post-doctoral fellow Psychiatry and Behavioral Science, dkarhson ‘at’ stanford.edu

Ioana Marin, PhD; Post-doctoral fellow Biology Department, iamarin ‘at’ stanford.edu

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