In commemoration of Black History Month, we spoke to Amanda Chamba, the president of Bellevue College’s Black Student Union. Black History Month being in February comes from the timing of Black History Week, which occurred between February 12, Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, and February 20, Frederick Douglas’s birthday. That holiday was first commemorated in 1926, and since 1976, Black History Month has been officially recognized in the United States. More recently, it has spread to other countries like the United Kingdom and Canada. According to Chamba, however, Black History Month has become too exclusively celebratory. “Quite frankly, I was very careful about planning the events that we had going on this month because I didn’t want them to be celebratory and fun and light and witty, because that’s not what it feels like being a black person in America in 2021. …There are bigger issues that need to be addressed.”
Instead, she’s been focusing on collaboration and thoughtful conversations with people experiencing different forms of oppression, including with other Bellevue College groups like El Centro and the Asian Pacific Islander Student Association (APISA).
What brought about that change in tone, and what gives Chamba hope for the future, is all the young people seeing the failures of reforms in the past. “It’s that people, particularly this generation, we’re like, why are we still seeing the same things that our grandparents had fought for when they were 18, 19, 20? And why do I have to do that now as a 21 year old? … It’s the same thing of ultimately black people being oppressed in America. It’s the same story of police brutality. It’s the same thing of redlining, of fair unemployment practices.”
Those failures also apply to Bellevue College itself. According to Chamba, disadvantaged students of all kinds, who were disproportionately impacted by the COVID pandemic, have dropped out at very high rates due to inadequate support from the institution. “With the pandemic, and how that disproportionately impacted vulnerable students, being low income, not document, undocumented, you know, LGBTQ+, students of color, things of that sort, we have seen a disappearance of black students here on campus.” She estimates the membership of the Black Student Union itself has dropped over 80% because the poverty many black students already faced was amplified by the mass layoffs of low-wage workers over the past year.
Overall, Chamba urged Bellevue College students to scrutinize powerful institutions, listen to the demands of black students, and work to advance those demands as activists.