08/20/2012 04:46 pm ET Updated Oct 20, 2012

Beyond February: Black History and The Importance of Discovering Institutional Memory

Knowing the history of our institutions, particularly our history within the institutions in which we find ourselves, is critically important and can be potentially life changing. In some cases, it may even be institution changing. For the last several years, we have had the honor of developing and co-teaching a course on the history of individuals of African Descent at our university. We have seen the course challenge and move our students while simultaneously unearthing a history that has been forgotten by many and completely unknown by many others.

Past, present, and future all converge in weekly moments held together by stories that at once belong to alumni from years, decades and centuries ago, to students who are in the midst of their own collegiate journey, and to a generation that has yet to walk on our campus.

Our students read from the autobiography of Nathan Mossell and learn of his experience as the first African American graduate of our medical school. Heads shake and tears are barely held back as Mossell recounts painful days from slightly more than one hundred years prior. His presence was so disturbing to his classmates that he was ordered to sit in a chair just outside the classroom door so that he could still hear the professor's lectures, yet not to be seen by his peers.

"Sometimes I feel like I'm not seen in the classroom," says one of our students; a sentiment that many others - in the class as well as beyond our reach - have also previously felt but rarely have had a safe space to disclose. Another compares Mossell's experience to Ellison's conception of the Invisible Man and how it may be applied to the present-day Black experience.

We discover that Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of Ghana, and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., both spent time in our campus's classrooms. We explore the ironies of W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the most learned and astute scholars in history, not being permitted to teach undergraduates during the time he was recruited by the university to research and write The Philadelphia Negro. We hear firsthand from returning alumni about their experiences protesting on campus during the 1960s through the 90s; the challenging journey of the Black athlete in a predominantly white institution; the distinct experience of being a Black woman in higher education (as a student, faculty member, and administrator); the mortal fear of having to evacuate the Black-themed dorm - your home on campus - due to bomb threats; the important roles that performing arts, Greek life, and community engagement have played in the lives of Black students, faculty, and staff since they - we - became involved with the university. All the while students are bringing the experiences of their predecessors into dialogue with their own. The course feels like one part seminar, one part "History Detective" (shout out to Penn Professor Tukufu Zuberi), one part talk show (thanks to the many guests who come to speak each semester), and one part group therapy session as we all try to make sense of the very complex (and varied) experience of the individual of African descent in a predominantly white institution of higher learning. The class has left such an impression that students who have taken it previously often pop in on sessions the following year, and non-registered students, including alumni and graduate students who will not get credit for the course, attentively join us each week.

After a few years of teaching the course, we've come to see the potential value something like it could have in other spaces, be they colleges or universities, neighborhoods or cities, businesses, teams, clubs, groups, or anywhere that there has been a Black presence.

Researching and learning our histories isn't just interesting, it's vitally important as well. As author and activist Randall Robinson reminds us, repairing a broken history - and preparing for a brighter future - first involves documenting the story, no matter how terrible it may seem. Ruth Simmons, who recently stepped down after over a decade as the president of Brown University, fully embraced this notion when she launched an extensive study of Brown's ties to the slave trade in 2003. For many, such an endeavor was at best a puzzling distraction, and at worst an assault on contemporary progressive liberalism. Why would we want to publicly revisit a moment such as the slave trade? Simmons and many others at Brown recognized that in order to fully understand how our nation has grown, and to better grasp the work that we have yet to do, we must go back and revisit those painful periods of our collective memory. Our course has taught us this same valuable lesson.

As you embark on your own study of family, community, or institutional history, here are a few thoughts that we would like to share.

First, make it a collective project. Empower your students or your children to do their own research and create a space where you can engage in a critical conversation with colleagues, guest speakers, and the community at large.

Use the technology you have available to you, but also do not forget about the "old-fashioned" archives - the libraries, city records offices, museums, old churches, and more. Pack a lunch and see what there is to see.

Also be sure to include "living stories" from elders. They may not be "historians" by training, but they certainly have a lived history and are often happy to share when they are asked. If possible, capture the richness of their words on video, or at least an audio recording.

If you have no idea where to begin your project, seek out a historian for guidance. Perhaps a local librarian, a teacher, or a college professor would be willing to help you frame your endeavor.

Finally, as you engage in your collaborative search, look forward while you are looking back. In other words, always keep in mind that the past you are uncovering will help you better understand and honor the days ahead of you.

To that end, think about the many ways that you can share your findings with others, helping them learn from your experiences while inspiring their own search. As an example, our class has sponsored public conversations, created an archive of video interviews and research projects, and posted history facts online each day of Black History Month the past few years.

The closing of the Summer 2012 Olympiad provided a fitting final word. Through sport and competition, we've all been transformed into more conscious global citizens over these past few weeks, witnessing the results of years of dedication coupled with individual stories and historical legacies. The presence of people of African descent on numerous teams across the globe is an open invitation to explore historic and contemporary migration patterns - both voluntary and involuntary - to broaden our perspectives about the world around us. The uniqueness of each athlete's story provides a glimpse into generations of political struggle, social upheaval, human resilience, collective healing, and work yet undone. Moving media moments such as Dominique Dawes' tearful praise of Gabby Douglas's achievements remind us that the shoulders we stand on may not be that far removed from our own, and that there are many more "firsts" for future generations to accomplish. This is the final challenge that we leave each class with at the end of the semester - given all that we now know, what will be your story?