Exploring Race and American Identity: Charmaine Jefferson on Black History Month

Black History month in February marks the accomplishments of those within the black community. Santa Monica College had the pleasure of having guest lecturer Charmaine Jefferson speak on the fact that not only is it in the hands of everyone in America to spread this history regardless of their age, race or background but that it should go beyond the 28 days in February and be celebrated all year long.


This Tuesday the Santa Monica College Associates and Black Collegians hosted Charmaine Jefferson, CEO of the California African American Museum. Following her lecture and Q&A session, Jefferson attended a luncheon in Drescher Hall.

Charmaine Jefferson was appointed executive director of the California African American Museum in 2003.

Prior to her experience working with the museum, Jefferson had extensive experience working as the executive director of the Dance Theater of Harlem, exercising her background in dance and the performance arts.

Outside of her involvement with the theater arts, her career took a more commercial turn when she was heavily involved with Disney Studios and aided in the development of many shows at Disney's California Adventure theme park.


Judy Neveau of the SMC Associates and Sherri Bradford of the Black Collegians collaborated to invite Jefferson to speak. Both groups encouraged students from all over campus to participate in the event and also sent out letters to every member of the Black Collegians requesting their attendance.

After learning that the exhibit was not only going to be visiting Los Angeles but that it was going to be hosted at a nearby museum, Neveau immediately began working at obtaining a speaker to present at SMC.


"Because the exhibit was coming through I wanted to snag someone in conjunction with the museum for the school."


Neveau observed that the California Science Center facilitates many programs for grades K-12 but that coming to SMC would be a perfect opportunity for them to be more involved with colleges.


Filling the seats were many students from SMC's Black Collegian's group, who came to get more information on Black History month and also to get a bit of background on the exhibit that many had yet to visit.


Not only did the event draw interested students but in attendance were many faculty members from Santa Monica College including Dr. Delores Raveling from the Matriculation and Counseling Department and Dr. Toni Trives of the Modern Language and Cultures Department. Both professors attended to get a preview of what the "America I Am" exhibit might hold for them well.

During her lecture Jefferson spoke on the roots of what has come to be known as Black History, or African America History Month, the "American I Am" exhibit installed at the California Science Center in Exposition Park and also gave the attendees many different insights into why she believes it is up to this generation of youth to keep Black History Month in the spotlight in the future.


Recognizing that Black History Month is almost over, Jefferson began her lecture by stating that although month-long celebrations dedicated to specific cultures are important, Black history is something that should be focused on, studied and shared 365 days a year.

"It's the last week and people find themselves at the end of the month and realize that they haven't celebrated yet," said Jefferson.

After this realization many people often put educating themselves about Black history on hold until next year. Jefferson makes very clear her passion for fostering an awareness of the history and self-educating year round.


She does see the importance of having one month specifically dedicated to celebrating black history because it gives those who are not involved with the subject the rest of the year a chance to really focus, if just for a few weeks, on a very important topic.


"We always need to have a minute where we stop and recognize something because the day comes when you can't ask the question anymore," says Jefferson. "It's empowering to stop and get to know your history. It's empowering to know where you came from."

The main focus of Jefferson's lecture was to leave the audience with two things: an interest in questioning their cultural and racial lineage as well as the desire to keep black history month alive and recognized by this generation.


One of the ways that Jefferson suggests that SMC students could keep the interest and participation in Black History Month alive was by recognizing that everyone supporting leaders and activists makes a difference.


Jefferson reflected on the fact that people involved heavily with the civil rights movement are slowly fading out of existence so it is up to this generation to make themselves more involved with keeping their legacy in focus. As she put it, "My hair is gray and my daughter's is not."


Although this generation was not around to experience many of the turning points in civil rights and black history, she puts on our shoulders the responsibility of carrying on the message.


SMC student Kayo Johnson took away this exact message from Jefferson's speech and commented on this at the luncheon.


"I truly enjoyed the lecture but one of the most important things we needed to know was that we were making history just being in that room today, we were making history listening to you speak today," said Johnson.


And this rang true with Jefferson's philosophy. Black history is not something that stops following the peaks of the civil rights movements or the accomplishments made by Dr. Martin Luther King. The history is something being created everyday by black individuals around the globe to be recognized in the future.


"When you're in the middle of history, you don't know it," says Jefferson. "You're living your life." She says that "instead of limiting it to the idea of talking about the ten people we've already learned about, find some new people to talk about."


She encourages students to take the intiative and involve their culture, history and experiences in the movement of the African American community to become better recognized and empowered.


As she gestured to the students out of the window of the conference room where the luncheon was held Jefferson said, "Everybody out there thinks that they can't make a difference, but they can. If we only act like the leaders, we forget all of the people who made a difference behind them."


Much of what Jefferson said during her lecture was mirrored in the content of the "America I Am" exhibit. When entering the exhibit attendees see questions written all over the walls: "What if there were no Maya Angelou?" "What if there were no Venus or Serena Williams?" "What if there were no Oprah, Marcus Garvey, Barack Obama or Stevie Wonder?"


The history of the Black people is one that resonates throughout America on many different levels and that can be attributed to the accomplishments of many different people. Both the exhibit and Jefferson push people to become more aware of where their roots are and how many different people's lives are connected in one way or another to Black history, even if they're not aware of it.


The "America I Am" exhibit can be seen at The California Science Center. Docents lead a thorough and often emotional walk through Black history, from the days of slave trade to the accomplishments of pop culture icons like the Supremes and the Jackson 5.


The exhibit runs daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. through May 2 with tickets at $8.50 for students, $9.50 general admission.