USF’s Black Student Union (BSU) brought history to life last Thursday with a performance where four members of BSU performed narratives from the book “When I Was a Slave” by Norman Yetman, describing the lives of slaves.
One narrative talked about how slaves were hit with a warm iron and were ‘burned to the flesh,’ while another narrative of a who picked cotton described being whipped and lynched.
Despite the serious and gripping content of these accounts, BSU’s original idea for the event was even more arresting, in fact ending up called off for fear of being too offensive.
BSU’s “original plan” was the staging of a historically accurate colonial American slave auction. The auction was to begin with a group of students dressed in rags and chains, playing the roles of slaves for sale, marched by a white student, playing the role of auctioneer, through campus onto the stage in Harney plaza. White students in the crowd were to make bids for the slaves on stage.
To help maintain historical accuracy, the Black Student Union recruited advisor and history professor Candice Harrison. Harrison immediately noticed concern from the faculty at USF concerning the BSU’s planned slave auction.
“Once we addressed [faculty] concerns,” Harrison says, “I don’t think any of us stopped to think that students themselves might be uncomfortable. African American students, as well as the broader student population.”
Harrison and her students all note it became obvious the slave auction did not have enough willing participants to go forward, either from the BSU, or from the USF student body in general.
USF student Darius Halliday was asked by the BSU to play the role of a slave. He declined. “I thought it was too conflicting with me to portray myself as something so historically controversial,” he said,” particularly “to an audience that may not be able to understand what is going on or wouldn’t take it seriously.”
Because of this, the group opted for a less controversial but still powerful method of conveying their message.
Camille Watts, a sophomore and Community Action Coach for BSU, read a story from an ex-slave. After her performance, she said “The whole time I knew there was no need for me to get people to truly understand it because I will never truly understand what slavery was like…I just read it as best I could and let people feel what they were going to feel.”
International Studies major Ashley Cervantes said, “representing such strong figures must have been a challenge [for the speakers]. It was an impressive feat to embody powerful figures.”
The discussion at Fromm Hall focused on how people today can understand slave history. Attendees reflected on how African-Americans had a rich history before slavery.
BSU President Krystal Aaron said Black History Month “to me is celebrating the struggles and the glory that our ancestors were able to overcome. I think that it’s often overlooked by so many people… even African-Americans ourselves tend to overlook and not reminisce on everything that our ancestors have done granted everything that’s been given to us.”
Harrison said, “We’re still not ready to do away with Black History Month. We have progressed so much in terms of writing African-American experiences into a narrative of American history. There’s still a lot more to go. Normally when you talk about Black History, it goes one of two ways; we talk about the future or about a really ugly, painful past.”
The discussion bridged the gap between slavery and today. Attendees discussed how slaves were seen as commodities . Harrison puts a positive spin on this view by saying slaves were families who loved one another and their strength is passed down to future generations.
For every week in February, BSU will plan events at USF.
Harrison said Black History Month is a “genuine reflection of that past and how meaningful it is to us today. And by us I mean Americans.”
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