By: Nick Santangelo

“Black history in America is obviously American history,” says Morgan State University Associate Professor MK Asante. “It's something that I acknowledge and celebrate all year, honestly. But it's about understanding what came before us, it's about understanding the past so we have a better understanding of where we are, where we're going. It's about legacy. It's about untold stories.”

Prof. Asante (who’s also a best-selling author, award-winning filmmaker and recording artist) will give the keynote address today, Feb. 19, in the College of Liberal Arts’ 17th annual Underground Railroad and Black History Conference. Presented by the Africology and African American Studies Department along with TU Libraries and the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection, the conference, Prof. Asante’s talk will focus on black history in the digital age.

Kneeling Down

It’s a subject the professor and storyteller is intimately familiar with, as evidenced by his currently running Snapchat docuseries While Black. The show, which returns with new episodes Feb. 22, focuses on what Prof. Asante says are “real issues” black people are facing, but he wasn’t content to just lay out the problems. While Black also shows how people are uplifting those in their communities with solutions to these problems.

“We talk about what it means to be young, gifted and black in America today by highlighting the work of young people who are usually overlooked,” explains Prof. Asante.

At the same time, he takes care to point out that these issues are not strictly black people’s issues. Conversations about racism, says Prof. Asante, are not productive if they only take place within black communities. White people, he says, should be talking about racism and race issues as much as black people are.

One such issue that’s gotten plenty of attention from all Americans is at the center of a While Black episode this season: athletes protesting racial injustice. It’s been nearly four years since Colin Kaepernick reignited the movement by kneeling during the national anthem. The media firestorm Kaepernick’s activism created has long since died down, but the injustices he was protesting still exist.

Prof. Asante points out, however, that because of the activism by Kaepernick and other athletes the issues themselves have gotten the attention they deserve. The protesting hasn’t entirely stopped, either. While Black chronicles how female UCLA soccer players have continued protesting.

“What Kaepernick, and what people do when they protest,” says Prof. Asante, “is they're trying to bring awareness to something. Because when there's no awareness, there can be no action, because people don't even know about it. And so they use this platform to bring awareness. I think it was something that, if you look at, historically, black athletes, they've been doing [for a long time].”

As evidence, the professor points to Muhammad Ali protesting the Vietnam War and to Tommie Smith and John Carlos protesting during the national anthem in the 1968 Olympic Games.

Standing Up

Of course, there’s a lot more to both Black History Month and While Black than athletes protesting. To Prof. Asante, protesting during the anthem is just an example of athletes using the platform they have to call attention to issues that matter to them. By producing While Black and speaking about racial issues on campuses around the country like Temple University, the professor is doing the same with his platform as a storyteller.

While some forces have pushed back at the idea of people turning non-political things political, Prof. Asante rejects this view. In his telling, everything is political.

“So, even when the NFL doesn't talk about those things and they try to remain what they call apolitical, it's really supporting the status quo,” he says. “It means you're essentially endorsing something by not speaking up against it.”

Speaking up isn’t a problem for Prof. Asante, and he’ll invite students to also lend their voices to the conversation when visits campus today. And there are many directions for that conversation to go in. Prof. Asante says one of the most important things about Black History Month is telling stories that have yet to be told. The month is about people telling their own stories, but it’s also about telling the stories of those who came before.

When he tells stories, Prof. Asante looks for subjects with substance that will impact people and move them in a positive direction. For liberal arts students who aspire to be storytellers and difference-makers themselves, Prof. Asante recommends they find their passion and their purpose.

“Pursue the thing that you're interested in and pursue the things that you're passionate about. And do it relentlessly. Without fear, without pain. Try to eliminate distractions and attack opportunities. But also do it with purpose.”

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