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Black Student Union, library organize Black History Month events to raise awareness, encourage diverse perspectives

To unite the school’s Black population, the Black Student Union has hosted multiple events throughout February and into early March, club president Maia Johnsson said. 

Black History Month, a time to celebrate Black achivements and honor Black people’s role in American history, has taken place every February since 1976.

“At BSU, we’re trying to get the Black community at Paly to engage with each other and the school,” Johnsson said.

The club has hosted several speakers at its Wednesday meetings, including Black politician Ajwang Rading, who is running for Congress in California’s 16th district, which includes Palo Alto. 

“We got to learn about what it’s like for a Black man to run for Congress and get their name out there,” Johnsson said. “I think that it’s really important that people learn who people are before they get biased by how they look.”

In addition to the speakers, the club asked students to celebrate the last day of Black History Month by having freshman, sophomores, juniors and seniors wear green, yellow, black and red, respectively, to show solidarity. 

Johnsson also said she embraces Black History Month as an opportunity to teach people about the struggles the Black community has and is still going through to gain freedom and equal rights.

“I want people to know that it took a lot of work for Black people to get where they are today,” Johnsson said. 

Johnson said Black History Month also raises awareness about lesser known civil rights leaders.

“Everyone knows about people like Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, but there are so many more people, like Ajwang Rading, who are still working for Black recognition around the world,” Johnsson said.

Johnsson also said Black history is important in a continuing struggle for equality.

“Where we are right now is not enough,” Johnsson said. “It’s a never-ending struggle to get the rights and reparations we need.”

 Librarian Sima Thomas said she wanted to use Black History Month to show off the library’s diverse collection of Black authors and works. 

“I want this library to be a place where all students at Paly can come in and find themselves,” Thomas said. “People want to see that their experience is worth being put in media.”

During February, Thomas set up a display of both nonfiction and fiction books by Black authors and books that featured Black characters. 

Thomas said diverse books not only encourage new perspectives but are tools for introspection. 

“Books are windows and mirrors,” Thomas said. “(We want to have) books that allow you to see through a window into someone else’s life, but more importantly, to find books in a library that mirror your own lives back to you.”

Thomas said that only certain identities are often represented in the media, and she worries that underrepresented groups struggle to find books that provide such a mirror. 

“If you fall into an identity more represented by mainstream society, your identity is reflected back to you all the time in TV shows, books and media,” Thomas said.  “If you’re not in that group, and I think all of us have parts of us that are different in some ways, I want to have books and covers to show people that ‘characters can look like me.” 

Growing up Iranian-American, Thomas said she recalls searching for protagonists she could identify with, only to see Iranians cast as villains.

Thomas said she hopes Black History Month is one part of a broader effort to expose students to a diverse range of books.

“We don’t want to only have Black books one month,” Thomas said. “Books with Black authors and Black characters are relevant all year, and we try to always have a diverse group of authors in our collection.”

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