Author: Hannah Petty
The month of February holds a lot of importance in today’s society. Students celebrate the passing of yet another month on the countdown to summer while couples prepare for the most romantic holiday of the year. It is the month of Oscar awards and Super Bowl trophies, but what is often overlooked is the significance of February as a whole. The first of this month marks the beginning of Black History Month. In honor of this, I sat down with a member of the African Student Association (ASA), Miriam Paul. ASA is an association made up of African born students who are now living and attending school in the U.S. Miriam is a junior Psychology major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and a native-born Ugandan. She shares with us her thoughts on black heritage and how her culture influences her everyday life.
Collective Culture: When did you first move to the U.S.?
Miriam Paul: We moved to Texas in 2001 where we lived for a few years before moving to Omaha, NE.
CC: Do you personally do anything to celebrate Black History Month with friends or family?
MP: Personally, with my family, not really. I think it’s more of the fact that we feel kind of unattached from what the African Americans experienced here in America than what we experienced back in Africa. We do support African Americans, but we don’t do any big celebrations. We also recognize the people that contributed to the movement that helped African Americans gain their rights.
CC: Does ASA do anything special to celebrate Black History Month?
MP: We try to incorporate things that have gone on in America while also trying to bring in African cultural aspects, but ASA tries to focus more on the cultural aspect. In the past, we have done a lot of different events. We’ve done Zumba night to show African music. We held a bake sale where we sold African goods. We hosted a talk on what Donald Trump said in regards to Africa last year about it being a “dump”. There have been movie nights where we showcase an African movie. We are still in the progress of planning this year’s events, however.
CC: What aspects of your African culture find their way into your everyday life?
MP: Even though I didn’t grow up in Africa, my parents raised me a certain way. They kept that tradition alive. Because of this, my culture plays a big role in my everyday life. I speak in my native tongue at home, but often I start randomly speaking in it to other people who don’t understand, which is kind of funny. Also, I love African attire. I try to incorporate it into special events. Education is a big deal in the African community, and that has a strong influence over what I do every day. Such as, making sure I’m dedicated to what I want to do. It also ties back to me wanting to visit my home country and help fix things so that it can be a more modernized civilization.
CC: At home, do you and your parents often make traditional African foods?
MP: Yes, all the time! Even when I’m at college, I sometimes make it on my own. I always overestimate how much food I need so I try to give it out to my friends. Some common foods would be fufu, which is like flour mixed with water. There’s beef stew, lamb stew, and fish stew, as well as quite a few different dishes. My favorite would be fufu with this one type of greens called sawa sawa. We try to incorporate greens into everything.
CC: What makes African fashion unique from what you see in everyday American culture?
MP: I think what makes it more unique is that it’s so vibrant. I know you can see this vibrance in any culture, but our attire is super colorful and has various patterns. Even if you wouldn’t think certain patterns would go together, you put it on and you’re just like “wow that looks amazing!”. You can wear it to any occasion, whether it’s a fancy dinner or if you’re just sitting at home. Another thing I love about African fashion, with the attires you can express yourself. In Ghana, there’s what’s called Kente cloth, and the pattern in which it is sewn is telling its own story. You want to be careful when you’re wearing Kente cloth because the pattern expresses how you feel. So, if you decide to wear it to a wedding, you need to be careful. There are certain attires to wear for weddings, so you know that if someone is wearing a specific attire then you know they’re going to a wedding.
CC: Are there any prominent black men or women, either past or present, that inspire you?
MP: Yes, one person that inspires me is Maya Angelou. One thing that inspires me about her is her poems. Even though she went through some tough times, she never gave up. She still fought for her rights. She didn’t let what happened in her past destroy her. She moved on from it and used it as her motivation to do better and inspire other people.
CC: What are your thoughts on the representation of black people in pop culture?
MP: I feel like black culture is represented negatively. We are seen as the aggressive, criminal type. We are always put down and not represented for our greatness and for what we’ve contributed to society.
CC: Do you see any positive representations of black people in the media that you think society should focus on?
MP: Recently there have been some better films. One film that I will forever recommend to people is Black Panther. It portrayed us as being this vibrant and amazing culture. They were portraying what Africa might have been like had colonization not have hit. We could have been this advanced society.
CC: In your opinion, what ways do you believe members of society can support those of varying ethnicities?
MP: One thing for sure that I would say is that instead of putting each other down we should lift each other up. Even within our own races, we are still putting each other down. We’ve learned this concept of self-hate, and we tend to project this onto others to make ourselves feel better. Another thing that I feel that we could fix is letting go of stereotypes. If you stereotype people, they are more likely going to fall into that stereotype because they have this preconceived idea of who they are.
CC: Is there anything else that you would like our readers to know?
MP: I would like to comment on Black History Month. I feel like the reason many people don’t celebrate Black History Month is because it’s something that happens once a year and at the beginning of the year. We have nine months of school, and in the education system we hear so very little about what’s going on in the black community, then what we do hear is often negative. The only positive people you learn about are Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Rosa Parks. What about the thousands of other black people that have done something for our country? Would we had even heard of the Obamas had they not have taken office? We know so little and hear so little about positive black people.
Miriam provides us with an insight into African heritage. Her love for her culture shows us a refreshing look at what it means to shed self-hate. As she pointed out, there’s a lot that needs to change with how we view not only those around us but also with how we view ourselves. If we can learn to embrace our own culture and love ourselves for it, this will better help us in understanding other members in our society. With this interview, I hope Miriam Paul can serve as an inspiration to those within the black community, but also those who are not but who strive for a more accepting society.