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Why History Matters

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Born in 1904 in Washington, D.C., Charles Drew ’26 was a prestigious Amherst graduate who contributed greatly to the field of medical research. After his Amherst years, in 1940, he went on to become the first black American to receive a doctoral degree from Columbia University. He is known as the father of blood banks, having developed methods for preserving blood plasma, or blood without cells (which can last longer than whole blood). As a result, during World War II, he was asked to lead medical initiatives to treat overseas casualties. On campus, his exemplary legacy lives on through Charles Drew Memorial Cultural House, one of Amherst’s many themed residential dormitories.

(Matt Randolph)– Last week, I selected my room within Charles Drew Black Memorial Cultural House for the upcoming fall semester. I don’t think my Amherst College experience would be complete without spending at least a semester living in a dorm with such an inspiring historical legacy. Walking through Drew House, especially as a black Amherst student, I could feel the historical legacy of that place but also the legacy that runs through my own veins.

On Friday, March 28th, the Black Men’s Group of the Amherst College Black Student Union hosted a celebratory event, called the “Women’s Appreciation Dinner” to actively demonstrate the group’s appreciation for the women of the Amherst College community. I wanted to perform something and contribute to the event, but I doubted myself, feeling like only a performance of music or poetry would suffice. I had never performed anything at an Amherst College event, preferring to write articles and stories from the comfort of a computer or journal. It finally crossed my mind that prose writing had just as much potential to captivate an audience.

I’ve kept the following story as authentic as possible, consistent with what I wrote and improvised for the Black Student Union dinner a couple weeks ago. I was motivated to publish it after having many conversations with friends about why history matters. Knowing history is essential to the growth and development of community as well the fortification of one’s own self-knowledge and sense of place in the world. I am constantly inspired not only by famous historical figures and movements from my history courses, but also from the experiences and legacies of older generations within my own family, including those living today. The history of my mother has shaped my own story, perspective, and understanding of my place in the world.

Here it is:

——————— ——————— ——————— ———————

Hey, everyone. My name’s Matt Randolph. I’m from Baltimore, MD and I’m a sophomore.

I’ll start by saying that Lupe Fiasco is definitely one of my all-time favorite rappers. His words from the song “All Black Everything” have been an inspiration for this performance:

I cordially invite you to ask why can’t it be?
Now we can do nothing bout the past
But we can do something about the future that we have
We can make fast or we can make it last
Every woman Queenin’ and every man a Kingin’ ” 

This is a story about my mother, about the past, about Amherst, about community, about race, about gender, about family, about values, but more importantly, it’s a story that’s about love.

I’ve always had a deep personal connection with the past. This semester, I declared History as a major. It was inevitable. I’ve always been fascinated by history ever since I was a kid, trying to glean as much information about the world around me as I possibly could. I wanted to learn not just about things, but why and how they were the way that they are. I eagerly volunteered at a black history museum in Baltimore: it was a rich fountain of community and togetherness, I could feel the connection with the place as I walked down the halls. The triumphs of American history, and of black American history in particular, sustains me whenever I have a tough day at Amherst College.

Almost every week, I have a conversation with friends in the dining hall about the “struggle,” about trying to just make it through this place. Well, imagine, how tough it was for the girls of the Class of 1977, especially a black girl from Washington D.C like my mom. If memory serves me right, two years earlier, the first class of women came to Amherst as part of the Class of 1975.

She didn’t finish at Amherst College. She left after the first year and enrolled in American University, closer to home in D.C., mainly because she couldn’t afford the tuition. My mom’s presence probably united beauty, intelligence, confidence, and grace in an incredible way, just like she still does. But, she struggled with her first-year chemistry course. On the phone today, she told me that she didn’t know the things I grew up learning from her. Unlike me, her mother didn’t go to college. After she met Dean Boykin-East on a visit she told me that she didn’t have someone like that while she was at Amherst. Dean Boykin-East helped me survive Amherst College during my first year. I won’t ever forget the day Dean Boykin-East gave me a planner to keep track of my time. (To this day, my friends know me as the guy who carries an appointment book around campus.) Her parents didn’t come to visit her at Amherst to help her find people that could support her. They were trying to deal with financial struggles and the other four kids in their life.

My mom took time off to make money and then finished at American University, where she developed the skills that made her the successful businesswoman she is today. She’s made the most out of life, lived the American dream, and raised two boys with her husband. My mom spent a lot of time regretting leaving Amherst, even though she didn’t know who to go to for support. She also didn’t know she could possibly leave, make money, and return to Amherst. Still, that moment I got into Amherst early decision, I saw a look in her eyes that made me realize that everything had come full-circle. Everything happens for a reason.

Four decades ago, as a first-year student, my mom walked into a Charles Drew Memorial Cultural House that was dominated by black men. Today, I got accepted into a contemporary Drew House that’s predominately housed by women. What irony. Today, I wonder, looking back on black women’s history at Amherst, where have all the black men gone? Surely there might be more black men today than before, but our community’s dynamic changed. Look at all the progress women of color have made for Charles Drew (a building founded by a black man), for the Black Student Union, and for Amherst. Yes, there is so much work to be done on this campus: consent, sexual assault, the social division of Valentine dining hall, etc. But, let’s take a moment to appreciate the progress that’s been made since my mom’s college years at this institution. One moment is all I’m asking. One moment, and then we can get back to work.

This is a message from my mom: “Women of Amherst: Keep taking charge and being who you are, but don’t alienate yourself from others. Be inclusive of everyone, be open to all ideas, and continue to work together as a unit. Continue to support one one other, and above all, seek out a community that will allow you to thrive.”

Amherst may not have an overarching sense of community that we sometimes long for, but that doesn’t mean we keep critiquing everything and forget the connections that we do have with others. My mom went to American University and found the Deltas, a sorority as her source of community support. My dad had his track team in college at UPenn. I’ve got my friends, the History department, the Spanish department, Pride Alliance, the QRC, the MRC, the WGC, the BSU, and Drew House next semester. I’ve got more than enough love here. I’ve got so much love, and that’s why I feel moved to work so hard to make a difference within the Amherst community, whether its writing articles to promote constructive dialogue, being a club leader, or simply supporting my friends. I’ve got so much love, and love doesn’t just disappear once you get it, it grows within you, multiples, and lets you share more of it with the world.

Amherst gave me lifelong friends, my supportive advisor…and this place also gave me my mother, who says she owes so much to Amherst. To this day, my mom still strives to give back to the college financially every year, even though she didn’t graduate. She didn’t finish at Amherst, but it was an important part of the development of her character and education. She is a true woman of Amherst, and no one can convince me to think differently. Yes, if she had more knowledge of her options and potential resources for support, things may have played out differently and she might have stayed at Amherst. But that’s why we pass things on to the next generation. That’s why we look back to the past for guidance. Her story gives me an eternal fortitude to tackle any challenges I face at Amherst and beyond. That’s why I love history. That’s why I love my mother.

About Matt Randolph

Historian-in-training. World Traveler. Activist. Unapologetic Fanboy of Superhero Comics and Films.

3 comments on “Why History Matters

  1. Robert Howard
    April 14, 2014

    As a (white male) member of the class of ’76 (it was our class that had the first Amherst women graduates, not ’75), I can’t tell you how happy I am to read your piece. It is true that Amherst wasn’t anywhere near as supportive back then; actually, it was a pretty Darwinian environment, and many people, like your mother, fell through the cracks. But you are also right that she is as much a part of Amherst’s history as any of us who graduated.

    We live increasingly in what feels like an ahistorical era. It is so great to see an Amherst student making the connections between Amherst’s past, it’s present, and it’s future.

  2. vic
    April 14, 2014

    Good job, Matt! I really love the article, very powerful.

  3. Anonymous
    April 15, 2014

    as a female student of color, this piece is really inspiring for me

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