Nnamdi Kalu, a Nigerian native and graduate student at Montana State University, said he didn’t fully appreciate how much he stood out from the rest of the student body the first time he came to the state.
That was three years ago, when along with more than a dozen of his fellow Nigerians, Kalu visited Bozeman as part of a documentary filmmaking workshop. During that trip, Kalu said he spent all of his time, from breakfast through class sessions and on to dinner, with his countrymen, and barely noticed the group was a distinct racial minority.
After returning home, Kalu applied to the English program at MSU and started in the fall, this time coming back to Bozeman alone.
“I remember my first thought was something like, ‘Oh my God it’s white,’” he said.
Kalu was one of the presenters over the weekend at the second annual Black Solidarity Summit at the University of Montana, put on by the school’s Black Student Union.
At MSU, Kalu said he’s the only black person in his department and in many of his classes. Sitting in on a presentation by UM professor Tobin Miller Shearer about the history of Black Lives Matter on Sunday, Kalu raised his hand during a question-and-answer period at the end and asked Shearer what advice he had for students like him.
When student organizing efforts are generally thought of as campus-wide initiatives, he asked, how should a student who might be the only racial minority in a class of 20 or more white students react to racist behavior?
It’s something Kalu said he’s had experience with during the past semester at MSU. In particular, he said he’s been turned away at parties and told blacks aren’t welcome and had a director of a student film tell him he wasn’t able to cast him in a project because of his skin color.
“It’s hard to be there and not just feel lonely sometimes,” Kalu said.
Shearer told him he felt it was the responsibility of the white students to call out their colleagues when they saw racist behavior.
In addition to students from UM and MSU, attendees at the weekend’s Black Solidarity Summit came from schools in Idaho, Oregon and Michigan.
Natasha Kalonde, president of UM’s Black Student Union, credited the increased attendance to having more time to prepare the second year and being able to use the success of the the inaugural event to recruit more speakers.
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The first Black Solidarity Summit last year included a keynote speech by Black Lives Matter activist Shaun King. This year, the roughly 50 members of UM’s Black Student Union voted to ask Ericka Hart, a black, queer activist and writer, to give the keynote.
Kalonde said she has been interested in Hart’s work for a few years, especially as the activist speaks about both racial and sexual issues and the intersection between them.
“She’s very straightforward, especially in calling out racism when she sees it,” said Kalonde, a junior in the history program. “She’s already been on Instagram talking about how white Missoula is.”
The Black Solidarity Summit wraps up with a pair of presentations at 9 a.m. Monday on the third floor of the University Center.
Shearer started his presentation at the summit on the historical underpinnings behind Black Lives Matter by acknowledging the proverbial elephant in the room.
“You need to know that I know I’m white,” he told the audience.
For 11 years, Shearer has been the director of the African American Studies program at UM, which is the third oldest program of its kind in the nation, having celebrated its 50th anniversary last year.
The Black Lives Matter movement, he said, came about due to the confluence of three major shifts. First, the militarization of the police, which Shearer said exist “to protect white people and protect wealthy people,” as well as the rise of social media and the mass incarceration of African Americans.
The factors came to a head in 2012 with the shooting death of Trayvon Martin and the subsequent acquittal of his killer, George Zimmerman.
“It’s a truly remarkable phenomenon,” Shearer said, detailing how it borrowed from organizations in the civil rights movement, such as the NAACP and the Black Panthers. “Black Lives Matter has chosen the path of nonviolence. A deliberate choice.”
Under one school of thought in social movement theory, Shearer said just by existing, Black Lives Matter has been important because it changed the conversation around race in America.
“The fact that we have a hashtag, Black Lives Matter, is in itself an achievement,” he said.