Black History Month

The Importance of Black History Month

By Dr. José Alvergue, Associate Professor at UW-Eau Claire

On October 31st, 1865, Ezekiel Gillespie entered the Seventh Ward polling place in Milwaukee intent on casting his vote, only to be refused by election inspectors. Gillespie, a Black man, and accompanied by Sherman M. Booth, was exercising a right granted to African American residents of Wisconsin seventeen years prior by an amendment to the state constitution, but which was never accepted by the public or enforced by judiciary officers (Gillespie v. Palmer and others, 1866) [1]. From January 28th to July 10th visitors to Pablo can experience the exhibit WE SEE YOU: We Will Tell Your Story in the Laurie Bieze Gallery, celebrating the power of visibility in shifting the narratives of ‘who we are’. If you visit Pablo’s landing page [hyper link] for the exhibit, moreover, Zita Holbourne’s “Every Vote Counts” figures prominently. The digital piece depicts a Black woman standing in front of the American flag casting a mail-in vote.

“Every Vote Counts” indirectly reflects on Gillespie’s activism by celebrating the significance of voting and what it means to do so in our present and constrained context of isolation and distance. But new visibility of mail-in ballots is also, complexly, braided to a continued relationship to power and access. Evidence to this is in 2020 images of long frustrated lines during Wisconsin’s Spring Elections, where, again in Milwaukee, voters expecting 180 polling sites suddenly had access to only five. Though election officials cited the COVID pandemic for these closures, the decision ultimately effected a city where a considerable percentage of the electorate identifies as African American [2]. Other statistical realities reveal more fraught legacies [3], like those of incarcerated voters in Eau Claire, a county where African Americans in its county jail disproportionately outnumber non-incarcerated Black people. Though Eau Claire has measures to facilitate voting thanks to the work of activists and organizers, not all Wisconsin counties do. Wisconsin being a state where roughly 1 in every 36 Black adults is incarcerated [4]. As community organizer and certified peer specialist David Carlson posits, “A major theme of the Civil Rights Movement was the African American vote. But did we win? The voting rights act was rendered useless with the undoing of section 4” of the Voting Rights Act.

Because every vote counts, it matters how we observe inclusion as a platform for this mode of participating in shaping our local and national identities. The experiences made visible in Pablo’s WE SEE YOU are meant to tell the many and singular stories of a shared historical reality that makes up our past, and projects into our future. We observe African American Heritage Month in America in that very unique kind of ceremony, where acknowledging history is not purely celebratory of progress, but includes reflecting on legacies of that history for how their new incarnations infringe upon freedoms. “Is African American History Month a celebration?” Carlson asks, “Or is it a time where those of us who fight for equity re-assess, reorganize, and re-strategize on how we can most effectively root out the cancer that exists at the heart of our country, ever-evolving, but never in remission?” Ezekial Gillespie risked his safety in making himself and other Black Wisconsinites seen by our state courts in the 19th-century, and undeniably in every election to follow. During this month, let us observe the ceremony of such a braided history. Let’s inherit our history regardless of its being happy, challenging, or pessimistic. Let’s listen for the stories, and learn the lessons passed down by history’s witnesses.



Slave Girl

Mariah was sold with the horses
A fresh thirteen, she was
full bloom with maternity
brilliance and intention
All hocked away in accessory bartering:
fine leather saddles, boar bristle
brushes, curry combs, Mariah
was sold with the horses

Assembled into a kit, her 
and her kids, Mariah was actually lucky
With Master’s blood lurking in her veins
and seeds spilled from her womb, she
made herself a collectible
Not to be confused
with something to keep, Mariah
was sold with the horses

Pedigree beasts, sired and celebrated
Equestrian legacies authenticated, recorded and filed 
Unlike her flesh and her words and her tears and her name
Mariah and her babies were smooth skinned creatures
Wedged neatly on to wagons, between furniture and tools
Jostled and pulled along bumpy dirt roads
Delivered with bound bales of hay

Tossed in for good measure, her bundled
brood sweetened the deal
Crops, soaps, iron bits and single slave units of Field,
Breeder, Servant and Trade

Mariah brokered quiet rebellion
waging survival
each time she was sold with the horses

Hope is a Bruise

Paintball pellets batter shoulders
and thighs at 190 miles per hour
I count the purplish bruises and
smile at the post vision of us toasting
laughing, being vibrantly alive

The woman who pierced my nose
Rushed outside afterwards for a cigarette
Whether my nostril or her nerves were to blame
We both survived an ordeal that day
I don’t think of the sweat on her lip
or the tears on my cheek when my jeweled
Black nose disrupts canonical spaces

Agony delineates child bearing from child rearing
Pain is the anticipated toll: the impossible stretch of skin and orifice,
wrenching of organs, the pinch and nip of nursing
I received no pamphlets about the pangs of panic and impotence
The deep marrow rupture when their ache explodes beyond your reach

A formation of police fired rubber bullets at my child
200 feet per second in defense of hatred and spiteful ignorance
She raged back in protest until her throat rasped, her heels
blistered and she shattered into sobs once safe in our home, in my arms
They gassed and maced my baby. She marched again the next day.
And the next and the next and the next and the next

Hope is a bruise, a nervous smoke and an unrelenting calvary

I've been leading workshops for the past two days, splitting the 8-hour sessions with other talented facilitators. A Botswana poet and South African writer. Both travel globally with their work: England. Netherlands. Germany. Croatia. The South African poet was invited to the US but declined. "I mean, they're still shooting black men, right?" he said. “Every week, it seems, according to our news filters." This makes the second time since arriving here that I've had to hang my head about this reality. At home, I read the accounts with fury and heartache. Being abroad adds a weighted layer of shame.

Tucked between seat and steering wheel, he described a lifetime of driving. His outstretched arm panned the space between us, indicating Montana mountains, his favorite. Detested Florida roads. Learned to watch side mirrors for dock bandits in New York. He carts DC theater patrons to Metro stops now. "I remember when this was all farm and factory," he said. "Nobody wanted to live here when it was black." Linen, baubles and banter fill and empty our shuttle. His smile genuine, courtesy polished. "Mostly, they want me here to feel safe." I thanked him. He asked me to remember his name.

Tree tops prickle the sky. Huddled in intimate clusters, trunks thickened with legacy, their pointed conclusions stretch from humble soil. You'd have to fold your neck all the way back to notice the skyward quiet amid this crowded confidence of trees. You'd have to peel your flesh all the way back to yearn for these falling flakes of heaven inside this open circle of death. I imagine the father scouting the ground while the mother craned skyward. This is where they would rest their son. Eternally embodying their hopes. Punctured by a bigot's bullet. This. is their truce with God.

Andrew wasn't ready. His training deescalates complaints about flight cancellations, not panicked pleas to keep officers from shooting my husband. I'd scrambled across voicemails of Delta Airlines before stumbling into Andrew's call queue—legal, public relations, airport security. Meanwhile, my husband was being removed from his home bound flight and delivered to the FBI for questioning. Flight attendant Karen—I mean, Katherine—Smith emptied the airplane when my husband's bladder defied her authority. She even feigned fear at his polite patience. Andrew stammered. I shrilled. Both of us a landscape away. Both familiar with frequent fire programs against Black men.


We See You: We Will Tell Your Story Art Exhibit
We See You: We Will Tell Your Story Art Exhibit

January 28 - July 10 | Laurie Bieze Gallery

History is written by the victors, and certain stories do not receive the platform they deserve. In this exhibit of artwork selected from the Laurie Bieze Permanent Collection, Pablo Center gives voice to those who have been pushed to the side.

Learn More
Virtual Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration

February 2 at 5 p.m. | Streaming Via UW-Eau Claire

Co-hosted by the division of Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Student Affairs and the Office of Multicultural Affairs, this online gathering will allow students and the campus community to mark the occasion of Martin Luther King Jr. Day through song, visuals, and spoken word.

Learn More

Makin’ Cake with Dasha Kelly Hamilton
Makin’ Cake with Dasha Kelly Hamilton

February 17 at 7:30 p.m. | Jamf Theatre

Slice into a community conversation on culture, class, race, and cake.  With the aid of two bakers on the Jamf stage, Wisconsin and Milwaukee Poet Laureate Dasha Kelly Hamilton explores the story of America through a history of cake.

Racing Towards Justice: Saeed Jones
Racing Towards Justice: Saeed Jones

February 17 at 6 p.m. | Streaming via UW-Eau Claire

The University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire's monthly “Racing Toward Justice” program welcomes multi-award-winning author Saeed Jones for a virtual talk featuring readings and discussion questions.

Jones is the author of the memoir “How We Fight for Our Lives,” laying bare the journey of a black, gay man from the South, which is the winner of the 2019 Kirkus Prize for Nonfiction.

Film Showing and Director Q&A: 'Ndani Eau-Claire'

February 22 at 12:30 p.m. | UW-Eau Claire, Barron County (Blue Hills Lecture Hall R234)

A showing of the film 'Ndani Eau-Claire' followed by a Q&A with director Olu Famule '21.

UWEC Calendar

A Response to Bias

February 24 at 7 p.m. | Schofield Auditorium

A student-led event that focuses on the myriad of ways that students respond to bias with an artistic lens, this event will showcase a broad snapshot of the student body with dance, theatre, spoken word, and music.

UWEC Calendar

The Music of Joseph Bologne Chevalier de Saint-Georges by Cohen String Quartet and Blugold String Quartet
The Music of Joseph Bologne Chevalier de Saint-Georges by Cohen String Quartet and Blugold String Quartet

February 25 at 7:30 p.m. | Ganter Hall, Haas Fine Arts Center

Two student string quartets coached by Professor Tulio Rondon will perform the music of Joseph Bologne Chevalier de Saint-Georges. The composer, who was from the Caribbean Island of Guadaloupe, was the son of an enslaved woman of African descent and a wealthy French plantation owner.

UWEC Calendar

The Bias Inside Us - A Smithsonian Traveling Exhibit
The Bias Inside Us - A Smithsonian Traveling Exhibit

February 26 - March 27 | James W Hansen Gallery

An exhibition and community engagement project from the Smithsonian, this exhibit is an exploration of the social science, psychology, and consequences of implicit bias. The Bias Inside Us offers an opportunity to learn how to challenge bias in the world through awareness of one’s own bias.

Learn More

Bessie, Billie, & Nina: Pioneering Women in Jazz
Bessie, Billie, & Nina: Pioneering Women in Jazz

February 26 at 7:30 p.m. | RCU Theatre

The musical and social legacies of Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, and Nina Simone remain as relevant as ever. Their contributions resonate with today’s artists across many genres, as well as with ongoing movements toward progress and equality for women, African Americans, and the LGBTQ+ community.

Buy Tickets

Black/Multicultural Hair and Skin Care Drive
Black/Multicultural Hair and Skin Care Drive

All Month from 8 a.m. - 4:30 p.m. | Office of Multicultural Affairs at UW-Eau Claire

A month-long donation drive to collect black/multicultural hair and skincare products. Meeting the culturally specific hair and skin needs for adopted or foster youth in the area is important and these items will help families and caregivers to access necessary products and resources. Only new and unopened products can be accepted.

Products can be donated at the Office of Multicultural Affairs (Centennial Hall 1106) | Monday – Friday, 8 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.

UWEC Calendar


March 1 from 4:30 p.m. - 6:30 p.m. | Ojibwe Ballroom

Harambee is a Kenyan tradition of community self-help events, fundraising, or development activities. A Swahili word with complex meanings, Harambee's closest translation in English is “all together for one.”

UWEC Calendar