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Celebrating Black History Month; Russian-American Journalist Masha Gessen to Give Talk

Feb. 10, 2017

  Photo by John Seyfried

Oberlin’s celebration of Black History Month is presenting an array of terrific events during February exploring black history and experience in America and the world. Given the current political climate in our country, those events are even more timely and topical. I encourage everyone to take advantage of these opportunities to learn and grow.

The national kick-off of Black History Month put the spotlight on Frederick Douglass, one of the towering historical figures in the fight to abolish slavery. That prompted me to wonder whether Douglass ever visited Oberlin, such a hotbed of abolitionism that it was dubbed “the town that started the Civil War.”

A quick Google search provided the answer: yes, he did.

Thanks to a fascinating blog post by Ron Gorman, Oberlin Heritage Center volunteer docent, researcher and trustee, I learned that Douglass spoke in First Church during Commencement weekend which has held in August 1847. Here’s a link to Gorman’s post.

A number of things struck me when I read this well-researched, carefully foot-noted piece. First and foremost was how so many of the issues and themes which Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, and Oberlin’s leaders and residents grappled with in 1847 are still very relevant today: the role of the Federal government; competing interpretations of the U.S. Constitution; gender equality; non-violent resistance; student activism; and the role of religion in American society.

Many of those themes are being explored in Oberlin’s Black History Month events. Some highlights include: Associate Professor of Theater Justin Emeka's (OC ’95) production of Tennessee Williams' American classic, The Glass Menagerie; and “African Art in Allen Memorial Art Museum Collection,” a student-curated installation looking at the diversity of African visual expression and material culture, challenging Western conceptions of the continent as a homogenous cultural sphere. You can see the full calendar of events here.

Masha Gessen

Russian-American relations have been a hot topic in the news before and after the U.S. presidential election. Anyone interested in the current state of that relationship should attend the lecture next week by Masha Gessen, who is teaching here at Oberlin during the first module of this semester.

Her talk which is scheduled for Thursday, February 16, at 4:30 p.m., in the Science Center’s Dye Lecture Hall, is titled, “Uncertain Correspondence: What We Can and Cannot Learn about Donald Trump by Looking at Vladimir Putin.”

Gessen is a prominent Russian-American journalist renowned for her critical biography of Vladimir Putin. She is also a leading voice in Russia for LGBT rights. She is currently scholar-in-residence at the Oberlin Center for Russian, East European and Central Asian Studies.

Gessen is the author of numerous books including The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot, and Where the Jews Aren't: The Sad and Absurd Story of Birobidzhan, Russia's Jewish Autonomous Region. She is a regular contributor to The New York Times and her work has also appeared in Vanity Fair, Newsweek, Slate, and many other publications. She has received numerous awards, most recently the University of Michigan's 2015 Wallenberg Medal.

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