KINGSTON – The renowned Dr. Charles Ogletree, professor and director of The Houston Institute of Harvard Law School, kicked off Black History Month celebrations at the University of Rhode Island Tuesday.
Ogletree discussed post-racial America in the age of President Barack Obama, who was a student of Ogletree’s during his time at Harvard Law School, before a standing room only crowd comprised of students, faculty, staff, alumni and members of the public.
URI President David Dooley introduced Ogletree saying, “There are few Americans whose contributions and perspectives are as important as [his].”
Provost Don DeHayes seconded Dooley’s comments.
“I can’t think of a more fitting way to kick off Black History Month at URI,” he said. “This is an opportunity for us to reflect on, appreciate and celebrate contributions to our heritage made by our African American brothers and sisters.”
Ogletree kept his speech light as he discussed the progress and contributions of black Americans to American society as well as the progress that still needs to be made in American society regarding race relations.
“It is, in many respects, the best of times and the worst of times,” Ogletree said.
Ogletree recalled the contributions by such figures as Martin Luther King, Jr., and reflected on the centuries of slavery and the great sacrifices blacks have made for us to live in a country governed by its first black president.
“I think about what it means as we go forward, the sacrifices made for us to be here,” Ogletree said. “We would not be here now if it was not for the great sacrifices.”
Ogletree reflected on a statement made by then U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy in May 1961.
"There's no question that in the next thirty or forty years, a Negro can also achieve the same position that my brother has as President of the United States, certainly within that period of time,” Kennedy said that year.
Ogletree said Obama’s election and re-election is a cause for celebration.
“We’ve elected two times a black president,” he said. “This shows the complexity of post-racial America. We can celebrate that there’s a black man in the White House but mourn that there are more than 1 million black men in prison.”
Ogletree also celebrated the accomplishments of women in America, noting that there are now three women serving as Supreme Court justices. However, he said that sadly, there are still instances of abuse and rape against women occurring often in our society.
“And so it’s time to celebrate but let’s not forget what we are experiencing today,” Ogltree said. “We can celebrate our progress but we should look around and beyond us and see that there is still suffering, there is still poverty, there is still under education, there is still homelessness, there is still mental challenges that people are facing.”
Ogletree mentioned the issues surrounding sexual orientation as an ongoing divisive issue in today’s society.
“The whole idea that we have to recognize that people are different, they are still Americans, they are still part of our society and we have to embrace every single one because all of us in one respect or another except Native Americans who were here, all of us are immigrants,” he said. “We’re all living on borrowed time.”
He then criticized the idea that the United States is a “melting pot.”
“This is not a society where we should embrace what’s called a melting pot,” he said. “I don’t argue against that concept but I’m not a melting pot kind of guy. A melting pot means lose your identity, but I want your identity. I want the Latina, I want the Asian American, I want the Native American, I want the person who is transgender, I want all of that because that’s all of us.”
Ogletree’s comments were met with a round of applause.
“We’re not the melting pot generation we’re the salad bowl generation,” he continued. “Because a good salad has tomatoes and lettuce and carrots and cucumbers and onions but the whole idea is that all of that makes it a wonderful salad. That’s what we are the diversity of what we bring, every kind of diversity.”
He said that the only way “-isms” and hatred will become part of the history of the younger generation, using his grandchildren as an example, will be if we teach it to them.
“But now all they believe in is love and I think that’s a glorious thing and we’re on this precipice where we can make an enormous amount of difference in the 21st century,” he said. “We can make it happen for all of us in a very big way.”
Black History Month events continue at URI throughout February. On Monday, Feb. 11, at 4 p.m. Professor Gitahi Gitti will give an original poetry reading. David E. Allen, jazz and gospel guitarist, will perform Feb. 24 at 6 p.m. in the multicultural center. On Feb. 25, Desne Crossley of Harvard Law School will speak at 4 p.m. in Lippit Auditorium.
An African American film series is also ongoing throughout the month every Wednesday at 3 p.m. in Lippit 402.
All events are free, open to the public and refreshments are served at all events. For more information, visit http://www.uri.edu/artsci/afr/  or call URI Communications and Marketing at 401-874-2116.