A Spring Offering for the Black Student at W&L - Pass It Along
By Amber J. Cooper ’12 (she/they).
This has been adapted and gently edited from a keynote I gave to SABU during Black History Month in February 2022. The theme was Student Activism. I was asked to talk my experience in SABU and the “ways current students can pick up the mantle to become better advocates for ourselves and others.” My response begins here.
I can give you the safe, status quo response or I can take you a little deeper, because there are no rigid instructions but rather a myriad of ways of being.
I won’t tell the story about why I chose W&L or anything. We all have our reasons, and nobody should experience judgment or shame about why they’re here.
There was a Black student organization before my time, before SABU was named SABU again. There was Onyx which petitioned for official recognition by the EC in 2004. I bring up the history to remind you that SABU is and has changed and will continue to evolve.
I loved being in SABU. My whole thing at W&L was making sure my people were alright.
We were flawed. I was flawed. Didn’t always treat people well or communicate effectively. Respectability politics was a thing I weaponized before I even knew what it was. Over-prioritized sameness and assimilation—not just assimilation to W&L, but how to be Black at W&L. Nothing wrong with remembering the past, but I caution you against glamorizing it. Not all the Black folks were besties (and that’s not as much about conflict as it is about autonomy), however I have so many good memories of joy and enthusiasm that somehow seemed to exist outside of time and space. You see, the story of the Black student at W&L isn’t just about going up against the institution and it certainly can’t and shouldn’t be flattened to “diversity and inclusion” and student organizations.
I believe that freedom for the Black student at W&L, the Black community at W&L, is in resisting monolithic narratives of Black life on campus.
When people think of Black spirituality and religion here, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? The Black church, the Baptist church, Christianity. Yet there are Black Muslims here. There are Black atheists here. There are Black humanists here. There are Black agnostics here. There are Black people seeking faith. There are Black people deconstructing their faith. This is worth study and exploration in your community.
When people think of Black politics, they don’t often go beyond the binary. There are Black socialists here. There are Black anarchists here. There are people with no -ists or -isms here.
What about food? Taste of Africa is one of my favorite events of all time from any student organization. But how many people have realized how much soul food has in common with continental African food? Soul food ain’t just southern. It’s African. We brought it with us! One word: rice. You can do a whole event about rice, not just from the diasporic perspective, but think of how many cultures from around the world share that connection with rice.
What about disabled Black folks? Are they thriving on campus? Or have they been overshadowed by the ableist and white supremacist notions of Black strength and endurance? I have a feeling there are some strong people in here who are exhausted. Is it okay for me to tell you that you can put that heavy thing down? Rest.
Where are the discussions on gender and Blackness? Is your queer family alright? Do they see themselves represented on campus? We are inundated with Black “manhood” and “womanhood” but we know those concepts, constructs, are not universal. And yet Black queer folks just kinda get lumped in with everyone else, even though we know the experience is distinct.
I saw a post from the LGBTQ Resource Center from October 2021. An event called A Wilde Teapot: Exploring Race, Gender, and Sexuality. A conversation led by three white people and named after a racist white man, who pushed back against anti-Irish sentiment when he got to America by invoking his whiteness, cozying up to white supremacy, and sympathizing with the Confederacy in the civil war. Whoops!
I also noticed that Black people on the LGBTQ resource center Instagram page have showed up in the context of entertainment (vogue and drag) and Black History Month. Meanwhile, on a post about Queer Sex and relationships, neither image clearly depicted a queer Black couple.
It is so easy to criticize and pick something apart. You can pick a bone clean with criticism until it’s shiny and perfect. But perfection is neither the goal nor the expectation; striving for perfection is not natural and constantly pointing out what something or someone lacks comes at a great cost to you and them. Rather I say this to emphasize that these are the limits of representational politics in an institution like this. The institution cannot represent you. You, in your multifaceted, ever-evolving, transcendent – ness is what represents you. So what to do? We take responsibility for remembering that Black queerness existed long, LONG, before it was entertaining. And we acknowledge that gender, for Black people, especially the descendants of enslaved people in this country, cannot just be folded into broad-stroke conversations about queerness. We look to our own ecosystem, and we water ourselves and each other there.
I encourage you to regularly ask yourself am I creating and promoting community, or have we built an ideology around how to be Black here that unintentionally excludes members of my community?
I pose these things as questions for a couple of reasons 1. I dare not imply that you haven’t already been thinking of or doing these things. 2. I’m not here to impart rules—you are autonomous individuals working as a collective and the floor ought to remain open to new ideas at all times. And 3. My only aim is to bring awareness to the infinite realm of possibilities of the world you can create here.
QUESTION 1- What does it mean to be a “student activist?” Does it bring you deeper into community, or does it set you apart, and at a distance? Don’t worry about being an “activist” or naming yourself after a big cause. And don’t mistake this for me saying “do not fight for what you believe in” but it’s important for SABU to also be an organization for students who have zero desire to be student activists, and students who don’t want to commit their talents and energy to resistance, and students who aren’t yet sure what they value or what they yet have to contribute to the organization. I propose that we ask ourselves whether always striving to be exceptional actually serves community needs. If your activism is only resistance – you may burn out; if activism makes you more visible to the institution but less attuned your community, you may experience isolation. It’s okay to slow down to gain some clarity, not in isolation but in your community.
QUESTION 2- What if you questioned the necessity of so-called leaders? Leaders and hierarchies are inherently flawed and problematic, right? You all are humans, which means you are flawed, which means it can’t all be up to the leaders. Let me put it this way: If the institution holds you up as a leader before your community knows who you are – your movements are going to be threatened. Leaders get tokenized; leaders get isolated; and “leadership” starts to sound like how well you assimilate and get others to do the same. I’m not questioning your abilities, but I am asking you to consider being a little less governable.
And in the context of where you are, be responsible with power. The members of your organizations are not there just to drink from the fountain of your wisdom, maybe one day you won’t even have a traditional executive board. Flatten the way you interact with your members. When the admissions office or whoever reaches out and says they need someone from SABU for something—don’t just look to the executive board. Look at your members.
Embrace differences and the shades of Black that exist among you. You don’t need a leader to guide you. You need intention and a community that makes space for everyone to reach their potential.
QUESTION 3- What more is there to discuss? It’s time to build. Think back to last year, or even 2020. That was the longest year I’ve ever spent at W&L. 2020 was a rough summer. Summer 2021 started off the way it started off. And all through it, you all came back to campus, and you did the business of your organizations, and you raised your voices about your school’s shortcomings. And then remember when the Board of Trustees said “we found no consensus about whether changing the name of our university is consistent with our shared values. Nor is there consensus on whether changing the name will position the university to be the most successful it can be in the future.” Meanwhile statues are getting carted off and street names are changing.
You did well, you fought well. Now it’s time to build. Let’s look at our community, how we’re treating each other, how we’re trusting each other, how we’re celebrating each other. It’s okay for SABU to be personal. It’s okay for you to be selective about how your Black existence here is deployed for the sake of the institution – as much or as little as you want, and nobody should judge you for decision. Seize your life. Seize your education. Reclaim your imagination and resist the narrowing of your dreams by the limits of the institution.
QUESTION 4- What would happen if you expanded your sense of time and place? What are the borders in your mind that you can abolish? You live in such a beautiful part of the country, let alone the state. And when I came back to work here, I was so moved by the way y’all went out in nature—sunrise hikes and all that. You also exist in a place where other people of color have lived long before you. Indigenous people first. What if your relationship to land and place began with learning more about its original inhabitants?
What if you viewed this place, campus, as many communities with their own values and relationships to campus instead of one community under an umbrella of questionable “shared values” that’s always on the verge of conflict? I’m wondering if our experience would be different if we weren’t constantly battling the cognitive dissonance of what is and what we wish it was. What I’m suggesting is de-centering how the institution sees itself and using your own vision to see and hear and feel and describe.
What about expanding and warping and curving your sense of time? Do more of the things that make you joyfully and enthusiastically lose track of time altogether. I know you’re students—you have schedules, commitments, projects. That’s all linear time, factory time. Many Indigenous cultures – and I mean globally Indigenous – have had non-linear perceptions of time for ages. I encourage you to learn more about that. Maybe spend more time sleeping and dreaming, seeing what comes up in that dream space.
QUESTION 5- What if you didn’t put the pressure on yourself to leave a legacy? I know that seems to contradict what’s happening here. But truly, that is too great a burden to bear. Yet we carry it as if it’s the price we have to pay for existing. I think it comes from people’s fear of death. Wrestling with uncertainty and trying to figure out the meaning of all this. Fear of not being remembered. Will anyone know that I was here? It’s a fixation on a period of time in which you don’t exist.
Take that time worrying back and spend it on living the life you have right now. Get out of your head (by that I mean tell the “intellectual” to have a seat) and get into your heart. Put the word “life” back in your mouth and savor it.
And then you asked me about picking up a mantle – that is a choice you are free to make, but I can’t tell you how. What I leave behind might not be what works for you. And this is something I learned recently, from you, from listening to and observing you. You’re not here to take any body’s place or live up to an example. It’s your choice to do so, of course, but it’s not your obligation.
I used to sit back and watch the conflicts you had and say “back in my day we never did that. Back in my day we had community.” Despite my good intentions – and whether you realized it or not – I denied you your humanity and your vulnerability. I erased your individuality. And for that I deeply apologize. Now sometimes y’all definitely raised my blood pressure, but I also had to look at myself. And I had to be honest about what “back in my day” really looked like. Imperfect. Flawed. Well-intentioned and sometimes ignorant.
So when one class leaves, only stand in that vapor trail for a moment. We never know if our impact will be long term or if it will dissipate and a new class will shape a new kind of community. It’s best not to worry too much about picking up the mantle. Nobody can tell you how to do that; there’s no prescription. You can choose to honor the past in many ways and nurture the new things that grow.
I’ll leave you with this quote from Pauli Murray about community: “True community is based upon equality, mutuality, and reciprocity. It affirms the richness of individual diversity as well as the common human ties that bind us together.”
I am so proud of you all, you are delightful humans, thank you for letting me be human with you.