I struggled for a while to figure out how I would go about tackling the enormous task of trying to illustrate the overarching diversity of black vanderbilt. That being said, this essay is by no means meant to be exhaustive. It serves only to announce the position of New Dawn as a journal that wants to cover the full black experience at Vanderbilt. Black Vandy is made of many and yet is simultaneously one multicultural, heterogeneous entity. I decided that the most efficient way for me to gauge the general outlook on blackness by black people at Vanderbilt was to ask them. Frankly, I was pleasantly surprised by the high quality of thought that my respondents put into their answers, then again, this is Vanderbilt.
When I arrived at Vanderbilt, I was confronted with the concepts of diversity and race in an entirely new way. The transition to college is rough enough considering the vast changes to daily routine that most first-years experience. But it can be especially challenging for people of color in general, and black people particularly. Many of us are either considered geniuses, over-achievers, or "exceptions" by the majority of the communities that we come from.
First-years find out rather quickly that it is not an uncommon occurrence in college to be asked at one point or another for your opinion... well not your individual perspective per say, but "your" opinion as a black person. Without diving too far into the sociocultural implications of such microaggressions, it's fair to say that at the very least, the question is a tough one: which version of ourselves should answer it? As black people, we are quite familiar with the concept of dual personages. Namely, there is how we present ourselves when we are the darkest person in the room, and how we present elsewhere. Du Bois’ concept of white face, black mask comes to mind.
You know, the times when you have to put on your well rehearsed, perfectly mannered, gently-toned, grammatical “white voice”.
Additionally, there are many kinds of black people. The Culture is vast. At a school like Vanderbilt, where the black community is a strong, vibrant force on campus, this truth is emphasized. It's beautiful to see young people of color coming together to form communities of educational, social, and economic advancement; unfortunately in all this progress, more than a few people get left behind. More and more the idea of what it means to black on a college campus is narrowing; some of us don't mind, we already fit the description but for those people of color whose ethnic backgrounds are complex; or who aren't comfortable enough with their 4c hair to flaunt it naturally like the 3c beauty queens; or whose preferences are more Broadway + Serena Williams and less Beyoncé (may she Slay in Peace) + LeBron James.
My experience of blackness on campus was distinctly polarizing. My first year of University coincided with the now infamous 2016 presidential election. The weeks leading up to election day grew uglier and uglier with the Class of 2020 group chat nearly ablaze with ardent teens debating the merits of their preferred candidates and respective policies. After the results and the ascension of No. 45 (President Trump) I watched as supporters went about their days unaffected, opponents dreaded the outcomes, and inconsiderate bystanders simply laughed at the prospect of a celebrity leader of the free world. Some of us though, couldn’t indulge in that apathy. But, in college, as many first-years will soon discover, my social standing was equally affected by the parties I chose not to attend, and the clubs I chose not to join, as much as any political aftermath. Now, nearly two years later, and with the birth of a media conglomerate on campus, I was curious about the experience of other black people on campus, because no experience is by any means universal. Being black, it’s not odd that we are constantly the victims of homogenization by both outside groups and from blacks within the community. It doesn’t help that we’re told to acknowledge the necessary existence of “The Community”. But I’ve come to not only acknowledge its necessity but also respect what it symbolizes. As you will read below, the black community is by no means a singular thing. It is a dynamic gumbo (because melting pot is too #WorldHistoryAP) of different cultures and traditions.
I decided to ask a few first years towards the end of last semester in preparation for this publication launch to describe their experience with on campus in regard to their racial/ethnic identities. One aspect of this journal's purpose is to present a mirror to Vanderbilt's black community so to that we may examine ourselves as we are. We are living in a pivotal time in history and it is crucial that we make sure to document it in our own voices. So below I have tried to capture just that: the voices of black Vanderbilt students as they see themselves.
Interestingly, when asked about their identity, blackness, and their past, most of the students I spoke with expressed some level of anxiety over struggling to accurately describe themselves.
-- “I don't have many thoughts about what it is like to be black because that part of my identity hasn't had a significant impact in my life.”
-- “I'm very happy with who I am currently. I struggled a lot with identity and expression in high school and I am now proud of the work that I've done to be who I am today.”
A couple of students recalled not fitting into the stereotypical mode of a black person.
--“ for most of my life, I haven't been seen as black by other black people.”
-- “I’ve mainly had to deal with not being considered black enough. I’m very clearly not not-black, but I have a lot of interests that don’t really fit either the black or white communities’ ideas of what it means to be black, such as Brazilian and Mexican music.”
-- “I also don't have many thoughts about the black community because I've never felt connected to that part of my identity and I don't think it'd be appropriate to have opinions on a group I'm not at all a part of.”
-- “Most people definitely see me as black although it's weird being half black and half white. I don't really have any clout among black people, cuz I'm just not that great at stereotypically black things, and I didn't grow up the same way so I can't relate to a lot of the things other black kids talk about. But I also didn't grow up like white people, but with white people it's like a cool exotic thing that improves my social clout.”
Some were admittedly frustrated over how others perceived their race
-- “I was the only African American in my academic environment and just didn't know better. My classmates, however, did see my race and used me as their black representative for questions on racism and politics. Towards the end of high school, I ended up hearing the comments about how they "don't even consider me black" as a result of my academic achievement.”
The students I interviewed are highly cognizant that they of the position that their blackness puts them in. Some find pride and strength in these differences and in blackness while others question the accuracy of the term, and still others are still trying to choose for themselves what role blackness will have in their lives.
-- “I am a unique, hardworking, compassionate black woman and I am learning to love every part of me… We are subjected to respectability politics and code switching to survive in a country that was ultimately not built in our favor. We also face higher amounts of incarceration and killings than white people. Being black in America is hard but we are a strong and resilient people.”
-- “Being black means I'm not going to get as many nepotistic opportunities and employers are going to be subconsciously racist to me but it also means that I have automatic support from other black people and minorities in general along my path and also white people want to be like us so that social influence can be very powerful.”
-- “I'm black (at least I see myself as black and so do other people on campus) but I don't necessarily see myself as part of the black community since I'm culturally separated from most black Americans.”
-- “I often worry about whether or not I appear to be going out of my way to not seem “too black”. At the same time, I fit into the mainstream white culture even less.”
Many praised various student and cultural organizations at Vanderbilt for taking initiatives to be inclusive even when they felt hesitation and/or rejection from the general black community at Vanderbilt or from the school as a whole. However, despite these differences in viewpoints and experiences, one question that all of my respondents answered unanimously is that blackness is not their defining attribute. Yes, they all identify as black; but blackness is an adjective that describes not a noun that defines.
The interviews revealed to me, that we as a community should strive to be more welcoming to people of color, especially our sisters and brothers with multiple ethnic backgrounds. Black is beautiful, in all of it's shades. The interviews also showed me that I think we could all benefit from being a little more vocal about what makes us unique. In times of controversy (such as the 2016 elections) I find that the community usually tends to shelter itself under an umbrella of unity, which is by no means a bad thing, but when it comes to welcoming an incoming class of amazingly brilliant first-years, a little bit of individuality goes a long way.
At the end of each interview, when asked what they what they wanted to see changed about race relations at Vanderbilt, the majority of my correspondents responded that they desired a higher degree of real interaction between people of different backgrounds. This means that if Vanderbilt desires a progressive community that open and engaging for all, then we need to create opportunities for more authentic connections, that can stimulate needed conversation that span beyond the limitations of Visions™ and #GME.
We at New Dawn hope to be apart of those discussions. We recognize the beauty and importance of diversity both outside of and within the black community. As a publication, we aim to provide a platform to support voices that may have otherwise remained silent. So, to the Spanish speaking black Latinx, or the multiracial individual who doesn't quite fit in, who feels like the title "black" is somehow a misnomer, this publication is for you too. For the LGBTQIA+ black person, your voice matters. For the non-blacks reading this, we welcome you to the table as well.
In the forthcoming publications of this journal, you will be exposed to many perspectives, sometimes conflicting, that are all encompassed under the very large umbrella-term that is "black". It might be awkward. It might challenge you. Some of the articles will make you uncomfortable. In fact, you might be uncomfortable right now. That’s okay. It probably means you’re learning. We're a proud and diverse collective of black Vanderbilt writers, photographers, and artists and we make no apologies.
By Cortez Johnson