By Fleming Smith
During the summer, the new officers of the African American Alliance (AAA) transitioned the organization into a new form, the Black Student Union (BSU). The organization’s new president, Miles Martin (C’20), and fellow officers Dillon Spann (C’20) and Jinae Washington (C’19) made the choice in order to focus specifically on black students rather than the broader group of minority students.
“When we talk about AAA, I have to admit, and I’m proud to admit, that it did everything that it intended to do. But when we look at the charter, African American is not written down anywhere except for the name,” Martin explained.
After being elected as president of AAA in the spring, Martin decided to transition the focus of the organization to specifically for students who self-identify as black. The BSU includes a new constitution, found on OrgSync, as well as a new name.
“There was definitely backlash. Because intentional or not, it’s always hard when you say this should be about black students first. People say, what about others, what about the allies?” Martin said, adding, “It’s no less about them, it’s about positively emphasizing black excellence on campus. BSU is good, it’s necessary, and it can accomplish so much.”
The BSU will meet at least once every month in the Ayres Multicultural Center. One way that the BSU differs from AAA is that the organization entails two types of membership, general and visiting. General members consist of students who self-identify as black, and they have the ability to vote and contribute at every meeting. Visiting members comprise any student invited by a general member; while such members cannot vote, they will still have opportunities to contribute at meetings.
Regarding the idea of visiting members, Martin said, “It’s a way to keep the focus on black students. It again emphasizes the fact that in this space, your role is support. As I would hope to be an ally for other groups, I would hope that your support can come from a place of self-sacrifice.”
In the near future, the BSU plans to work with the Bairnwick Women’s Center to form black women’s support groups. Martin also envisions celebrating black culture on campus by creating a tournament-style event where students could battle each other with rap verses. Additionally, the BSU will continue some of AAA’s popular events, such as the annual step show in February.
Martin hopes that as the BSU becomes more prominent on campus, the organization will be able to work with admissions in order to be a part of the orientation schedule for all incoming black students. Citing his own experience as a freshman last year, Martin explained that many black students can feel pressured to fit a certain “type” at Sewanee.
“That’s what we’re trying to address—trying to remove the specifics of what it means to be black, because it is such a subjective experience that is united by the fact that we all identify it as black experience,” said Martin. “You have to be an athlete, you’re most likely a Posse Scholar, you have to talk a certain way, you have to listen to a certain type of music.
“If you have all these specifics to be a black student, you’ll find very quickly that you don’t have students who fill all of these roles,” Martin explained. “So you’ll never be black enough to be a black student at Sewanee or you’ll try to your own detriment to fit that mold by forcing certain parts of yourself, instead of just pride in who you are.”
The BSU held its first event on September 13, “Flies in the Milk: A Panel About Blackness in America,” also covered in this issue of The Purple. Look for further events after Family Weekend.