Photo by Lucy Wimmer
By Fleming Smith
On September 13, the new Black Student Union (BSU) held a panel in McGriff Alumni House entitled “Flies in the Milk: Blackness in America.” The panel, facilitated by BSU President Miles Martin (C’20), included students Brandon Macon (C’20), BSU Vice-President Dillon Spann (C’20), Eunice Nya (C’19), Jonathan Brown (C’18), and Bre Corn (C’20). Each student discussed his or her experience growing up black in the United States and how Sewanee has impacted their understanding of what it means to be a black student.
Martin first asked the panelists when they first realized they were black. While some of the panelists had very early experiences with racism and othering, others only began to feel different once they came to Sewanee.
“I never really had to be black in the sense of being the other,” said Corn, describing how she grew up in Tullahoma, a predominantly white town. “I guess I realized I was black two semesters ago at Sewanee.”
As a contrast, Spann first realized he was black at a baseball camp when he was six years old. “For some reason the kids were just kind of weird, they wouldn’t talk to me as much as the other kids…I was like, why are you guys being so mean to me? The whole issue was that I was black. And I knew that I was black, but I didn’t know that that was a bad thing.”
Nya, as a student originally hailing from Kenya, described her confusion at being treated specifically as a black person in America. “I didn’t realize I was black until I moved here. In Kenya, you’re just Kenyan. You’re a regular person. I’ve had to embrace that I’m a black woman, I’m not just Eunice, in this country,” she said.
Each student also discussed their difficulties in accepting that they were black and learning to feel pride in that part of their identity.
“I had to learn what it meant to be a black male. My mom really took that as a learning opportunity, saying that you have the ability to shape who you are from this identity. She said it’s up to you to be who the profiled you to be or if you want to be the opposite and above that,” Brown said of his own experience. “It’s not just the stereotypes, it’s the pride that comes with your identity and who you are.”
Some of the panelists cited the hardships of growing up in the South. “It was very hard to accept that I was black and be proud of that in circles where that’s not something that’s celebrated. Oftentimes it’s something that’s demonized,” Spann explained.
When Martin asked the panel their opinions of how black students are emphasized on campus, many panelists criticized what they saw as the administration using them as “props,” in Nya’s words.
“The promotion of us and the promotion of multiculturalism at this school in my opinion is very negative. They don’t put us in the best light all the time,” Brown said. However, he added that he was excited about new developments during his time at Sewanee, such as the addition of one of the historically black “Divine Nine” fraternities, Omega Psi Phi.
The panelists also celebrated the solidarity of black students on campus. “I also think the caliber of black students are excellent,” said Corn, adding that black students “take care of each other. We want everyone to make it back next semester and thrive and be excellent in their own way.”
When an audience member asked the panelists to comment on recent events in Charlottesville, Brown warned that Charlottesville and such outbursts of racism were not as remote as they may seem up on the Mountain.
“At Sewanee, they won’t say it to your face, but they’ll say it every other way they can without actually putting their name out there,” Brown said. “I don’t care which side you stand on, I just want know which side you stand on. Even if you’re against me, that’s okay as long as we can have a conversation about why you’re there and why I’m here.”
Brown ended his thoughts with concern for the future of Sewanee: “That could easily be us. Charlottesville could be Sewanee. It could be that tomorrow.”
As the BSU’s first event on campus, the event set a note of hopefulness for the future of black solidarity and advocacy on campus. All of the panelists agreed that the black experience is subjective and cannot be easily defined, a constant journey for each of them.
“As I’m getting older, I’m starting to be proud of who I am and learning more about my history,” Spann explained. “You can’t wait on anyone to accept it, you have to decide who you are and then live that truth.”