Powerful thumps, reverberating claps, and loud chants emanate from the speakers as the screen glows with images of steppers dancing to their unique rhythm. The scene unfolding before me is shocking yet familiar. As a black student at Sewanee, I never thought I’d see steppers proudly displaying their skills, yet the Making Our Way documentary proved me wrong in the best way.
Everyone who knows Sewanee knows about the details of its sordid past. The foundations of slavery and oppression upon which this institution stands have not been forgotten. Although many emphasize that African Americans were treated better on the Mountain and faced worse conditions outside of Sewanee’s boundaries, there is no denying that discrimination existed here.
To shed light on the unpleasant reality of Sewanee’s past, Dr. Woody Register, in partnership with other important figures, founded The Roberson Project. The Making Our Way documentary is the result of their collaboration with Zaire Love, a filmmaker passionate about amplifying black voices. The documentary premiered on Monday, September 19, in Guerry Hall. There was a great turnout of people, including students, faculty, community members, Vice-Chancellor Berner, and more. The event began with a dance presentation from the Gamma Sigma Phi and the Phi Sigma Theta (PST) steppers. Dr. Register said a few words before the film started, stating that “[the Roberson Project] wanted a video that told the story of Sewanee, but through the voices and experiences of people who, historically, have not been given or allowed a voice in telling Sewanee’s story.”
The documentary began with somber music playing softly in the background while Klarke Stricklen (C‘22) explains that this university, built by black people, was created to educate future slaveholders. She highlights the fact that despite these uncomfortable aspects of the University, black students still choose to make it their home for four years because “the black folks who laid these bricks labored as cooks, custodians, and created a community in this place called St. Marks…they made ways so we could follow and make our own.” These words characterized the rest of the documentary, in which various students emphasized the importance of claiming spaces on campus in order to make their way.
The documentary shifted to a segment where community members share their memories about Belmont Club, where many famous musicians gathered in the past. Then we began to hear more about Gamma and PST, greek organizations where students of color can feel like they belong. They put on a lively stepping display that captivated the audience. We heard students’ perspectives and experiences since arriving at Sewanee. The transition to living in a predominantly white institution is often jarring for black students, meaning they must discover ways to adapt to the change. Reflecting on her experience fitting into Sewanee’s community, Britney Ogbunugafor (C‘22) said, “Over the years, I realized that I don’t have to assimilate into Sewanee’s culture…I just had to pull my own seat up to the table and create my own spaces.” Many students echoed similar sentiments, stressing the importance of finding your place, being involved, and taking on leadership roles, actions that enable black students to claim their spaces.
Former Vice-Chancellor Brigety made a cameo in the documentary and imparted some words of hope and expectation for Sewanee, stating, “I believe that the University of the South is providentially positioned to play a vital role in that intergenerational effort to bring forth the new South.” The documentary ended with these simple but true words from Mickey James-Thrower (C ’24), “There’s still so much work to be done at this place, yet we will continue making our way. This is us making our way, My University of the South.”
Register and filmmaker Zaire Love had an impactful conversation after the screening, during which Love emphasized the importance of preserving stories of black people. She said, “It is so important for me to create those archives that people will see later on, to let folks know that black folks are here…we’ve always had significance here, even if it’s not honored.” The Making Our Way documentary was insightful and timely. As a student of color on campus, it imbued me with the hope that I can also succeed at this institution. Projects such as this signify that change is happening and will continue to occur as the university strives for inclusion and diversity and students of color continue to find spaces which they were once excluded from.