Today’s Trailblazers: Black student activists at AU reflect on accomplishments, goals
Learn more about BlackList, Black Girls Vote and Bring The Fire
As Black History Month draws to a close, work is not done for the Black student activists who have committed to social change at American University and beyond. These are just a few of the students and organizations doing this work. In particular, these three groups are run by Black women and non-male identifying folks fighting to make a better future in their own ways.
AU juniors Nia Mays and Ngakiya Camara saw Black people using art as a form of resistance all summer in Black Lives Matter protests across the country. At the same time, they were finally taking steps to begin their own student organization: BlackList, a space for Black students to “champion the cultural expressions of the African Diaspora” according to their website.
BlackList officially launched virtual events, workshops and screenings in the fall 2020 semester, including panels covering protest art and Black feminist theater. Camara said since launching, the group’s received dozens of positive messages of support.
“Coming from one part of that artistic world, the DPA [Department of Performing Arts], we didn’t really know how many other students outside that realm felt that way as well, in their own unique way,” Camara said. “It really was a chance for us to funnel our feelings, and it was a way for us to contribute to this movement.”
Mays said that it was a dream two years ago. They emailed DPA professor Sybil Williams, who also directs the African American and African Diaspora Studies department, about the lack of student-run groups that do theater for people who look like them.
“Talking about colorblind casting, there’s a lot of that, where my experiences aren’t allowed to inform the roles that I’m getting in DPA-led shows,” Mays said. “They’re just few and far between.”
A few semesters later, Mays got Camara on board. They began planning in spring 2020, and, before spring break and the transition to online learning, applied at the Center for Student Involvement to become an official student organization.
“In the application, we wanted BlackList to really be all-encompassing of the arts,” Camara said. “There are just so many talented Black students at AU with no place to really share their work. There’ll be events from Black-led orgs, but there’s never truly been a group dedicated to their artwork.”
At the same time, Mays met Faedra Chatard Carpenter, a DPA associate professor whose work in race, gender, class and sexuality resonated with the group. When Carpenter was hired by the AU theater program, she became the group’s advisor. Over the summer, they laid the groundwork with her help.
Camara said that BlackList has had more writers come to events and they share music and artwork on their Instagram and website. Still, it’s been difficult to reach interdisciplinary artists.
“It’s something that Nia and I are still navigating,” Camara said. “We really hope we can attract more of those people who are musicians and artists.”
On the flip side, Mays said that doing work virtually has made it easier to contact speakers, including Williams, Theater Alliance Producing Artistic Director Raymond O. Caldwell, and literature professor Keith D. Leonard.
“The theater world is kind of in turmoil, like any artistic expression right now,” Mays said. “But it also frees up people to share their knowledge and their experiences, so other people can fall in their footsteps.”
BlackList will kick off this semester on March 13 with a “Stencil and Sip” event to cap off Wellness Week. They are seeking artists to help lead participants in drawing. Mays will also produce a table read of their original play “Sacrifices on the Sea” in April. They will continue to announce future plans on their website.
Black Girls Vote
Since 2019, AU’s chapter of Black Girls Vote (BGV) has promoted political organizing for Black women. It’s the second collegiate chapter to be chartered, after the founding chapter at Morgan State University in Baltimore. BGV was established as a national nonprofit organization in 2015.
Mackenzie Meadows, a junior at AU and the AU BGV president, said she joined after hearing about it from chapter founder Autumn Grant when the chapter was first established. In the two years since, it has grown further than Meadows initially imagined. The group garnered national attention and connected with many organizations, including the Bipartisan Policy Center.
“At first, it was kind of like, we are a Black- and woman-based organization centered at a private white institution, so not a lot of people were expecting that to go well,” Meadows said. “But it’s really done well for itself in getting a lot of interaction from outside as well as in AU, so we really hope to expand more and connect more with our general body members, even during a pandemic.”
For Black History Month, the chapter highlighted a notable Black woman on their Instagram page every week to celebrate “Black HERstory.” Some included Tamieka Atkins of ProGeorgia and Juanita Jackson Mitchell, the first Black woman to practice law in Maryland.
“Typically when people talk about Black History Month, they mention three names: Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Malcolm X,” Meadows said. “So we wanted to take a look at specifically Black women in history who are not well known and pay homage to the past, while also finding people who are making breakthroughs today.”
Meadows said that AU BGV plans to create more educational content in the future. AU BGV has also collaborated with many campus groups, even in virtual spaces. Most recently, the group co-sponsored a Founders Week Stacey Abrams event with the Kennedy Political Union. Meadows appreciated asking Abrams how her creative process has bled into her political role, as well as Abrams’ view of how powerful and unique the opportunity is to have this organization.
Other recent AU BGV events included a screening of Ava DuVernay’s “13th” to commemorate Black History Month with the AU Pre-Law Society and an Instagram Live conversation in conjunction with AU NAACP about what should be done next under President Joe Biden’s administration this past Friday.
“[AU BGV] focuses on not only national elections and how it’s important to be involved, but also what specifically in your community can you address instead of relying on outside powers,” Meadows said. “But your community leaders, who tend to be Black and brown women and women of color, can [help]. So, elevating those voices and getting them more involved and funded is the reason why I’m passionate behind it.”
Meadows said that AU BGV is planning more events using the app Clubhouse to create more engagement. One upcoming event will include leaders from Georgetown University, George Washington University and Howard University to examine the differences in Black experiences and turmoil between private white institutions and historically Black colleges and universities.
Bring The Fire
In 2016, Edmée Marie Faal launched an organization to address diversity, equity and inclusion efforts at her high school in South Africa following an Islamaphobic incident. Now, the AU senior theater performance major works with other activists to effect change within the DMV.
Faal, who hopes to continue to engage with activism and the arts after she graduates in May, said Bring The Fire, an anti-racism organization, had to come up with ways to sustain its efforts following Black Lives Matter protests over the summer.
“I came to the decision that I think what would be best is to really support and encourage and donate our time to the organizations in the DMV area that are doing really tremendous amounts of work,” Faal said. “At the beginning of this year, I started restructuring some things to help with mutual aid and donation.”
Bring The Fire launched “Mutual Aid Mondays” in February to collect funds to donate to local DMV mutual aid groups such as Freedom Fighters DC and Feed The People Mutual Aid. This builds upon the group’s summer 2020 work, which consisted of raising awareness that Black lives matter through sharing resources, petitions and infographics on social media that have had an international reach.
For senior Chloé Ifill, who designs the organization’s graphics, this past year taught her the importance of combating misinformation. All graphics cite resources to allow people to do extra research.
“I think that Bring The Fire really showed me how much information can be spread so easily, but also how easy disinformation can spread,” Ifill said. “And that’s one of the things we wanted to work on, making sure that we are spreading information that was true but also had sources.”
The team has expanded to include junior Sophia Nelson, who is working on a website for the group, and AU alum Cat Ashley, who is designing a logo. Ifill said each person does work that plays to their individual strengths, all for a common goal.
Since the last time The Eagle reported on its work, Bring The Fire launched its Instagram account and considered how to move forward. As the school year began, Faal and Ifill took a short hold on Bring The Fire, but they used the time to further develop their craft in their individual art forms, which Ifill said has helped to create more content.
Faal said she’s inspired by legendary activists Malcolm X and Angela Davis, along with lesser-known voices like Janaya Khan, who co-founded Black Lives Matter Toronto, and Amy Sall, who founded the pan-African SUNU Journal.
“I take a lot of inspiration from how [Sall’s] able to continue to engage with various resources and spread them for people in a way that seems sustainable and digestible,” Faal said.
Faal’s running Bring The Fire with her peers all while being involved with AUx, working two jobs outside of AU, serving as a TA and taking a full course load.
Ifill said the organization hopes to launch its website and create more social media engagement on a daily schedule. She also said that over the past six months, she and Faal have taken note that there has been less engagement with Black Lives Matter and anti-racism content since June.
“Everyone was so comfortable with speaking up during June in the height of everything happening, and then two, three, four, five, six months later, nothing,” Ifill said. “Fake activism doesn’t do anything for anyone, and it’s really just a show.”
What still needs to be done to improve the lives of Black students at AU?
According to many, AU still needs to do much to improve the lives of its Black students. Ifill recounted a story from her senior year of high school when she came to AU for a “Culture Night” sleepover with people of color considering AU. None of the hosts were people of color, Ifill said.
“One would think if you’re having a bunch of people of color come out, you would have people of color show people of color around and say, ‘This is a place for you,’” she said. “Not to say that white people couldn’t have done that, but it sets up a different experience of showing the demographics of school.”
Ifill also emphasized the importance of Black Affinity Housing, so younger generations of Black students can have a place they call home. Housing and Residence Life recently confirmed that students are able to apply to Black Affinity Housing for the fall 2021 semester.
“I’m excited to see how it will turn out,” she said. “We’re at the first stages. The Georgetown one was made in the 1970s. That was the worst time to try to make a Black house. I think we’re on the right track.”
Meadows knew that she needed to create her own community when she first came to AU. An institution or organizations that have historically not included Black people can’t do it for her, she said.
“It’s really relying on the Black students to get it done,” she said. “Get us our house, get us what they need, and so on and so forth. … It’s up to us.”
Mays and Camara both spoke to the importance of giving Black students space to be heard.
“You have to believe the most unimaginable, most absurd dream can become reality,” Mays said. “Progress means that what has existed in the past will no longer exist; some things can carry over, but the old model will be done. I think to move forward, more people have to buy into the dream … and release that grip on the past. That's what I do.”
Sophie Austin contributed reporting to this article.