BSU Convocation addresses Williams diversity and beyond

Black History Month kicked off in Goodrich Hall on Feb. 1 with a convocation celebrating black identity and solidarity, while also discussing ways to strengthen the black community at Williams.

The ceremonies, which focused on the theme of “Through Our Eyes,” began with a prayer by Khurram Ahmed ’03. Following Ahmed’s prayer, Asha Rhodes ’05 performed “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the Black National Anthem. The Master of Ceremonies for the event was Jeffrey Delaney ’05, a freshman representative of the Black Student Union (BSU).

Speeches began with an address by Gail Newman, the director of the Multicultural Center (MCC) and chair of the German department. Newman’s speech focused on “Through Our Eyes” by highlighting the changing world that she sees before her.

“I see us right now on a threshold – we’re on a threshold between old-fashioned colonialism and a new world order,” Newman said. She said that in her daily life she has noted a particular “hunger and desire” by people to find out more about what they don’t understand fully, especially after Sept. 11. However, Newman also observed a lack of such a quest for information and explanation in the leadership of the United States.

“I’m particularly interested in the discrepancy between our leadership in this country and the people I see and talk with,” she said.

In discussing how to approach the world after the terrorist attacks, Newman noted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “greatness” that allowed him to be reasonable and yet passionate. She recounted hearing a story about family members of a victim of the terrorist attacks who were lobbying for money for people in Afghanistan suffering from U.S.-led attacks.

“This is the greatness of soul that needs to be channeled,” Newman said. “And I hope we can take that approach at Williams.”

Following Newman’s address was Kerel Nurse ’05, the “First Year Speaker” for the ceremonies. Nurse reflected on his experiences at Williams to date, highlighting the improvements he has seen in bridging racial divides, but also the enormous steps that still need to be taken.

“Our BSU convocation marks a new year where we can continue to improve life on campus,” Nurse said. Progress has been made toward building an “improved social life on campus,” he said, but the campus still is not cohesive.

“The BSU has made a significant contribution to making Williams a better place — but we can do better,” he said. Nurse discussed the role of the MCC (located in Rice House) as a stepping stone to greater campus integration; “there is so much to discover [at Williams], but Rice House should not be the only place for support — it should be the first step in making Williams a better place.”

Shannon Gopaul ’05 then recited an untitled poem she had written. Thomas Williams ’04 followed Gopaul’s reading by reciting Martin Luther King, Jr.’s last speech, “I’ve been to the Mountaintop.” King delivered the speech the day before he was assassinated.

Frank Reynolds ’02 and Jason Lucas ’02 then performed a short skit, parodying a typical student conversation about Winter Study. But the skit was only a prelude to a more serious discussion of the role of the Black Men of Williams (BMW) group at Williams.

Reynolds and Lucas both noted the importance of having a strong black male group, which has the goal of fostering independence, interdependence, encouragement, and a support structure for black men at Williams.

“Seeing young black men giving back and wanting to be a part of [BMW] is really special,” said Lucas.

“We feel that by uniting the black men [at Williams], it will improve the community in the BSU and the campus at large,” said Reynolds, while explaining that the BSU should not be the only place on campus to look for change.

“The campus will also be divided as long as we’re divided in our minds,” Lucas said.

Lucas and Reynolds were followed by Sharifa Wright ’03, who recited a poem by Countee Cullen entitled “Heritage.” Before reading the poem, Wright explained how it provided inspiration for her by reflecting in some ways both the feelings she experienced when arriving at Williams and the continuing development of her identity at the College. Wright, who is Jamaican, said she had to work hard to figure out how to perceive herself in the College community. The collective vision of the BSU has helped her find out how to fit in at Williams.

“What I look for to connect myself to people at Williams that define themselves as black. . .is there’s a force that I can’t name, but it’s there. . .it has to do with your heritage [and] your blood,” said Wright.

Abigail Jackson ’02 was selected by members of the BSU to be the senior speaker. Her speech revolved around a theme of “props and congratulations,” and more specifically, what happens when one doesn’t get either of them. You have to make a determined effort to be accepted at Williams, Jackson said, noting that Williams is still dealing with an environment in which students of color feel like they’re not wanted.

But there is life after Williams, Jackson said, “and the experiences you have at Williams will shape the life you have [after college.]”

Jackson said she is still not sure what the disjunct is between “eager Windows on Williams students and jaded seniors,” but said that the change probably evolves from the “profound sense” she gets “that people feel like they don’t belong here.”

The keynote speaker for the evening was Ebony Chatman ’97, who is currently studying modern thought and literature at Stanford University.

Instead of focusing on the successes of black students at Williams, Chatman discussed those who “don’t make it onto the page.” Chatman’s talk, entitled “The First Black Story: Off the Record,” related the stories of black Williams students who did not succeed after graduating from college.

Tracking the history of black students at Williams, Chatman related the quest of Lucy Prince in 1793, who argued eloquently before the Board of Trustees to have her son admitted to the first Williams class. Her son was denied admittance to the College, an indication of developing trends in admissions policies.

“Maybe if a black man had been let in [with the first class], this college would be different,” Chatman said.

Chatman also talked about two brothers—one successful and one a failure—who both attended Williams. In her research, Chatman has found numerous documents citing the success of one of the brothers, but there is little record of the other brother.

It was only through meticulous tracking that Chatman discovered that he had failed as a real estate broker and ended up as a janitor in New York City before eventually becoming the superintendent of a building, hardly the ideal job for a Williams graduate at the time.

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p;   In a more recent but equally as telling story, Chatman recounted how one of her friends from Williams who did not succeed in the workplace — “who wasn’t one of the first of the successful black graduates” — ended up living in Hopkins Forest because he could not get public assistance in New York City. He came back to Williams, Chatman said, “because the problems were familiar.”

The point of Chatman’s stories was to highlight how much of life at Williams and afterwards is undocumented. The object before graduating, Chatman said, is to make sure the black students at Williams carve out names for themselves and to make sure they have an identity and are a part of the history of Williams.

“Create as many groups as you need to. . .to carve out a place for [yourself],” she said. “But above and beyond that, you might want to create something, too. There are some things you can’t know unless you get some other people to do it with you.”

Pushing oneself, Chatman said, is the key to creating an identity at Williams. “I would encourage you to look around at the people you know and stretch yourself to do more. . .This doesn’t have to be something to represent all black people. . .And you won’t know how important it is until you leave.”

The convocation concluded with Rhodes singing the African National Anthem, “Nikosi Sikelel’ iAfrika.”