Reflections of a Black Student Activist at UIUC
Grasping the megaphone in my freezing hands, my voice grew raspy from screaming into the megaphone chanting, “Down with the chief, down down with the chief!” There is a picture of me with that same megaphone high in the air with Guillermo Rivera standing right beside me holding a fist in the air wearing a shirt that read “resistance.”
That is a powerful photo. We looked strong. You would believe that the protestors, all of us within the radical community of the Champaign-Urbana area, were super humans, humans that could withstand the unsettling ocean of racism and bigotry amongst the white faces that supported the Chief. Little do people know, a day before that picture was taken, my friend was killed back in Chicago. Little do people know, an hour before the protest of the homecoming parade, I was dealing with an incident that sent me into a downward emotional spiral, but I will not go into detail in this short essay (a note following the end of this article contains resources for Black student mental health). On January 25th, 2018, the Illinois Student Government passed a resolution to remove the Chief logo. "Victory".
Confronting white institutions and administrators are not the only form of activism that can be depression-inducing however. The betrayal of leaders who identify as being black – but obviously mentally identify with the enemy that is white supremacy -- working to undermine the Afro department and the other institutions that are supposedly in place to benefit black students can be depressing too. We have black faces in leadership positions across the campus working to silence the voices of black students, working to get rid of other black faces within leadership positions. Simply put: these black leaders are operating as puppets for this historically white institution and the elites that run it.
I have sat in meetings with these black faces that have allowed Black student movements on campus to be undermined and disrupted. We, the Black United Front with our fellow allies at the university, to reinstate the academic advisor, had a sit-in at the Afro department, the department that was created through black student movements; the same department that threatened to call the police on black students; the same department where the white puppeteers have lit the fire to dismantle the department while the black puppet leader watches it wither away to ashes; not to mention that the black puppet leader of the Afro department is the one that worked to get rid of the academic advising position at the Afro department. Black faces ain’t black power.
The zero support, or lack thereof, from other black student leaders and black organizations on campus also hits home. I bring to you the state of the black student body of UIUC. Here we are: some of us being the only black student in our classes; having black women students sexually harassed by our own black brothers; having our black students being bullied on social media by our own; having our parties heavily policed; having black students being followed by the Champaign and Urbana police as they walk to the house of Omega Psi Phi after leaving Canopy; having to travel far from the “safe haven” of our campus to enjoy a night out at the house of Alpha Phi Alpha, Kappa Alpha Psi or Phi Beta Sigma, maybe all; just having to be black at a predominantly white institution. We all know the feeling.
Think about trying to change the struggles of being black at a predominantly white institution and we have black students and black organizations, that we as a black student body have supported for semesters, not working to help change our condition, people from our own family. A good number talk a good game and are quick to critique the work of black radical movements on campus but are not willing to put in the work.
Moreover, white institutions have used a few black students as “token negroes” that can be used to keep the black student populace in line. The election of black student body presidents or black students being selected to sit on committees and even on homecoming council have given us a false sense of opportunity along with this “illusion of inclusion,” as I call it, at these predominantly white institutions. This is not most of the black student body but best believe we have these types of people. Black faces ain’t black power.
I am not saying any of this to discourage fellow students who wish to join the movement and fight against white supremacy on our campuses and abroad. In fact, this should be a wake-up call. Here are the problems, here are the issues, here are the circumstances that we are fighting on campus. I would rather have you join the movement knowing the full extent of the problem that we are fighting than to have you join blindly with false hopes and false dreams of one day overcoming white supremacy without opposition from the inside. I would rather you understand the effects that come with being an activist: from being blacklisted on pro-Israel websites, to going through stress and depression, to possibly having your own professors call police on black students, to having hateful stares and slurs hurled at you from the opposition, to even having the university chancellor’s car being driven by an old white man who “mistakenly” pressed the accelerator into black students.
You will be down at times but learn to take a step back if need be and know that you have fellow activists who will step in when you cannot. Remember to keep your head in your books, focus on your mental health, still have fun but if, and I hope when, you decide to join the movement, believe that your hard work will not be in vain.
(a note on literature concerning Black student activist mental health):
A great article by Adrienne Green The Cost of Balancing Academia and Racism perfectly articulates the struggles of being black in higher education. Also Ebony O. McGee, an assistant professor at Vanderbilt University, co-authored Reimagining Critical Race Theory In Education: Mental Health, Healing, And The Pathway To Liberatory Praxis also articulates the mental health of black students in higher education.