Wednesday, October 14, 2020

HBCU Students & Alumni Adapt As In-Person Homecoming Celebrations Go Virtual

 Ruth Samuel | October 14, 2020 | Story #7 for MEJO 253

HBCU Students & Alumni Adapt to Virtual Homecoming Celebrations

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. --- For Historically Black Colleges and Universities, October marks the beginning of homecoming season, but due to COVID-19, students and alumni are now tuning in from their living rooms as schools embark on virtual celebrations. 

“Homecoming is a time for students, staff, alumni, and locals to come together and embody Black excellence, Black pride, and Black unification. Each event that we have just brings something different,” said Sadonna Fleming, a sophomore criminology major at Howard University. 

Known as Google’s most searched homecoming, Howard University’s event attracts over 100,000 people on average annually. Beginning with a day of community service, the celebration lasts from October 10 through 18. Fleming, who serves as the executive vice coordinator of Howard’s Undergraduate Student Assembly, helped plan the event and pick this year’s theme: advocacy.

The 19-year-old said, “It is such a great, powerful theme because of what is going on in our nation right now and how we were founded. What people can expect this year is the symposium ‘From Protest to Policy.’ It’ll be a panel discussion of student members to government, faculty, and celebrities.”

Fleming said that the homecoming planning process, which begins in April, was a waiting game, requiring approval from Mayor Muriel Bowser and navigating university communications. As COVID-19 worsened, Howard and other HBCUs announced cancellations in June and July, later pivoting to virtual celebrations. Hampton University alumna Jasmine Kromah was saddened by the prospect of not returning to her alma mater.

“I feel like I have this chapter of my life that's not officially closed because there wasn’t a graduation,” said 22-year-old Kromah, a class of 2020 graduate. “To not have this celebratory moment at homecoming is just...ugh. Every time I go back [to Hampton], it just feels like I'm back at a family reunion or a family cookout.”

Hampton’s virtual homecoming week will begin on October 19, however, the full list of events has yet to be shared. Kromah played an integral role in homecoming as an undergraduate member of the Terpsichorean Dance Company, the oldest organization on Hampton’s campus founded in 1934.

Kromah said, “I’ve been apart of the showcase reveals, and it’s a way to collaborate with different people on campus. We'll do a big dance performance and reveal who's coming at the very end.”

Last year at Hampton, Charlotte native & rapper DaBaby performed at their homecoming concert. At North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University, Ari Lennox, 21 Savage, and more took the stage, reaffirming the homecoming’s title “GHOE: Greatest Homecoming On Earth.”

North Carolina A & T’s GHOE 2019 celebration drew in over 70,000 attendees and $40 million in revenue between flights and lodging. Considering it overlaps with Halloween this year, first-year student Torree Theodore was looking forward to partaking in the HBCU homecoming experience.

“Since ninth grade, I knew I had to go to an HBCU," said 18-year-old Theodore, “I was getting excited before, looking up YouTube videos and everything. Growing up, I went to my mom's homecomings a lot, and she went to Benedict College in South Carolina. I was so excited to live on campus and experience all of that.”

While this year promises a virtual concert, meet-and-greets, and more, the in-person GHOE experience includes a parade, a comedy show, football game, and tailgates — all of which require intense planning and spending. Student Government Association President Brenda Caldwell said a lot of elements went into the decision to hold a virtual celebration.

“I sat on the University Reopening Committee, then on the Student Affairs Subcommittee,” said the senior political science major. “Meetings started back in April and we start planning GHOE in March. It was really a matter of logistically speaking could we pull this off, would it be worth it to put all this effort in for it to not happen, and also safety.”

Twenty-one-year-old Caldwell is the youngest in a long family legacy of Aggie Pride; her first homecoming experience at North Carolina A & T was in 1999. Along with Fleming and Kromah, she wants to ensure that future classes like Theodore’s will one day experience what it means to attend an HBCU homecoming: being a part of a family.

14th Annual Nigerian Independence Day Celebration Pivots to First-Ever Drive-Thru Cookout

Ruth Samuel | October 7, 2020 | Story #6 for MEJO 253

14th Annual Nigerian Independence Day Celebration Pivots to First-Ever Drive-Thru Cookout

RALEIGH, N.C. --- On October 3, hundreds of people gathered in the parking lot of Reign Lounge for the Triangle’s 14th annual Nigerian Independence Day Celebration, which took place in the form of a drive-thru cookout due to COVID-19.

Nigerians are the largest African immigrant population in the nation, with over 1,000 Nigerian-born residents in Raleigh alone. Event organizer 38-year-old Uchenna Richards saw this cookout as a necessity to bring in 60 years of independence.
Lagos native Richards said, “The first year we did it, we just did it for fun. This year because of COVID-19, we’re doing a drive-thru cookout. At the beginning, it was more like, ‘Let’s just get people to just drive through, get some food and go.’ Some people didn’t want to leave, so we figured, we’ll start off by telling people if you want to stay, park down the street.”
Richards, a Greensboro resident, has lived in the U.S. for the past 25 years, and graduated from North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University. Tired of traveling out of town to celebrate his home country, he spawned this idea with his friends in 2006, and the event has been held in the Raleigh-Durham area ever since.
“I tell people this is the one event where you can get Nigerians of different tribes and there will be no problems,” said Richards, who is Igbo. “Growing up, our generation versus the parents’ generation, there was this big tribalistic problem. When it comes to independence, for that weekend and that day, everyone puts everything aside.”
For the past 14 years, Richards and his peers have pooled their money together for tents, reservations, and paying the caterer: PK Suya. While Richards recalls approximately 100 attendees at the inaugural celebration, they served over 500 people last year.
By 5 p.m. on Saturday afternoon, there were 300 visitors. Richards says the event is not about generating revenue, but rather about generating community and checking in with one another.
“This event is about getting to meet people, fellow Nigerians, and socializing. The United States is a very individualistic country so it’s really nice to be able to socialize and connect with fellow Nigerians, fellow Africans generally. I still really miss Nigeria,” said Mirabelle Uma, a 29-year-old recent immigrant from Abia State.
Uma, a graduate student at UNC Greensboro, attended the event last year and said she was impressed with the turnout this year, despite no vendors or prizes. East Carolina University student & Durham native Amaogechukwu Egbuna came home for the weekend to attend the celebration with her mother & aunt.
The 20-year-old said, “A lot of graduation parties didn’t get to happen, a lot of baby showers didn’t happen either. You know, Nigerians, we love to throw parties and celebrate and a lot of people have had small home gatherings, so this is a really excellent idea.”
Apart from celebration, the event also featured educational components. In addition to passing out masks, members of the Nigerian Nurses Association of North Carolina (NNANC) were handing out informational pamphlets on hypertension and domestic violence. In 2018, domestic abuse in Nigeria saw a 134% increase according to the Pulitzer Center, a media organization centered on underreported global issues.
Amaka Ofodile, a nurse with over 16 years of experience, said, “This event is in solidarity with our country, Nigeria. The origin of this organization is stamped on domestic violence elimination, and we want to do everything to curb it. We want to continue to educate our Nigerian community on how to stay safe, especially with COVID-19.”
Furthermore, an elder in the community spoke about the importance of voting in the presidential election, considering the visa ban on Nigeria and other African countries. Richards said that although the ban hasn’t directly affected anyone in his family, it’s still important.
“I’m a registered Democrat, but I came here as an immigrant. If a Republican overnight decides to support immigration, I’m down for it because that’s another way me, my family, and friends that are suffering back home can come to this country and enjoy and benefit like I have. I’m part of the people who are going to vote Trump out,” he said.

The Hayti Heritage Film Festival Collaborates with NeXt Doc for Inaugural Drive-In Screenings

Ruth Samuel | September 30, 2020 | Story #5 for MEJO 253

The Hayti Heritage Film Festival Collaborates with NeXt Doc for Inaugural Drive-In Screenings 

DURHAM, N.C. --- Friday through Sunday, the Hayti Heritage Film Festival partnered with NeXt Doc, a community of filmmakers, to host nightly drive-in documentary film screenings, continuing their yearly programming and efforts to safely promote the arts amidst COVID-19. 

“When I moved to Durham, you could find Black-themed films that were made by white filmmakers and I realized how difficult it was to have a Black film ecosystem,” said Lana Garland, festival director & curator. “I decided to make it a festival for Black filmmakers in general, with a focus on Black Southern filmmakers.”

Garland, a media industry veteran and an arts administrator at Duke University, has been leading the festival since 2017. Embarking on its 27th year, the Hayti Heritage Film Festival is one of the oldest Black film festivals in the nation. Traditionally housed within Durham’s historic Hayti Heritage Center, the festival takes place annually in February, accompanied by year-long programming, workshops, and events sustaining the arts and storytelling. This year, due to the pandemic, the festival has been moved to a drive-in experience for safety. 

53-year-old Omisade Burney-Scott said, “I'm a big fan of the Hayti Heritage Film Festival and have been a supporter, participant, and observer in it for the past few years. When Lana started sharing that this pop-up drive-in theater was going to be possible, I was really excited. I haven't been to a drive-in theater since I was nine.” 

In February, Burney-Scott, a 1989 communications graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, premiered her own documentary “Bonne Mort” about her work as a death doula. Since then, the viewing experience has changed, but she still looked forward to seeing stories on screen and sharing a communal space with others.

“When I first moved here, there were folks who were like, ‘Aren't you afraid to move to Durham?’ It was constantly getting a bad rap in the news. I told them, one thing I've never been afraid of is my people. Ever,” said Burney-Scott, who has been living in Durham since 1997. 

Attracting over 1000 attendees last year, the festival is typically held inside of the Center, supported by the St. Joseph’s AME Church Historic Foundation. Analogous to a marketplace, the event allows festivalgoers to watch films, mingle with one another, and purchase apparel, DVDs, and more. Tickets are approximately $10, similar to movie theater prices.

In previous years, the film festival has shared documentaries through Vimeo and other paid streaming platforms. However, the drive-in screenings were free, made possible by the help of audio/video company Kontek. Attendees pulled up in their vehicles and tuned in to 88.3 FM to listen to the audio as documentaries were projected onto a white screen.  

Garland said, “Radio is just another piece of audio equipment, so we just used a frequency. Before for drive-ins, you would have literal speakers inside of a car, but those don't exist anymore. The whole purpose was to replicate that because people could have a good time, see each other, and be safe.”

Though replicating nostalgia, films produced by NeXt Doc storytellers touched on current issues. Based in Albany, New York, NeXt Doc is a collective bolstering the work of filmmakers of color between ages 20 and 24. UNC-Chapel Hill graduate and NeXt Doc fellow Courtney Station fostered the relationship between Garland and the organization over this summer. 

“We really wanted to partner with an organization that was POC-centered, and not in a way where their target audience is POC, but their leadership is white,” said 23-year-old Staton. “I know Hayti has very big historical significance and is a pillar in Durham, particularly Durham's Black community.”

NeXt Doc fellows sought to challenge notions of white-centric filmmaking through different topics: acknowledging gentrification in Durham, shedding light on repatriation of land to Indigenous tribes, and sharing stories about Black transgender identity. The documentaries, specifically “Native in America” by Brit Hensel, hit home for first-time spectator Carrie Howard. 

The 41-year-old from Barbados said, “That experience of not quite fitting in any world resonated with me because I think sometimes as an immigrant, I feel that myself. With regards to blood quantum, I was thinking about how that has been perpetuated by Europeans with the one-drop rule and there's still tension there in the Black community.”

Carolina Union Hosts First-Ever Virtual Jubilee, Headlined by Black Women

Ruth Samuel | September 23, 2020 | Story #4 for MEJO 253

Carolina Union Hosts First-Ever Virtual Jubilee, Headlined by Black Women

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. --- On Saturday, the Carolina Union Activities Board at UNC-Chapel Hill hosted its first-ever virtual Jubilee concert due to COVID-19, featuring the first Black, female performers selected in Jubilee’s history. 

Though headliners Rico Nasty and DaniLeigh were to be revealed in March, the pandemic pushed back the announcement, the original April 18 concert date, and forced CUAB to find a new medium altogether. 

The announcement for headliners Rico Nasty and DaniLeigh was pushed back from March and the original April 18 concert date due to the coronavirus pandemic forcing CUAB to find a new medium altogether. 

“I came into my role in CUAB wanting to either have women for Jubilee or for the [homecoming] comedy show, but I really didn't think that I would get to,” said senior sociology major Veronica Joseph, CUAB’s 2019-2020 entertainment co-chair.

Rico Nasty (left) and DaniLeigh (right) pictured above, image courtesy of  Carolina Union Activities Board

Since 1963, Jubilee has been a tradition at UNC-Chapel Hill, marking the end of the spring semester with a concert. The show has gone on, rain or shine, with recent artists such as 2 Chainz, Waka Flocka Flame, and last year, 6lack in Carmichael Arena. Joseph said she initially thought COVID-19 would only delay the reveal, but once campus shut down, everything changed. 

“As things progressed and it seemed like the world was turning back on, more artists were beginning to do virtual shows. We were presented with that option, then it was about timing,” said Joseph, who now serves as the co-vice president of programming. 

Following the homecoming comedy show, the Jubilee artist search starts as early as November. CUAB graduate assistant Nyla Ruiz disseminated surveys to students via mailing lists, asking them to share which artists they’d like to perform and from which genre. This past year, over 3,000 responses were received. 

“We get those questionnaires back and out of 300 people who respond to it, 200, if not a little more, are going to say they want a rap or hip-hop rap artist,” said current Entertainment Co-Chair Lionel Means. “You might have a little under 100 saying pop, then those stragglers who want rock, indie, or something else.” 

Jubilee 2019 attracted over 3,000 attendees to watch 6lack in Carmichael, with students paying $15 for the highest level and $25 for floor access. Ticket prices vary depending upon the artist and offset the cost of bringing the performer to campus. 

With help of virtual event production company Impulse Creative, the live stream format lowered the prices enough to host Jubilee 2020 for free, ultimately allowing alumni to watch on HeelLife. Class of 2020 graduate and former communications student Reana Johnson was one of over 160 people in attendance on Saturday night, and this was her first Jubilee experience. 

“I'd rate it like a seven and a half or eight because it was cool!” 21-year-old Johnson said. “Rico Nasty’s background was her home and it did make you feel like you were there, but I was looking around a lot in the background. The energy wasn't the same, but for what [CUAB was] able to do, it was good.”

Additionally, Jubilee 2020’s virtual setting offered more accessibility to students. While Johnson tuned in from Texas, Cameron González-Gibbs streamed the concert from her home in Durham. She was unable to participate in the virtual chat room while watching on her phone, but still enjoyed the concert experience. 

“CUAB organized it so well, to the point that the website never crashed. There were no sound errors or malfunctions,” said González-Gibbs. “I do like that being online, everyone has the same view. You don't have to worry about like, ‘Oh, I want to squeeze to the front,’ because we all see the same person so that's really nice.” 

Due to a family baby shower, she was not able to watch 6lack perform last year. However, the senior psychology major said she hopes that if the concert returns to an in-person format, an additional live stream will be offered. As CUAB charters a new path and sets a precedent for the future, Jubilee remains steeped in tradition. 

“I think Jubilee has slowly evolved into something where Black UNC would consider it a staple event, considering the artists and how rap is the most popular thing right now,” Johnson said. “It was always a good way to kick off finishing the year and a precursor to LDOC, which is practically a Black UNC holiday.”

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

North Carolina Museum of Art Reopens, Showcasing Senegalese Fashion Exhibit

Ruth Samuel | September 16, 2020 | Story #3 for MEJO 253 

North Carolina Museum of Art Reopens, Showcasing Senegalese Fashion Exhibit 

 RALEIGH, N.C. --- After its closure in March due to COVID-19, the North Carolina Museum of Art reopened on September 9 with new social distancing guidelines and an exhibit featuring the style of Senegalese women, led by the museum’s first African art curator. 

 Director of Member & Visitor Experience Janis Treiber said that Gov. Roy Cooper announced moving into Phase 2.5 on September 1, thus allowing aquariums, museums, and more to open three days later. During the closure, new protocols were set in place, such as creating one-way paths for easier, safer viewing and mandating masks. 

“We did get rid of everything that we hand to guests just to be able to maintain that distance and cleanliness,” said Virginia Ambar, the museum’s member & visitor experience and Tessitura manager. “Maybe you don't have a smartphone to scan a QR code, so we will have printed maps, but we are trying to limit that as much as possible.” 

Although the museum welcomed over 700,000 visitors last year, only 80 people per half-hour are allowed in both the West and East buildings. Approximately 30% of staff members were furloughed for financial reasons, and this is the first time the museum has had ticketed versus non-ticketed exhibitions. 

Treiber said, “The ticketed exhibitions are the special ones that are traveling, that we don't own, and that aren't in our permanent collection. They're here for maybe a three-month or four-month period, and we pay to bring them here. It's just a matter of covering that.” 

Available until January 3, “Good As Gold: Fashioning Senegalese Women” is a collaboration between the North Carolina Museum of Art and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art in Washington D.C. 

Amanda Maples, a visiting professor at UNC-Chapel Hill and the first full-time curator of African art at the museum, said the exhibit is about seeing how jewelry and fashion empower and allow women “to make claims to the city and to have control over the narrative.” 

As for the display, COVID-19 prohibited couriers and handlers from accompanying fragile pieces, which forced 16-year industry veteran Maples to pivot. 

“20 of the works on view could not be installed because they are either very fragile themselves or they have very intricate mounts. For those 20 pieces, we created lifelike representations of them in a purple sheen. There are QR codes you can scan with your phone to get video and great, high-resolution images of those works since you can't actually see them in person,” Maples said. 

41-year-old Maples said that though she can never fully grasp the Black African experience as a white woman, she sees her role as a conduit in amplifying African voices and challenging accessibility and inclusion in the arts. In Maples’ art history lecture, Carolina senior Ajani Anderson viewed the exhibit virtually for the first time. It not only enhanced her understanding of her place in the art world, but also her knowledge of the African diaspora. 

“I think it’s easy to stay in this western bubble and either subscribe to those western stereotypes of other diaspora cultures, or to see Blackness as victimhood, and not understand our ties and origins globally,” said the 21-year-old Durham native. “The exhibition really challenges notions of an impoverished, isolated and victimized Africa, and it shows the tenacity and creativity of it instead.” 

For Duke University sophomore Sydney Reede, a museumgoer whose mother is from Sierra Leone, the exhibit exposed her more to her West African roots. 

18-year-old Reede said, “I've never been back to Sierra Leone. I just always hear my mom talking about her experience growing up and I haven't been able to experience it myself outside of her cooking. Being able to see more into the culture, the typical way of dressing was so nice. I do feel like it’s filling in a little bit of a gap.” 

Before COVID-19, the museum was open six days a week on Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with occasional extended hours for events. Though there will no longer be events or catering, the museum is now open to the public on Wednesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. 

Black August in the Park Adjusts Despite Pandemic & Protests

Ruth Samuel | September 2, 2020 | Story #1 for MEJO 253

Black Community Black August in the Park Adjusts Despite Pandemic and Protests 

RALEIGH, N.C. --- On August 29, the sixth annual Black August in the Park celebration took place at the State Fairgrounds in new form of a COVID-19 conscious tailgate festival, despite a citywide curfew due to protests against police brutality.

“[Black August in the Park] came from the idea of creating a liberating space for Black people considering gentrification that was going on, especially in Durham, which is rich with Black cultural history,” said co-founder Crystal Taylor. “We created the event around bringing awareness to Black August, to Black liberation and the need for a peaceful, safe space to celebrate being Black.” 

Dating back to the 1970s, Black August commemorates Black resistance, originating from the wrongful incarceration and assassination of Freedom Fighter George Jackson. Thirty-seven-year-old Taylor launched Black August in the Park with co-founders Moses Ochola and Ja’nell Henry in 2015.

Taylor said, “It's open for anyone to join who is celebrating Blackness or the Black Diaspora. We don’t have vendors so people can focus on the meaning behind the event. We have social justice organizations, food trucks, and DJs that play family-friendly music, so people from kids to elders can attend. It’s really like a big family reunion or homecoming.” 

The event is typically hosted in Durham Central Park; however, to make ample space for vehicles and adhere to COVID-19 regulations, Black August in the Park became a “Pull-Up” at the North Carolina State Fair. Each tailgate space was “roughly the equivalent of two parking spaces” and oversized vehicles (i.e. limousines, RVs, etc.) were not permitted. 

To offset audio/video, staging, and venue costs, tickets were sold for the first time — per vehicle, not per occupant. Spaces were available on a first-come, first-serve basis, and a virtual live stream was broadcast on the site. 

“I think it’s a very good look. It’s very creative, and it gives people the opportunity to have a good time, shop, eat, and still be at a safe distance. Life doesn’t stop even though we’re in a pandemic. We can still enjoy ourselves,” said Lala Aldridge of Afro Soca Love. 

Based in Atlanta, Aldridge is the head of marketplace and partnerships at Afro Soca Love, a collective dedicated to strengthening the Diaspora by “using facets of Caribbean Carnival and African culture.” ASL has collaborated with and offered DJ services to Black August in the Park for the past three years.

Aldridge said, “Some of our most key people were either born or died in August, from Chadwick Boseman to Aliyah to Michael Jackson. To have events like this when we’re experiencing civil unrest and we’re still finding time to protest, to fight, and to get together and commune, I think it means even more now. Now, we have to pay attention to each other.” 

In light of recent instances of police brutality and the upcoming election, paying attention to each other means educating the community on political engagement. For this reason, social justice organizations like SpiritHouse Inc., and Black Youth Project 100 were featured at the event. 

Founded by National Director D’atra “Dee Dee” Jackson in 2016, the Durham chapter of BYP 100 has been working at Black August in the Park for three years now. UNC-Chapel Hill junior De’Ivyion Drew serves as their membership co-chair, welcoming new faces into the fold and teaching them about Black freedom.

“We printed out previews for our Black August 2020 political education syllabus that we had. It has interactive links, videos, and quizzes to bring folks to speed about the history of Black August and the political events that happened," Drew said.

Historically, BYP100 is afforded a tent to promote merchandise and more materials. Due to COVID-19, only their informational video was displayed on the screen, eliciting cheers, raised Black Power fists, and honks in support of justice and liberation.

“It was really powerful,” Drew said. “I think Black August in the Park, a Black autonomous space, is really where movement work is sustainable. Everybody’s freedom is dependent on one another and without community, you’ll have burnout. It seems like 2020 is the most anti-Black year yet, but it’s moments like those that are really worth it.”

Friday, June 12, 2020

Who Will #RunWithBlackGirls? Who Will Say Our Names?

“We also equally need to pay as much attention to what's happening to Black women and Black girls, and how violence happens to us.” - Korey T. Johnson

image credit: Korey T. Johnson, NPR

Trigger warning: racist violence, gender-based violence, hate crimes, police brutality, harassment

She deserves an abundance of media attention, with her petition surpassing 16 million signatures like George Floyd’s; instead, it only has 6 million. She deserves justice, yet her killers are walking freely and still have not been charged. She deserves to be alive and to have celebrated her 27th birthday on June 5, just a week before I turn 21 today. Breonna Taylor and the countless Black women before her who were senselessly killed — Sandra Bland, Korryn Gaines, Atatiana Jefferson, Nina Pop, 7-year-old Aiyana Jones, and more — deserve to be here today. 

There are CNN specials dedicated to the Black male experience in America and running campaigns spurred by social media to honor victims of white supremacist violence like Ahmaud Arbery. However, Black female and Black LGBTQ+ victims of police brutality and hate crimes are often overlooked. Iyanna Dior, who was assaulted by 20 to 30 men after a “fender bender," is still with us but could’ve become another name added to the growing list of Black trans women who are killed yearly, like Dominique Fells and Riah Milton. Lest we forget Nia Wilson, a California teen who was stabbed to death by a white man while waiting for a train at the MacArthur BART station in Oakland. These are just the stories we know.

On the evening of May 16, 24-year-old Korey T. Johnson was running through her Baltimore neighborhood with her friend Camille when a Black man began verbally harassing the two. The man followed the young women for several laps and to escape him, they ran into a hotel, where he began pounding on the plexiglass sliding door and making lewd comments. According to Johnson, a white female resident referred to the stranger as a “monkey” then asked if he was their boyfriend; Johnson responded, “No, we don't know him at all.” When the police were called, they did not apprehend the man, but rather disregarded the women’s concerns and the two walked home, alone. 

Johnson, a Howard University School of Law alumna, posted this video on Instagram the next day, garnering over 600,000 views, thousands of shares, and eventually landing on my feed. Incidents like this paint a clear picture of the complex duality of the Black woman experience, as we exist at the intersection of race and gender-based violence. We are persecuted not only by agents of white supremacy — racist white female peers, crooked police officers, etc. — but also by male members of our own community. Despite enduring catcalls and being followed, we defend Black men without fail, but who will fight for us? Who will #RunWithBlackGirls? Who will say our names?

Johnson said, “I don't hear beckoning calls from communities of white women when there are issues that happen specifically to Black women. I don't hear the Black community really championing Black women. I don't experience my race detached from my gender, nor have I ever...For me, my job has always been to highlight issues that are affecting Black women because if we don't do it, no one will."

Whether it be abducted Black girls, maternal mortality rates, police brutality, sexual assault, or harassment, our needs are swept under the rug. From an early age, Black women are quickly robbed of our innocence and ability to be perceived as delicate. Stemming from the “strong Black woman” trope, we are depicted as incapable of feeling fear or being in danger. The responsibility is then turned on our heads to protect ourselves even when we call on help from others. We live in a world expectant of harassment from men and subconsciously knowing that no one will protect us. Johnson says that what made her cry hardest was “recognizing your condition” and the space Black women occupy in the world.

“The level of expendability that's ascribed to the flesh of Black women is what was jarring to me in that situation, like everyone's lack of empathy for Camille and I,” Johnson said. “In the video, if you notice, there are two white women that come up behind him. They’re video-recording him and he's not aggressive with them at all — and they're on the other side of the glass. It's sad because it’s like certain people know that it's okay to violate Black women because nobody cares about us.”

Running has been an integral part of Johnson’s fitness journey, which she began in August 2018. Amidst quarantine, running with our family dog became my solace, a means of maintaining my sanity and a semblance of normalcy. As a Black woman raised in Georgia, I felt compelled to walk my 2.23 miles in remembrance of Ahmaud Arbery. However, many people did not interrogate the privilege that lies in being able to safely run through your own neighborhood. There are Black men who are still rightfully terrified about being shot down in broad daylight if they’re not walking with their families. Coupled with that, countless Black women fear for our lives because we know encounters like Johnson’s all too well.

“The outcry of support has been a blessing, but it's also sad because women are actually experiencing this and we're not having conversations about it. I told my mom I'm never going to run again. She said, ‘No, you know you're not going to let anybody stop you from living because regardless, you're not going to be any less afraid of all the things that are out there to hurt Black women. That’s not going to change. You know you can't give people power over your life in that way,’” Johnson said.

Despite having run that route countless times before, Johnson had never experienced harassment of this magnitude. While this transpired, Johnson and her friend passed a few Black men who saw everything happening but did not get involved. Following her post to Instagram, several Black men across the country offered to run with and alongside her. After a few days of exercising with family, Johnson went back out on her own.

Calling on Black men to elevate our voices, Johnson said, “[Put] your lives on the line for Black women, [put] your comfortability on the line for the Black women. Talk to your friends…[who] either say or do rapey, predatorial, aggressive things or have just been downright belligerent to Black women. We have a long way to go, but there are Black men out here who are real allies and who are really trying to champion Black women's issues.”

Before you consider going inside and taking a break from protesting, do not forget that justice has still not been served, especially not to Black women like Breonna Taylor. As we see #SayHerName become co-opted on social media or challenges to not “tear each other down" shared, we need to reposition our gaze and uplift the Black women who fight so ardently for everyone else. We deserve better. When we say Black lives matter, know that we mean all Black lives. 

If you live in the Baltimore area and encounter the man featured in Johnson's video, take caution. For ways to help get justice for Breonna, visit this link share this Instagram campaign, and act.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Why Hanifa's Virtual Catwalk Is More Than Just a Show

The Hanifa digital fashion show is a testament to the necessity of Black women designers in the industry, and the innovation that African talent can bring. From size inclusivity to 3D technology and Pink Label Congo's community focus, designer Anifa Mvuemba is setting a new standard. 

I first learned of Hanifa in August 2019. Teen Vogue had just announced their Generation Next mentorship initiative, selecting five budding brands to bring to New York Fashion Week and gradually make the industry more accessible. Two Black women were selected: British-Nigerian designer Tia Adeola of "Slashed by Tia" and Congolese designer Anifa Mvuemba of "Hanifa," based in Baltimore, Maryland. At the time, Mvuemba's brand had just surpassed 100k followers on Instagram and now, @hanifaofficial has surpassed double its follower count. Hanifa is a contemporary luxury brand unabashedly "designed with the Black woman in mind," and I was enthralled by the bold colors, prints, ruffles, and textures I saw on its page. The mermaid silhouettes sprinkled throughout the feed were somewhat reminiscent of traditional Nigerian formalwear, but seemed fresher, more chic, and less restricting.

The Generation Next designers were able to make waves at NYFW, but little did we know that it would be the last major in-person fashion show in the United States for a while. Coronavirus became a growing concern during Milan and Paris Fashion Week as shows were cancelled left and right, leaving many wondering, in retrospect, if they should've gone forward with any at all. Hindsight might be 20/20, but no designer or label could've foreseen the countless furloughs, layoffs, and bankruptcies that COVID-19 has yielded. The future of the fashion industry appears to be hanging on by a thread and from here on out, it's safe to say that fashion weeks across the globe will look very different. As the British Fashion Council intends to pull off their first-ever digital and gender neutral London Fashion Week in June, the question is how. 

Two nights ago, 29-year-old self-taught designer Mvuemba just debuted Hanifa's Pink Label Congo collection via Instagram Live, incorporating 3D models of different shapes and sizes. As a 6' Nigerian-American woman, my initial reaction was complete awe. It was both exhilarating and surreal to be able to envision myself inhabiting those clothes without seeing another human physically walk down the runway in them. Showcasing ruched fabric, various cuts and hems, and incredible craftsmanship, this collection spans from sizes XS to 2XL, staying true to Hanifa's mission for the limitless woman. Though the Western world rarely associates anything African with modernization or cutting-edge tech, in the age of COVID-19, a Black African woman is trailblazing a path for fashion's future and effortlessly raising the bar.

image credit: Teen Vogue

Already rightfully nicknamed the "mother of virtual fashion shows," Mvuemba is shifting the narrative. According to Teen Vogue, she had already planned to execute a digital show long before stay-at-home orders went into effect. Using CLO3D technology, Mvuemba was given the autonomy to decide the models' measurements and she drew inspiration from the bodies of real, everyday Black women "to emulate our beautiful skin tones, curves, and walking patterns." In a tweet, she even said, "This labor of love took 7 months [and] hours to create." Though worried that launching this new collection amidst current events would be insensitive, Mvuemba came at the most opportune time. People are yearning for freshness, excitement, and inspiration during what might be one of the bleakest eras in not just fashion history, but international history. Apart from that, intentionality seeped through every aspect of the Pink Label Congo launch.

Understanding that not everyone will have the opportunity to sit front row at a fashion show, Mvuemba wanted the Hanifa show to be accessible on a platform where the brand's audience shows up daily: Instagram. Despite initial difficulties on @hanifaofficial, virtual attendees moved to @hanifabridal to watch the digital show — and it was a huge success. With screen recordings going viral across Twitter, there are over 70,000 views and counting on the show's IGTV recap. Additionally, Mvuemba wanted to use the collection to shed light on the abrasive coltan mining industry in Congo, where 60-70% of the world's source is from. She sees service as imperative and purposefully sought to bring attention to the inhumane working conditions that women and child laborers endure back home.

image credit: @hanifaofficial

Hanifa is not about marketing gimmicks, but rather about amplifying and uplifting both the needs and the voice of Black women domestically and abroad. To make the show come to fruition, Mvuemba partnered with all Black woman-owned brands: UrbanSkinRx, Third Crown, Beauty Beez, Hyper Skin, Brooklyn Body Butter, EHONEY, BRWN Beauty, and my personal favorite, Cee Cee's Closet. Mvuemba said, "If you're African, then you know about African seamstresses..." and the importance of detail, color, and print. She made it her mission to deliberately "give tribute to all the African seamstresses out there" through this collection, by creating her own original color palettes and prints, honing in on the stitching and intricacy, and making each piece with Congo in mind. 

"Great things come out of Congo," Mvuemba said. "We're not just this country that is going through it." 

I hope this serves as a reminder to African youth and Black women about what we're capable of, and tells the fashion world to stop devaluing the African continent and the talent that comes from it.