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Surviving a PWI: Tips on Connecting to your Blackness in white Spaces

Charleston, SC is the city that trafficked the largest amount of enslaved people to the United States. This is the city that prides itself on the preservation of its southern, antebellum culture of plantations, architecture, and Revolutionary War landmarks. It’s the city built upon the pain of enslaved people who looked like me and are my ancestors. Attending a Predominantly White Institution here has helped me realize the depth of their pain and sacrifice, and it evokes hard emotions of sadness, confusion, and anger.

But then I realized I was living in a city that is a hub for Black history, empowerment, culture, art, and innovation. This same place that represents so much pain also represents a metropolis for Black culture. I realized I could not expect my institution to provide me with notable experiences in my cultivation and growth as a Black woman, for this college was not built for me. It was originally built to educate young, white males, not me. I would have to seek my own experiences.

Learn About Your Ancestors

I began by attending lectures to reimagine the ingenuity and impact of notable Black people such as Harriet Tubman and Septima P. Clark. I delved into the historic Black communities around Charleston that were silenced, but not suppressed. Any event regarding the rich history that Black people cultivated in Charleston (or beyond), now gets my best attention—and I NEVER regret it.

Find Black Events

I began to talk to Black people in the neighborhood– not just on campus– to find Black-owned restaurants like Caribbean Delight (with the best oxtails). I talked to lifelong Charleston natives to find the best folks to do my hair.

Being part of a school scholarship organization that honors Black trailblazers helped. That connection introduced me to a Gullah Geechee food revolution: “The Taste of Gullah Geechee,” showcasing restaurants and catering businesses continuing the Gullah legacy. Gullah culture comes from formerly enslaved West African people who settled along the coasts of the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida. They created their own creole culture popularized by elegant sweetgrass baskets and excellent vegetable, rice, and seafood dishes. The event was inspirational and empowering. I was raised on good food in Mississippi, and I recognize how important it is to Black culture, but sampling so many different foods with such a rainbow of spices felt surreal. It was a buffet-style family reunion with family I didn’t realize I had. People I’ve never met handed me plates and initiated conversation like we’ve known each other all our lives. It was an immersion in Charleston community—more specifically, the Black Charleston community. And it sparked nostalgia and helped me remember who I was.

Immerse in Live Black Music

The same scholarship group introduced me to the riveting concert performance, “Fela!”, commemorating the musical genius and legacy of Nigerian artist and social justice advocate, Fela Kuti.

Guitars, drums and horns meshed together to form an invigorating beat and a powerful cadence. A self-proclaimed Black music connoisseur like me felt joy to feel the similarities between the Nigerian music culture Fela Kuti created and modern Black music and dance. Bass lines and gyration filled me with energy and joy, and I couldn’t help but wonder if this is where Kendrick Lamar found his inspiration.

Sitting in the room with people who look like me, taking in the beauty and ingenuity of my people, helped me process anger into admiration, and then appreciation, for Black culture and art. I became curious about the strife and hardship that Fela Kuti sang about and I wondered if they were similar to issues Black people face today. The performance made me appreciate the people who play drums and instruments on Saturday mornings in the park, and I wanted to learn more about local music within Charleston. It didn’t hurt that I had songs to add to my “groove playlist.”

Fellowship with Black People and other People of Color—on Campus My off-campus community brought me closer to my Blackness, but it was nothing compared to the joy and belonging I felt with other Black students and students of color in my institution’s Multicultural Students Programs and Services building. As I said, my college is not a Black campus, but the MSPS building brought an authentic, cultural space that felt like letting out a heavy breath I didn’t know I was holding. Here I could have candid conversations without fear of being categorized as “loud” or “angry.” I could listen to music specific to my culture, and learn about Asian and Hispanic/Latino culture. I even learned the “Can’t Get Enough” line dance on a random afternoon.

I also joined a historically Black sorority, and fellowshipped with other sororities and fraternities while serving communities, attending events, and livening up parties by strolling. I got unforgettable memories, inside jokes, and stories to tell for a lifetime.

I can’t express every effect from my many experiences, but I know I am now a more secure Black woman. I am more aware and confident in my ability to triumph amid hardship, but also in my people’s ability to triumph.


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