Iaisha Johnson was “nervous” approaching the stage Friday night in Goodyear Hall.
But once she finally stood in front of her 45 peers, she became more confident. For three minutes, Johnson shared her pride for her culture and was a force on stage. Whenever she said, “I’m black, y’all,” her audience responded, “how black?” in unity.
Johnson’s poetic statement was part of Campus Living’s Black History Poetry Slam to celebrate Black History Month and “highlight the most beautiful things about being black.” Johnson was among seven students who rapped, sang or read poetry throughout the night.
Students spoke about their experiences being black, their love for their black culture and their desire for diversity and openness on stage. Shefa Rizvi, a sophomore business administration major, says she organized the poetry slam to “reflect” and “celebrate” the “diversity of South Campus.”
Josephina Nimarko, a junior public health major, was impressed by Johnson’s vulnerability. Nimarko, like Johnson, sees the importance of promoting community celebrations of black culture to spread positivity and lift up members of the black community.
“When people think of black culture and history they tend to focus on the hardship, rather than the beauty and resistance,” Nimarco said. “These types of events are great because they focus on beauty.”
Strings of lights dangled from the 10th-floor lounge entrance and set the event’s calm ambience. Lanterns stationed across the room greeted guests with warm glows and photos of notable poets including James Baldwin and Maya Angelou, and entertainers like Josephine Baker and Duke Ellington decorated lounge tables across the room.
Johnson read a self-written poem to highlight how much beauty and intelligence is “rooted in being black.”
“Basically, I wanted to highlight the most beautiful things about being black and I wanted to make it a bold and proud thing,” Johnson said.
Johnson said the poem was about her experience being in a predominantly Hispanic high school and feeling as though black history was “overlooked.”
“I didn’t have a lot of support in that way and so I would often create poems and be the one to create black events in my school,” Johnson said.
Rizvi said she was “surprised and happy” with the 45-student turnout.
“We started planning the event at the beginning of the semester and it’s one of the biggest events we’ve hosted since our drag program.”
Campus Living recently began hosting Black History Month Poetry slams on North Campus, according to Goodyear Hall Director Kristina Collier, and after the Intercultural and Diversity Center held its own, South Campus decided to create its own. Collier said Campus Living would like this event to be a tradition.
“Every Black History Month we’re going to do a poetry slam, make it bigger and bigger, start getting community poets to come in,” Collier said. “I really want people to just feel involved and feel that we care about Black History Month because it's important.”
Isaiah Keaton, a junior psychology major sang “Be Alright,” a self-written song about his and his mother’s financial struggles. In the song, he discussed the ways he wished he could have afforded nice things when he was living in South Carolina, but how in the end, they’re going to “be alright.” He also read a poem which described how his ex-girlfriend “opened” him up, taught him how to express himself and “shined a type of light” he never felt before.
“It’s really my goal, my dream to become a rapper, but I do write poems every now and then,” Keaton said. “I really want to try to take advantage of every open mic that I can and sort of just open up that way and get some type of attention and gain some type of fan base. But I actually love doing it.”
The fight to overcome hardships was one of the night’s main themes, with the Black Student Union’s e-board reflecting on “the struggle and overcoming the struggle” of being black in America.
Shane Bennett, a senior psychology major, said black history programming is important because it shows black people “are capable of excellence.” Bennett reminded others that celebrations of black culture “give a voice to black people on campus” and provide an outlet for them to be heard.
“We need to continue expressing ourselves and trying to promote our history to make sure that black people won’t be erased from UB.”
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Elizabeth "Liz" Napolitano is the senior news editor for The Spectrum. She's an optimistic pessimist who found her love for journalism in Ecuador. She likes late night walks and reading Twitter threads in their entirety.
Alexandra Moyen is the senior features editor of The Spectrum.