Sankofa is an Akan word that means, “We must go back and reclaim our past so we can move forward; so we understand why and how we came to be who we are today.”
Here’s my attempt at doing such. Excuse my candidness in advance.
As I reflect upon these four years at Penn, finding my place amongst a sea of black perception has been a challenge. Now graduating, I finally have come to understand what are the problems and divisions that shape the current state of the black population. What is this black community that everyone speaks of? Who is in it? Who leads it? And how can we push back?
Ok, for the next few paragraphs I am going to attempt to unravel a few things for you. Brace yourself.
First fact: if you personally identify with the African diaspora, you are a member of Black Penn. At least that is what the Census Bureau would indicate. Black Penn is everyone that attends Penn that identifies as black in any shape or form. Whether you are Caribbean or Nigerian, or in-between, you are apart. No measure of wealth or social respect makes you any less in or out of Black Penn. This is the overall collective. This is everyone.
Second fact: Blacks at Penn have tried to create definitions of what makes one in Black Penn or out. This is quite foolish. There are various levels of nuance in trying to create arbitrary ways of cultivating a group that already exists. It is subjective in scope and tedious in expectation. How do you do it? Who makes the rules?
And then enters Makuu Penn.
Makuu Penn, which serves as the official resource center for students of the African Diaspora (Black Penn) tries to foster their idea of a community. Through their collaborative efforts with UMOJA (the umbrella organization for all Penn certified black student groups) they have created an impression that idealistically looks good in thought, but bad in practice. What is the black community at Penn? Makuu attempts to create it, and the subgroups apart follow suit.
Those organizations that are apart of UMOJA (Black Student League, PASA, CASA, and other more known black groups) create a culture that attempts to attract students from the African diaspora. This is fine. But what happens when we go from having a collective as Black Penn to now having this defined community? People get left out.
What I have seen over the past four years is statements like this:
“(insert any black man or woman who is involved in an organization that isn’t under UMOJA) is not really apart of the black community?”
“I hardly see her at any black events, they are not apart of the black community.”
Translation: Makuu Penn has now become the definition of the black community at Penn. And anyone that isn’t partaking in subgroups associated with the center is considered out of the community.
No, the accomplishments of such rejects mean anything to the said resource center that strives to facilitate those who are apart of Black Penn. Yes, only your contributions to said resource center defines your place as a black student on said campus.
This is problematic for several reasons:
First, it sets limits and definitions for those who identify as black to go by. So if I don’t join a black organization that is apart of UMOJA that means I offer nothing to the black community? Or if the black community is defined by who participates with Makuu and said organizations affiliated, only then will I be accounted for in this community?
Second, for those who actually considered themselves as Penn students overall, where do they fit in the larger bubble? Are they less black now that a pecking order has been initiated? And do they deserve to be looked down because they choose to incorporate other experiences outside of the one defined for them as a black student the moment they stepped foot here?
This is the part of the essay where I get very frank (if I have not been so already).
Given my four years at Penn, if you are not a black athlete, black Greek fraternity/sorority member, or apart of any organizations that are under UMOJA…the conclusion has been you are not apart of the black community.
And that is pretty fucked up.
It is messed up because for guys like me who have been in urban environments all my life and came to Penn to have experiences that are more diverse and explorative, my blackness is being questioned by privileged blacks that have spent most of their life in all white prep schools. Yes, because the kid from the inner city school that wants to sit with the white, Asian, and anybody else outside of Makuu Penn for a couple of hours, I am given the side eye and exclusion because some people are trying to cultivate a false sense of community within the campus.
Want to find out where you fit in? Go read Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. But what you will not do is attempt to define my blackness on some metric system that helps you feel you can obtain it more than I can naturally exert it.
In conclusion, matters like this boil down to privilege, equity, and access. When you have money and power, you can create the rules. For rich, preppy, black kids who feel they have no sense of black identity, they can come to Makuu and ultimately feel they can create them by signing up for every club and organization under UMOJA. They then feel they can all of a sudden just through a scroll down a listserve invite themselves to festivities that will put them in the circle of what makes them “black.” Because unfortunately being apart of Black Penn was not too exclusive enough, being apart of Makuu Penn feels like VIP.
As a black guy who has grown up on the Southside of Chicago, the Southwest Side of Houston and now residing in West Philadelphia here at Penn, I have had my fair share of black interaction and I understand and appreciate my identity. No membership in any club or no tally of what I choose to attend will ever define my blackness or care of it either. For Quakers who are currently here and will eventually come, please know this and break the cycle.
No resource center or umbrella organization should bracket what makes us apart. Just by walking on this predominately white campus alone should be enough to define how committed you are to uplifting the community.
The community of us collectively, not socially.
Ernest Confessionals is a series of essays that Ernest Owens want all of Penn to know now that he is a graduate.