What a Thing it is to be Black: EBONI amplifies Black community at open-mic

By Adri Pray, Editor-at-large

When Jordan Elliott took the stage Saturday, he focused only on his cousin.

Two months prior, Elliot’s brother called him, sobbing, to tell him his cousin, a recent graduate of Tufts University, had unexpectedly passed. Days after receiving the news, Elliott wrote “81 Greenwood Street” in mere minutes because he felt compelled to describe how much his cousin meant to him.

The first-year communication studies major read his poem during Emerson’s Black Organization with Natural Interest’s open mic event Saturday night, which featured short story reading, rap, song, and dance performances alongside traditional poetry submissions.

“The sorrow, the despair, all that shit resurfaced when I started performing because I’ve only ever recited it twice out loud, and the only other time it was at his funeral,” Elliott said. “All those feelings came back to me, and I felt like my heart was sinking, but I knew what I was doing it for—I was doing it for him—and I felt like I could elevate above all that.”

EBONI’s PR Representative Stephyne Weathersby organized the coffeehouse and themed the event after Harvard University student Michael Torto’s poem, “What a Thing it is to be Black,” which he performed at Harvard’s BSU Apollo night. After hearing his recitation, Weathersby knew she wanted the event to orbit around Black expression, and was granted permission to use the title.

“I feel like being Black means many different things, and as a Black person you can often feel like you are not Black enough or sometimes you feel like you’re too white and you don’t necessarily assimilate enough into the one culture,” she said. 

According to Emerson’s 2021-2022 Factbook, 5% of the 5,889 undergraduates—roughly 294—identify as Black, while 56% of undergrads—around 3,298—identify as white. In the past five years, Emerson has made little progress in Black student enrollment, as the college reported 3% of undergraduates identified as Black and 63% identified as white in 2017.

Originally from Mississippi, Weathersby never saw herself attending a primarily white institution like Emerson, and always envisioned herself attending a historically-Black college or university. Transitioning from a predominately Black space into a predominately white one makes you feel excluded, Weathersby said.

“Being in a PWI, I feel like a lot of times so unintentionally, or intentionally we get silenced, so it was really inspiring and mesmerizing seeing all those people perform,” Elliott echoed.

EBONI Co-president and junior journalism major Sommer Stokes agreed, acknowledging the open mic was a great way for Black students to be unapologetically themselves. She read an original poem entitled “A Mother’s Love,” inspired by her late mother’s poetry. 

“The whole [idea] was to bare your person to a room of people and be yourself and be who you are,” Stokes said. “My mother is no longer with me, but I carry her legacy with me every day and I felt like that was a good piece of my being to share with everyone.”

It was important to Weathersby that Black performers of all majors were celebrated at the coffeehouse because she doesn’t see many students explore opportunities beyond their discipline. One such student, senior visual media arts major Rayquan Blake, performed his poem, “You is I,” which touched on themes of identity, as Blake connected the poem to being unapologetically Black and used the poem as a means of conversation to talk to his reflection in the mirror.

“Blackness is different for everyone, everyone has a different experience, and it doesn’t mean you’re less Black or more Black than anyone else,” he said. “That’s something that I wanted to capture with my poem, but also, [its] hand-in-hand with me because I wanted to tell the story of how I accepted myself because there were times where I didn’t want to be myself.”

Black culture is often misrepresented through cinema, he continued, specifically noting how often the media portrays Black trauma. Blake wants to use his education to change the narrative surrounding what it means to be a Black creator while controlling which stories he tells.

“[Black creators are] looking to really put ourselves into our own stories instead of telling the same stories or telling the stories that are not even true and owning our stories because a lot of our stories were told by people who didn’t look like us, who didn’t come from where we came from,” he said. “They don’t know the true veracity of what it means to even be a regular Black person in America.”

Each performer told their own story Saturday, though the crowd indicated certain themes resonating them throughout the night. Sophomore writing, literature, and publishing major Habeebh Sylla, performed her poem, “I am a girl, a black woman if you may,” about the interconnectedness of her hair and skin, received snaps from the audience while reciting, “My looks change because that is something my skin color allows me to have / Variety, if you haven’t heard.”

“The night before the event actually happened I was trying to write something else because the theme was ‘What a Thing it is to be Black’ and I was trying to connect it to something, make it fit the idea, but it wasn’t working out,” she said. “Once I scratched my initial idea I wrote something that I feel really strongly [about] and I think about all the time, which was my hair and my skin color.”

Weathersby hopes to host another open mic event as soon as possible to  continue fostering the Black experience on Emerson’s campus and promote growth within.

“I can’t be more proud of my community,” Elliot said. “We’re a very small proportion in Emerson entirely, we’re like 5%, something like that, it’s a loud ass 5%, I’ll tell you that. We’re really, really making ripples.”