Interview with: Stella T. Oyalabu ’16 in the common room of Pond Hall 208
25 April 2016, 9:25pm
Duration: 51 minutes
Conducted by: Darienne Madlala ‘16
Darienne: So, Stella, I want you to make this as casual as possible and just realize that it’s just me, Darienne, sitting and talking to you –
Darienne: And I’m just going to ask you about your experience at Amherst, okay?
Darienne: So… yeah, please don’t hold back. If you want to hold back that’s also fine. Just do whatever you wanna do. This is going in archives… Anyway, let’s see… So the first question I wanted to ask is what is your favorite thing about Amherst? That is a huge question.. But just whatever, whatever you like about this school
Stella: Uhmm I would say that my favorite thing about Amherst [is] mainly the people I’ve come in contact with. Uhmm .. and the bonds that you are able to form because Amherst is like a difficult place to kind of, you know, feel accustomed to or feel like you have a community in. And particularly in terms of like the people, uhm, I would say my – I guess this is kind of repetitive but the favorite thing would have to be, uhm, aside from just the people, would have to be the African and Caribbean Students’ Union, mainly because my like transitioning to Amherst was a different kind of experience in that, you know, it was hard to center myself in a particular community. And being that I come from like a Nigerian immigrant family and my household was very like… pretty much dominated by our culture that it wasn’t a thing that was separated from our culture.. it was more or less uhm.. our lives weren’t separated from the culture – it was put together. And I wanted to have a bit of home at Amherst and just having a community like the African and Caribbean Students’ Union or “ACSU” for short, was just… just helped to make being at Amherst a lot more better. In that those people eventually became your support system, your community to like come to and just kind of relax and you know, just kind of chill and feel… you know, and center yourself despite the work you may have due the morning kind-of-thing so…yeah. That was it
-Why thank you. You touched on a lot of questions that I will get to so that’ll be perfect ‘cause they will be follow-up questions. Uhm, but, so the class that I’m – the special topics class – is called The Black Experience at Amherst –
–And just from that title, what are some of the first things that come to mind for you. I mean what does that even make you think of, uhm, anything. Literally, anything
– Like hearing the title, The Black Experience at Amherst, I’m kind of a little weary about it. I’m cautious because in one sense it kind of signals that there is one, homogenous experience, or it kind of blankets that all experiences under the racial category of black is the same. Me, I would like to describe my own identity with blackness as very multifaceted mainly because I was born in the United States, and I’ve grown up in the United States so I have a good understanding of what it means… what blackness has meant or what it means to be black in America. But also being that I am from Nigeria and I identify strongly with Nigerian culture, that blackness also means something and can mean nothing in the context of the African continent because you don’t really see race, you don’t really see blackness. You see tribe, you see country, you see national affiliation. So hearing The Black Experience at Amherst, I’m kind of… you know, I’m hesitant but I recognize the power – or I recognize the…. [pause] the authenticity in some way of understanding what that means because, uhm, the reality of race in America is that people see.. people just see race and our country, this country, has been constructed by race
– So, when people see me they see my skin, they see my race. They don’t see that, you know, it’s multifaceted in the black experience means many things for me. It is not just one singular experience for me but it’s a combination of many experiences for me. That’s why, saying The Black Experience at Amherst or not Black Experiences at Amherst I kind of would play with that title a little bit more rather than almost boxing it in to one black experience but there are multiple black experiences that occur or intersect at Amherst
–Mmm, Well, so you did mention this in the first question: the African and Caribbean Students’ Union; and of course you are a co-founder of the group. And my question is, what needs did you identify coming into Amherst in our Amherst community that provoked you to start a new group? What was missing?
– At the time of the start or just playing with the idea of having ACSU when it was very in its early-conception days, uhm… what I felt was missing is largely the problem that I have with the title The Black Experience, because there was a certain kind of experience of blackness that was being.. like… lauded in the community. That despite the fact that many people engaged with topics in class about blackness, that people thought.. or.. you know, it was just the feeling that blackness was only confined within the borders of the United States and not international or cultural references that.. I just felt that it was the singular of black experience had dominated the narrative at Amherst and, you know, while I recognize it is part of my identity, also my blackness as it relates to being Nigerian, or African, or other people – Caribbean – in itself, I felt it was something missing. I also thought about what blackness meant in that, there were people who … – because by constructing blackness as the only category- there were people who were automatically left out of the category despite having affiliations with the African or the Caribbean regions. Because, to be African or Caribbean is not to black. There [are] also people who make up other racial categories but do identify as African and Caribbean. And I saw that there needed to be a space for multiple and diverse identities outside of the larger racial construct or solidarity that are represented within blackness or other cultural affinity groups like the BSU [Black Student Union]
–So on that note then, what were some of the challenges with the initial starting of the group? And with these underlying issues that you talk about in terms of race and the construction of blackness, do you have like any particular memory in which those underlying issues kind of manifested themselves in the starting of ACSU?
– That is a very big question so..
– Yeah, That is a very big question because there were several experiences [pause]. To back track a little bit, I would say, you know, coming to Amherst as a first-year student, I initially started off in the Black Student Union. I was going to meetings, I was helping with events – I helped with one event, Harlem Renaissance. And in those meetings I felt like there was something missing and I saw, like what I explained in the earlier question, I saw that other – seeing that other side of blackness outside of the construct of the United States was missing; it was very within the borders. And for me, that’s what was missing. So when it came around to the time where I along with [you] were talking about the conception of the African and Caribbean Students’ Union and we started the organization, there was a lot of backlash in people thinking that a) we were dividing the black community; b) people felt like it was a redundant community, in the sense of “why do you need another black group?”, or people thought the African and Caribbean Students’ Union should not exist on its own but it should exist underneath the Black Student Union. I remember particularly, in my Intro to Black Studies class – it was toward like the end of the year and this was the first semester that ACSU had really been in gear and we were starting the motions of it and by that point in the semester, we had dealt with a lot in terms of questioning what identity meant. And it got to the point in one of the classes that a girl felt very adamant about the existence of ACSU; and pretty much she said like, “ I don’t understand why this is needed, why this exists”. And even as a first-year student, all the things that I felt and all the things that I understood why in my heart that I felt this was necessary; I didn’t have the language to articulate it at that present moment. Mainly because it was never a question of dividing the black community. I saw it as possibility to diversify the understanding of blackness, of cultural differences, of what it means to be African, what it means to be Caribbean, and how that manifests in Amherst and the African and Caribbean context. And, you know, that was one of the moments where I felt very – it was like a calling out in that moment in a very academic setting. And even the professor – I was also taken aback by the professor who said, “Yeah I don’t understand either. This group should be under the Black Student Union”. And for me that also took me aback because, besides that fact that he’s a white male professor, I was just like, “But there are other racial categories in these countries and to just say that they shouldn’t exist because blackness should be the overarching identity or overarching controlling of this group was in itself a misunderstanding of what these regions actually entail.” You know, you kind of invisibalize the cultural differences that are blatantly existent in these countries, in these islands, in the continent, in these regions simply in hopes of a larger connection of blackness and solidarity. So, for me that was probably the first memory that I felt personally attacked or had to deal with those questions head on. And it was both at my supposed peer-level and from someone who you can consider a “higher up” – at a professorial level
-Stella, you are reading my mind tonight. I was gonna ask you about your major – one of your majors, Black Studies. And not even that, any classes that you have taken at Amherst. Do you feel, as senior, more equipped to talk about issues of race after majoring in Black Studies or after taking certain classes then you were, say, in freshman year?
– Yeah, I do. Because even when I talk about these issues, some people ask about the foundings of ACSU, and often times I go back to that moment where I was in that Intro to Black Studies class and I didn’t have the language, I didn’t have the ability to really articulate what was in my mind and what I felt and why I valued and believed in the authenticity and the legitimacy of the African and Caribbean Students’ Union. But now, like years later, I’m a senior; I’m going to graduate soon, and really having time to really investigate identity, ethnicity, blackness, diversity… uhm, I feel like I have the language to do that articulation. That, the issues with blackness, the issues with the African and Caribbean Students’ Union was I think… the issue was largely something that was very systemic that turned into questions over identity. Because when I think about timings in which ACSU came about, the black community on campus was still very small in numbers. So people saw ACSU as, I wouldn’t say a threat, but ACSU became something that would divide the very small numbers of the black community. And those fears became channeled into questions of identity where identity and blackness became a question of whether to be African or to be Caribbean is to black. And for me those questions or those conflations or those categorizations were just very narrow understandings – even in a place that is so intellectually riveting as Amherst – with such a narrow confinement of what African-ness means or Caribbean-ness means because even at one point people were saying “What is the International Students Association for?” because the understanding was that Africans and Caribbeans could not exist in the United States context unless they were international. But if you were born in the United States or been in the United States for several years, that was good enough as being just considered a black American
-And for me, those were very narrow perceptions in that people, one – didn’t recognize the validity of being American-born but still having an association to your parents’ native land or being born in America or living another place but coming to America after some time. But it was only understood that, to be African and Caribbean meant, you to originally have lived there most of your life and probably just coming to America for schooling.
And just having those conversations in classes, or just seeing that there are different definitions of blackness and then understanding that blackness is simply a social construction that does not exist in other countries the way it exists and constructions and rules the United States in every way. You cannot have the United States without having racial categories. That’s pretty much how our nation is created. And now being able to look back as senior and understand that there was nothing wrong or divisive about ACSU or the creation of ACSU because blackness wasn’t at threat. It was actually an opportunity to open up diversity and diversify the knowledge of people’s understandings of African-ness or Caribbean-ness beyond the racial constructs or the constraints. That it doesn’t just mean blackness- it’s not a racial category. That there is something about the culture, the music, the food, the dance, that make these regions unique beyond the social construction of race that the United States has placed on human bodies. Rather, we should appreciate the value of the culture that comes out of the people; irrespective of race. And that is pretty much the understanding and the language that I have been able to develop over the years through being a Black Studies major, through just engaging [in] continuous discussions about identity, researching about race and ethnicity in my Black Studies 200 course. You know, it has just been a personal mission of mine to like, develop a language in that any day I can be able to advocate for ACSU in the way that in the one moment that I really should have but I didn’t have the language to, at that moment, advocate for it
-So do you think ACSU would have existed had those issues, those needs, that understanding that you now have, had those all been recognized and supported under a club like the BSU or do you think that an African and Caribbean student union could never exist under a black student group?
– I don’t think it could never exist [under a black student group]. I think the way that ACSU has molded today or has been created, uhm, or the way we created ACSU was is a way to recognize the existence of multiple identities. So the – I would say the ACSU of today, that exists and is thriving, could never fully thrive under a black student union but I don’t think it’s impossible. Had things like African cultural values or, you know, Caribbean-ness had been explored or identified or people felt like it was a place within the Black Student Union. It’s just that uhm…I.. I’m just weary between the singular conflation between blackness and African-ness and Caribbean-ness as like, those are the only racial categories within those regions. I know of Black Student Unions that do a great job of highlighting those aspects of African-ness and Caribbean-ness as it relates to blackness. But I don’t think the way that ACSU is today it could thrive because it recognizes that someone who is white can be considered Caribbean because he has grown up in Jamaica, or Asian of the Asian racial category or Indians, those who are Indians in South Africa or people who are East African and they’re Indians… We just need to break out of the perception that black is Africa or Africa is black or the Caribbean is black. But these are as diverse as the United States will laud to be. And breaking out of those understandings invites a richer discussion; invites the differences in experiences that you won’t get if you simply look at blackness in Africa or blackness in the Caribbean. I’ve seen these black students [unions] represent the cultural needs of Africans and Caribbeans as it relates to blackness but the way ACSU does it, it’s Africans and Caribbeans as it relates to the people who identify in those spaces, so it’s more encompassing of all as opposed to one.
-So, is there a space on campus (and it can be a physical building or a “space”, whatever that means to you) in which you feel that you, as Stella and your identity is the most supported? And on the flip-side, is there a space in which you don’t feel supported or don’t feel as comfortable because of your identity? It can with a group of students or not and if there’s none for either then that’s fine too
-I think in terms of my identity being supported, I think wherever ACSU is gathered that’s where my identity feels supported. So, not necessarily the space but the people who form the space. So ACSU can literally be gathered in the MRC [Multicultural Resource Center], in the Keefe [Campus Center] atrium, in Val at a lunch table, or across the quad. And simply the gathering of us together is enough for me to feel like my identity is validated. Oftentimes within the ACSU community I can switch between my identities that, you know, I can be having a conversation about blackness or what it means to be a black female at Amherst and also switch up into another conversation about jollof rice –
-or my African parenting styles. Or even things as simple as, oh, my favorite dances. There’s a lot of like switching that I do as when I’m with those people and it doesn’t really matter wherever we gather, whatever space we create, that the space doesn’t define us but the people of ACSU create a space that is supportive wherever they are. So oftentimes whenever I am found within ACSU or ACSU people – that is the space I feel most comfortable in.
Uhm, I have felt uncomfortable because of my identity in physical spaces as well in the same way by people who make those spaces mainly because of the difficulties that existed in the beginning of making ACSU. To be honest, there was just a lot of…[pause]..I would say there was a lot of hate and almost like bullying and resentment of the creation of ACSU by people who felt that ACSU was dividing the black community further. And, in oftentimes, it was conversations that pitted ACSU against the BSU. In times where I felt that the space that I started off in, the Octagon, where I was attending meetings or helping out with events in the beginning of my first year – I could no longer enter that space without feeling like I was intruding simply because the people who formed that space at that present time did not agree with the existence of ACSU. In the same way that I felt also ostracized by the larger black community, that even up until this day, I feel like I cannot enter. [Pause] I actually don’t believe that I have entered the Octagon since my sophomore year – to the point where it’s like, I often feel like I cannot intersect with the people who create the larger part of the Black Student Union mainly because… it felt very oppositional in terms of those who did not agree with ACSU and at that moment, that’s when I did not feel like my identity was supported or just my identity felt uncomfortable or just not welcomed by these particular people. Largely, I don’t feel that way now mainly because there has been a turnover in students. Most of the students who held these ideals have graduated, others have actually come to recognize the validity of ACSU and have said, “Wow, we didn’t understand back then but we do understand now.” But sometimes the sting of what has happened in my first year and my sophomore year still lingers and that’s why it’s still weird for me to go to the Octagon because I remember it as being just like a very tense space that I couldn’t feel like I could enter without being ostracized or I felt like an intruder in that space, or even a betrayer – like I betrayed the black race by creating ACSU. Like I turned against “my people” quote-unquote for creating this “foreign international” group that’s now dividing the black community. So it’s more of the people who form space or the people themselves who can support or make your identity feel unsupported
–And now since like most people have graduated, obviously now because I’m the graduating class, but most of them have gone. In terms of the space itself, I could probably enter the space but the memory still lingers for me
– Yeah, just thinking about that it’s so interesting because Ajanae [Bennett ‘16] is doing her project for this class on the Octagon. And every week when our class meets in the archives, it’s just so interesting- the history of that space you know, what a great space that that building provided. And I just wanna reiterate what you said about people who make up spaces and the impact that people have as opposed to just a physical building. Well, ACSU is very diverse. It is an exclusive group in that it was created for African and Caribbean students primarily but WOW! We have a lot of non-African and Caribbean students who attend our meetings and events. SO, just from your perspective, what do you think is the key to the diversity that ACSU has? How did that come about?
-Answering the “how” is a little difficult but one thing we were keen on was just being very welcoming. One thing we hampered on is “inclusive, inclusive, inclusive. We need to be inclusive, but we also need respect that there are moments where we’ll be exclusive in the fact that there are African and Caribbean identities that we must also cater too.” But we recognize the diversity within the region and also thought that you know, just because you are not from these places does not mean that you don’t have the opportunity to be welcomed or included in these spaces or you don’t have the opportunity to learn about this space. And because I feel like we had to do a lot of educating in the very beginning in which we had to establish the reason why ACSU needed to exist, that often times when those questions arose, it was like “yeah, you can come to this meeting but also this is why – recognize the diversity there is and the multiple identities”. We spent a lot of time educating people mainly because we spent a lot of time defending ACSU. But in the defense, in the education, we were telling people, “Yeah, you should come; it doesn’t matter that you’re not from these places, it’s an opportunity to learn”. And I think oftentimes, that in of itself is one reason…why there is such diversity in ACSU. We essentially just wanted a space for people to just feel a sense of home, whatever home meant to you. I remember one ACSU meeting where we were talking about what ACSU meant to them, and one student said, “ACSU is like a haven…, a place for serenity, a place for peace”, a place where they can just be and be themselves. And that is regardless of whether or not you’re not really from the African or Caribbean regions but rather you may just [have] a craving to be home or to have somewhere you can call home. I think just wanting to create a community where people could connect and feel safe is there. And then I think I also remember – I’m not sure who I had this conversation with, maybe it was [you], I don’t remember; there’ve been many conversations –
– But the fact that even a part of African and Caribbean nature is to be welcoming, that’s just a charm…or it’s like, “people naturally want to welcome people into their homes” kind of thing. It’s like, “come be a part of my home! Come see… We want to welcome you even if you’re a stranger or even if you’re not… from this particular place, we want to welcome you.” And that’s kind of the thing that also is a trend that [ACSU] tr[ies] to carry through. Like, you know, you may not be from here but we will still give you the proper hospitality simply because you’re like me; there’s blood in your veins. And that’s it.
-Hmm. Okay well, Stella, I have two more questions for you
-Uhm, so, you’re a senior now which you’ve mentioned so many times!
-and I think obviously there are many indications that ACSU is here to stay. Is there a distinct moment that you can recall the first time that you were like, “We made it!” or “ACSU is here!” or something ?
– I feel like there were a series of moments. I guess my very first moment was the first semester ACSU was in gear and obviously we had meetings throughout the year just to get ACSU warmed up and to see what we were doing. But we decided that in order to get ACSU’s name out there we had a party. We had no idea who would turn up. We just put posters, we got a DJ, we got funding and… we created a Facebook event and we said, “you know what? Let’s just see what happens.” [Pause]. And I guess I was worried because it was the first big thing we were doing and it was the first time that we had opened up ACSU beyond the boundaries, beyond the borders of just the Amherst College community. We pretty much threw it into the 5-college community and we said, “here. This is what we are. This is what we’re trying to do. And to our surprise – to our great surprise –it was a great success. And I just remember looking at you and being like, “Wow, this is it”. And in the midst of that semester, after dealing with so many struggles… and to make it through seeing that first party as successful as it was, it gave me hope for the next year. And I remember that being the first moment where it’s like, “Okay”. Like even in that moment I didn’t feel like we had arrived, I felt like we had a chance – a fighting chance to be on this campus.
If I would say another moment was the first time we did EXPO-losion [Fall 2015] and we ended up being featured on the Amherst website, and our picture was headlining [on the homepage of the website] – that was another moment; because I remember texting you. I was like, “Wow. We made it.” Because this time it was not that we were recognized by ourselves – we were not just recognized on Facebook by our own community but Amherst College itself recognized us. And to be featured on that website was to say that, “Amherst College sees you, and we see you enough to put you on our website”. That was another moment. And then we were – I’m telling you, there were several affirming moments – we were then featured and interviewed by an up-and-coming publication news (AC News). [You and I] were interviewed by two other class of 2016s, Everlena Tenn and Ashley Montgomery, because we were the first [group] to use the Powerhouse which was a very new space and we transformed it beyond something that was just a party scene. It was, you know, a full out show. In that respect, it was also a validation moment. I think I also skipped the first Wave Your Flag dinner that we did [Spring 2014]. There were kinks in that weekend but seeing that we could also put an event on of great magnitude to the point where now it’s something that people look forward to. Wave Your Flag this past year was the Fourth Annual Wave Your Flag and next year will be the fifth – that people look forward to this in the spring semester. And I was like, “Yeah, we made it.” And just even like the little things of us not having to explain what ‘ACSU” is – that people just are just like , “Oh yeah, ACSU. I know what that is!” Before, people were like, “Oh ACSU? Oh that’s the African and Caribbean Students’ Union. Now, it’s like a household name. So when it gets to the point where it’s like, people recognize you, administration recognizes you, people who are making comments. Like freshmen come in and they think, “Oh wow. ACSU has only been here for four years?” It’s a baby
-That’s what I’m saying
-It’s literally a toddler just walking around. It’s a very new group of people who recognize and they see that while it has grown and it exists in a way that it has an aura of being and existing for over 20 years or something, something that has been around for a long time. To have an organization that has that feel towards people where people instantly see and recognize that it’s of great strength and it’s been here for this time, but yet is really thriving, that in itself is also like, “Hey, we made it,” kind of moment
– I’m so happy I asked you that question because it’s nice to know. So, I guess my last question is a two part; firstly where do you see ACSU in 20 years? And also, what words do you have for any future ACSU people who may be reading this interview? What would you tell them?
– So in, let’s say 20 years, that is 2036. Let’s make it like a scenario. Let’s say in 2036 I’m invited back to ACSU to see their 24th or 25th Wave Your Flag. Correct? And as an alumni or the guest speaker in the house, I would like to see that ACSU has remained true to its beginnings. That, in the way, that ACSU is still welcoming to all irrespective of actually being from the regions. That it still is dedicated to the education and the uplifting of these regions; to the celebration of the culture that emits what is at the root and at the core of these regions – to just validate the existence of the culture that comes from these places and the existence of such cultures within the student body. That in 20 years, ACSU is still what people would call ‘home’, that ACSU doesn’t wither away because people think that they’ve celebrated it enough. Culture doesn’t die unless you yourself choose to silence it, so ACSU must never be silenced. That it must continue to represent the existence of cultures, the presence of different bodies in a space, and just celebrate identity in its truest form.
To those who would be reading this in years to come: largely what I said before is what I would say to them. To remain true to ACSU’s beginnings; realize that the ACSU they enjoy today was born out of a struggles to exist in the past. That the struggled that happened was really a moment to stand for an identity that we believed in – the multiple identities that we believed in and strived for because we wanted a community [and] a space. We wanted the freedom to enjoy the cultures we have been brought up in for so long. That people should never feel boxed into a particular identity simply because it has not [been] discussed before. And I think what ACSU has taught me is that because others don’t believe in it or don’t see the value in it, doesn’t mean it’s not valuable.
–Well, thank you, Stella. Thank you SO much for answering those questions so fully. There were ten questions there but I feel like I got ten years worth of knowledge. Thank you for your honestly
– And for founding ACSU. Thank you for being my partner
-Aw, thank you
–And let’s hope we get invited back for a speech – keynote, guestnote, honorariums