Arts Features, Arts

Black Creatives On Campus Share Their Stories

With dance competitions and a capella showcases canceled across campus due to COVID-19, the only audience that Females Incorporating Sisterhood Through Step (F.I.S.T.S.) had last semester was their phone cameras—and possibly a roommate or two. 

Although members filmed their routines separately to send to each other for critique, virtual practices couldn’t replace the exhilarating feeling of commanding Robsham Theater. Now, Amanda Rodriguez, F.I.S.T.S dance captain and MCAS ’22, scrolls through old performance videos, remembering when she used to rhythmically step on stage alongside her teammates.

“I was watching those videos and just like I was remembering how I felt during those exact moments,” Rodriguez said. “And I’m so sad that we can’t perform, because it is an experience that you can’t get anywhere [else].”

The sense of community these creative outlets, like F.I.S.T.S., foster is dimmed by COVID-19 restrictions. As a result, the Boston College arts scene hasn’t been able to demonstrate its usual support for equity and inclusion, through culture showcases, fashion events that celebrate the Black diaspora, and R&B and soul a cappella performances.

But the importance of safe creative spaces was amplified this year by the recent events on the Multicultural Learning Experience (MLE) floor of Xavier Hall. Many senior members of F.I.S.T.S. lived on the MLE floor during their freshman years and were distressed by the violation of this space on campus, Rodriguez said. During a time when nurturing safe spaces is paramount on BC’s campus, students involved in the arts scene have resorted to activism on social media and online meetings to amplify Black students’ voices.

This summer, Black Experience in America Through Song (BEATS) used its Instagram to demand justice for people of color killed by police officers. Emphasizing that merely posting on social media isn’t enough to generate change, BEATS also supplied a list of social justice organizations for its followers to support. Presenting Africa To U (PATU) and Sexual Chocolate released statements following the killing of George Floyd in the summer.

PATU and Sexual Chocolate did not respond to requests for interviews.

Several other arts organizations, including Boston College Irish Dance and Boston College Dance Ensemble, echoed these messages by condemning racism. Over the summer, the Bostonians and Bollywood-inspired dance group Masti ran fundraisers in support of the Boston Arts and Music Soul (BAMS) Fest and the Massachusetts Bail Fund, respectively. Other arts groups including a cappella groups the Common Tones of Boston College and the Boston College Acoustics, and dance groups UPrising Dance Crew and BC Full Swing also directly addressed the recent incidents on the MLE floor. 

Morgan Montgomery, F.I.S.T.S president and CSOM ’21, said that she leaned on the club’s newly appointed social media director Lauryn Cadet, CSON ’22, over the summer to craft statements urging followers to engage in activism. The posts encouraged students to take care of themselves during the distressing times. After the summer, F.I.S.T.S members were forced to address racism on their own campus, offering themselves as a resource to the community of women who live on the MLE floor. 

“All these other programs are designed to be safe spaces,” Montgomery said. “So whenever a space like that is like infiltrated we understand that it’s really important too for [those affected] to recognize that you know their voices are so important, like we still want to hear from them.”

For many of the current F.I.S.T.S. dance members, the MLE floor was home to them during their freshman years. As a space dedicated to supporting women of color, Rodriguez said she, along with the rest of the close-knit sisterhood, felt compelled to reach out directly to the freshman women on the MLE floor.

“It affected our group in a multitude of ways, given that our team is predominantly Black young women, [and] given that our team, a lot of us have been on the MLE floor, they’ve been part of that experience,” Rodriguez said. “It was very heartbreaking to hear such racist and sexist actions that were taking place.”

The dance group was founded on three pillars: sisterhood, service, and step. The close-knit community provides a safe space for its members, who are predominantly Black women and underrepresented on campus. As of the fall of 2019, only 4.5 percent of the BC student population identified as Black or African American, with only 205 Black female students.

The Black Lives Matter protests over the summer and the recent vandalism on the MLE floor are incidents not lost on the rest of the arts community at BC. 

BC’s literary magazine The Stylus, in collaboration with the Black Student Forum (BSF), is taking on a project designed to amplify Black students’ stories. Since its inception in 1882, the biannual publication has historically adapted its format from news reporting to its current encompassment of poetry, prose, and art submitted by BC’s undergraduate student body.  

Keeping with the magazine’s evolving ethos, The Stylus’ zine Black Ink will contain a collection of student submissions to magnify campus support for the BLM movement, Daniel Ulanovsky, editor-in-chief of The Stylus and MCAS ’22, said.

“We wanted to create some kind of platform where people can, you know, put those kinds of stories and voices …” Ulanovsky said. “We said, ‘Like okay so our platform will be a great way to like force the institution to lift up these voices.’”

This past summer, when news channels were flooded with images of BLM protests and Instagram feeds were flushed with black squares, The Stylus was brainstorming ideas for Black Ink. During this time, the official BC Instagram account untagged itself from posts on the @blackatbostoncollege page—a decision that frustrated many BC students. 

But Ulanovksy said because BC “censored” this account, the Stylus team was prompted to create additional space at BC where these stories could be shared. The @blackatbostoncollege account is run by an anonymous group of students who share student-submitted stories detailing experiences with racism on BC’s campus.

“It’s frustrating that Black students’ voices aren’t being valued on campus and elevated on campus,” Ulanovsky said. “And especially in this campus climate where it feels like very hostile not just to Black students but also to like minority students in general. It doesn’t feel like there’s a lot of, I guess, open ears like asking for their voices to some degree.” 

Ulanovsky reached out to the BSF in early June of 2020 with the idea to create an additional publication, separate from The Stylus’ annual fall and spring editions, dedicated to sharing the work of students of color on campus. 

“I love the idea because I think like more than ever we need to highlight Black voices especially at BC at this time,” Ellana Lawrence, senior event coordinator for BSF and CSOM ’22, said.

Lawrence is working as the liaison between the BSF and Stylus for the project. BSF is helping to encourage students to submit work by reaching out to various clubs and individual artists on campus. Lawrence said she hopes that shedding light on Black students’ experiences will help open dialogues about race and racism on BC’s campus. 

“I hope that our experiences will just be unapologetic, honest, and very genuine and authentic,” Lawrence said. “And I mean, I think any experience is valid. So there’s nothing that I’m thinking of that I hope that’s not in there. But of course I hope that what we see is just like the truth—that the Black student who submitted is showing their truth, showing their art, showing their talents.

The forum will be involved in the submission-review process later in the semester. The zine, which is planned for release at the end of the semester, is open for submissions of multiple creative forms—including poetry, short stories, essays, visual art, and multimedia works. This variety of artistic modes offers students the freedom to express the emotional dimension of their experiences and impart an impact on readers, Lawrence said. 

While Stylus is able to collect and assemble the works of student artists without relying on in-person meetings, other arts groups on campus have been hit hard by the limits on gatherings during the pandemic. Due to mask mandates, social distancing, and occupancy restrictions, a capella and dance groups haven’t been able to host live performances or in-person rehearsals.

Milton Lanza, vice president of BEATS and Lynch ’22, said the a capella group has not been able to host any live performances this year.

“Performing on campus has been something for me that has helped me feel a lot more comfortable here on campus,” Lanza said. “I love to sing, which is, you know, part of why I joined an a capella group. So it’s been difficult to not have that, that same routine.”

In lieu of live performances, BEATS has focused on bonding within the group and promoting activism on social media, specifically in response to the multiple hate crimes that have occurred on campus, Lanza said. 

As the only a cappella group on campus dedicated to performances of Black music by Black artists, Lanza said it is important to have secure, welcoming spaces for minority students where they can be creative without the threat of hate or hostility. 

“It’s definitely important for people to have an outlet where they feel they can, you know, be themselves and express themselves in any way that they wish,” Lanza said. “At the basic level, creativity is something that a lot of people can relate to just because there’s no correct form of showing creativity.”

For dance groups on campus, the lack of in-person practices and the absence of connections that dancers form as they prepare for exhilarating performances in front of large audiences has been felt deeply by other groups. Last semester, F.I.S.T.S. had to change how their 16-member team choreographed and practiced.  

Since step is a dance style that showcases movement and rhythmic synchronization, F.I.S.T.S. recognized the difficulty of virtual practices when Zoom lags interfered with its choreography rehearsals. Thinking creatively about the technology available, dancers recorded their own steps separately and sent audio and video recordings to their captains to critique. 

After working hard last semester to adapt to the difficult circumstances, the team will return to the stage at Robsham in the spring for a recorded performance for the annual BC Arts Festival. But through all these efforts to unite the team and continue creating this year, F.I.S.T.S. worked to sustain a creative environment for women of color on campus. 

“There shouldn’t be a time where you feel like your voice isn’t being heard or that your opinion is being undermined because, you know, you have 16 people here who, no matter what are going to be here to listen to what you want to say,” Montgomery said. 

Many arts groups not only provide safe spaces for students of color, they also carry on a tradition of showcasing their culture. For example, the style of movement used in step can be traced to traditional African folk dance. Preserving its legacy at BC, F.I.S.T.S. works to pay homage to previous dancers by incorporating step sequences created by former team members. 

The efforts of these arts organizations to continue sharing their work and shine light on Black students’ experiences in any capacity possible underscores the importance of expanding these creative spaces at a predominantly white institution. For F.I.S.T.S, its art is rooted in the bonds the dancers forge as they share music, create choreography together, and empower Black women on campus.

“This is a space where you get to know other people who have similar experiences with you, similar backgrounds with you,” Rodriguez said. “And then on top of that we get to create something beautiful. For the rest of campus, whether it be a dance, whether it be you know a show, having these spaces for us is something that none of us should take for granted.”

Photos by Ikram Ali / Heights Editor and Maggie DiPatri / Heights Editor

February 22, 2021