When Jordan Elliott took the stage on Saturday, he focused solely on his cousin.
Two months before, Elliot’s brother had called him sobbing to tell him that his cousin, a recent graduate of Tufts University, had died unexpectedly. Days after receiving the news, Elliott wrote “81 Greenwood Street” in just minutes because he felt compelled to describe how much his cousin meant to him.
The freshman communications major read her poem at Emerson’s Black Organization with Natural Interest open-mic event on Saturday night, which included news readings, rap, songs and dance performances alongside traditional poetry submissions.
“The heartbreak, the despair, all that shit resurfaced when I started playing because I only said it out loud twice, and the only other time was at his funeral,” he said. Elliott said. “All of those feelings came back to me, and I felt like my heart was sinking, but I knew why I was doing it — I was doing it for him — and I felt like I could rise above it all. .”
EBONI’s PR representative, Stephyne Weathersby, hosted the cafe 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 party. After hearing her recitation, Weathersby knew she wanted the event to revolve around black expression and got permission to use the title.
“I feel like being black means a lot of different things, and as a black person you can often feel like you’re not black enough or sometimes you feel like you’re too white and you don’t necessarily assimilate enough into a culture.” she says.
According to Emerson Factbook 2021-2022, 5% of the 5,889 undergraduate students – about 294 – identify as black, while 56% of undergraduate students – about 3,298 – identify as white. Over the past five years, Emerson has made little progress in enrolling black students, as the college reported 3% of undergraduate students identified as black and 63% identified as white in 2017.
A native of Mississippi, Weathersby never saw herself attending a predominantly white institution like Emerson, and always imagined herself attending a historically black college or university. Going from a predominantly black space to a predominantly white space makes you feel left out, Weathersby said.
“Being in a PWI, I often feel like, unwittingly or intentionally, we’re silenced, so it was really inspiring and fascinating to watch all of these people play,” Elliott said.
EBONI co-chair and junior journalism student Sommer Stokes agreed, acknowledging that the open mic was a great way for black students to be unabashedly themselves. She read an original poem called “A Mother’s Love”, inspired by her late mother’s poetry.
“The totality [idea] was to show 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 felt like it was a good part of my being to share with everyone.”
It was important to Weathersby that black artists in all majors be celebrated at the cafe because she doesn’t see many students exploring opportunities beyond their discipline. One of these students, Rayquan Blake, Senior Visual Media Arts Specialist, performed his poem, “You is I”, which touched on themes of identity, as Blake linked the poem to being black without shamelessly and used the poem as a conversational medium to talk to his reflection in the mirror.
“Blackness is different for everyone, everyone has a different experience, and that doesn’t mean you’re less black or more black than anyone else,” he said. “It’s something I wanted to capture with my poem, but also, [its] hand in hand with me because I wanted to tell how I accepted myself because there were times when I didn’t want to be myself.
Black culture is often distorted by cinema, he continued, noting in particular how often the media portrays black trauma. Blake wants to use his upbringing to change the narrative surrounding what it means to be a black creator while controlling the stories he tells.
“[Black creators are] looking to really put ourselves in our own stories instead of telling the same stories or telling stories that aren’t even true and owning our stories because a lot of our stories were told by people who weren’t like us not, who didn’t look like us come from where we come from, ”he said. “They don’t know the true truth of what it even means to be an ordinary black person in America.”
Each performer told their own story on Saturday, though the crowd pointed to certain themes that resonated with them throughout the night. Sophomore writing, literature and publishing major Habeebh Sylla, performed her poem “I am a girl, a black woman if you can,” about the interconnectedness of her hair and skin , received snaps from the audience while reciting, “My appearance changes because it’s something my skin color lets me have / Variety, if you haven’t heard of it.
“The day before the event, 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, to match it to the idea, but it didn’t work,” she said. “Once I scratched off my initial idea, I wrote something that I really feel strongly about. [about] and I think about my hair and my skin color all the time.
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 couldn’t be more proud of my community,” said Elliot. “We’re a very small proportion at Emerson entirely, we’re like 5%, something like that, it’s a big ass 5%, I’ll tell you. We’re really, really doing ripples.