Students explore legacy, mental health through Black History Month programming

Campus groups celebrated Black identity and focused on long-term support for the community


Elena Lee

Rwandan students perform a traditional amaraba dance at the African Fashion Show and Dance.

Catherine McKean, Arts & Life Editor

Since 1976, Black History Month has been observed every February in the United States as a celebration of the history and culture of Black people as well as their many contributions to the country. For Black students at Washington and Lee University, the month is a time to celebrate each other, strengthen community bonds and take time for reflection and self-growth.
Although the national theme of this year’s Black History Month centers around Black resistance, the members of W&L’s Student Association for Black Unity (SABU) have chosen a theme of “Black Identity: Past, Present and Future” in order to better address the needs of students.

Black FLEX, AKA sisters build on strong legacies

The theme also encompasses the idea of legacy, which was the focus of SABU’s Black Future Leaders Experience (FLEX) conference on Feb. 4. First started in 2020, the Black FLEX conference is a student-run leadership conference aimed at helping Black students develop professional and personal skills. The conference also fosters meaningful conversations between students and older Black professionals, including alumni, that will guide them through college and beyond.
Mariam Drammeh, ‘25, the vice president of SABU, said that the conference is incredibly valuable to the Black community at W&L because it “is a very unique experience for Black students to be able to speak with successful Black leaders.”
Her favorite event of the conference was listening to the keynote speaker, lawyer Michael Hill Jr., ‘74. As an alum of both W&L and the W&L law school, Hill was one of the founders of W&L’s SABU and continues to support the Black community on campus through service and his presence at events like Black FLEX.
“It’s always really nice when alumni come back for us,” said Drammeh. “They’re able to understand W&L students a lot better, so the conversations we have with them are much more impactful than if it was just another Black leader.”

A group of Black women in fancy dresses smile at the camera.
Students enjoy Black Ball after the Black FLEX conference. (Jess Kishbaugh)

The conference also included career panels, talks on mental health and becoming financially stable and a “State of the Union” roundtable discussion on current issues in the Black community. Following the conference, students were invited to the Black Ball, which was themed after Black Hollywood to celebrate Black actors and actresses.
Tiwaniya Tyler, ‘24, attended the conference and said the roundtable discussion was the most impactful because it gave students an opportunity to have conversations with Black people of all different ages.
“There’s a lack of intergenerational dialogue in the Black community, not just at W&L but throughout America,” she said. “We don’t often get opportunities to have open, honest conversations with older Black men and women.”
Although the majority of alumni that came to the conference this year were men, Tyler says that Black women are “still available” to guide students, even if they are hesitant to come back to campus.
As the president of the Tau Zeta chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. (AKA), Tyler finds herself inspired by the work and service of the women who came before her, including W&L alumni like Lauryn McCray, ‘22.
“I’m really inspired by all of the work that the women of AKA have put into the community, but especially how friendly they were with everyone,” she said. “I want to carry on that philanthropic work and increase our visibility on campus.”
The AKA sorority is a member of the historically black National Pan-Hellenic Council (NPHC), also known as the Divine 9, and as such is a service organization above all else.
“We enjoy the social aspect, we love putting on events, but the community service is what’s most important to us,” said Tyler.
In the week of Feb. 6, AKA sold Valentine’s Day candy grams to students, with all proceeds going towards buying supplies for unsheltered people in Lexington and Buena Vista. AKA will also be hosting their annual Skee Week the week of March 11, which brings hands-on service opportunities to campus.
The women of AKA are also interested in breaking stereotypes about Black femininity as well as addressing specific issues that Black women face.
On Feb. 3, AKA invited W&L students to participate in “Pink Goes Red (for Heart Health)” by wearing red clothes on campus. They also posted information on cardiovascular disease, which they described as “women’s greatest health threat,” as well as advice on keeping a healthy heart. Over half of all Black women have hypertension, a risk factor for cardiovascular deaths, so the cause is especially close to AKA.
Tyler is also excited about Black History Month speaker Sharon Norwood coming to campus on March 4.
Norwood, a conceptual contemporary artist of Caribbean descent, makes art depicting Black hair that explores issues of identity, especially in relation to post-colonial structures and systems of power. Her works were displayed in the W&L Museums in Feb. 2022 in the “Root of the Matter” exhibit, which questioned the relationship between race, gender and beauty.

Student athletes stick together, combat stereotypes

Tahri Phillips, ‘23, a member of AKA, says that changing stereotypes about Black women is important to her because “no stereotype is a good stereotype, even if it may seem positive.”
One stereotype that is particularly close to her experience, she says, is the stereotype that “Blackness is associated with hyperathleticism, hypermasculinity.”
As one of few Black female athletes on campus, Phillips felt like she had to constantly perform at a certain level because she was representing not only herself, but the Black community as a whole.
“When you’re a person of color entering an all-white space, you’re going to be hyper-aware of your identity,” she said. “That shapes how you interact with your teammates, because you’re not sure how comfortable you’re allowed to be and what you can share with them.”
Another Black student athlete, who wished to remain anonymous, said that being a Black man in sport means having to over-perform.
“I have to constantly be on my A-game, because if I [mess] up, you know, one mistake makes us all look bad,” he said. “I know people out there are rooting on my downfall. I know I’m more likely to be punished for something that a white player could get away with.”
Phillips hopes to help student athletes from minority backgrounds deal with their worries and frustrations through her involvement in the Perry Minority Athlete Coalition (PMAC).
“PMAC wants to transcend the boundaries between athletic teams and Greek affiliation,” she said. “The goal is to help athletes feel heard and validated.”
On Feb. 12, PMAC hosted a panel titled “Celebrating History of Black Excellence in Sports” with panelists Scottie Rodgers, Clyde Doughty Jr., and Phillips herself facilitating a conversation on what it means to be Black in sports.
PMAC is open to any student athlete that identifies with a minority background, whether that is with race, gender or sexuality. It was started in 2020 in the wake of George Floyd’s death and the COVID-19 pandemic to help students from different experiences realize that they are not alone, but Phillips says that energy for PMAC has died down as people have graduated and lost their passion for racial equity.
“I feel like a lot of Black students don’t understand how PMAC can help them,” said Phillips. “It’s here for you, but it’s a resource you need to choose to utilize yourself.”

Black students focus on mental wellness

Mental health has become a topic of interest to the Black community at W&L over the past few years, with national events such as the death of Tyre Nichols as well as more local experiences such as the yearly Lee-Jackson Day parade.
Student organizations like PMAC, SABU, AKA and Black Male Initiative (BMI) have all centered many of their conversations around mental health and have hosted several events on self-care and being mindful.
Tyler, whose sorority hosted a self-care day with the counseling center’s End the Stigma series, says that “mental health is definitely at the forefront of our minds right now,” a sentiment that other members of AKA agree with.

A bookshelf holds many books, displayed facing outwards.
SABU displayed a collection of books on Black identity at the library. (Catherine McKean)

Jade Westbrook, a resident in counseling who joined the university in fall 2021, has been a big proponent of expanding counseling services to the underrepresented and underserved student population on campus.
Through her reactivation of the Through our Voices BIPOC Support Group (held every second and fourth Thursday of each month) and the creation of the End the Stigma chat series, student organizations have been able to partner with the counseling center in a much more casual setting. Students credit Westbrook for “making it all possible.”
Westbrook started the End the Stigma chat series to “challenge stigma” about receiving mental health services, especially in communities that “don’t often acknowledge mental health.”
“In previous places I have worked, we noticed that of the people who were coming to the counseling center, a majority of them were Caucasian females,” Westbrook said. “We noticed that very rarely were black and brown individuals coming in, and so we asked ourselves why? Were they not aware, or was it stigma from their communities?”
By implementing group work, Westbrook found that she had much more success reaching communities that otherwise would not come in for a one-on-one session.
Through our Voices and End the Stigma have both been met with success at W&L, and sessions hosted alongside student organizations, such as BMI’s “Why don’t men cry?” and SABU’s “Dealing with the Superwoman Complex,” have helped students support each other.
W&L is a unique setting that can pose many challenges to the mental health of students, both in terms of its historical ties to Robert E. Lee and location in a more conservative, primarily white part of America and its rigorous academic culture.
But Westbrook says that she is thankful for the resources that the school has for students as well as the spaces the school has created for students to feel safe and relaxed in. She is also very proud of students for taking the initiative to improve their mental health and help others.
“I’m very appreciative about the willingness that students have to come out and talk about mental health. They listen and want to make changes,” she said. “It’s not something I saw when I was in college.”
One Black student, who wished to remain anonymous, receives counseling services from Westbrook and says that it is her presence as the only Black member in counseling services that allows her to talk freely.
“I’m really thankful for Jade,” she said. “I tried therapy before, but was assigned an older white man, which is kind of awkward sometimes because you’ll want to talk about girl things or Black things, but he’ll never understand that. Representation matters.”
Westbrook hosts the Through our Voices support group at Sankofa House, a theme house committed to providing a residential and social space for students of the African diaspora to feel solidarity, security and have a place for activism of marginalized voices.

Community discussions, community spaces

Phillips is the Community Assistant (CA) of Sankofa, which she says is “an underutilized resource by the Black community,” even though it hosts many programs from OIE and multicultural clubs.
“Sankofa is a safe haven literally made for Black students, but only a handful of residents are Black, and Black organizations don’t program here as often as I wish they would,” she said.
Phillips brought this concern up at the SABU x BMI community roundtable on Jan. 29.
The roundtable discussion was themed around unity in community, and was facilitated by SABU President Naija Barakat, ‘24, and BMI President Victor Foster, ‘24.
“Today, we’re coming together in a way that we haven’t before,” said Barakat.
Barakat and Foster asked attendees to air their concerns about the state of the Black community at W&L. One main topic was the worry that as more Black students enter campus, the Black community becomes less close.
Phillips said that this is “a good problem to have, because now we’re not just becoming friends with people based on race.” She added that having a larger community means that interactions need to be more intentional.
Other students at the roundtable pointed out that in years before, they had felt like they needed to fit a certain mold of what a “Black student at W&L” should look like, with a certain geographic and socioeconomic background.
“It’s hard to adapt to W&L culture as a Black student,” said one junior. “Because you’re not just dealing with white culture, or rich culture, but it feels like if you’re Black here, you need to do a sport, you need to be in SABU, you need to listen to a certain type of music.”
Another concern was that student organizations are focused so much on advocacy and activism on campus and in the greater Lexington community that the fellowship and social aspect of Black student organizations is lost.
The men of BMI especially feel that events have become too structured and centered around always having meaningful conversations and rushing to get things done.
“At our core, the mission of BMI is to bring black men back together,” said Foster. “Fellowship and brotherhood is what we need at this point.”
Drammeh from SABU admits that SABU’s long term goal is to “lean towards doing more community-based work rather than advocacy” and that providing spaces for celebrating Black history and culture is something that the organization has been working on.
She also added that SABU’s mission can be helped, both by Black and non-Black students, by just “showing up.”
“Come to events and be present,” Drammeh said. “That’s the biggest way to show support.”

Showcasing Black and African culture on campus

One event that Drammeh participated in was the African Fashion Show and Dance, hosted by the African Society and Around the Globe on Jan. 21. She wore an ankara outfit passed down from her mom, a dress from The Gambia traditionally worn to celebrations and weddings.
“It’s really meaningful for me to be able to showcase my culture in that way,” said Drammeh. “And I know that that’s not something every Black student is able to do.”
Phillips says that events like the African Fashion Show are incredibly important to Black students because being at W&L may be the first time that they get to experience African culture up close.
“Many of us are generations removed from Africa. We don’t know exactly what part we’re from,” she said. “Accessibility to engage with African culture is great because you get solidarity, and are able to develop your identity.”
Phillips also believes that W&L has also been good at showcasing events made by and for Black students as well as hiring Black faculty within academic departments and the administration, such as Provost Hill, Dean Kimber, Dean Bryant and Dean Simpson.
“We have a lot of Black people – women especially – in high places, which is amazing,” said Phillips. “Having Black individuals in these visible positions of authority takes a lot of the burden of advocacy and performance off of students.”
During Black History Month, many Black students feel that it is their responsibility to educate their surrounding community on Black history and issues that they face.
At the women’s basketball game dedicated to Black History Month on Feb. 6, AKA president Tyler spoke on the importance of “acknowledging everything that Black history has to offer all year every year.”
“It is our job to continue to educate and ensure the perpetuity of knowledge to build future and current generations,” she said in her speech.
Although others who wish to remain anonymous disagree, stating that it is “not [their] job to continually seek to educate and advocate for themselves” and that “the labor of advocacy has been one that has fallen on Black shoulders for far too long,” many Black students continue to celebrate Black History Month by sharing their history and culture with friends as well as reflecting on what the month means to them.
“I’m a part of a long line of Black men and women who forged a path for me to be where I am today, and I strive every day to leave a legacy like they left,” said Phillips. “This month is a reminder of that year-round commitment to uplift Black folks and their contributions.”