November 11th, 2016
Author’s note: This piece was originally submitted to the Columbia Daily Spectator, but was rejected due to its lack of “accessibility to a wider audience.” Enjoy.
This piece is based on a conversation recorded about Solange’s new album, A Seat at the Table, and how it speaks to the experiences of Black women and Black queer folk at Columbia. In addition to my own, I have included the voices of friends in varying stages of their four undergraduate years at Columbia, each yielding a different perspective on Black experiences at this university. The conversation began with a discussion of Black internet phenomena, specifically popular Instagram accounts of Black children, courtesy of Elise. We then began introducing ourselves:
I’m Jordan Brewington, class of 2017, so I’m a senior, and I’m double majoring in Political Science and Race and Ethnicity Studies (CSER).
I’m Elise Fuller, I’m a sophomore, class of 2019, majoring in Anthropology at the moment.
I’m Bella Rideau, class of 2020, an African American studies major on the Anthropology track, maybe a double major in Education.
What did A Seat at the Table mean to you personally?
Keenan: Listening to Solange’s album got me thinking about “the table” as this metaphysical representation of society, but essentially being someone who has the political clout or access necessary to contribute to “the discourse.” She does it through artistry: talking about concepts of “for us, by us,” Black Joy, and touching on all of these other Black concepts that I thought would be a good cultural touch-point for this larger discussion.
Jordan: I’ll start. The first song I listened to was “Cranes in the Sky” in the elevator on the way to my friend’s apartment. And I just had to stay on the elevator and let it take me to multiple floors, because I just wasn’t ready to get off. I needed to listen to the song completely. And I think what it meant to me was—it felt like my sister, or somebody, was singing it to me, for myself. It felt like I was feeling some of my deepest thoughts reflected in a song that was for me, that was singing to me, in a way that was very different than something like Lemonade. And I know, I know we don’t have to compare the two (there’s a whole thing there), but I went to see Beyoncé that weekend. I felt like “Cranes in the Sky” was singing to me. It wasn’t for anyone else; it was for me.
Bella: I’m an impatient person, so when I first listen to an album, I skip around the album. But I didn’t with this album. Listening to it was a lot for me, because being here [at Columbia], like a first-year here, it came out at a time when I was questioning everything. Like, why am I here? What am I doing? Even getting up and going to class, knowing you’re going to deal with something. So she [Solange] is telling us, telling me, it’s okay to crumble, but then you rise. Just taking it as it comes, embracing your emotions, and not always having to be so strong all the time, every day, because it’s hard.
Elise: The first song that I listened to was “Don’t Touch My Hair” because of the title itself. My college essay was talking about how girls used to always touch my hair in elementary school. And I felt like I was an outsider, like I was in some way less than human, like I was in some kind of petting zoo. That song just really spoke to me, talking about how my hair is part of my being.
The whole point of me wearing my hair out and having my Afro is a statement for myself that says I don’t have to follow the rules set out for me. Any time I do my hair—because washday is an entire three hours—[“Don’t Touch My Hair”] is the first song I listen to. It constantly reminds me of the care that I have to put into my hair, but also for myself–it’s kind of a reflection of who I am.
The other one that really got me was “F.U.B.U.” (For Us, By Us) because I—especially in this day and age where we’re talking about cultural appropriation—I feel like having something that’s for us is just not common enough. Things we used to do that were just fun for us are now used and capitalized off of. I needed something that said that we can do things that are for us, by us. And I also feel that the whole tone of the album was good because it’s not the kind of album that you play for fun all the time. In a way, it’s a kind of a sacred space.
Jordan: There’s something about this album that is very sacred. When you’re talking about hair…I’m an Under1Roof Facilitator, and there’s this part where we talk about the cycle of socialization, and I always talk about black hair. In particular, I talk about people touching my hair in elementary school. I think with “Cranes in the Sky” and “Don’t Touch My Hair”, I wish she could have sung these songs to me when I was seven. I’m so glad we have [them] now, but still.
Keenan: In my cycle of socialization, I’ve only really been able to engage with my Blackness as of the last three years. It feels weird that it’s coinciding with this hyper-popularization of Black culture, when I’m just trying to get to experience “F.U.B.U.” as a concept. Every time I listen to “F.U.B.U.” or “Where Do We Go,” it’s simultaneously in the now, and it’s very relevant to now, but there’s this constant reference to another time.
The album puts me in two temporal moments that contrast, and makes me want to go back to a certain extent. But then recognizing that nostalgia is toxic, it just makes me wish, like [Jordan was] saying, I had heard this a long time ago. The album hits me in different times of my life, at different times in my development, but in the end it brings me to a moment where I can feel things. A lot of the time with how things go in terms of violence against Black people, both cultural and physical (and their overlap), I sort of turn off my feelings. I like to listen to this alone, because it is very emotional. The first time I heard [the lyric] “don’t touch my soul,” good God.
It brings me to so many different spaces. But another question I’ve been thinking about is,
What does having “a seat at the table” look like for you? What does it mean? What does it mean for the Black community at large? What does it mean to you?
Keenan: I sort of reject the idea of a table altogether. I think that there very much is a table; I can recognize it and identify it in different structures. I don’t, though, think it’s something that personally works for me. I don’t think I necessarily want a seat at the table. I recognize that it’s important for some people’s survival to do so, but it’s not necessarily something that I personally want to do.
I was talking about this with my TA, but there’s this idea that Black Capitalism is a means to an end, with the end being Black Liberation, and that in itself being quite problematic for lack of a better term. But I feel like that’s intrinsically tied to this idea of “the table.”
Jordan: I was literally about to say the exact same thing, because—I paused for a second because was thinking, “Wait, but can I say what I want to?”— But I was thinking that the way that I was raised to think of having a seat at the table, it was essentially two ways: one was my mom trying to dissuade me from being socialized to want to be at the “white table.” That was something from a very young age that I learned. But the second was, given the way I grew up, hearing a version of black elitism laced with notions of respectability, the idea of “working towards being respected economically to achieve self-liberation” without an understanding of how problematic that is.
So I think for me, a concept of having a seat at the table scares me because I worry about getting moved back into conceptions of black elitism. Being at a school like Columbia, like, “Ooh, are we, the Black students here, all at a table together?” Because who are we leaving out of the table? Who do I find myself constantly leaving out of the table? Of the tables of my own life? I really appreciate the album, I don’t think Solange is guilty of the things that I’m saying necessarily.
Keenan: Right, because there’s also the potential for a Black Table.
Bella: Yeah, like this table. Like a seat at this table. The idea of what the table is, like when I think of the table, I think of the table as being autonomous from whiteness.
Elise: “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?”
Bella: Yeah, and I think that’s the beauty of this album. As Black people, we all have ownership over it in a different way, like how the way our experiences differ but we can all sit at this table and talk about this album. I agree with the concept of “what table?” but since this album came out, I have also found myself sitting at multiple tables where we’re talking about Solange and what it means to be Black, and how her lyrics and her melodies have helped me reconcile some of my own experiences.
Elise: When I was thinking about “a seat at the table,” I was thinking about the art installation of the physical table that had manifestation of each plate having something different on it to contribute to this (feminist) feast. And I was thinking about how a lot of the time, especially in history, Black people have not been allowed to sit at the table, but were forced to serve. So we’re constantly giving other people things, but not receiving things ourselves.
I can see why she would title the album A Seat at the Table because it’s our ability to sit at the table among everyone else. But I also don’t know if I particularly would want to have a seat at the table because, like we mentioned earlier, there are songs that I would not like to share with other people. These are things that I would listen to with other Black people—I would not be comfortable sharing this with someone else. I think it’s important that everyone understands that we have that autonomy, and that we have the ability to sit wherever we want. But I don’t know if her concept of the table was our own table that we made for ourselves or if it was trying to add on to another table, a predominantly white table.
Jordan: That’s why I was confused. Remember the interlude where Tina’s talking about being pro-Black…
Bella: About how it “doesn’t mean being anti-white.”
Jordan: Yeah, I didn’t understand why she put that in. I mean, I did I guess, but up until that point I went, “Okay, this is literally F.U.B.U. This is for us, by us.” But then I felt like that interlude was sort of a call to non-Black, even non-PoC folk listening or something.
Bella: Like there’s some sort of consolation or something.
Jordan: Yeah, it was weird. And then in, I think it was “Don’t You Wait,” where she’s literally talking about interacting with people she’s cut from her life, and how the line goes “I wanted to see the other side, but I didn’t want to feed you the land you’ve lived off of your whole life,” I was like, so who is she talking about? In my perspective, she must be talking about white people, but then, is she? I don’t really know. I agree with you [Elise], but I also wonder, I don’t get who she’s really talking to.
Elise: I think she kinda put snags in the album. Because she knows that the people listening to her albums are not always going to be Black. So I think she put some little hints in the album to remind them, “this album is not intended for you, thank you for listening, maybe you’ll learn something.”
I feel like the issue with a lot of Beyoncé’s songs is that there are parts of it that are the Black experience, but you wouldn’t know that unless you were Black. So when white people are singing it, like, “Oh, cool, we’re just standing in formation,” they don’t understand that you’re not literally standing in a line. But when we sing it, it’s a very different thing.
So I think that’s why Solange put in a few snags, so the person listening picks it up, if they’re listening to each word, they’re like, “Hey, let me stop for a second.” Unless you’re like Kylie Jenner, and you put it in the back of your Snapchat story.
Bella: Y’all, it was “Cranes in the Sky.”
Jordan: But I also think those—now that I’m thinking about it, those snags are part of a Black experience that I’ve interacted with where it’s like creating and living while also thinking about outer-gaze. And trying to, instead of performing for that outer-gaze, perform for yourself but still perhaps be a point of teaching for someone else. That’s also what’s different between her and Beyoncé—sorry, I hate comparing them because they’re sisters and that’s weird.
Elise: I think it’s also important to compare them in the space that they’re in. You couldn’t compare Solange and Nicki Minaj at this moment because they’re two different genres. But I think, especially given Beyoncé’s new take on it, where she’s talking about things like freedom and liberation, and that’s also what [A Seat at the Table] is about. So I feel we shouldn’t compare them, but in the same vein you kinda have to in order to make one a foil for the other.
Keenan: That was my favorite part of “F.U.B.U.,” the “don’t be mad if you can’t sing along, just be glad you’ve got the whole wide world.” Her saying “just be glad,” then tying that back to the whole “[being pro-Black] doesn’t mean you’re anti-white” thing, it’s clear there’s this cognizance of the white gaze.
Then there seems to be a question of, is that observation-bias or influence or whatever ever not going to be there? It’s this problem of whether anything can ever be really “for us, by us” when it will always exist next to whiteness, or with this gaze outside. I feel like there are definitely points in the album where she’s closing that door and saying, “Okay, they might be outside, but we’re in here.” Maybe they get the recording of it?
At the end of the day, we’re still doing it for ourselves. It’s just difficult because it feels like that will always be there, or at least it seems that way. She definitely recognizes that that gaze is there, but there are other interludes with her dad, where he’s like, “F*ck it.” On “Mad,” I think she’s trying to present a plethora of responses to this, and in that freedom to choose a response there is power, there is agency. There is that “for us, by us.”
How does the album relate to your relationship with Columbia as an institution? How has your understanding of your Blackness evolved throughout your time here?
Bella: They don’t tell you in admissions how white the table is. That’s for sure.
Elise: I’m in a weird space because I’m only a sophomore, this liminal space. I’m from Richmond, Virginia, which was historically the capital of the Confederacy. My experience prior to Columbia was very white. I went to a private school, so my Blackness was contested the majority of the time I was in elementary school, middle school, and high school.
That was difficult, but I also had parents that were very pro-Black. I’ve told Bella, we did “before field-trips.” We would go to a museum or a plantation before I had to go for school, and they would tell me all the things that happened to Black people at this plantation before we went and it was whitewashed. So I’ve always been aware that there were two systems in place. At times, [those systems] were fighting with each other.
By the time I got to high school I had become super Black. I started wearing my Afro, that was when I started wearing my dashikis to school, that’s when I started to read more about Black authors. And because of that I got into a lot of virtual and verbal arguments with my classmates about being Black, about Ferguson, about Baltimore, about reverse racism and its nonexistence. Because of that, I was very frustrated. I did not want to attend a college or university where that was going to happen to me again. I physically could not handle that.
I know Columbia is the “most diverse Ivy,” but to be honest, in freshman year, I could probably count the number of white friends I had on one hand. Maybe two. The majority of the people I hung out with were people of color, which is something I had never done before.
So I joined BSO [Black Students’ Association], and there’s nothing Blacker than a room full of Black kids. What really solidified [my blackness at Columbia] for me was when the (white) women basketball players put basketballs in their shorts and pretended to have big butts and dance around to rap music. Stuff like that would happen in high school. When I would say it was wrong, it was like, “Hey, can you stop being angry at everything?” When I got to Columbia, it was like, there were already three op-eds up about how this is wrong and the systems in which this is wrong.
That was a defining moment for me because I was in a space where the Black people were not afraid to speak out, while in high school I was the only one who would speak out about issues. Being at Columbia, especially with our proximity to Harlem, I was able to celebrate being Black.
Now, I’ve come to sophomore year and I’ve realized I’ve spread myself pretty thin freshman year being in all the PoC groups. I’ve tried to dwindle myself down and focus more on BSO because I need more time to be with myself. I think my experience at Columbia has been a bit different because I came from somewhere that was completely whitewashed, so anything that’s a little bit different from that makes it great.
I’m not saying that I haven’t had moments at Columbia that brought me back to times in high school in certain conversations, about things like Harlem, that I find detestable from fellow peers. I think Columbia has given me some opportunities to find myself, but it has also pushed me to have protests out on the sundial.
Bella: I’m coming from Portland, Oregon, which is actually so white, in that it’s the whitest city of its size. My upbringing, especially my relationship to my Blackness, is complicated because my father’s relationship to his Blackness is complicated. I didn’t grow up going on alternative field trips. My mother solidified what my white teachers were saying. I had a contradictory upbringing in terms of identity because I had a white mother and Black father.
That really manifested itself in a lot of anger, so I was that one girl in school, in that one African American literature class, and it was taught by a straight white man. That was a very traumatic experience, because I was getting yelled at because I pointed out that this man tried to teach us how to speak AAVE (African American Vernacular English). I was like, “what kind of fu*cked up shi*t is this?”
I just remember this one time, we were talking about Michael Brown and it just really hit me that these people didn’t get it. I walked out of that class in tears, I could not console myself. And I can’t explain it. We’re talking about Eric Garner in class, and they’re talking about him like he’s “other.” He could be my father. Coming to Columbia, I knew vaguely what I was getting into. I had seen the percentages. But you don’t really understand that when you’re coming in. My classes, outside of Lit Hum, are all about race and I did that very purposefully. Even Intro to African American Studies, there’s a lot of white kids in that class.
Jordan: Wait, really?
Bella: It’s the Global Core.
Elise: They think it’s easy.
Bella: I talked to the professor today in office hours, and I told him “You can tell who is here for the curriculum, and who is here for the Global Core requirement.” I’m here, and I’m in the African American Studies major, to reclaim my education. And that’s because it’s complicated with my dad, and my mom is white, very white. I went to a majority white school and was often the only Black kid in class but then would come home to a white mother. It was a really angering line to straddle. So I came to Columbia recognizing that this is a white institution, but intentionally putting myself in spaces where whiteness is not centered, at least in theory. And that’s not the case in most of my classes. And I know that gets better when you’ve weeded people out, when it’s no longer Global Core.
Jordan: Y’all are reminding me of so much about high school, so many things that I’ve suppressed.
Elise: Yeah! When [Keenan] said “talk about your experiences,” I was thinking, “I gotta go back!?!?”
Bella: That’s like three months for me! It feels like a different world. Especially being across the country, but you see the same sh*t from the same people. I don’t wanna compromise, but…
Jordan: But I’m freaking out about this so much because I also grew up in a very white social environment. I’m from Los Angeles, and I went to a really white prep school. I grew up in Ladera Heights, an upper-middle class, middle class Black neighborhood. Every day, I was seeing two sides of Los Angeles.
There are many different sides of LA, but I would drive out of my neighborhood in an all Black carpool with students from Ladera, Baldwin Hills, Inglewood, and we would all get shipped up through literal hills to Beverly Hills, Bel Air, which is where we went to school because I went to private school all the way through. I interacted with a lot of white kids and looking back on those relationships, I realized that there was a weird dynamic going on where, because I was often the one–or one of the two–Black kids in a class, I began to associate Blackness with otherness as I’m sure we all did, but for whatever reason that otherness translated into a power dynamic. I found myself in leadership positions within friend groups, so there was respect in that dynamic, but it wouldn’t translate into respect in other ways. Like love and relationships and dating, respect and appreciation didn’t translate over to me, but my voice was seen as domineering. I think that that stayed in my friend groups all throughout elementary to high school.
Towards the end of my time in high school, I was talking to one of my best friends, Alixx. We both lived in black neighborhoods nearby one another, and we were driving home together and on these drives we started realizing how people really weren’t here for us. We would start realizing in our small friend group, how our other friends would be saying things, literal microaggressions were what we were picking up on. We’d be like, “Wow, that’s so weird, she said that to me too in passing.” That was a real moment of realization for me.
When I came here, to Columbia, all of that sort of went to the back of my mind. I remember being like, “This is the most diverse Ivy League, this is why I wanted to go here, I wanna go here for New York,” but I also wanted to because I still wanted to know about the Iliad. I still wanted to read Herodotus, because I still thought I wanted to become a scholar. A colonized intellectual. I still wasn’t aware about problematic notions of intelligence, education, fundamental things like that.
I think Ferguson really was the moment for me when I snapped back into reality, and realized that the same things were at play here. I had just gone through my freshman year, which was really fun, really just dumb. I wasn’t really doing anything, wasn’t thinking about much, just having a good time. Ferguson snapped back everything for me, because I realized the white friends I was making weren’t saying problematic things but were just silent. And it was the silence that I was really familiar with, and that I felt didn’t fly anymore. And it wrecked me for a really long time.
That’s what pushed me, I think, to the space I take up now where I’m still close with some of them and our relationships have had to really push through quite a lot. More importantly, it pushed me into what I love which is my studies, and investigating slavery, investigating how this institution [Columbia] profited off of slavery. I had never been to a plantation until this summer. You [Elise] were talking about how you had been to plantations for field trips, and I worked at one this summer. And I was like, “What the hell is this?”
Elise: That’s some Southern ish. That’s what we do.
Jordan: It was just a lot, and that realization post-Ferguson has brought me to investigate as deeply as possible into what this country is, and why my friends are the way they are, where their money comes from, where their privilege and power comes from, where their parents come from, where their parents’ power comes from; that’s all I care about. And it might make me lose some friends along the way. But I actually like where I am right now.
Keenan: I’m coming from a predominantly Black background. Flint is a Black city. My mom was like, “you’re not going to any private schools because I don’t like what that socializes people into,” aside from the fact that we definitely did not have the money. Teachers were always like, “Oh, Keenan should go into the Challenge Program,” a Flint-specific sort of Magnet Program. So I would find myself in this group of students which I would say was half Black and half white, but that was definitely disproportionate given the demographics of the city or at least the school’s district.
But these were things that I couldn’t really identify because my father was gone. He himself wasn’t there to teach me these things, but he taught my mother, “He needs to know that he’s going to be treated differently, he is Black, he needs to know that going into the world.” I don’t know how they had that conversation, but she just happened to pass that on from him. But it was always surrounded by her ideas which I now know to be quite problematic, ideas akin to Rodney King’s “why can’t we all just get along?” And it’s taken me having come to college to be able to go back and say, “No, sis, that’s not what needs to happen.”
I end up educating her on these things while also learning myself, so it becomes this weird dynamic where I’m educating her about what I’m going through as a Black queer person while she’s educating me about being an adult. But it’s always for me about being aware that that’s coming from a white woman’s perspective.
In high school, there were Black people trying to invalidate my Blackness and there were white people trying to invalidate my Blackness, and I was just like, “Cool, but I’m Black,” and just kept that to myself. It wasn’t ever something I could engage with until I came to college, and people were welcoming and there was a community and I felt accepted. That shook me up, like, capital “L” Love. What does that look like? How does that manifest itself in a communal sense? Then I just pushed myself into it, like, “Yes, this is who I am, this is what I want to be, I’m about it,” and I’m still very much in a place that’s similar to that, but I’m becoming more cognizant and I’m very much so settling in it. Resting in it. I don’t know what I expected coming here. I knew that the rest of Michigan was white, like outside of Flint and Detroit, but I just didn’t even think that there were going to be so many white people.
Elise: Yeah, because when I think “minority” I think very centrally like, Black and Latino. But when you get here and you look at the actual proportions, you’re like, “that’s not it.”
Keenan: And then having your school be like, “we’re so diverse.” Like, sis.
Jordan: Like they ask for you to be on the brochure. They’ve asked me for three years.
Elise: That was me all throughout school. I was the Black poster child, and I lived for it because I always had lit profile pictures.
Keenan: And coming here, after last year over the summer, one of my mom’s best friends who is essentially my aunt took me out to go back to school shopping and she’s like, “Yeah, I’ve been reading some of the things that you post and it’s like…I didn’t think of you as Black. I just thought of you as Keenan.” Having this knowledge now, it’s making me respond directly, saying, “No, I’ve always been Black.” I have to destabilize, deconstruct what she’s saying for her, and it’s exhausting but it’s also eye opening in the painful, tearing my eyelids apart way.
Columbia has given me a better sense that “all white people are the same.” It’s given me the sense of urgency to reach out to my biological granny, now we email each other. It’s this predominantly white university, and I won’t let them forget that they are white as hell, this is not diverse. At the same time it has given me access to this culture, the wider world of the diaspora, and I’m so thankful. But I’m not thanking Bollinger, I’m not thanking anyone that runs this place, I’m thanking the Black people that exist on the margins. It’s this weird loop of a relationship with this university where we learn how terrible and destructive it is, but it is what permits us to be here. It messes with your psychology.
Bella: That’s something I’ve noticed where I’m learning the rhetoric in my classes to use against the institution. If I’m sitting here reading the Iliad, I’m not reading it for me, I’m reading it to use the white man’s words against him.
Elise: Literally what I told some girl last year. Verbatim.
Bella: That’s honestly what it is! Being able to articulate what’s messed up about this school by using the tools that I’ve gained through the school.
Keenan: That’s exactly what I’m doing in my class Colonizers and Colonized, I’m looking at how othering is inherent to Western civilization and developing the argument that all of our society and its history is one of exclusion. But many folks before us have said their tools will not destroy their house. So where are we learning the tools outside of this house? How are we getting access to those?
Jordan: Taking a class like Columbia and Slavery, which is how I found my research passion, was one of the truest forms of what you’re talking about for me. I felt like I was in this class in Fayerweather, learning about the historically hidden parts of Columbia’s past, and I’m learning about my collective ancestry being enslaved by students and faculty on this campus. Literally Black people going from being enslaved by students on this campus to being students on this campus, and there was a sense that I had a stake in this in a way that even the other passionate students didn’t.
Sometimes interacting with white professors about these topics is tense. It feels like they’re wondering, “How far is she going to go?” I’ve been here for a while, all the teachers seem to want to praise my Blackness, praise that I’m exploring these topics, but at the end of the day I wonder if they’re wondering how far is this going to go.
In many ways, I feel that’s been my relationship with Columbia these past 3 years, where I can feel that I’m on the cusp of something that’s important for me. I can tell that it’s scaring some people. But whenever I feel that, I try to push myself further in that direction.
It’s also interesting to see how white people will say things like, “Oh, this is my friend Jordan, she’s really interested in Black issues,” when, at least for what I’m studying, these are your issues too. This is a shared history. Many people I interact with on a day to day are like this, or they say things like, “I’m so glad I know you.” People say that to me a lot. I always wonder why because I do think I’m a great person, thank you, but are you glad that you know me so you can say you know me? Or rationalize all the internal prejudices in your life?
Thinking, “Oh, but at least I know Jordan, she can check me.” Now, I’m rethinking a lot of the relationships I’ve had with people over the last three years.