Red picket signs flooded McKeldin Mall as far as the eye could see, encouraging students and staff to stand up to the many “–isms” that consume American society.
For many individuals, who feel their voices are marginalized, compensated and replaced with more prominent opinions, speaking out against racism, sexism, or heterosexism may seem like a lost cause.
Thursday evening, the Office of Diversity & Inclusion sponsored the third annual Driskell After Dark: Resistance, Hope & Justice in Art, Poetry & Song event at the David Driskell Center.
Here, students had the opportunity to express their experiences of oppression and discrimination and tell inspiring stories of hope and resilience to an intimate group of eager, like-minded individuals.
Surrounded by African-American art displayed on the walls of the gallery and in glass display cases around the room, a microphone stood yearning to be blessed with deliveries of readings, songs or original poetry.
For those receiving the stories, the event provided an interestingly enlightening portal into perspectives that they might not have been exposed to otherwise. The event provided a safe space for telling their stories, creating an accepting environment with a non-judgmental audience and an opportunity to raise awareness for their causes.
“I really enjoy spaces like this where I feel like everybody can talk about what’s important to them in a non-judgmental, non-offensive way. Everyone’s being themselves but no one’s being censored,” senior English major Pegah Maleki, said.
“I really find that that is so important because this is so different from a normal classroom. A lot of times, people don’t feel comfortable saying what they’re really feeling or what’s on their minds,” Maleki said.
Maleki, a proud Iranian-American, delivered two poems: one of which described an ally’s perspective regarding an issue and the other focused on Iranian women like herself.
Maleki explained that despite the oppression her people continually face in Iran, she is proud of the strength and resilience of her culture and she hopes that, from her performance, others will be inspired to take a stand with those who are oppressed, even if they may not come from the same background or race.
“As an Iranian-American, to think that an issue might not affect you because of your race or gender or sexuality, and then for you to not speak out about it, is disappointing to me. I really want people to take positions of allyship and not be afraid to speak out on things and be allies and advocate for other communities. You can be just as strong and support those people,” she said.
The event’s comfortable environment also brought a sense of individuality for other performers.
“Being in this space, I’m allowed to talk about my story and it’s not a ‘black’ story. It’s my story. I like that idea of when I’m around spaces of people of color, of artists of color, I get to say my story and it’s not just some cog in this big monolithic blackness that’s usually ascribed,” said junior film major Mandla “Kosi” Dunn, who is the Black Student Involvement Community Organizing student intern for the office of Multicultural Involvement and Community Advocacy and president of TerPoets.
Dunn’s first poem described his rise above the prejudices he was exposed to as a child that have followed him into his junior year of college.
“My poem was about me coming to hip hop and feeling estranged from hip hop. A lot of times, people think hip hop and think black, but me growing up I didn’t feel ‘black enough’ to hip hop. I grew up in a middle class [family]. My parents aren’t rich or loaded, but they are middle class teachers, educators, hard working individuals. I grew up in a space that afforded me a lot of comfortability. I didn’t know you could be hip hop and comfortable at the same time,” he said.
“A lot of times, navigating the University of Maryland as a person of color—specifically a black male, heterosexual person—there’s always kind of these reconciliations of my identity that I have to go through everyday.”
Each performance had a strong message, and that message was carried out with passion, eloquence, and maturity by the performers.
Senior English major Ashley Cadrian grabbed the audience’s attention with a gut wrenching monologue describing the bitter hardships she faced while transitioning.
“One [message I hope my audience took away] is that there are a lot more trans people around, alive, and present than you realize. And two, to be more cognizant of these people,” Cadrian said. “It’s not the job of trans people to educate you, but for you to be a good ally, you have to educate yourself.”
For all of these individuals, they remain proud of not only their cultures, races, or associations but also of their perseverance, determination, and resilience in representing these groups. These strong stands against the “-isms” were depicted in a group affirmation at the conclusion of the event.
“The incredible thing about black folk is we allow to find the funk out of everything. We manage to create spaces that are literally joyous and uninhibited. We are very belligerent with our energy, and that’s something I love, and something I don’t find often,” Dunn said.
“Before I transitioned, I wanted to give up a lot. I think that that’s a running theme with trans people. We get to this point where we realize we have to either live our truth out loud or be forever silenced,” Cadrian said. “To be able to do that and break out and realize that living your truth out loud for you, because it really is for no one else … I think that that’s a really amazing quality, that persistence.”
Above all, the individuals who expressed themselves strived for nothing more than respect, as the complimentary event t-shirts advocated in gold lettering. The concept of respect itself, however, resonates differently with every person.
For Dunn, respect is more than merely accepting an individual for who they are and disregarding their individuality. “A lot of times we feel respect and acceptance are the same word. To respect someone is not to accept them as they are. That creates this notion of blindness: ‘I respect you. I don’t care what color you are.’ No. I respect you because of what color you are and the experience you have. It’s me putting my love in practice,” he said.
Maleki believes that respect is not just understanding another’s culture, but fully embracing and cherishing it. “It’s easy to say that you ‘get’ another culture, but respect is really embracing and celebrating other cultures and diversity,” she said.
“I think everyone should put themselves in other cultures and get to know them, and not just like be like ‘Oh, okay, that’s their thing. They can figure it out.’ Real respect is engulfing yourself in that culture.”
Cadrian, rather, identifies respect with humility. “I think for me, the biggest thing about respect is being aware that everything is bigger than you and that it’s not always about you,” she explained. “You are always having to learn new things and you’re always having to become more aware of the constant struggle. In order to give respect—to show respect—we always have to be alert.”
Featured Photo Credit: Students had the opportunity to express their experiences of oppression and discrimination and tell inspiring stories of hope and resilience to an intimate group of eager, like-minded individuals. (Cassie Osvatics/Bloc Reporter)
Jordan Stovka is a freshman journalism major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.