Success without conformity.
That’s the opening line of a honest caption shared on Instagram by Case Western Reserve University’s African American Society.
“We encourage all Black scholars and current professionals to bring more of ourselves to the forefront–in class, walking on campus, and in our day to day lives,” they wrote. “Above all, however YOU see yourself as a Black scholar, be that.”
The post is accompanied by a series of images: Black students in a classroom, reading books, posing on a stately set of stairs.
Combined, the photos and words weave a powerful perspective from some of the Black students at the predominantly white institution. They’re encouraging themselves and others, they say, to show up in completely authentic ways.
Those words can be interpreted in different ways by different people, yet the core meaning stays the same, according to the group’s president, Malachi Levy.
For the 20-year-old English major, it’s feeling comfortable in who he is, “knowing that we can succeed, have community, and really prosper at Case Western without conforming our inherent culture [and] the different cultures of Blackness.”
“The styles that we wear, the different hairstyles, the Americanized African-American culture, African roots, we kind of keep all of that in mind,” said Levy. “We wear it proudly and succeed as a result of embracing that.”
Representing the few
There aren’t many Black students at the University Circle campus. Nearly 400 students, or about 6.4% of the 6,186 undergraduates enrolled this fall, are Black/African-American.
That number hasn’t changed much from the same time last year, though it is higher than the 222 total Black undergraduates enrolled a decade ago.
“Sometimes when I don’t measure up with something, or if I don’t speak during class, or if I’m not prepared for something, it feels like I’m failing an entire group of people, like I’m failing everyone that had come before me,” said Isaac Opoku, 20, the group’s vice president. He is studying sociology, chemistry and Spanish.
There aren’t many people who look like Opoku leading those classes, either. Just 4% of CWRU’s full-time faculty are Black this semester, too, a trend that extends to other universities as well as to skilled professions students may eventually pursue, such as law and technology.
The power of images
Images are a compelling medium. The Bonn Institute explains why here: They’re “immediate, impact emotions faster and more powerfully than words, and are more memorable.”
Opoku took notes of photos shared online by other Black student groups. The University of Tulsa’s Association of Black Collegians, for example, shared a photo series earlier this year called “Simply Black.” Those inspired him.
Fashion choices further helped convey their message. Members were instructed to dress in professional pieces in shades of red, black and green – the colors of the Pan-African flag.
“Through the clothing and the preppy look, I wanted to show that idea of success and excellence at a high level,” he said.
It was important, though, to leave room for people to make their own choices. One student added a du-rag. Some wore skirts or skorts.
“I wanted everyone to interpret the dress code how they really wanted it to be and just show those colors, show how they really see themselves,” he said.
The group shared the images on Instagram in late September. The hope was that using the social media platform could extend their reach, their words, and their images beyond CWRU’s campus. About 70% of Americans between the ages of 18 to 29 use Instagram. The likes and the comments poured in quickly.
“Black excellence 🖤,” reads one.
“I gotta meet y’all. So inspirational,” says another.
It’s not just a blip in a newsfeed, a post depending on the whims of an algorithm. The group wants their impact to extend to how people live their lives offline.
Neelen McMillan, 20, is another member of the group’s executive board. The sociology and international studies major wants to make a difference in society, he said. Ultimately, though, he’s pursuing his own path in his own way.
That’s what he hopes is a takeaway from the group’s post: Whatever you’re doing, in or out of the academic world, do it for yourself.
“I want everyone else to do that,” he said. “Everyone on the board, everyone at Case, everyone in the City of Cleveland, everyone in America.”