Mary Baldwin students, faculty, and staff are celebrating Black History Month by reflecting on scholarly and artistic works about Black experience — and the profound impact they’ve had on their lives.
Our two-part series concludes with more recommendations for great books, albums, movies, and TV shows. Each is accompanied by a contemplation of their personal significance.
Missed Part 1? Read it HERE.
MONIQUE ROWELL ’22
Majoring in Social Work
TV Show: Insecure
Watching Insecure, I fell in love with the way actor/writer/producer Issa Rae centered the show in the everyday experiences of contemporary young Black women trying to navigate friendships, romance, family, and careers in Los Angeles. It felt real — often touching on important issues like race, self conception, colorism, and so on — but also kept things light and fun.
I later learned Insecure was an outgrowth of Rae’s YouTube production, Awkward Black Girl, which debuted in 2011. Rae said both series were inspired by her frustrations with Hollywood’s limiting, stereotypical depictions of African American women: “I’ve always had an issue with the assumption that people of color — particularly Black people — aren’t relatable. As in, relatable to whom? Not only is that insulting, it just isn’t true.”
That message resonated with me. I realized Insecure offered both a visual representation of, and a window into my own experiences as a young Black woman. The show is presented through the lens of lived Black experience in America; it normalizes that experience, but doesn’t sugar coat the hardships that go with it.
For instance, there’s a certain kind of tension that comes with being the only Black person [in an otherwise all-white] academic, or work environment. How do you deal with that situation in a healthy, positive manner?
Insecure pushes back against negative media portrayals of Black people as [drug abusers, gang members, sexist rap stars, and so on]. It brings representation on HBO — one of the biggest television networks on the planet — and offers young Black people a chance to see a positive, more accurate reflection of themselves. Meanwhile, it serves as an entertaining opportunity for [people from other ethnic backgrounds] to relate to Black people in general, but also see some of the struggles we have to face that others don’t.
Associate Vice President of Student Engagement
Book: My Skin Was My Sin: The Progeny of Africa in America, by Quincy S. Smith
Smith’s [sociological autobiography] spoke very clearly to me. First, it helped me recognize my ancestry makes me part of the Black diaspora that was impacted by slavery and racism. I saw that I was cut from the same cloth as my ancestors, who endured real and metaphorical wounds inflicted from the outside — wounds that left internal scars and a pain so deep it caused tremendous historical trauma. And that trauma has been inherited by Black men and women like me.
Second, I reflected on and reached a deeper understanding of both my own Blackness and Black culture in general. Smith helped me see that, while racism isn’t expressed as blatantly as it was during the civil rights movement, it continues to rear its ugly head through [mediums like] overt and covert messaging, subtextual suggestions, microaggressions, and so on. I realized the efforts I make to contribute to society may go unnoticed, or be met with scorn, simply because of the color of my skin.
Ultimately, the book inspired me to celebrate and appreciate Blackness in all of its beautiful forms. I came to love and be proud of my Black identity. As the great vocalist Angie Stone sings: “So happy being me, I’m regretting nothing about me. Too busy living life, living love. Freely, so happy being me.”
I have built my career around trying to bring that feeling to young people, particularly students of color.
In My Skin Was My Sin, Smith describes the critical role mentors played in helping him gain knowledge about [racial issues] and skills for overcoming [related] obstacles. The teachings enabled him to take advantage of resources and support systems to become a strong, determined, and deeply spiritual Black man.
I wanted to become one of those mentors. It is encouraging to know that students — particularly the Black students I work with — see themselves as valued, as someone of importance. Knowing that I can pour into them and provide them with ways to successfully navigate the various obstacles around them gives me absolute joy and satisfaction. I live for that.
SERENA CHEW ’23
Ida B. Wells Living Learning Community ’23
Ubuntu Mentor ’20 – ’21
Book: Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison
Reading books written by Black intellectuals and scholars inspired me to reflect on my identity and ask myself big questions about who I am.
When I was a little girl, I had this idea that being Black was somehow dirty and bad. It wasn’t something I talked about, but I felt it deeply. Thankfully, as I got older, reading works by writers like Ralph Ellison helped me to see, accept, better understand, and ultimately embrace my Blackness.
They made me consider the trials my ancestors endured through more than 400 years of systemic, often brutal oppression. They inspired me to think hard about Black culture, and what it means to be Black in America. They helped me feel proud of my heritage, accept myself as beautiful, and reject negative societal stereotypes that sought to undermine my value simply because of the way I look.
Grappling with those concepts helped make me the woman that I am today. I feel strong, like I can take on anything this world throws at me.
Social Media Manager
Album: A Seat at the Table, by Solange
This album spoke to the necessity of practicing self-compassion and giving yourself “some grace” — that is, permission to forgive your mistakes, lapses in judgment, shortcomings, harmful behaviors, and so on.
That message is particularly important for Black women, as society often pushes the “strong Black woman” stereotype on us, asserting we should be strong, resilient, self-contained, and self-sacrificing 100 percent of the time. Of course, research has shown that trying to live that role [perpetually] can bring serious negative mental health impacts.
Solange urges us to accept our feelings as valid. She tells us it’s okay to be authentic and show our emotions. We can be sad, angry, everything in between — and our loved ones should find that [emotional honesty] endearing. She reminds us of the beauty that we are and will always be, even if we don’t feel that way at the moment.
Listening to A Seat at the Table pushed me to know and value my worth, and to remind others when they cannot see their own. It taught me that seeing myself for who I truly am should be a top priority. Because, if you can’t do that, how can you possibly make yourself seen in other spaces? You can’t.
Director of Student Services, Murphy Deming College of Health Sciences
Movie: A Choice of Weapons: Inspired by Gordon Parks
Gordon Parks was a self-taught photojournalist noted for the groundbreaking pictures he took between the years 1940 and 1970. He was the first Black photographer to be published in Time and Vogue magazines, and later spent 20 years working for Life magazine, bringing to life the realities of U.S. segregation, and covering the civil rights movement.
What I love most about his story is that it conveys how each one of us can use our specific gifts and talents to make a difference in the world around us. Parks’ choice of weapon was his camera. He used it to take powerful, timeless photos and present a counternarrative [to so-called “separate but equal” policies].
My takeaway: Never underestimate who you are, or what you bring to the world. Show up as your authentic self, always!
Head Coach, Cross Country + Track & Field
Book: Slam!, by Walter Dean Myers
This coming-of-age novel revolves around a gifted Black high school athlete that goes by the nickname, “Slam.” Slam lives in an impoverished urban neighborhood, but his basketball skills have landed him in the spotlight. He struggles with grades, racism, violence, sexuality, poverty, drugs, and more, as he tries to use his talent to write a ticket to a better life.
When I first read this book, I was 11, maybe 12 years old. I didn’t have a clue what high school would be like, but I lived in an inner city neighborhood similar to the one Slam was from. And I was already a standout athlete.
In a few years, the book effectively became my reality — I was living all the themes, glories, and problems Myers had written about. But because I’d experienced them vicariously through Slam, I think I was able to do a better job of navigating them. I credit the book for helping me avoid a lot of pitfalls. It helped me make decisions that would set me up to succeed and live a fulfilling life. Though it isn’t really an intellectual book, Slam! opened my eyes to the possibilities of literature. It led me to seek out works by other great writers and authors — many of which my [MBU cohorts] have included on this list!
“I credit the book for helping me avoid a lot of pitfalls. It brought insights that helped me make decisions that would set me up to succeed and live a fulfilling life.”
Wesley Arthur, Head Coach of MBU Cross Country + Track & Field