Sariyah Benoit and Sophen Joseph

A Bronx native, Sariyah Benoit attends Emory University, where she majors in African-American Studies with a minor in Math. She sits on the board of the Black Student Alliance, and is a Black Student Union Fellow for Advocates for Racial Justice, which holds workshops and conversations on race issues on campus.

Sophen Joseph is a New York native and attends Emory University, where she double majors in African-American Studies and Education. She is the president of the Black Student Alliance, and a Mellon Mays undergraduate research fellow, conducting research in rhetoric and fiction.

work Artist location_on New York, NY
Activism College Education Diversity Consciousness raising

Could you tell me a little about yourselves?

Sariyah: I’m from the Bronx, and I’m an African-American Studies major and math minor at Emory. I’m a second year student, and I’m on the board of the Black Students’ Association. I used to work with the NAACP and I’m part of the Advocates for Racial Justice and the Outreach and External Affairs intern of the Emory Black Students Union. We hold two workshops per semester facilitate by a grad student that review conversations and theories around racial justice. And…I want to go into academia after undergrad.

Sophen: I’m Sophen, I’m a third year in the college. I’m a double major in education and African American Studies. I’m the Black student alliance president. I am a Melon Mays undergraduate research fellow, conducting research in rhetoric and fiction. I am maybe hopefully gonna get my PhD, maybe in creative writing, and then I’m…gonna open my own school.

How did you get into doing African American Studies?

Sariyah: I worked for a professor at Barnard [College] when I was in high school. She offered Minority Women Writers and Early African-American Literature. She’s an English professor, so I had to keep bibliographies of her books at her house—and there are way too many. And I got really interested in that, and I started reading some of the stuff. And when I came to college, she convinced me to take some African-American Studies courses. And then I was like, oh my goodness, this is for me!

Sophen: I was a really angry Black kid. And so, I started trying to just find myself. I also went to high school in the city—I went to Brearley on the Upper East Side….And so basically, I just needed to find a way that I could exist at my private school…

I got categorized as like a “problem child.” So I went looking for people, but more importantly, everyone was really focused on me, because to be the seed that is falling out of line is really intense when you have a grade of only 47 girls. In school terms, that’s extremely tiny, and everybody gets managed. Luckil,y the teachers at my private school are way more liberal than the administrators claim to be, and so I actually found a support system in the fact that they actually found it really hilarious that they had to have their eyeball on me, or whatever.

And then I joined Brearley’s Diversity Committee. And I became president two years in a row. That’s how it all took off. Me just trying to talk to people about race and talk about culture and that kind of stuff. Trying to talk about myself and also slowly reach out to the other brown bodies that were there, but, you know, not there for me. And just trying to get us together. So that’s when I started.

Sariyah: I guess I started too, with our [high school] diversity committee…I was involved in that, but it was always really frustrating. I remember my first experience realizing that I’m a Black girl in this place and I need to do something about it, was when—it started when Black Lives Matter came out. There was some article that came out…it wasn’t on the situation, but it was on the importance of Black Lives. And I posted in our school’s feminist club [on Facebook], because there was a Black student’s club, which was made up of like 2 people, and that wasn’t really utilized on Facebook.

So I posted it in the feminist group, and all of these people, like, white guys, white girls, the occasional Asian student who wanted to jump in, attacked the article and were like “this isn’t the place for this; why are you posting this,” this that and the other.

Throughout high school, I hated everybody because they were all really annoying and uppity…But I had two real close friends, and they were both Black. And that’s it. So we just banded together. And I tried to get involved with Diversity stuff, but diversity’s just used to exploit you to make white people feel better anyway. So, that didn’t work.

I tried so hard, and I kept pushing for things. I was a tour guide too, so any time I took people on tours, I tried to talk about the diversity club, and this that and the other—nobody was interested. Eventually, I started working for a professor, so I just didn’t care about school anymore.

That’s real. So, what kind of work have you done at Emory in the various Black student groups that you work with?

Sophen: We generally tend to do a lot of work on behalf of the community. There are historical programs that have been going for years. Each group is in charge of those events, but we generally serve on the planning committee to do general body meetings, outings and that kind of stuff.

In relation to activism, actually—it’s interesting that a member of our community who actually claimed that the bureaucracy of being in a club was too much, that individual is responsible for a lot of the activism initiatives. They generally don’t tend to come from presidents, like myself, mainly because we’re just too busy keeping up with “what we’re supposed to do.” So, that individual was really able to kind of live their life with their ear to the ground, basically. I’m not reading the news ‘cause I’m doing homework when I’m not doing something for the club. You know? We were all able to just really to lend whatever clout we had to the activism that was being started by people outside of the club, which was really great, to see leadership come from within the communities that we are seeking to benefit.

I know that Emory did have a list of demands that was presented to the administration. So, what would you say that the climate for a Black student is like there?

Sophen: It’s really hard…I feel like I spent a lot of time on this freshman year, but I don’t know if it’s the relocation to a Southern region, or if it’s just college in general…We went to all-white high schools. It’s not like I’ve ever had the privilege to not know a white person. I have known them literally my entire life; K through 12. And when I got here, it wasn’t just like “hm, I’m a freshman, I’m freezing up because I’m socially awkward, and anxious.” It was a real, “don’t talk to me,” a material barrier between myself and other individuals. And—freshman year, I sat at a table that had some white girls on the other end, and they literally got up from the table when I sat down. For me, that was the most transformative experience of my career.

There has to be something else. There has to be an alternative to whiteness.

I get here and I’m trying to still be the “good negro,” and I’m like, “y’all finna treat me like this?” I was completely done, and I was like, “there has to be something else.” There has to be an alternative to whiteness. And luckily, we found classes, and we found professors, and we found a very small group of other students to be friends with.

Sariyah: What is it about this school? I feel like it’s just so separate. The more I know my Blackness, the more I get intimate and understand my Blackness, I just can’t look at a white person.

In the beginning of this year I was like “okay Sariyah, you need to learn how to be comfortable in these spaces, because it’s never going away. Even if you work for all Black people, you’re still gonna have to learn how to navigate this.” So I was like, let me try to be an orientation leader. Let me throw myself into this. And what they do is, they exploit your experiences.

There’s this thing called Creating Emory that they put first-years through, and they kind of just throw all of these nice-sounding words together to teach first-years about sexual assault, diversity, and inclusion—no one can say the word “Black” so they have to call it “diversity and inclusion.”

So they teach them that all in three days, and then they’re like “Hey, Black people, you got your shit, bye.”

What has been the administrative response, then, to the activism and the demands?

Sariyah: We got a Facebook post! From the vice president of the college. I don’t know if he’s the dean of campus life. So he made a Facebook post, and somebody had to ask him to make an official email. But it was all really speedy, and I think it was too fast for people to keep up with, because there was no foundation. Besides the words of the demands, we didn’t know what was gonna happen. We hope we weren’t expected to know what was gonna happen, or follow-through, because we don’t know how the administration works. So we were just putting everything out there, and then the dean had his response, and then everybody else had their response, they were ready to form committees, and they were ready for a day to discuss this, and “we need to have conversations, and we need people of color to lead these conversations, and we’re gonna do this, this, that, that, and that, and we’re gonna email this person, and then that person’s gonna email ten more people, and then we’re gonna email ten more people!” The bureaucracy.

Everything was really fast, and it all kind of died down, because it was too fast for us.

Sophen: Yeah. I think that they wanted to show a Response, but something that I don’t think we were pensive enough about, was the space between community, protest, and response. You know? …Because as much as the protesting is for somebody to respond, it’s also about building the community…You’re trying to protect the community, but you’re trying to protect them so that they can like come together. And I think that in the process of forming, the administration responded so quickly that it kind of put a spear in our community’s rallying process. Which means that we didn’t get the whole time to become whole, basically.

As much as the protesting is for somebody to respond, it’s also about building the community.

We knew we were fragmented; that’s why were were protesting, but the holistic part would’ve come in the face of the adversity—but we didn’t actually face any, because the university responded so quickly. I think it was really lackluster and overwhelming, because—we’re still trying to figure out what our community needs. Really, just this page of demands that we have, or is there more? Is there more context? What else is it? We’ve tried, but we all still haven’t seen each other yet.

If you sit and think about it, it’s really stressful, but we got told the other night that when it’s in the rooms of these higher-ups, our list of demands, they don’t even see it as “the Black undergrads did a thing.” Because of all the people that stood in solidarity with us, they think “the Blacks of Emory are asking for something.” So, what they tried to impart on us was, “y’all can’t give up…because it’s not just the undergrads—it’s literally every Black person at the institution right now.”

To sum up from your own ideas, what is the experience for a Black student that you’re striving towards at Emory?

Sariyah: What I’m striving for personally—a lot of people I work with are striving for is something different than what we’re asking the administration for…We’re asking the administration to create these spaces for us, and then to leave us alone so that we can help ourselves out and do what we need to do. Whether that space is representation in faculty, administration; whether that space is in academia—like if we’re really gonna talk about American Literature in an English class, are you not gonna incorporate Phyllis Wheatley? Are you not gonna incorporate DuBois? Come on, come on. Whether it’s the space in academia, and what we’re reading in the curriculum, or if it’s just the people that work for us—there’s literally one Black man that’s staff and administration in one of our graduate schools, the Laney graduate school. There is one Black man, and he does everything. Black faculty are overworked.

If we’re really gonna talk about American Literature in an English class, are you not gonna incorporate Phyllis Wheatley? Are you not gonna incorporate DuBois?

So, going back to the demands. What we’re asking the administration for is to be fair. If you’re gonna overwork these people of color, compensate them, give them something—or, we’re asking for you to help us out in ways that we can’t help ourselves out, like this whole G.E.D. program, which I really want to happen, we would be helping the staff that works in the dining hall, the maintenance workers, all staff who would like to get their GED if they don’t have them already, can get it! So we’re trying to help our community out in ways that we can’t because we don’t have the funding or anything.

But what I’m striving for is to make these students comfortable. We asked the university for space, for physical space, whether it’s the BSA house, whether it’s the Emory Black Student Union, whether it’s all these spaces I mentioned before. And then, what I want, is for me and the people that I’m working with to make it work. I don’t want the university to have anything to do with it, because once we say we want representation, then they turn it into Creating Emory like I mentioned before, they mess everything up, and then when we ask for something similar to that they’re like “well, we just gave it to you.” So, I’m asking for them to leave.

The last question is the most complicated…A lot of the naysayers for these protests are claiming that students are oversensitive, or that they’re attacking free speech, or that they’re destroying what college is “supposed to do,” which is to teach you. So, I’m interested in thinking about: what is a college “supposed to do,” and how are the demands being issued by students right now interacting with the “ideal form” of a college? Do you think that what you’re asking your school to do has an effect on its function as a college?

Sophen: When you say that you’re still centering white people. When you talk about fear, when you talk about freedom of speech, you’re centering a historically white narrative about like, “these are your rights. This is what you’re allowed to do and this is what you’re not allowed to do.” And we’re saying, “we don’t even care about all that.”

Sariyah: I think that what I would like to see, but I’m not asking for because I don’t think it would ever happen, is for the school to be changed fundamentally, because I don’t believe in free speech, I don’t. I think it’s bullshit. Once you’re advocating for free speech, there’s no distinction between free speech and hate speech. So I think what we’re asking the university to do is, like Sophen said, decenter white people, decenter whatever you have been focusing on before.

Once you’re advocating for free speech, there’s no distinction between free speech and hate speech.

We need to change the paradigm of education entirely. Like I said before, the things that we’re reading, the things that we’re talking about, it’s literally all white people, and then you’re hiring the white people to teach the White People Things, and then you’re hiring the white people to assist the teachers to assist the students to do White People Things,

So I think what we’re asking the school to do, which is never gonna happen, is to change fundamentally so that Black people who want to live and be Black people can survive here. And I feel like that’s not what’s happening.