Aroneca Cotton became black one year ago when she arrived at Smith College.
Having grown up in a predominantly black neighborhood, Cotton’s race had never been her distinguishing feature. At Smith, whose student body is 74 percent white and 5 percent black, she can never forget the color of her skin.
“You’re a black girl. You’re not Aroneca anymore,” she said.
But this weekend at Yale, Cotton was not in the minority.
She and 400 other black college students converged here for the seventh annual Black Solidarity Conference, a three-day affair with keynote speakers and workshop discussions centering on this year’s theme, “The Black Psyche.”
One of two keynote speakers, Nak’im Akbar spoke with fiery resolve about the plight of the black race in America.
“I can’t imagine a black person saying that they had their first experience of terror on Sept. 11,” Akbar said, adding that black people are living in a “perpetual state of terror.”
According to program notes, Akbar is one of the fathers of the “Afrocentric” approach to psychology, which seeks to explain the cultural basis of the black psyche.
The conference date falls near Black Solidarity Day, held on the Monday before Election Day to remind the country of the strength and political clout of African-Americans.
“It’s about personal healing, but on top of that, it is about activism,” said Jacques Pouhe ’03, co-moderator of the Black Student Alliance at Yale, which organized the event with the Black Pride Union.
Workshop titles included “Illusion of Inclusion?” and “Deconstructing the Myths of the Independent Black Woman and ‘Good for Nothing Black Man.'”
Mikhaila Richards, a sophomore at Smith College, said her black roommate last year did not believe that racism existed, a view Richards called “naive.” For that and other reasons, Richards said, the two did not get along.
“You can be completely in denial and think we’re all Americans and we’re all just people,” Richards said. But she and the four other girls standing with her outside Linsly-Chittenden Hall Saturday afternoon agreed: Racism remains.
“I’m thinking about it 24-7, when I wake up, when I go to bed,” Amy Brown, a senior at Smith, said.
When Richards began to talk about “colorism,” the term was familiar to all of the girls. Colorism is discrimination based on variations in skin tone. Richards explained that when she needs directions, she defers to a lighter-skinned friend to ask.
But Alexandria Houston, a junior at Spelman College, warned that there were inherent problems to that approach.
“If you take on that mindset that that’s how you’re going to be treated, that’s how you’re going to be treated,” Houston said.
Cotton said that as a girl she had wished for long blond hair — she could not imagine a beautiful black woman. But in middle school, her cousin became a model for her, illustrating that various skin colors could be attractive.
“We have been told so long that we were not beautiful,” Cotton said. “It’s all about loving yourself and knowing you’re beautiful, no matter what your color.”
During workshops, students called out to one another as “brother” and “sister.” For many, the chance to see faces similar to their own in every direction was a unique opportunity.
“Assimilation is cultural annihilation,” said a senior at Morehouse College who gave his name only as Jewlz. “You can’t deny our historical past. We don’t exist in a vacuum.”
Jewlz drove 20 hours in a van with friends to attend the conference. His school is all-male and all-black, setting it apart from many of the predominantly white colleges represented at the conference. Other schools with participants included Columbia, Harvard, Cornell, Temple and Howard universities.
“You are a very special group,” Akbar said. “I know I’m preaching to the choir, but the choir needs some religion too.”