Panel debates the meaning of Black in America

By J.K. Schmid
Baltimore Watchdog Staff Writer

As 400 years of black repression and black resistance were recounted during a recent panel discussion at Towson University, Akosua Bamfo had to leave the room as she wiped away tears.

“It’s so hurtful, I don’t know where to go” the 24-year-old Baltimore school teacher said of the brutal history African Americans have faced. “I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what they can do. All this happened, and I’m naturally an emotional person. I get really triggered.”

Bamfo and approximately 40 people gathered at Creative Alliance’s Patterson Theater on  Feb. 17 to participate in a panel discussion about being black in America.

The “What Does it Mean to be Black?” program included four panelists and touched on issues like slavery, segregation, family, sexism and individuality.

“Being black is to have this family but to be conflicted in this family because that family is abusive,” said panelist Shan Wallace, a 25-year-old award-winning photographer and publisher from East Baltimore. “But that family can be really loving. The men in that family can oppress. Sexism is a thing. But they can also be your best friend, they can also be your big brother, they can also be a father.”

“I think Blackness looks like a woman in a scarf, a woman in the face veil, a woman in complete black clothing, gloves and eye veil, and she doesn’t shake hands with men,” said Leila Rghioui, another panelist who is also a student of humanities and social sciences at CCBC. “It’s women who have locs; it’s trans women – everything and anything in between. There’s no bounds to Blackness at all.”

Bilphena Yahwon, 23, a writer at and owner of, criticized the Black History Month narratives of black heroics as generally classist.

“I think it’s so important when discussing Blackness, to see Blackness as more than just black excellence,” Yahwon said. “Seeing Blackness in the hood, seeing ratchet Blackness, seeing Blackness might be that woman with six babies and she’s got 10 different baby daddies and that’s OK. Seeing Blackness as Blackness on food stamps, Blackness as someone who’s illiterate, seeing Blackness as ‘I didn’t finish high school’ or ‘I’m not even in college.’ Seeing Blackness as I sell drugs on the corner. Seeing Blackness as ‘I’m in prison.’”

The first part of the panel opened with poetry readings and an a cappella performance of Abel Meeropol’s “Strange Fruit” and ended with Yahwon’s, Rghioui’s and Wallace’s definitions of the terms of Blackness.

In response to a question from the audience, Yahwon said that racism did not go away just because America elected its first African American president in 2008.

“Yeah, we had a black president,” Yahwon said. “But niggas was still dying every day. Michael Brown was left in the street for four hours in his own blood in July. Sandra Bland was killed, right?”

Yahwon said that white America does not truly understand slavery.

“I’m convinced you all thought that we just went to a summer camp and just liked picking cotton for fun as part of our extra-curricular activities,” Yahwon said. “I really don’t think you understood what it meant for people to be shackled and chained and placed on boats and raped and brutalized.”

Yahwon said that racism continued with Jim Crow segregation laws, steering blacks away from white neighborhoods, and then to the current crisis of mass incarceration.

Wallace said that “anti-Blackness is a global thing,” adding that African Americans continuously face institutions and ideologies that put road blocks in front of them.

“A start is just simply existing,” Wallace said. “As black people, we’re not wanted, at all… There’s so many people that don’t want you to do that, that want you to hate yourself. I claim my Blackness. That’s what it’s about. It’s about claiming who you are and loving yourself.”

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