History Historical Badasses

How Mildred D. Taylor’s stories can teach us how to be hopeful throughout hardships

For stories of Black history and excellence, check out our Black History Month series. Celebrate with us by sharing your favorite articles on social media and uplifting the stories, lives, and work of Black people.

When I was in seventh grade, my English class was assigned to read a book titled Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor. I can’t remember the exact moment I learned about racism in school, but reading this book was an eye-opener. To this day, I can still recall two vivid scenes from the book: Cassie Logan describing the worn-out textbooks meant for Black students and her Papa’s leg being crushed by a wagon during a racist ambush.

Mildred D. Taylor began writing about the Logan family in 1975 with her first novella, Song of the Trees. Her historical works are about the hardships faced by African-American families living in the Deep South. Taylor was not the first author to narrate such moving stories. Yet, to me, she stood out for the sense of hope and resilience she breathes into her characters.

Taylor was born in Jackson, Mississippi, but moved north with her family when she was just three months old. Despite not having a Southern upbringing, she insisted that the region held pleasant memories for her as her family’s home. They eventually settled in Toledo, Ohio as her father did not want her and her sister to grow up in the racially segregated society of the South that he lived in. When Taylor started school, she was the only black child in her class. Yearly trips to Mississippi and firsthand stories from family gatherings helped her become familiar with the South. Taylor would eventually use some of the stories for her novels.

Taylor attended the University of Toledo where she majored in English and minored in History. By age 19, she had written her first novel, Dark People, Dark World. Sadly, due to revision disagreements with a publisher, the novel was never published. After graduation, Taylor joined the Peace Corps and taught in Arizona and Ethiopia. She then attended the University of Colorado School of Journalism, where she worked with university officials and fellow students to curate a Black Studies program. It’s inspiring how Taylor maintained the respect from her roots and encouraged for others to do the same in education.

In addition to all those accomplishments, Taylor kept writing. In 1973, Taylor entered a contest funded by the Council on Interracial Books for Children. “I tried writing [a story] from a boy’s point of view because the story was based on my father’s life, but that didn’t work,” Taylor said in a 2006 interview with the American Library Association. “So I decided to retell it from the girl’s point of view. It won that honor and got my foot in the door.”

The story was eventually published as Song of the Trees, and won first prize in the contest’s African-American category. It was also listed as an outstanding book of the year in the New York Times.

In 1977, she also won the Newberry Medal for the sequel to Song of the Trees, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, and several other literary recognitions.

“I wanted to show a different kind of black world from the one so often seen,” she said of her characters, the Logan family. “[Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry] will always be the most special book I have written.”

Black stories are often heavily centered around trauma. There’s a common assumption that Blacknes and suffering go hand in hand. While the Logans are a disadvantaged family, what we learn from them is their ability to make the most out of situations. Cassie and her brothers are a strong unit who have a solid relationship with their parents and appreciate who they are surrounded by. If anything, Taylor has shown us the importance of family dynamics in the face of constant trauma.

In an interview with The Brown Bookshelf, Taylor commented on the backlash of parents who felt her work was too painful for children to read. “As much as it hurts me to write words of pain, I know that they must be written, for they are truthful words about the time I write,” she said.

Sometimes, even if it can be uncomfortable, writing about pain is necessary. It can help others become more attentive to voices that are often silenced. What I find heartbreakingly relatable is that the Logan children instantly learned that they were living in a different world than their white peers. How Taylor writes about pain from Cassie’s perspective lets readers know that children are never too young to start understanding the world around them.

In the same interview, Taylor discussed receiving letters from students like myself who read her books as required reading. The students, however, said the books weren’t just about history. Rather, they are about the values they wished were more a part of their world today.

In Taylor’s words, “[It] is so uplifting to find there are still those who read my books and not only feel a greater understanding about our past, but feel the relevancy of that past to apply to the great turmoil of today’s world.”

Get The Tempest in your inbox. Read more exclusives like this in our weekly newsletter!

Race Inequality

It’s time that we unpack the racist history behind Greek life at American universities

In light of the recent Black Lives Matter movement, American college students have been voicing their experiences with racism at their universities, specifically with campus Greek life organizations. Such students are exposing sorority and fraternity members at their institutions for racist acts through Instagram accounts of the likes of @dearpwi.

Recently, a video was posted of a white Vanderbilt sorority member wearing a durag, laughing while a white fraternity member exclaimed racial slurs. Members of Vanderbilt ADPI mocked a Black member and stated that she didn’t belong in the sorority and it “wasn’t her place.” At Washington University in St. Louis, a white member of Chi Omega was accused of using racial slurs frequently and fetishizing Black men. Despite reports, the sorority did nothing to reprimand her. Additionally, sorority members at American University in Washington, D.C. outwardly tokenize their POC members. Alpha Sig, a fraternity at American University, has also been exposed for throwing civil war themed parties while chanting racial slurs. Fraternity members at California Polytechnical School were photographed wearing Blackface. 

These racist incidents are only snippets of the hundreds reported. Meanwhile, Greek life members are advocating for reform and for more discussions on diversity, claiming that these are isolated events unrelated to the structures of fraternities and sororities.

Students across different campuses are calling for the abolition of Greek Life. In 2019, student activists at Swarthmore College led a four-day sit-in in protest of Greek life after racist, homophobic, and sexist documents were leaked. Swarthmore then proceeded to formally ban all sororities and fraternities. This past month, students at American University created a petition asking for Greek life to be abolished on campus. On Instagram, students from Washington University in St. Louis, American University, and the University of Southern California, among other prominent schools are documenting their horrific experiences with sororities and fraternities on campus.

However, this is not new. Greek life has a long history of being racist and exclusive. Phi Beta Kappa, the first U.S. Greek-letter fraternity was founded at William & Mary University in 1776. As sororities and fraternities grew more popular and gained traction in the 1800s, they were then organized and further separated by sex, religion, and race. Soon these organizations began to largely reflect the demographics of their predominantly white campuses: wealthy white, Angolo-Saxon, and protestant men (WASPs). There was very little, if any, diversity among the organizations. Even as more Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) were admitted into educational institutions, historically white fraternities and sororities continued to exclude them. In fact, Greek letter organizations included racial bans in their constitutions well into the 1960s. 

Continued segregation in Greek life throughout the early 20th century inevitably became a social and professional detriment to students of color. College campuses provided special housing and buildings for Greek affiliated organizations, yet none for cultural organizations or multicultural fraternities and sororities. White sororities and fraternities led, and continue to lead to powerful alumni networks and career opportunities. Spots are even held in student government positions for certain all-white Greek life members at schools such as the University of Alabama — an institution that accepted it’s first Black sorority member in 2003.

In response to the segregation they faced, Black students began to create their own Greek organizations, against university pushback. Alpha Phi Alpha, the first historically Black fraternity, was founded in 1906 at Cornell University. Alpha Kappa Alpha, the first historically Black sorority, was founded in 1908 at Howard University, an HBCU dominated by men. Black fraternities and sororities served as a social and intellectual relief and safe haven for Black students – however, they still were not fully accepted by their universities. Black Greek organizations were still not granted campus buildings for meetings or housing. Not to mention that Black students, in general, were not permitted to run for certain student government positions, or play for athletics teams until the 1940s. 

Despite integration today, Black students remain hardly represented in Greek life. A research study shows that 95% of historically white fraternity and sorority members are white. Greek life members are more inclined to accept members who resemble their own experiences despite calls for action or progressive initiatives. They do not value diversity and seek to create an environment in which everyone is similar. If potential new members don’t “fit in,” or “aren’t cool,” they are denied membership, which further perpetuates whiteness and classism within Greek organizations. 

It’s time for Greek life to be dismantled at all universities. A system built upon racism can not possibly be reformed — it should be abolished. Historically white fraternities and sororities are fundamentally rooted in the segregationist values of white supremacy. Plus, the recently revealed racist actions of members demonstrate that not much within the Greek system has actually changed. Their racist behavior is encouraged by and stems directly from Greek life’s lack of diversity and long history of elitist exclusion.

Get The Tempest in your inbox. Read more exclusives like this in our weekly newsletter!

Shopping Race Lookbook

The fashion app Dote uses diversity as a prop to hide its racism

Ever since this year’s Coachella, a group of young minority girls in the Youtube community publicly came forward to share their experiences during Dotechella, in which they felt like they were treated differently because of their skin color. Each of the girls was sent to attend Coachella by a fashion app called Dote.

The company is known for sending young social media influencers on these trips for free, to places such as Texas, Disneyland, and Fiji. The purpose of these trips is to help promote the app. All you have to do is mention this app on social media and you get invited on a trip for free by the company. 

The girls claimed that they felt separated from the white girls on the trip in the Dotechella house. In the clips that the girls shared in their videos, you can see that the black and brown girls had pullout couches as beds while the other girls had bunk beds. Vereena Sayed, who is Egyptian-American said that all the minority girls had to share one bathroom on their side. Meanwhile, the rest of the girls had two bathrooms on their side of the house.

Many of the girls discussed the situation among each other saying that they noticed the differences and decided to speak up on this issue. Keisha Shadė Akinyemi, a black British YouTuber made her video on the situation after watching Daniella Perkins video. From Keisha’s video, many young girls of color, including those who did not attend Coachella were inspired by her to make their own video on how they felt about the controversy.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time that this company has done something like this. Nine months earlier, Dote also sent a group of young social media influencers to Fiji. Kianna Naomi, a black YouTuber mentions in her video that she felt like an outcast on the trip for many reasons. One in which she mentions that it was clear she was the “token black girl” on the trip just so the company can promote diversity. She wasn’t even included in the photo shoots that the girls were in.

Since the Coachella incident, CEO and founder of Dote, Lauren Farleigh released an apology saying that they did not intentionally group the girls based on race. After that, the company uploaded photos with a bunch of brown and dark-skinned girls, one of them being plus sized, captioned them “this is what Dote looks like” on their Instagram page. According to Chinese-American YouTuber, Annie Long, the pictures that they posted were from the fall season and the plus size woman is one of the photographers. To me, and many other people following this incident, the apology doesn’t seem convincing. 

If you think of it, this isn’t something new. It’s not just in fashion, but even in places like social media and Hollywood diversity is just a buzzword. As an African-American, I know what it is like to feel left out from a group of people. When I was younger, I used to look at catalogs from different clothing every week when they came in the mail along with the newspaper. As I looked through them, it occurred to me that they all looked the same and that they were white.

I thought to myself “Where are all the brown-skinned people?” To this day, I still have these thoughts when it comes to the lack of diversity in the fashion and film industry.

If a company is going to brand itself off of diversity, then they need to just do more than place a couple of minorities in a photo and call it diverse. So many young girls look up to this brand and even mentioned that they would like work for them, but after hearing about the discrimination that happens on camera and behind the scenes, they’re starting to have second thoughts, and I don’t blame them.  It’s hard to see these young girls get taken advantage of from a brand that promises to give these girls equal opportunities, yet they never happen.

Fashion is something that brings people together and makes people have a good time doing what they love most. We shouldn’t be separating a group of people just because they’re not what we see in the average media. People from all walks of life need to feel represented so that they can inspire others to do the same.

What Dote and other companies that want to include representation can do is to make people feel included. And by doing so, they need to reach out to more people of color and include different sizes as well.

I hope one day these companies can find a way to be inclusive and make people feel like they belong in a place where they feel safe.

Gender & Identity Life

I thought that reclaiming my Indian roots would be easy, but this made it harder than I expected

I like to say that I didn’t grow up Indian.

Not that it makes me happy, but it’s the easiest way to explain the person I am today. So many people ask me why I speak the way I do, why I don’t dress in Indian clothes or watch Bollywood movies. It can be embarrassing to explain that, well, I grew up in a predominantly white culture.

[bctt tweet=”It can be embarrassing to explain that I grew up in a predominantly white way.” username=”wearethetempest”]

I went to a white school, my family was one of the very few Indian families in a largely white neighborhood, and I only had white friends.

And I won’t lie, that made it difficult to connect with Indian culture.

My parents tried as much as they could to surround my sisters and me with our culture. Of course, my mother cooked the most amazing Indian food for us almost every single day. She also took us to family events where we would wear traditional Indian clothing and listen to Indian music. I was even enrolled in Bollywood dance classes for a while, though those didn’t last very long.

But as much as they did for us, I never felt like I was truly Indian. In fact, I got into the habit of denying it whenever anything related to Indian heritage came up.

[bctt tweet=”I never felt like I was truly Indian, to the point where I would flat-out deny it.” username=”wearethetempest”]

In part, the distance I kept from my culture is because of apartheid. Despite what many believe, the kind of racism that existed during apartheid still exists today in South Africa. The state segregation of Indian people from white people made it so that we always felt inferior.

Many people in our community still believe this, and that filters down into the way we speak, eat, dress, act, and even raise our children.

For a long time, I believed that I was inferior to my white friends, so forming meaningful relationships with them was difficult. Beyond that, I was treated differently from everyone else; the token Indian girl.

[bctt tweet=”I believed that I was inferior to my white friends.” username=”wearethetempest”]

When I grew up and entered university, I met incredible mentors who taught me to think of myself differently. I began to understand my life in relation to whiteness, and realized that what I was going through was called the “colonization of the mind.”

I first heard about this while reading Franz Fanon’s Black Skin, White MasksThe easiest way to explain it is that colonialism affects the way we understand ourselves as people of color. The result is that I, for example, do not want to associate myself with any kind of Indian culture because I view it as inferior to white culture. This means that I will do whatever I can to act white.

I remember times when I even pretended like I couldn’t handle spicy food.

I mean, really, who was I kidding?

[bctt tweet=”I remember times when I even pretended like I couldn’t handle spicy food.” username=”wearethetempest”]

Learning about the colonization of the mind made me realize what I lacked: a deliberately formed connection to Indian culture.

So I decided to embark on a journey of rediscovery. I would learn where my family comes from, engage more with Indian pop culture, and even start taking Hindi lessons at the temple in my area.

Sounds pretty simple, right?

Well, it’s been a while and I’ve learned a few things. Firstly, it’s much easier to say you’re going to retrace your ancestry than actually doing it. The truth is that it takes time and a family that has at least some inkling of their ancestry. But my family was so poor when they came to South Africa through indentured labor that keeping those connections to the so-called “motherland” wasn’t a priority.

Secondly, I just never felt a connection to Indian pop culture. I tried to watch Bollywood movies and listen to some famous songs, but felt mortified when I couldn’t enjoy them as much as I wanted to. The most I’ve been able to keep up with is sharing relatable clips from Buzzfeed India’s Facebook page.

And as for the Hindi lessons? Well, we’ll leave that for another day.

What I didn’t realize at the beginning of this well-intentioned journey was that it would be emotionally draining. I honestly expected to come out on the other side an Indian culture know-it-all, but instead, I came out feeling even more disconnected than before.

What I had to realize is that maybe I’m not going to like Bollywood movies. Maybe I’m not going to get all the jokes and bond with other Indian people over them. Maybe I’m going to eat a plate of spaghetti bolognese for dinner tonight and fucking love it.

But that doesn’t make me any less Indian. Instead, it just makes me my own version of Indian: Ariana.

Just me.