When 21-year-old Eghosa Asemota graduated from Binghamton University this year, like many recent graduates she was nervous about entering the workforce.
But her sensitivities had less to do with breaking new ground. Her anxieties stemmed from the countless injustices that have been taking place as of late against black people. After experiencing feelings of isolation and “otherness” on campus at Adelphi University where she completed two years of schooling before transferring out, the Queens, NY native says she began to shape her political consciousness.
Soon after beginning her job hunt, she landed a position as an Executive Assistant at Awake Storytelling, a video production company that caters to social justice organizations. It wasn’t long before she knew she had found the right home. Working under the organization’s CEO, Annie Escobar, a white woman who is a native of California and also passionate about social justice issues, Asemota realized she would have the freedom to express her opinions about current events stemming from race.
Escobar says she too experienced an intense political awakening during her time in college. She was awarded the opportunity to work in Palestine while still a student at NYU. There she says she saw a large distance between what she had been told in the media about the embattled region, and what she was seeing on the ground. From then on, storytelling became the avenue through which she aimed to educate people.
This past October Eghosa and Annie launched Define: Black., a video series that features black people sharing their stories on identity and coming to terms with the racial crimes that are taking place in today’s society. The project recentlty went viral after the team posted a video featuring a young woman named Angeley Crawford who spoke candidly about her need to separate herself from her Latin roots because of her dark complexion.
I spoke to the ladies about their inspiration and goals for Define: Black., and how they navigate being a black and white female team advocating for black and brown people.
BCB: How did the idea for Define: Black. come about?
Annie Escobar: I together with Eghosa have been creating this series and we’ve been working on it since July. We do a lot of work at Awake storytelling with social justice organizations, so we kind of found this opportunity to just self fund and self produce something that we thought would be meaningful at this moment in time in our country. So yeah, we’re excited to talk to you about it.
Eghosa: When Charleston happened, I think I was here for about a month I believe. I had just come out of school. I think that just being a black woman and entering the labor force and the workforce, I was thinking about so many things, like what it’s going to be like to join an organization and not necessarily have as many colleagues that feel the same way I do about social justice. It was just kind of like Pandora’s Box. I started with Awake Storytelling and it was just amazing to have a boss that was present. That’s what made me decide to be with Awake Storytelling. I definitely got to this point of Define: Black. after the Charleston massacre. When Charleston happened I remember coming to the office and we both had these expressions on our faces like what the hell is happening in the world. We were so distraught and literally we couldn’t even work that day. We were just venting, crying, expressing our anger, our frustration, our sadness, our heart ache, and we decided to put our resources together. We can’t save the world, but we can do what we can with what we have. Since we’re a video production company, let’s put ourselves together, put our resources together and see if we can create this campaign and share these stories with the world. And what we did was create this workshop on July 18th where we said, okay, this is a safe space for people of color. Come as you are. Come as raw as you feel. You don’t have to worry about political correctness; you don’t have to worry about being offensive, just be your genuine self and express whatever you’re feeling right now: the climate, the hashtags, the heartache, all of it. We had two poets come on and do moderation for the discussion. It ended up being a very healing experience for me. But I know that everyone there took away something knowing that you’re not alone in how you feel and it’s okay to say that you’re angry about being judged.
Annie: From my side it was really just such an intense experience on how to hold space in that kind of way. I think what was really interesting about our process is that we sat down one day and all of a sudden, four hours had gone by and me, Eghosa, and we had another intern at the time, Aizhaneya, and we really just thought about what do we believe in. What do we believe can actually have an impact at this moment in time. So we went through this process of thinking about our audience and thinking about what realization we want them to have, and having this epic spread of post it notes, and then kind of going from there, being like well, how can we get people to realize this. What’s really interesting is we started out imagining a white audience, then that completely shifted.
When it comes to the narrative of black resistance, I think that it’s very important to be visible in terms of what we can do together. Because Annie is a white woman, I’m a black woman but we came together for this cause and I think that that’s a testament. – Eghosa Asemota
BCB: What did you learn after completing the interviews?
Annie: So I think the biggest realization is that people are so much more complex than we imagine and the cost of structural racism is a limited imagination of ourselves and each other that’s built in inadequacy, separation, powerlessness and a lack of acknowledgement of our history. So I think acknowledgment, expression, and we really just want people to expand their imagination about who we are and we want people to be in that question together and it’s really beautiful to see what happens when people share their stories because they become this invitation to others to share their experiences. I think that stories just stay with us in this deeper way where it’s not about arguing and talking points. It’s about feeling and it accesses this deeper part of us that just really can acknowledge our belonging to each other.
BCB: Annie, are you Caucasian?
Yes, I am white. I think it’s really interesting—what that means in the context of this platform, Define: Black. Eghosa and I have had a lot of interesting conversations on how to navigate that.
BCB: What kinds of conversations?
Eghosa: Once this video went viral we’ve been getting a lot of requests for features. We were having a conversation yesterday and we were like, there are people reaching out, how do you think we should go about this? Annie said, “I think you should do it.” I was like, ‘What, we should do this together.’ When it comes to the narrative of black resistance, I think that it’s very important to be visible in terms of what we can do together. Because Annie is a white woman, I’m a black woman but we came together for this cause and I think that that’s a testament. And I know that we have to navigate a whole bunch of things: Fragility, visibility, and like, ‘am I going to unintentionally harm someone if I show up and I say something.’ It’s a lot to think about as a white ally. There were things I didn’t really think of when we started on this. But as we went along the process, a lot of things came up: how are we going to say certain things, like, are we going to say “black people” or “people of color.” Things like that that we probably never thought about. It’s very important to show that if we’re dedicated to the cause we have a duty to stand up for it. I feel like the fact that I have a boss that cares about how I feel that I’m hurt by what’s on the news and I’m hurt about what’s going on, I think that that meant a lot. There are so many white people who believe that they care about this issue but they don’t know how to show up. I feel like, Annie, you showed the hell up for this.
Annie: This is what it’s actually about, like saying, I think as white people, what does it mean to take responsibility for our place in the world and acknowledge our privilege not from a place of having to hate ourselves but getting to love ourselves and acknowledge our privilege and think about what it means to create the world that we want to live in.
…we think it’s very important to be having conversations about identity and power and privilege and healing. White people are the people that need to change. – Annie Escobar
BCB: How do you feel about the success of the project so far?
Annie: I think it’s been really rewarding to see through what happens when you don’t allow yourself to be taken to a place of hopelessness. I think just choosing to do something is an act of saying we want to be on the side of what can be done. Just to see it finally get out there and how people responded to it is so satisfying because there were days when we were just having conference calls about the website and said things like, is anyone ever going to see this, does this even matter, is this going to be anything, are we putting all our money into something no one’s going to see [laughs]. So it’s good to finally be like ah, our hard work is having an affect and who knows what the ripple affect can be of someone having a deep moment of connection with a story.
Eghosa: For me, at the workshop one of the participants said something that really stuck with me. She said: “Black lives matter because I matter. What I do matters. And as long as I continue to do something that matters, black lives will matter.” I think that me being a part of something that’s touching so many people is giving me that affirmation. I know sometimes I see things in the news and I’ll go to Twitter and I’ll vent my frustrations. But I don’t want to be the on chair activists that vents my frustrations and doesn’t show up. So I’ll come to marches and I just feel like I want a different angle to help and build this movement for racial justice. I got a comment the other day about a girl saying she spent the last hour in her car just watching our videos and how moved she was by it. It’s just helping me through.
BCB: Yeah I think that’s why it resonated with me and a lot of my friends who saw it. Eghosa, your story was interesting to me because I’m also a Nigerian-American so I could totally identify with what you said about living in two worlds, so to speak. So how do you deal with that and have you been able to get any solace from doing the video?
Eghosa: What’s interesting is that I’ve been sharing the videos with my parents a lot and my dad actually likes the page. Now that my parents see my passion for it, and how much we talk about it—me and my older brother, that’s all we’re talking about, ‘Did you see what was on the news today’—my mom is now so present in this conversation and so up to date. My mom, she’s Nigerian. She came here in the late 80s. Her first name is Queen and her middle name is Elizabeth. She’s literally named after the figurehead of her oppression. So I asked her, ‘mom, how do you feel having a name like that?’ She gave me so many anecdotes and so many personal stories about being a young child in Nigeria and like when they would see white construction workers they’d get excited. I never forgot this, but she literally said, I thought they were closest to God. And I think that before I learned the terminology to learn what’s going on around me I used to have this connotation of my parents being, these kind of stuck up elitist Nigerians who feel that they are exceptional. I had this very narrow minded conception of my parents, so I’m happy by the fact that she’s now using personal stories to communicate this message of, this is how I got to this place and this is how I’m trying to decolonize my mind and now these videos that we’re sharing is what she’s using to decolonize her mind. Now she’s talking about so many things in the media. She was talking about Charleston. She cried for Charleston. She’s Christian so that hit her on another level as well. And the fact that she’s present with me now and these videos helped her understand. She herself watched the Angeley video and she was just like, I completely understand where she’s coming from. When she went to York College and other black people didn’t like her accent and they made fun of her accent when she was working in food service at some fast food restaurant, she experienced that same otherness and she could connect with Angelie through that video. I think that’s another part of it that’s been so rewarding to me, the fact that I feel like my parents are all on board now.
What’s next for Define: Black.?
Annie: We went to the Justice Or Else march and got like 20 interviews so we have a ton of content that we’re going to be releasing over the next several months so there’s lots more to come. We’re also going to the White Privilege conference in San Francisco. So we’re kind of exploring what that’s going to be. It might be a Define: White. alongside a Define: Black. But we think it’s very important to be having conversations about identity and power and privilege and healing. White people are the people that need to change. So while there’s so much healing and change that needs to happen, we really believe white people need to get it.