Columns

Richardson ’20: A Built space

By
Staff Columnist
Thursday, November 30, 2017

This September, the student organization Black Students United at Cornell submitted a list of demands to their administration in which they defined the historically underrepresented black students on campus as “Black Americans who have several generations in this country.” In response to their demands, Bami Oke ’20 wrote a recent column in The Herald, yet she uses the term “African American” to describe “black folks whose families have lived in the United States since the time of the Atlantic slave trade.” Clearly, many people use the two terms interchangeably. I have no problem with these inconsistencies because the definitions are personal, but they can also produce confusion. Quite frankly, in reading the BSU statement and Oke’s response, I have no idea which identities within blackness they are describing, because the conversations are often reduced to circular arguments steered by varying definitions.

This ambiguity in referencing various black identities in the United States is one of the reasons that conversations pertaining to them cannot happen effectively. “African American” and “Black American” are the terms used most commonly, yet they are generally ineffective because they still allude to slavery. Depending on who is asked, African Americans and Black Americans are usually defined as the descendants of enslaved people in the United States. But it’s disheartening to label a group of people based on their connection to slavery; there is no life to it, no forward movement behind it. It is beyond time to build anew off the labor that was sacrificed. For this reason, we need to devote a completely different term to describe the person descended from enslaved people in the United States: “Built.”

“Built” is a term recently coined by a group of Brown students and is, in my opinion, the only term that adequately describes the descendants of enslaved people because it has more power than the arsenal of words currently used. Built is reflective of the knowledge that black people in the United States did in fact build this country during slavery and long thereafter. Built people exemplify excellence, strength and so much more because enslaved people  endured a boatload of atrocities for over 300 years. While Built still refers to slavery, it does so in a progressive manner that symbolizes both the past and future of black people. There is action behind Built. The true power in the term, however, is that it finally gives these identities a name that does not use “America” in the title. This omission is important because it highlights the fact that Built people are not products of America; America is quite literally a product of Built people. Given all that this country has done to oppress Built people, why should we have to wear a name that directly references that very history?

It’s time that Built people reclaim their identities and are represented by terms that adequately describe their histories and current situations. These conversations are perhaps most important to have on college campuses because, for the greater part of history, predominantly white institutions such as Brown didn’t accept the very people that built their campuses. Only recently has there been a valiant effort to promote diversity and inclusion on campuses, but there is so much more to be done. To catalyze these conversations and create spaces specifically dedicated to Built people, there need to be student groups solely dedicated to Built students on campuses. Right now, Built students at Brown are free to join the vaguely-defined Black Student Union, which serves as a melting pot for anyone who identifies as black. Organizations like BSU bring together the intersecting identities of blackness and form a sense of community across them. This demonstration of solidarity is valuable and breathtaking, but there should also be room for student groups specifically directed toward particular identities. For example, Harvard has a Nigerian Students Association, the University of Texas at Dallas has a Kenyan Students’ Association and Brown itself contains the African Student Association and Students of Caribbean Ancestry. The presence and continued role of these groups within their communities only underscore the fact that Built people need a group of their own.

Now is the time to establish such a student group here at Brown. As a Built woman on campus, I have found a nucleus of 20 people who want to identify similarly — more people than I had initially imagined — and this sense of community has helped us express our common, racialized experiences at Brown and across the country. Together, we are building a space on campus that caters to our varying needs. Built is currently an unofficial student group, but we will be filing for categorization by the Undergraduate Council of Students next semester. I encourage any students or potential supporters who are interested in learning more to reach out to me directly for more information.

Randi Richardson ’20 can be reached at randi_richardson@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.