MUN’s Black Student Association hasn’t let racism stop it from creating community for Black Newfoundlanders
When a letter came in the mail last year, addressed to the newly formed Black Students Association, it could have been anything — a cheque maybe. But its contents ended up pointing the media spotlight on Memorial University’s up and coming Black student movement, and forcing some tough questions on the community at large.
John Mweemba, a political science undergrad now in his final semester, founded Memorial’s Black Student Association, and was its president at the time. He opened the letter.
“We can’t share the actual message,” he says. But suffice to say it used “a derogatory Black word” in a letter full of “weird stereotypes about Black people being inherently more violent.”
The letter was anonymous and printed with mixed fonts as if to disguise the writer further.
The message came as a bit of a surprise on a sometimes sleepy Memorial campus, in mid-pandemic, and on the island of Newfoundland, which doesn’t tend to make headlines for anonymous racist hate mail.
“Man, we thought someone in the community wasn’t liking what we were saying,” Mweemba says.
Ironically, the letter came at a time of overwhelming positivity for the university’s Black community. When the murder of George Floyd sent shock waves around the world in 2020, protests sparked across North America and Europe, and it became apparent to Mweemba and others that for Black students at Memorial there was no real place to turn, to gather together as a community.
“We didn’t really have a Black space, unfortunately.” The initial idea was to bring this community together in a more organised fashion. “The need to unite Black people,” Mweemba says, was very real.
So, in the way that ideas that are past due take hold almost effortlessly, the Black Student Association was soon up and running, with popular and active pages on social media. It organised meetings in real life, with mixers at Bannerman Brewery downtown and campfire get-togethers. The organisation quickly began to do outreach beyond the university and into the community at large.
The association often posts about Black-owned businesses and Black entrepreneurs, folks who are part of a burgeoning restaurant scene or who have craft or fashion shops. This past fall it hosted an event to highlight local Black-owned businesses at the St. John’s Farmer’s Market, a busy community space known for multicultural foods and crafts.
The association also embarked on an educational component. To mark Black History Month, the Black Student Association filmed a series of videos in cooperation with The Rooms (home of Newfoundland and Labrador’s provincial museum and art gallery), to host lively and active discussions of topics that directly affect the Black community (and the community at large). In the first video, students take a live, interactive poll on hot button issues, such as the effects of direct versus systemic racism, and then hash out and explain their choices. For a province that skews very homogeneous and white, it’s refreshing to see these vital discussions led by Black Newfoundlanders, all taking place in the public eye.
Mweemba won the province’s 2021 Human Rights Award for his anti-racism work and he’s also moved on to become chair of the national Black Students’ Caucus (part of the Canadian Federation of Students), the first ever in this role to hail from Atlantic Canada.
And yet, as this work and activity hums along, the need for it becomes more and more evident. In the province that’s famous for its hospitality (see Broadway’s “Come From Away”) and has prided itself on stories that highlight the people’s openness (the true story of Lanier Philips who was rescued from an American Navy shipwreck on the Burin Peninsula in the 1940s and subsequently amazed at his humane treatment by locals), issues involving racism still flare up each year.
Already in early 2022 it’s been revealed that former leader of the provincial Progressive Conservatives, Ches Crosbie, donated money to the so-called “Freedom Convoy” of protestors, despite the fact protesters were seen waving flags supporting white supremacy. And in January an anthropology professor used the N-word in a class, a decision Black students at Memorial called insensitive and disappointing.
It’s clear that in the span of just a few short years, by uniting in these groups, Black students at Memorial have been able to mobilise behind an anti-racism message. They are also being frequently called upon by sources in the media and branches of the provincial government to provide comment and, in the case of an institution like The Rooms, to collaborate on a campaign of awareness and education.
“For the Black Students Association, I would say the first driver is community building,” Mweemba says. “Education is second.”
So, to celebrate Black History Month, the association attempted to portray a new narrative and instead of focusing solely on the ills of colonialism and racism, it used social media to highlight successful Black figures in Canadian history. People like Rosemary Brown, the first Black member of a provincial legislature, and William Hall, the first Black person to be awarded the Victoria Cross.
Despite this quick progress, Mweemba says there is much work to be done. He says he tells newcomers that Newfoundland is nothing like you would expect. There’s heritage and history, and little crime to speak of. Yet, he says, “people have these biases that they’ve had for God knows how long.”
He’s had people tell him in conversation, “‘Oh, you speak good English.’ Well, why wouldn’t I?” (Ironically, he grew up in the U.K. and attended high school in St. John’s.) “I wasn’t the most outgoing,” Mweemba says. Yet he transformed from something of a Twitter activist to an activist in real life and in the public eye no less.
“Twitter only gets you so far,” he says.
When Mweemba began his academic career at the university, he says the Black community there was scattered.
“They were all in these bubbles.” Students were from Nigeria and Zambia, but weren’t really united. “I think the Black Student Association has bridged that gap.”
The letter didn’t scare anyone, in the end. If anything it made them redouble their efforts. They knew they had a good message, Mweemba says. They just had to keep getting that message out.