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‘Still Black, At Yale’

‘Still Black, At Yale’      
Film documents how race, racism, play a role in the
Black student experience at an Ivy League institution
A Review By Crystal L. Keels

In 1974, Black students at Yale University took it upon themselves to chronicle the tenor of the times on their Ivy League campus with a documentary film. Among those students from the ’70s, Warrington Hudlin, future filmmaker and founder of the Black Filmmaker Forum, discusses the challenges Black students face on campus and in the nearby communities.

Some 30 years later, Monique Walton and Andia N. R. Winslow, both 2004 graduates of Yale, found that film as the sole marker of the impact and contributions of Black students on campus. In response, Walton and Winslow developed the project, “Still Black, At Yale,” a documentary film that attempts to fill that void and queries the complexities of what it means to be Black, particularly at a predominantly White, Ivy League institution.

This candid film documents the disappointing reality many of the students featured in the film express — that race and racism continue to figure significantly in the 21st century, even at a university with a reputation as one of the world’s finest institutions of higher learning and critical thinking.

Several students in this elite setting lament that often in on-campus locations like the library, and off-campus as well, they are readily profiled as suspicious characters rather than as diligent students. In one scene, a few senior students share such experiences with new students and also indicate that this is a topic the university is reticent to address. Another scene captures a charged exchange between Black and White students in a classroom and serves to demonstrate the complexities of racial (mis)understanding and (in)difference.

“Still Black, At Yale” is perhaps most powerful, though, in its exploration of the notion of Black identity. The film makes apparent the many ways individual students think of themselves in relation to conventional, monolithic definitions of Blackness, as well as highlights the myriad perceptions of identity and self held by various students of African descent. Acknowledging and celebrating this diversity, a Black Yale administrator suggests, is the key for academic success and personal development in an environment that has the potential to isolate Black students and, as an enclave of privilege, can also insulate them from the realities of the world beyond the ivory tower.

“Don’t let this environment steal your soul,” a female student says in acknowledgment of those possibilities. “Remember what your parents taught you and don’t become a ‘superslave,’ someone blinded to oppression,” she explains.

Ultimately, first-time filmmakers Walton and Winslow make visible the struggles Black students continue to face in institutions of higher learning, the many ways of discerning what “Black” actually is and the support systems that provide students the stamina to succeed. In the process, the film — which is now being screened in national and international film festivals and was also recognized with a 2004 Yale University Sudler Arts Grant — serves as a frank reminder that in environments like Yale, failure is not an option. “Still Black, At Yale” makes it clear that success is imperative to honor the past sacrifices people have made in the quest for full Black participation in U.S. society.   

For more information on the film or to contact the filmmakers, e-mail [email protected].

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