By Charity Cohen
As a bright-eyed, first-year student at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Salena Braye-Bulls made it her mission to find a space that would allow her to create and fully express her Blackness.
Coming to a predominantly white institution from a primarily Black community in Tuskegee, Alabama, she quickly experienced a culture shock prompted by the scarcity of publications and media outlets that truly reflected her community
Her experience was simply a reflection of the larger media landscape’s lack of spaces that allow for genuine, well-rounded storytelling for communities of color.
It wasn’t until Braye-Bulls discovered Black Ink Magazine, the official publication of the Black Student Movement at UNC-CH “dedicated to revolutionary media,” that she truly understood how vital it is for minorities to have a space dedicated to their storytelling.
“With mainstream publications, a lot of times Black stories and Black narratives get reduced to one dimension, and sometimes that dimension is overwhelming tragedy, or maybe that dimension is just some area of entertainment or media or something,” Braye-Bulls said.
Braye-Bulls, who is now the upcoming editor-in-chief of Black Ink Magazine, believes that sharing stories that encompass all facets of communities of color will be attainable through media outlets and newsrooms that create spaces for such exploration.
“A space for us that we can just breathe”
Historically, stories of marginalized communities have either been erased or mishandled in mainstream media.
When Courtney Napier, founder and editor-in-chief of Black Oak Society, first began her career in journalism, she held spaces for conversation amongst the Black community in Raleigh, North Carolina. It was during these forums that Napier learned just how much of her community’s history she had not been told.
In December 2019, Napier established Black Oak Society — a publication dedicated to the Black stories, journalists and creatives in the greater Raleigh area —in an effort to uncover those hidden stories and explore the complexity of her community in a way that the mainstream media wouldn’t.
“I just wanted a space for us that we can just breathe and share and feel empowered and important and vital,” Napier said. “Like our voices aren’t just important, and they’re not just beautiful and good, but they are critical to us as a people.”
This erasure and oversight of Black stories has led to the distrust in the media that is often held by the Black community and other communities of color.
“Part of marginalization is the control of the flow of information,” Napier said. “[People of color] can’t trust whatever The Daily Gazette is to get their story right. They already know they’re a threat to the way of life of the majority in that space, so they can’t trust that.
Napier holds the belief that white journalists aren’t equipped or properly trained to handle the telling of stories of color.
Maydha Devarajan, a UNC-CH student who serves as the editor of Elevate — a section of The Daily Tar Heel that amplifies stories of people of color — echoed Napier’s sentiments, expressing that there is a certain level of empathy and cultural competence needed to tell stories about marginalized communities.
“I think anytime you’re a person of color or you have an identity that’s outside of the white supremacist structure we live in, you’re going to be thinking about things differently than a white reporter probably would,” Devarajan said.
Devarajan noted that as a member of the Indian American community, there is a wealth of knowledge regarding the stories within her community; a bank of information that those outside of her community don’t have access to.
This idea of this “bank of information” not being known or shared is an idea that Napier found to be true with her creation of the Black Oak Society.
Moving beyond “doom and gloom”
Napier shared that there is a specific level of comfortability and trust that she feels from her sources when telling their stories. She believes this comes from a mutual understanding that she won’t tell stories that dangerously criminalize Black people —a practice that predominantly white media outlets fail to do.
“Sometimes journalists get so wrapped up in the story that they just forget about the people that they’re talking about,” Napier said. “You can write a messy story about a white person and it doesn’t have the same type of impact if you write a story about a Black person.”
This is a habit in mainstream, white-centered newsrooms that Devarajan hopes to break with Elevate. Her mission as editor is to integrate the stories of the communities of color, without focusing solely on the “doom and gloom.”
“Having a dedicated space will mitigate that, because that’s really what we want to do, is tell more complex stories and have it be a space that also centers those people to tell part of their lived experience and not to be exploitative,” Devarajan said.
Devarajan is currently working with her team and editor-in-chief of The Daily Tar Heel Praveena Somasundaram, another woman of color, to create an action plan for prioritizing these stories of communities of color.
“We’re trying to figure out ways to do this — changing this power imbalance that exists with the DTH is sort of on this pedestal,” Devarajan said. “You’re coming to all these other organizations and being like, ‘Give me your stories,’ where it should be a much more of a level playing field and not just coming to a subsection when some tragedies occurred for quote because it fits.”
Sofia Martinez Querecuto, a senior at UNC-CH and senior advisor for The Bridge — a student-run publication through UNC-CH and Duke University that seeks to uplift the stories and creativity of women of color — believes that creating these spaces will also encourage creatives and storytellers of color to be bold in their craft.
“I think it’s easier for people of color to feel comfortable experimenting around other people of color,” Martinez Querecuto said. “I think that they feel more safe in terms of experimenting just because, sometimes our voices as BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) folks get minimized.”
This balanced exploration of storytelling among people of color is something that will come about as more marginalized groups begin to make their own spaces for their stories. A mission that Martinez Querecuto feels is long overdue.
“Make the space, elbow your way up to the table,” Martinez Querecuto said jokingly. “You deserve to be there,” she added with a tone of sincerity.
Edited by Brian Rosenzweig