Black Alumni Weekend, a bi-annual event spearheaded by the Black Student Union and Office of Alumni Affairs, took place from Friday, April 5 until Sunday, April 7. More than 30 alumni returned to their alma mater eager to forge connections with current students and indulge in their college memories. Deeming the weekend as a powerful experience would be an understatement, as the weekend united students and alumni — ranging from the classes of 1972 to 2012 — into a single space to commemorate the past and look forward to the future. Alumni included Ongel Duncan ’80, a virology clinical consultant; Robert Bellinger ’77, an educator; and Marissa Horne ’00, the senior manager for American Airlines and one of this year’s Wade Fellows. The gathering of alumni and students was a cathartic experience that reminded black students of their place in a long legacy of success, beginning with Edward Jones in 1822 and propelled by their own future achievements on and beyond the Amherst campus. More than that, the presence of alumni demonstrated their accessibility as available, willing resources positioned to assist current students through any means possible. After a fall semester filled with events that challenged the place of black students and role of black student activism on campus, the return of alumni who endured similar trials while at Amherst served as a testament to survival and solidarity.
The weekend’s festivities began with “Brother Talk/Sister Speak,” a storytelling event in the sankofa tradition. Sankofa is an Akan term that means “go back and get it.” Students and alumni honored this year’s theme of “examining the past to redefine our future” by sharing stories about their Amherst experiences. Each imparted memory, whether positive or negative, highlighted the similarities of Amherst experiences and struggles. While some alumni like Beryl Dudley ’04 dared students to be excellent in the midst of trying circumstances, students like Emeka Ojukwu ’14 shared how he came to form “blood bonds” with a diverse cast of Amherst undergraduates and encouraged students to establish similar familial connections with both students and alumni.
After many students and alumni shared their Amherst stories, former Associate Dean of Students, Onawumi Jean Moss, commanded the stage and challenged the assembly to celebrate the intradiversity within their own community. As she named various world regions, students stood upon hearing their birthplace. The united Amherst family of the past and present stood together to represent the sameness within their differences. Moss, an acclaimed storyteller, surmised the theme of unity with a tale about the “village of the undefeated” which inspired alumni and students alike to press on and stand, especially when there’s nothing left to do.
Saturday’s events included Pick-Up Basketball, a discussion about the Multicultural Resource Center, Career Panels and networking events. Briana Hanny ’13, Abigail Bereola ’15, Larissa Davis ’13, Ellis Moss ’79 and Interim Dean of Students Charri Boykin-East moderated the Multicultural Resource Center discussion. The conversation brought to light the difficulties students have faced in their fight to relocate the Center and prioritize issues of race and gender among the student body and administration. Although they affirmed their support for students during this present struggle, the alumni advised that these very issues demand continuous mediation within and beyond Amherst College.
While the Education and Law panel addressed different topics, the theme of solidarity permeated this event as well. The panel was moderated by the Director of Careers in Education Professions Ben Guest ’97, and included educators Robert Bellinger ’77 and Michael Horne ’02 and lawyers William Parker ’77 and Paul Murphy ’73. Parker, like Dudley, urged students to be the best despite the unfair society in which we live. The others provided useful tips on applying to graduate school and all emphasized the importance of relationships with Amherst alumni. These bonds should be more than just phone calls or emails asking for a job — they should also be friendly check-ins just to say hello. Such connections, Bellinger mentioned, establish personal relationships that are much more significant than needy professional communications.
The keynote dinner was the premier event of Black Alumni Weekend. Dr. Harold Massey ’80, an organizational developmental consultant, spoke on “Pondering Post-Racialism: Paradoxes of Pluralism and Power in Post-Apartheid America.” Using a variety of personal experiences, Massey underscored the continued centrality of race despite current post-racial arguments. Furthermore, Katherine Ponds ’15, the Junior Co-Chair of the Black Student Union, awarded Paul Murphy with the Distinguished Alumnus Award. Murphy is Amherst’s Administrative and Legal Counsel, and most recently organized, on behalf of 37 colleges and universities, the filing of the amicus brief with the United States Supreme Court in the case of Fisher vs. University of Texas. Andrew Nwachuku ’15 and Kenneth Adinkra ’16 closed the evening with an original musical selection.
The tragic 1973 death of Amherst freshman Gerald Penny ’77 forever changed the College. Thus, it was both right and necessary to hold a memorial service in his honor. His drowning in Pratt Pool not only led to the elimination of Amherst’s swimming requirement, but the transformation of the Octagon into a Black Cultural Center named in his honor, converting the space into a center for black activism and afro-centric events. On Sunday morning, Everett ‘Skip’ Jenkins ’75 led an emotional memorial service that not only commemorated the life of Gerald Penny, but of all deceased black alumni. Classmates of Penny’s like Antonio Jackson ’78, shared experiences with Gerald prior to his premature death. Angela Bronner Helm ’94 poured a libation for all of those whom have passed on and those yet to come. Alumni and students read aloud the names of the departed from the 19th century to recent years. Despite the sadness evoked by the service, Jenkins emphasized that goodness follows every tragedy. Reflecting upon Gerald Penny and the late alumni provoked a soul-stirring motivation to continue on this Amherst journey.
The final event, The Hermenia T. Gardner Bi-Semester Worship Service, closed the weekend on an uplifting note. The service’s speaker was Gardner herself, Amherst College’s former Affirmative Action Officer and the founding advisor of Bi-Semester, a worship experience that incorporates various African-American Christian traditions. During the soul food reception, Vanessa Olivier ’01, Terri Peeples ’01, Tene Howard ’01, Shanina Robinson ’02, Timothy Jones ’04 and Beryl Dudley surprised guests with an impromptu renditions of “Ezekiel Saw the Wheel.” The Senior Chair of the Black Student Union, Roshard Bryant ’14E, then invited the remaining guests to partake in the “Heartbeat” closing. By crossing arms, starting a buzz and squeezing hands, alumni and students affirmed the solidarity strengthened by the weekend’s events. The weekend had come full circle: students and alumni stood united as the village of the undefeated.