stay woke is a call to consciousness, awareness, skepticism, and action. Last week, however, it became more than a figurative admonition when Lolade Siyanbola, a black graduate student at Yale University, was reported to campus police by a white female student for the suspicious action of napping in a dormitory common room. Like generations of hard-grinding Ivy League scholars, Siyanbola had succumbed to the exhaustion of finals week. But her inability to stay awake—a literal failure to stay woke—resulted in a 20-minute encounter with police officers who insisted she verify her right to be on campus.
I first learned about the Yale incident when Prof. Sherri Williams of American University shared the news with the Black on Campus GroupMe chat. The GroupMe is one of the key tools that Dr. Williams and I use to communicate with a cohort of 10 student journalists. The Black on Campus fellows attend colleges and graduate schools throughout the country. Since January they have been meeting, studying, traveling, and writing together in a program jointly sponsored by the Anna Julia Cooper Center at Wake Forest University and The Nation as they document the lived experiences of today’s black college students.
The Black on Campus cohort barely reacted when Dr. Williams shared word of the Yale incident. They may have been outraged, but racial shock is exceedingly rare among these young reporters. After all, their academic year began with white supremacists wielding flaming tiki torches as they marched through the grounds of the University of Virginia chanting “You will not replace us.” On a near weekly basis, we’ve shared stories of campuses inflamed by symbolic racism, discursive violence, or bodily harm against black students in predominantly white spaces. We reeled when Howard University was caught in a funding scandal, suggesting that even the nation’s premier historically black university was a place where students experienced intentional institutional harm.
For Black on Campus fellows, these stories were not distant or disconnected. Fellow Lauren Lumpkin and Dr. Williams study and work at American University, where bananas and nooses were found hanging in trees one year ago. The wounds of white-supremacist violence are still fresh at the University of Virginia, where fellow Alexis Gravely is a junior. Wake Forest fellow Bri Reddick was trying to study for midterms when she found herself at the center of a campus racial controversy making national headlines.