On Feb. 28, the Black Student Union (BSU) brought acclaimed author Mikki Kendall to Kenyon via Zoom as the keynote speaker to cap off the celebration of Black History Month. However, the process of booking Kendall was not smooth, as the BSU experienced difficulties securing funding from the Student Council and Office of Student Engagement (OSE).
Kendall is the author of the book Hood Feminism, named best book of the year for 2020 by BBC’s Hustle, Time and Time Magazine. Dana Diallo ’23, sergeant-at-arms of the BSU, spoke about the decision to bring Kendall to Kenyon.
“Especially after the year we had with all the racial tension that has been going on, [the BSU executive board] thought it would be important to have someone on campus that would be able to speak to the Black students specifically … Mikki Kendall does a really good job at that,” Diallo said. “Her audience is definitely for Black people and that really resonated with us, and we felt that it would be very powerful, especially in a predominantly white campus, to have that voice speaking toward us.”
Prior to the event itself, the BSU executive board experienced a number of challenges trying to bring Kendall as a virtual keynote speaker. In an open letter, the BSU executive board described how — after discussing the date, price and medium of the event with the OSE, and making a case for the speaker to the Business and Finance Committee (BFC) on Jan. 19 — the BSU was denied funding by the Student Council on Jan. 24 on the grounds that “bringing a speaker on campus is not permitted.”
Subsequently, after a supplemental hearing with the BFC on Feb. 8, the BSU received full funding for the talk on Feb. 14. However, on Feb. 18, the BSU executive board was again notified that they could not bring Kendall on Feb. 28 due to an OSE rule requiring contracts to be signed four weeks in advance of the event date. After an email detailing their concerns, the BSU executive board ultimately secured funding and their requested date. However, the board members were left with the impression that they “were expected to be grateful … to have [their] keynote speaker during Black History Month,” as they wrote in an open letter.
Diallo spoke about this experience, and reiterated the open letter’s call for guaranteed funding for affinity groups.
“I said this in the meeting and I will say it again: BSU is the most established organization on campus within affinity groups, and Black History Month isn’t a new thing, so it’s kind of self-explanatory that we are going to need a budget to plan events for Black History Month, even if it’s a global pandemic — especially when it’s a global pandemic — because Black students need this kind of support,” Diallo said. “I can’t stress enough how much this frustrated me.”
Kendall’s talk was structured like a conversation, moving fluidly between discussion of her own experiences as a Black woman in academia and those of Black students at Kenyon. She also discussed her time in the military and her relationship with mainstream feminism. Diallo noted that Kendall’s conversational style reflected her non-hierarchical approach to writing and academia. “That was very comforting to be around,” Diallo said.“I feel like that’s mainly important for Black people to start having these conversations because a lot of times it feels one-sided, or that you are just talking to a wall. Just having that direct conversation is really a powerful experience.”
Kendall spoke at length about navigating life in the military and social safety nets such as food stamps, while tying those experiences directly to life at Kenyon.
“I know some of you, especially this last year, probably had to worry about your meals and your housing at least at some point. Then the government told you you were not eligible for help, because you were independent of your parents,” Kendall said. “I knew I had the kind of parents who wouldn’t help pay for college … And one way to become an independent student was to join the military; the other options were marriage or pregnancy.”
Relating this discussion of differential access to basic necessities to life at Kenyon, Diallo spoke about the language barriers of class that prevent meaningful conversations about access to food, birth control and menstrual products from beginning at Kenyon.
“Honestly, it makes rich people very uncomfortable to talk about how privileged they are. Because it’s really comforting to know that you don’t have to worry about being in the same space as a person who has to worry about their next meal,” she said. “Especially because there are times where Kenyon doesn’t help us bridge that barrier as much, it really does become a job that we have to take on … There are more needs other than in my financial aid package that just don’t get accommodated for. And we just don’t really talk about that.”