Features Soka

Pearl Diver: An Inadequate History of the Black Experience at Soka

By Esat Tunager, Reporter

The Pearl Diver is a series that combs through back issues of the Pearl, seeking a better understanding of the Soka experience through the insights and mishaps of students who have long since fled the Soka Bubble. 

Black History Month: Dispelling the Myth. 2003. “Welcome to SUA’s first Black history month edition of The Pearl. […] Our culture is often overlooked and misrepresented and so that is why the students came up with the theme […] I am really proud to exhibit this rich cultural heritage. So enjoy, learn, and stay tuned, you will be hearing more from the Black students of SUA!”

Soka knows social strata; it bears Society’s ugly pockmark, the blight of the socially invariable, from race, gender, class and ethnicity to studiousness, age and recreational habits. Anyone who has walked through the cafeteria knows that these divisions all come into play. The Alexander Banerjees, those promiscuous refugees to whatever dinner-tables may accept them, prove the exception to such a rule. Soka provides (and often enforces) the constituent categories for the public perception of a Soka individual, and therefore the shape of a Soka Experience.

To what extent does this asseveration represent a failure on our part as both culture and community? I don’t know. But this is an evidential fact; our conglomerate of individuals contains within it lines, divisions and difference: rather than an amorphous mass we should be constituted by interstices and therefore dis-contiguity.

But the very desire to collapse the in-collapsible brings us to a potentially fruitful fulcrum: Soka is not discontinuous with the world. But that hope and dumb faith – the traces of redemption – should manifest themselves, that there should be a movement which, looking at failures, conjures the image of impossible successes, this in itself may be the pellucid honesty which in its delusion brings something other than itself into play. It proffers the vision of Soka not as some dumb, vapid school with 450 uninspiring students, but of a radical experiment in identity and cultural/ideational cohesion.

These divisions are an ancient theme in the Pearl, and they oscillate between calls for unity and the recognition of difference, as they do in the multitudinous political sphere of modern societal discourse. One can feel the silent anguish over the inevitability of such a phenomenon in the words of Mitsuko Matsumoto, who, during Soka’s first ever student forum, braved the microphone and said: “I am Japanese, I am SGI, I am from a Soka high school – people see me as this. That does not represent me.” (December 2002)

She was right; and she was wrong. It’s these words that haunt the Pearl and that continue to haunt inter-student dynamics at Soka. But the Pearl is where these elements formerly came out.

In honor of Black History month, and to celebrate the black people of this campus and the very idea that identity might link up with Soka Experience in a non-decrepit way, I have compiled a series of voices and attempted to etch out what might be understood by a specifically black experience at Soka. There was a time when the Pearl cared about black people, and about lending a battleground for black Soka students to fight in. That tradition is gone, but hopefully, maybe, this silent scream might incite a more tenacious element in the creative imagination of our campus. For now, we languish in silence and obscurity; I can only hope that some assemblage of intensities may bring things to the fore.

Op-Ed. May 2007. “On the evening of April 14, 2007, in the spirit of competition and fun, five students from the class of 2007 dressed up as the famous band The Jackson 5 for a band look-a-like contest, using brown makeup and afro wigs. […] Most people on this campus would be aware of why one shouldn’t yell the word “nigger” at the top of one’s lungs for all to hear. But those same people have neglected the finer points of sensitive racial issues at this semester’s spirit rally. […] This is the “passive violence” which breeds physical violence that Arun Gandhi warns us against. […] It is that blindness that can potentially cripple this university beyond repair, for when we lose sight of the biggest picture, we make the greatest of errors. Consider what may happen if the pictures and video of those unnaturally black faces were to be distributed throughout the community and local media. We do not need another assumption or label attached to our school, much less a racist one. […] I want to trust in Hagimoto’s [SSU President] ideal of “Soka care” yet I lose faith when some seniors’ initial reaction was one of defense and not one of seeking to repair the damage that was caused by their actions. An apology does not mean that this issue is over; in fact, it is just beginning. Now is the time for an education that goes outside of the classroom. It is time to raise awareness. The senior class’ blackface display, regardless of their intentions, was a haunting image of racism and ridicule seen right here on our campus.”

The World from Inside Out: Some Things to Think About. 2004. “At this moment in human history, black culture is very hot! […] But what they are really saying that they ‘know’ is black popular culture […] do they know what it means to be pulled over due to ‘DWB’ (Driving While Black) and the ugly history that is has in this country? […] During my three years at Soka, my self identity as a black person in the world has expanded to include the continent of Africa (the country of Africa does not exist), encompassing global leaders such as Nelson Mandela, Bishop Desmond Tutu, in addition to the peoples of Ghana, Niger, Liberia, and Zambia […] Being from a place where I came in contact with black Americans in every aspect of my life, coming to Soka has been quite an adjustment. Not that I hadn’t noticed, but when folks brought it to my attention that this school was missing one very important, integral element of American culture, I couldn’t help but feel a bit disappointed. Race is a subject seldom discussed, and sometimes ignored or avoided at Soka […] In general, on most campuses, the population of black students is generally lower than that of non-black students; I felt that Soka should have been taking steps against that trend. I found myself going into a deeper hole of isolation, spending more time with a core group of black students, and buried in books and school projects on black history […] I watched Rhythmission performs and became a hard core member of Soul Wings searching for my identity — searching for the identity — something outside of myself […] I also felt incredibly pressured to make a good, lasting impression for those who were not used to being around those of my skin color […] Some may wonder about this preoccupation with race. However, if I do not address these issues in my community, who will?”

The Black Hair Experience. 2003. “It is straight, silky and curly. In some cases, it is nappy, kinky, in coils and curls. Black hair comes in all textures, colors, and lengths and is all-natural no matter how it looks or feels. Many are fascinated by all the creative designs, braids and styles that come along with appreciating African-American hair, but many do not know that it is more than just hair. It is spending 8 to 15 hours at a beauty salon attempting to achieve those beautiful African braids, and it has a rich culture that is unique to those of African descent. […] My beautiful hair seemed to play a major role my whole childhood. The length of my extremely thick silky hair stretched down my back and body, it was like a sport event, getting it washed, combed, greased and curled or braided every two weeks. […] It connects me to my heritage. It brings women together, doing each others’ hair is an intimate moment.”

Insaka, Soka’s First Africa-Centered Club. 2005. “Insaka’s creation is partially the result of a conversation Mapili had with Dean of Faculty Michael Hays, regarding why there are no African-related studies at SUA-AV. According to Mapili, “Personally, I think an African studies class would be equally important as Pac Basin, Latin American studies, American government and Asian literature in the creation of a well-rounded global citizen.” Because it is unlikely that an African studies program will develop in the near future due to a lack of appropriate faculty, Mapili took it upon himself to create Insaka, “a club not only for Africans but for everybody at SUA-AV and the surrounding community that wants to be part of the solution to the problems facing Africa.”

SUA’s Boys from Ghana. 2003.Being African American and being African at SUA are completely different […] when you spend most your time cooped up here on campus, I don’t think you’re doing yourself any good. […] Though SUA is rich in cultural diversity, something still lacks. It is a challenge finding people you can relate to according to your social and cultural upbringing, especially for those who have come here from abroad. It is natural and always comforting to know you have a “brother” or “sister” who share similar experiences with you. I asked Edinam if he felt somewhat of a “brotherhood” on campus and within other African-American communities. He said, “The name that African Americans ascribe to themselves suggests that there is a difference. There are cultural differences and social differences.” But, “Western society has influenced our culture [in Ghana] so you find people interested in hip-hop, bla, bla, bla. It creates a premise of something common that we can share.”

Worried About not Fitting in at Soka? 2002. “Have you felt your whole life that you were a Black person trapped in a Japanese person’s body? Well, meet the other Emily, your soul sister. Girl, she feels the same way! Think that your dread-locking hair will uniquely encompass your pioneering spirit? Sorry – that is so class of 2005. […] Regardless of your strange interests, class background, physical ability, or your identity before you came to Soka, you will undoubtedly feel lonely at some point. My biggest worries when I came here were that I was going to be the only openly gay student and that I was going to be older than everyone else. I had braced myself for being one of only two or three African American students. I thought it was just going to be me and the brown-skinned girl featured in all the materials we received. […] As I started moving around campus I saw some black faces – more than I had imagined or hoped for. We didn’t all become instant friends, but Stacey, who was closest to my age, connected with me right away. On the stairs near the cafeteria, with smiles beaming as bright as the sun above us, we introduced ourselves and showed each other our tattoos. […] A few of us – gay, straight and bi (no out trans students yet) – nervously gathered for lunch. We were relieved to find each other – we all had the same question on our mind: how do I come out to my roommate? I told her the next day and she was wonderful. I was relieved […] I made it over another hurdle and was feeling more myself.”

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