Being black (and a cherub)

Cherub Marissa Martinez interviews Camille Allen, an organizer of a Black Lives Matter rally held in downtown Evanston.

Marissa Martinez (left) interviews Camille Allen, an organizer of a Black Lives Matter rally held in downtown Evanston, on July 9. Photo by Leah Graham.

Only seven out of 80 cherubs really understood my struggle. Even though I was only an hour’s drive from my house, I felt homesick. At the same time, this helped me become a part of a tight-knit community and join with people who I might never have talked to otherwise.

This year’s cherub class has eight black students. This is a relatively large proportion when compared with professional black journalists, who make up only 4.74 percent of newsrooms nationwide, according to a study by the American Society of News Editors (ASNE).

When I learned this, I was disheartened that this small number is considered an accomplishment. How am I supposed to succeed in a career in journalism when only a few of my current peers (and future co-workers) share my perspectives?

I was aware of the nationwide lack of diversity in newsrooms before I got to Medill. According to an ASNE projection, minorities made up 12.8 percent of daily newspaper staffs. However, there’s a small part of me that wants to believe that my generation will change things, empowering the workforce with young, diverse minds.

Yet, when I walked into the lecture hall for the first time, I was shocked. Few people looked like me, with my dark hair and skin. I felt my heart drop in my chest.

The first few days were hard. I heard racial microaggressions constantly, but I didn’t feel like I could speak up against any. I can’t count the number of times three of us were confused for one another, even though we look nothing alike.

“Oh, sorry, I thought you were the other one,” I heard on my first Monday as a girl tried to recall my name.

Then, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were killed within 24 hours of each other during our second week. I remember feeling numb. It was already hard to process the latest loss in a continuous, destructive cycle of police brutality. It was even harder to be surrounded by 72 other people who would never be affected in the same way.

My friend Erin Edwards sent a text saying she needed support. I rushed over to her common room after class, finding her in tears. She said I was the only person she knew here who would understand how she felt.

I knew that from then on, owning our blackness at this program was more important than ever. The two of us offered support to Natachi Onwuamaegbu, another black cherub on our floor who was a stranger at the time. The three of us lifted each other up with texts of encouragement, strengthening a new but exciting bond.

After that day, all the black cherubs grew closer. Edwards started a group chat, which sounds insignificant, but eventually became one of the most meaningful parts of my time here at Medill. The eight of us ate at various Evanston restaurants, hung out in common rooms together, played games and talked about our experiences both here and at home. I gained some of my best friends through the program’s last weeks.

I go to a predominantly white school which means I don’t get the opportunity to interact with a lot of black people. When I realized I was one of eight at the cherub program, I felt nervous. Would my school experience be replicated here?

Quickly, my anxiety disappeared. Through the group chat, I was introduced to seven unique people who made the subsequent weeks amazing. Andrew Golden and I played pool for hours listening to rap music. Edwards and I argued over makeup usage. Elliot Wailoo, Marc Chappelle and I took sarcasm to a new level. Anastasia Marks and I squealed over how we both brought bottles of hot sauce. Dani Lyle and I talked about dance moves. Onwuamaegbu and I stayed up all night screaming with laughter.

When Lyle made a video about the eight of us navigating this program, it sealed the deal. In our eyes, we were officially both the biggest and the closest group of black cherubs ever. We each owned our individuality, but together, we felt unstoppable, comforted in our micro-community.

These fast, deep connections made me hopeful for the future after all. Although I am still discouraged by the lack of diverse representation in the media, I met some amazing, smart people who will prove their worth in newsrooms across the globe. We laughed, we cried, but most importantly, we survived.