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Stony Brook USG reckons with the passing of Black icons during Black History Month initiative

Undergraduate Student Government (USG) President Huntley Spencer at the Stony Brook University Black Lives Matter protest and rally on Oct. 21. USG is using their Instagram to honor four Black icons who recently passed away. RABIA GURSOY/THE STATESMAN

Maia Gomis, the Assistant to the Vice President of Student Life, is one of the brains behind the Stony Brook Undergraduate Student Government’s new Instagram series, which, in honor of Black History Month, is posting tributes to Black icons who have recently passed away.

“Black History is not just for one month, it’s forever,” Gomis, a senior biology major and Africana studies minor, said.

Over the last year, many Black people of prominence have died. From Cicely Tyson, MF DOOM, Andre Harrell to Mary Wilson, the point remains the same — the Black community especially is dealing with the loss of powerful icons. Members of USG, aware of this, decided to act. With the Instagram initiative, the hope was to give space for reflection, a space many students of color need during this tumultuous time.

It was decided that a total of four people would be honored on the page, one for every Friday of the month. With so many lives lost, it was hard to pick who those would be. The decision to include Pop Smoke was easy.

“We were supposed to get him as a concert person,” Gomis said. Last year, the artist was supposed to be one of the headliners for the annual Brookfest concert, which was canceled due to the pandemic.

Choosing the other figures proved more difficult. Gomis explained the challenge.

“There’s so many more people we would like to add but because there were so little chances to post people it was kind of like, okay, who is it that people felt like was the biggest loss?” she said.

So far, Kobe and Gianna Bryant, as well as Pop Smoke, are the only people on the page.

The images have garnered more than 500 likes combined. Instagram user @cxnvallariamajalis left the comment, “Performative activism, we love to see it,” under the photo of Pop Smoke. USG welcomed the critique, writing in part, “We’d appreciate feedback, and encourage you to email us with potential suggestions and ideas that showcase advocacy better.”

The initiative may not be enough for some, but to USG, it’s a thoughtful dedication from a coalition of students who, due to a pandemic, can’t do things as they have before. “This year, it’s kind of limiting again, because COVID kind of sucks… I think that right now, the best we can do is stay virtual,” Gomis said. 

Senior English and creative writing major Jolena Podolsky is part of that coalition. Podolsky is the vice president of communications at USG and recognizes that the loss of these prominent individuals is felt by all, especially in ways that we can not visualize. USG is honoring more than just Black musicians and athletes on their Instagram page, but people who left lasting change in the United States. Segregation and civil rights issues still exist but have been mitigated by the work of many, like the late John Lewis

“Though it’s a shame that we had these issues in America, we’re still grateful for those who took action against it and fought for what we have now,” Podolsky said. “Sometimes these physical contributions … we may not see it, but we’re living in it.” 

Despite their deaths,  the impact these leaders have had on the Black community has not disappeared. Sophomore biology major Chris Jean, who is also the assistant to the executive vice president of USG, agrees that it is more than just the physical objects they have left behind, “but it’s the lasting impact and the feelings they made us feel when they were still here. It’s like Black History Month isn’t a time to think about the past more. I see it more as a celebration of their impact.” 

Their influence is long-lasting in a multitude of ways. For Gomis, their imprint is directly reflected in the way Black children see themselves. Many of these prolific Black artists were trailblazers in their respective fields, breaking down barriers and providing diverse representation for many children.

“Kids can just be kids,” Gomis said. No longer do they feel pressured to conform to a specific form of Blackness.

Senior political science major and journalism and media arts minor Kiara Arias was one of those kids. Defining herself in a predominantly white high school was hard — and the media’s portrayal of Black people did not help.

“I didn’t have, anyone really in the media, or in books, movies that I could really look to and be like, wow, they’re beautiful, they’re intelligent,” Arias said. 

Arias enjoys further exploring these tough conversations. “Stony Speaks” is an Instagram Live series hosted by Arias on the USG Instagram page. The intimate discussions range from topics including racism within industries like fashion, to the representation of South Asians in the United States. It is another meaningful way USG has created space for necessary rumination.

Clearly, USG has more in store to serve the diverse Stony Brook University community. USG will continue to host various events, posted to their social media pages.

“When it comes to USGS work, this is not just for February. Obviously, there’s a lot more amplification because it is Black History Month,” Podolsky said.

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