Maya May grew up in the Old West End neighborhood of Toledo, Ohio, one of America’s highest crime areas. She took alternate routes to school to avoid dead bodies on the street.
“I didn’t understand that other people didn’t live that way,” she said. “It was just life for me.”
May, the effusive president of the Southwestern College Black Student Union (BSU), is the mother of a four-year-old boy and highly involved in the community. She is also a big fan of black history who led an energetic conversation at the first spring meeting of BSU.
“Learning black culture and history is a big part of who I am,” she said. “Sometimes there’s so much hate pushed towards it that you forget it is something to be proud of.”
While attending a predominantly white Catholic high school that lacked ethnic diversity, she experienced racism and stereotyping by fellow students.
“It didn’t make me mad that they were being racist towards me,” she said. “It made me mad that people were seeing me as ‘the black girl’ and not just ‘Maya.’”
This made it extremely hard to find her own identity, but through adversity she learned to find her own talents and transformed how people saw her, she said.
“I have to live with stereotypes, but they don’t have to make who I am,” she said. “I know who I am.”
A struggle to find an identity is a theme shared by many members of the BSU. Club secretary Khalil Adisa grew up in Southeast San Diego and was one of only four black men in his high school’s graduating class.
“Even if people don’t bring it up you can see the way they look at you,” he said. “I never really fit.”
Adisa, 20, is now a criminal justice major at SWC. He works to learn about himself and his culture through African-American history courses and BSU.
“I never really knew what being black meant,” he said. “(The courses) helped me know who I am and where I come from.”
Adisa said it is important to look past traditional black figures such as Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King Jr. because black history has much more to offer.
“You wanna know black history?” he asked. “Tell me about the people no one talks about. Tell me about the Sojourner Truths and Marcus Garveys.”
Black history figures that are crucial influences to the current way of life are often ignored and underrepresented, said Adisa.
Abdimalik Buul, assistant professor of personal development, agreed.
“(The African-American community) has always been a people who look at the collective and the benefit of the whole society,” he said. “When we look out for folks, it’s all folks.”
Buul, co-chair of the SWC Black Alliance, said he teaches students of all backgrounds to be open minded to history and other perspectives.
“You can look at black history and see how black people persisted,” he said. “We’ve always been at the most vulnerable stages.”
May said that sense of shared struggle and community is what she values, and what makes her proud to be who she is.
“My culture, my skin color, my history, my ancestors, they’re gold. I wouldn’t let that go and I’m willing to get shot for it.”