AAAG assembly honors African-American alumni, highlights racial issues

English teacher Kimberly Olan (87) recounts her experience as an African-American student at St. Johns.

Grace Sanders

English teacher Kimberly Olan (’87) recounts her experience as an African-American student at St. John’s.

Noura Jabir, Staff Writer

2018 marks the 40th anniversary of the first African-American student to graduate from St. John’s. To honor this landmark and to acknowledge Black History Month, the African-American Affinity Group designed an assembly that gave students a glimpse into the black perspective within the St. John’s community.

The assembly, held on Feb. 13 in the Lowe Theater, opened with a slideshow depicting African-American alumni such as English teacher Kimberley Olan (’87), the universities they attended and their current professions. Sophomore AAAG member Jordan Fullen, who was the driving force behind the assembly’s content and structure, gave opening remarks in which he discussed the school’s history with African Americans, beginning with the admission of its first black student in 1973.

Junior Jyra Pringle then recited her original poem, “My Hopes for Future Black Students at SJS,” followed by Olan’s speech about her experiences as a black student at St. John’s in the 1980’s.

Grace Sanders
Junior Jyra Roben recites her original poem, which details her hopes for future African-American students at St. John’s.

When students first asked Olan to speak at the assembly, she declined the offer because she does not regard herself as a public speaker. She was also nervous about the aftermath of the assembly and the negative impact it might have on her personally.

“No one wants to be the catalyst for any great upheaval,” Olan said.

Olan said that what changed her mind was the responsibility she felt to her AAAG students.

“I did not want to let them down, and I knew that if I stood up and gave a diluted version of the truth, they would be disappointed.”

After Olan’s speech, nearly 40 members of AAAG performed a dance choreographed by junior Lena McZeal to a medley of songs, including “Say My Name” by Destiny’s Child and the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme song.

Video Credit: Valerie Lewis

AAAG members met during lunch, DaVinci periods and after school to prepare for the assembly.

“It was a lot of work,” freshman Natalie Brown said. “We had a hard time practicing the dance because we could hardly ever get everyone in the same room with our schedules.”

The event concluded with a slideshow containing images of current African-American students and quotes about their experiences within the SJS community.

The assembly’s message was well-received by the student body, as hearing and seeing their black classmates articulate their frustrations with the school helped non-African-American students gain a deeper understanding of the racial issues within the SJS community.

“It was something that needed to be said,” freshman Zachary Lawyer said. “Because it was people I knew on stage, and it was very direct, the assembly did a better job of addressing racial issues than other assemblies.”

The assembly left some seniors feeling sentimental about their experiences with AAAG. Senior co-president of AAAG Layo Laniyan, who leaves for Stanford University next year, says that AAAG has been an integral element of his time at St. John’s.

“AAAG really gave me a space to think about myself in terms of my race, and that’s what has made the biggest impact on me since I came to St. John’s,” said Laniyan.

The assembly also left those involved with AAAG optimistic about the future of the affinity group and the SJS community as a whole.

“The success of the assembly gives me hope,” Olan said. “It makes me feel good about the future for all of my students, and I hope others feel the same way.”