On Monday, Oct. 26, the second segment of a three part series of student-led discussions on the History of Anti-Blackness at Colby College took place in Ostrove Auditorium in Diamond. The event was also streamed on Facebook Live by the Colby Mutual Aid Fund.
The series centers around instances of anti-Blackness on campus, institutional failures in responding to these racist incidents, and student resistance against anti-Blackness. The discussion on Oct. 26 specifically dealt with the Akon Day incident that occured in the fall of 2018.
The event, sponsored by the Department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, was led by Terri Nwanma `22, Faith Nkansah-Siriboe `22, and Micaela Duran `21. Both Nkansah-Siriboe and Duran work in Special Collections at Colby, from which most of the information for the series was compiled.
The three students shared that the History of Anti-Blackness at Colby College series received substantial pushback from the College. However, that did not deter the 146 students who registered to attend the Akon Day discussion.
They viewed the purpose of the series as a reckoning of the history of anti-Blackness at Colby, examining the way the administration has responded to incidents of anti-Blackness, and reflecting on how Colby’s campus has failed and continues to fail to adequately support marginalized students.
Nwanma added that they felt a responsibility to “[document] the stories of people not having a good time on campus and people who are affected by racism all around the world.”
The Oct. 26 presentation began by describing the build-up to the Akon Day incident. That fall, Four Winds, the College’s indigeneous students club, created a poster detailing advice on how to avoid offensive Halloween costumes.
Their poster included “Four signs your Halloween costume is disrespectful,” which included wearing accessories that resemble another culture’s sacred artifacts or any offensive symbols. However, controversy arose after an SGA email that reiterated Four Winds overall message did so with much milder language.
The Akon Day incident itself occurred on Nov. 11, 2018. The event had been an annual tradition, and the 2018 event marked the 7th anniversary of it.
The party was thrown by the men’s lacrosse team and was predominantly attended by white students. Partygoers dressed in orange jumpsuits and wore fake teardrop tattoos using rapper Akon’s Konvicted album as inspiration. Female students braided their hair to mimic cornrows and wore hoop earrings.
These costumes were racist; students appropriated Black culture through their hair and accessories and correlated Blackness with criminality by dressing in jumpsuits imitating prison garb. When these white students were told to change by their peers, they refused.
After the event, there was little to no disciplinary action or sanctions applied to the organizers and participants of the Akon Day party. This led to student outrage and an eventual sit-in in Cotter Union on Nov. 9, 2018. Hundreds of students and staff dressed in black and sat in silence for an hour. A group of Black students dressed in orange jumpsuits to mimic the students at the party.
To accompany their own telling the story of Akon Day, the three presenters screened an interview done with an attendee of the sit-in, Adji Astou Seck `20.
“The turnout was amazing,” Astou Seck recounted. “Seeing my professors there and seeing people I didn’t think cared showed to me that as a whole our community still stands together.”
The aftermath of the event also led Duran and other students to start a new group called Students 4 Change, which, among many other as-yet unrealized demands, called for President David Greene to host a town hall for students to address the incident. This was frustrating for many students as President Greene never agreed to lead the town hall.
Duran also outlined in the presentation a list of demands the group had for the College that she has yet to see be fulfilled by the College even now, two years later.
Some of the demands included not only making Civil Discourse accessible to students but the archives of past years’ posts as well. Students also called on Colby to make a one to five year plan to improve counseling services for students of color, hire more staff for the Pugh Center, and to create a five to ten year plan to create a department dedicated to addressing bias on campus.
The students also called for the college to relook at their threshold for bias in the student handbook and the role of the Bias Incidence Prevention and Response (BIPR) team.
Nkansah-Siriboe shared that she believed it was important to keep the story of Akon Day alive.
“As students filter out through Colby, some stories get erased. On the same note, when incidents are not addressed outright, it gets erased,” Nkansah-Siriboe explained. “For students of color at Colby, they should know that their feelings are validated and they are unfortunately not new.”
The presenters took many questions from the audience.
The first installment of the series took place on Oct. 19 and featured the story of Mayra Diaz, a Puerto Rican Black student at Colby, who was falsely accused by a white student for threatening her life. The last part of the series took place on Nov. 2 and was focused on an incident of police brutality that happened at the College in the Students Organized for Black and Latnix Unity (SOBLU) meeting room in 2009.
The incident took place on April 12, 2009. Following a Rave to the Grave Party in Page Commons, an intoxicated student wandered into the SOBLU room in the Pugh Center where he fell asleep. A security officer passing by came to check on the student with two students who identified the sleeping student. A third student by the name of Ramirez also came into the room questioning what the security officer was doing there.
At this point, tensions between the student body and Security had been high. Ramirez was then slammed onto the ground and put in a butterfly hold. The situation escalated and Waterville, Fairfield, Winslow, and Oakland Police Departments were called along with Maine State Troopers and personnel from the Kennebec Valley Sheriff’s office.
Another POC student Roundtree also had a confrontation with law enforcement in the same Pugh Center incident. In what could clearly be categorized as excessive force, Roundtree was maced three times while handcuffed.
Law enforcement also stopped another student, Talarico, by Johnson Pond for unclear reasons. After a scuffle, the three, all students of color, were arrested and taken to the police station in Augusta for criminal trespassing and assault. Ramirez, Roundtree, and Talarico received no medical attention for the injuries they sustained from law enforcement.
One of the critical pieces of evidence from that night was video footage taken on a cellphone showing Ramirez pinned on the ground in his own blood. The footage was widely circulated among the Colby community and which prompted outrage. A protest was held on April 14 which was attended by over 800 students, which was nearly half of Colby’s student
population at the time.
As with the aftermath of the Akon Day party that would occur nine years later, many of the demands by the students which included the suspension of the security officers involved, a public apology, and financial support for the affected students were never realized.
The series shed light on the failures of the administration when it comes to supporting BIPOC students at Colby and how justice still has not been served for affected students.
Students looking to better understand these events can check out the special collections archives for the documents and sources used in the presentations.
~ Fiona Huo `23