July 20, 2015A Young Man of WordsA viral video about race helped one student find a voice
By Eric Hoover
Sy Stokes typed the words into his phone. He typed during class, on the way to dinner, and long after midnight while his roommates slept. Whenever something angered him, he’d write a line or two. One day he sat down to gather the words into a poem. It begins softly, then turns fierce as thunder.
That was late summer, 2013. Mr. Stokes, then a junior at the University of California at Los Angeles, had performed his own spoken-word poetry at open-mic events. He had written lyrics about love and the mystery of beauty: "How a rat will look at a bat / Like it has the wings of an angel."
The new poem was different: It describes the frustrations of black men on a campus with relatively few black students. Walking around angry month after month, Mr. Stokes had finally spun stanzas that cast the university as a place of privilege, callous to the challenges he and other black men faced. The closing lines pose a question: "So with all my brothers’ hopes and dreams that this university has tried to ruin / How the hell am I supposed to be proud to call myself a Bruin?"
The words welled from Mr. Stokes’ past, years of feeling unwelcome among peers who didn’t look like him, who came from different kinds of neighborhoods. The poem also echoes the concerns of other nonwhite students who feel out of place at the nation’s most-selective colleges, which are often divided by race and class.
When Mr. Stokes first performed "The Black Bruins," at a campus coffee shop, a small audience applauded. The poem might have floated away, forgotten, if so many classmates hadn’t encouraged him that day. "Yo," he recalls them saying, "you need to show this to more people."
He had already turned one poem into a video, and he decided to do it again. His roommate that year happened to be a videographer, a white student eager to help. Mr. Stokes asked several friends who knew about the poem if they wanted to be in the video. They did.
Mr. Stokes choreographed the production and chose Campbell Hall as a backdrop. The building houses the university’s Academic Advancement Program, which supports students from underrepresented backgrounds. It’s also where, in 1969, two members of the Black Panther Party were fatally shot in a dispute, which is referenced in the video’s opening frame.
Despite being filmed quickly, the four-and-a-half minute video has a professional feel, with background music and floating text. Mr. Stokes stands front and center, staring into the camera, his voice rising and falling as he speaks his words. Ten students, all black men, stand on the steps behind him. In the final seconds, each slowly removes his UCLA sweatshirt and drops it to the ground.
Late one night that November, Mr. Stokes uploaded the video to YouTube and emailed the link to several friends. He wanted classmates and administrators to know what some black students were thinking. He wanted prospective students to hear it, too. He’d be thrilled, he thought, if the clip got 10,000 views over the next 12 months.
It took less than 12 hours. Early the next morning, his mother called and woke him up. Check the view count, she said: 12,000 and climbing fast. She’d seen the video, and he could hear the concern in her voice: "Sy, what did you do?"
The question had many answers. For one, Mr. Stokes had exercised his 21st-century right to use social media as a means of protest. He had called out his university, describing it as a "racist corporation." He had criticized it for enrolling too few black students — less than 4 percent of the undergraduate population that quarter, one of several statistics cited in the video.
He also had waded into a longstanding debate over affirmative action. By passing Proposition 209 nearly two decades ago, California voters barred public colleges from considering an applicant’s race or ethnicity. The law has hindered the University of California system’s efforts to enroll more black and Hispanic students; at UCLA, they remain significantly underrepresented relative to the state’s population.
Above all, Mr. Stokes had tapped into feelings shared by black students elsewhere: that they’re often misunderstood, marginalized, isolated. When few people in a lecture hall look like you, it can make you wonder if you really belong. "Every black student in class," he says in the video, "feels like Rosa Parks on the bus."
Mr. Stokes had first tasted racial tension at 14. The son of a black father and a Chinese mother, he grew up in El Sobrante, Calif., among friends who were Asian-American, black, Filipino, and Mexican. One day a girl from another high school invited him to her homecoming dance. Cool, he thought.
On the big night, he wore a Yankees cap, T-shirt, and Nike basketball shoes. As soon as he got to the school, he felt uncomfortable. Nobody was dressed like him, and just about everyone was white. For the first time in his life, he thought about how his skin was darker than others’. "People stared at me like crazy," he says. "Whatever I did, I had eyes on me." Standing on the crowded dance floor, he felt alone.
Mr. Stokes didn’t anticipate experiencing similar unease at the university. He arrived in 2011 with high hopes and the UCLA sweatshirt he had purchased minutes after receiving his acceptance. He visited the student health-and-wellness center, named after his cousin Arthur Ashe
, a 1966 UCLA graduate and the first black male American tennis player to win the U.S. Open and Wimbledon tournaments. Looking at the building made Mr. Stokes proud.
But early on, something seemed amiss. "It was like I was at that dance all over again," he says.
In his first week, Mr. Stokes went to a fraternity party with a group of students, most of them white. When Mr. Stokes, the last in line, tried to enter, two fraternity brothers at the door blocked his path, told him he couldn’t come in. As he called a friend who was inside, he watched several other men stroll right through.
As he remembers it, he got in only after his friend, who was white, came outside and vouched for him. At the party, he saw people getting free drinks; when he ordered one, he was asked for $5. He stood in a corner for a while before leaving, eating alone, and returning to his room to sleep.
As the months passed, Mr. Stokes made hardly any friends in his dorm, where he was one of two black students on a floor of 180. Few of them seemed interested in talking to him, and he said little to them. After an argument, one of his roommates said, "Everyone on the floor hates you."
That spring quarter, Mr. Stokes called his mother and told her he was going to drop out, move home, and enroll at a community college. Later that day, just outside of his statistics class, a young man approached him. "Hey," he said, "I think I’ve seen you around the dorm." His name was Guillermo Escalante, and he wanted to know if Mr. Stokes was interested in playing intramural football or basketball. Yes, he was.
After that exchange, which Mr. Stokes calls one of the most important moments of his life, he found companions, guys he could understand. They were a mixed group — black, white, Korean, Thai — who enjoyed playing sports together.
In his sophomore year, a friend introduced Mr. Stokes to the Black Male Institute, a campus program meant to improve the educational experiences of young men on the campus. Members of the close-knit group, which met on Wednesday afternoons, discussed the frustrations they shared, the sting of stereotypes, like constantly being asked, "Are you an athlete?"
Participants conduct research on issues affecting black males in higher education. Mr. Stokes and others dug up enrollment statistics. Disturbed by much of what he found, he wanted to share it with others.
Numbers, he knew, say only so much. So Mr. Stokes turned to poetry.
His video affirmed the power of words — and of the technology that can carry them far and wide. Within days, "The Black Bruins" had racked up 100,000 views on YouTube. Mr. Stokes got a slew of interview requests, from BET, CNN, and several newspapers. "We’re outside," one caller told him, and he looked out his window to see a television truck.
Praise filled his ears. Some students walked up to Mr. Stokes to say his video captured what they had always wanted to express. At the 25th annual Student of Color Conference, run by the University of California Student Association and held at UCLA a few days after the video went up, students from other campuses recognized him. Some insisted on having their picture taken with him. A white student wrote a poem supporting "The Black Bruins" and filmed himself reading it in front of Campbell Hall.
UCLA officials quibbled with some of the video’s statistics, especially the claim that 65 percent of black male students were athletes. It was 18 percent, the university said. Yet two high-ranking administrators reached out to Mr. Stokes and the Black Male Institute, asking what the university could do better.
In meetings that followed, he and other students offered suggestions, such as the creation of a resource center for black students. They wanted the university to add a diversity course to its academic requirements, an idea the faculty had long debated. Mr. Stokes also said the university had to do more to cultivate relationships with local schools that serve underrepresented students, especially young black men who happen not to be athletes. "If somebody’s good at a sport," he says, "they’ll have everyone from this damn school out there."
Responses came from other colleges, too. A group of male students at Oregon State University calling themselves "The Black Beavers" produced a similar video lamenting the low percentage of black students there. The Twitter hashtag #BBUM, for "being black at the University of Michigan," took off as students shared their experiences.
Scorn, too, rained down on Mr. Stokes. He received hateful emails and read anonymous death threats on YouTube. "Go home n----r," one message said, and it was hardly the worst. At least one friend from the institute accompanied him wherever he went, he says, just in case someone, somewhere, was planning to jump him.
Criticism from black students hurt the most. Several got in his face at campus rallies. Some told him he wasn’t black enough, or asked if he was just seeking publicity. Others complained that "The Black Bruins" had excluded the concerns of black women. He lost friends over it all.
As links to the video flew, it caught the eye of a prominent civil-rights group. The Rainbow PUSH Coalition invited Mr. Stokes and his friends to a belated birthday for the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson at a Los Angeles hotel, where Chaka Khan sang. The next day, the students met with Mr. Jackson, who, Mr. Stokes says, sought his help in planning a march.
Although Mr. Stokes had hoped to work with the group, he recalls thinking it was trying to co-opt his message. "They just had their own agenda," he says. "Marches are a great thing, but social media’s way bigger than a march now."
Still, Mr. Stokes found his message hard to control. Before a live interview on MSNBC, a cameraman saw him scribbling notes. "Don’t talk too much," he told Mr. Stokes. When the questions began, he felt that he hardly got to say anything. After that he stopped granting interviews.
The whirl of publicity drained him. At first he had been excited, proud, eager to show off the video. Then he came to feel powerless, as if something was dragging him around. Near the end of the fall quarter, exhaustion floored him. He wanted just to go to class, work out, be anonymous again. Depressed, he called an old friend one night, asking for help. "It was too much," he says.
Mr. Stokes’ parents worried about his safety. They shared their concerns with Tyrone Howard, a professor of education who directs the Black Male Institute. He had mentored the young man, inspiring him to major in African-American studies.
Mr. Howard had found the video both powerful and poignant, and he understood why it was provoking some negative reactions. "People who see it get one sense of who he is," he says: "an angry guy who’s causing trouble on campus."
Mr. Howard knew Sy as a quiet, respectful kid who hadn’t spoken up at first. Over time, the professor says, "it became clear that he had an opinion and a voice, a thoughtful, artistic voice."
This past April, Mr. Stokes was trying to draw out other people’s voices. One warm afternoon, he sat at an outdoor table on campus. Calm and soft-spoken, he didn’t flinch when pigeon droppings landed on his black cardigan, open to reveal a "Black Lives Matter" T-shirt. He cleaned it off and described his latest spoken-word project...Part two of article in next reply box...