Fourth-year College student Jayla Hart is creating a multimedia project that aims to encapsulate the Black female experience at the University as a component of her Echols interdisciplinary thesis project. After interviews and a series of group dialogues with current and past students, Hart plans to respond to what is revealed in these dialogues through a series of poems and a short film — taking on issues such as identity and a sense of belonging at a predominantly white institution.
The project focuses on Black women who have been — or are currently — students of the University. The project acknowledges the University as an appropriate context for this discussion as a predominantly white institution with 6.74 percent of undergraduate students identifying as Black in 2020, compared to 55.67 percent identifying as white. Out of 17,314 students, 709 self-identified as Black females.
“As I’ve gone through the University, I really have found the strongest community at U.Va. in community with other Black students and in particular with other Black women, who I think not only are able to understand my experiences, but willing to challenge me in ways that the larger University culture does not allow,” Hart said.
Beginning this month, Hart plans to host Black women from the University community in open conversations entitled “The Shop Sessions,” both in-person and via Zoom. Hart emphasized her goal to create “an exercise in collective learning and critical consciousness” with long-term impacts even after the meetings end. Her project seeks to examine cultural hegemony — the dominance of a culturally diverse society by a ruling class — and illuminate pathways for social equity.
“This is about current Black women and alumna all learning from each other,” Hart said.
In March, following the group sessions and one-on-one interviews will dive into more personal, individualized stories surrounding interviewees' understanding of their identities within the University and the experience of being a Black woman navigating a predominantly white institution.
“My hope with this project is to show people that Black women are not only resilient, but we have very key strategies that we have used to understand who we are as people.” Hart said. “I’m trying to learn from women — how does your understanding of yourself shape how you envision your freedom? How do you envision being in a community with people who truly love and care about you?”
After collecting responses, Hart will build upon the sentiments through a collection of 10 to 20 poems and a short film, curating a mixed-media piece that she hopes to share with participants of the sessions and her own family.
Hart’s thesis examines the relationship between politics and community and serves as a complement to her interdisciplinary major in political psychology. The Echols Scholars program, which selects students with “deep curiosity and intrinsic motivation”, allows participants to design their own interdisciplinary major and complete an optional senior thesis.
The political psychology major involves the intersection of politics, psychology and sociology, with classes taken across the three disciplines. Hart’s focus lies in the effect of white nationalism on both public policy and personal relationships, and she has added courses from the Department of Women, Gender and Sexuality to further analyze this impact on Black women.
Beginning with quotes from poet Aja Monet and activist Audre Lorde, Hart’s thesis abstract is situated in a recent resurgence in white supremacist ideology and ongoing critical conversations about the prevelance of state-sanctioned, gendered and racialized violence.
“The poets that really inspire me are really good at showing just how important mundane objects are and how indicative they are of larger institutional problems we see in our country,” Hart said.
Hart entered the University in August of 2018, one year after the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally. Over the course of two days, white supremacists descended upon Charlottesville and Grounds to protest the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue. The protest turned deadly on Aug. 12, when white supremacist James Fields drove his car into counter-protestors on the Downtown Mall, killing Heather Heyer and injuring over a dozen others.
In November, jurors found organizers of the rally unanimously guilty on four of six charges — conspiracy to commit violence, assault and battery, racial harassment and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Reflecting on her time at the University, Hart noted the amount of Virginia history she learned as an out-of-state student that impacted her sense of belonging, adding that in the past, “this University has contributed to some of the most racist, horrible policies.”
Founder of the UniversityThomas Jefferson exploited enslaved laborers to build both the University and his own estate at Monticello. In the following decades, the University was a hub for eugenics and professors built upon Jefferson’s racist ideologies by arguing that Black people were biologically inferior to white people.
The University has removed some commemorations of these individuals by changing the names of buildings — such as the switch from Ruffner Hall to Ridley Hall in 2020 to honor Walter Ridley, the first African American to earn a doctoral degree from the University in 1953. Others, however, retain names derived from University leaders who supported white supremacy — such as Alderman Library, named after Edwin Alderman, former University president and outspoken eugenicist.
Hart pointed to the University’s recent efforts to address its history of enslavement through initiatives like the Racial Equity Task Force and the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers as important steps, but added that “it’s only through that constant constructive criticism that we’re going to see legitimate change happen.”
Hart is still seeking interview participants to expand the breadth of views expressed through her thesis. Interested Black female students or graduates can sign up through this form.