Melanin Speaking: Community in the Flesh

Making Space for Students of Color on Campus

Melanin Speaking is no ordinary student publication or campus organization. It’s a phenomenon. Taking campus conversation about race and identity to a new level, Melanin Speaking makes spaces, both virtual and in the flesh, for students to speak about their experiences as people of color on a predominately white campus. They find expression in poetry, prose spoken word performance, photography, and visual arts.

Manny Cerda (l) and Sam Adams (r) recruit new members at the annual Welcome Reception for Undergraduates, Fall 2017 – photo by Lauren Hawley

President and co-founder Sam Adams, and outreach coordinator Manny Cerda feel that the growth of Melanin Speaking has given them a sense of belonging at UW– Madison. By drawing on support from the English Department, other departments, and student orgs to help the publication grow, Sam and Manny have become more professionally and personally involved in campus life. They want to extend this sense of belonging to the journal’s contributors. “We want to demonstrate that there are resources for students of color on campus,” Manny says.

One place of belonging is the virtual home of Melanin Speaking: Past issues have invited contributors to think about “(In)visibility” and “The Colors of Gender and Sexuality.” Coming up for Spring 2018 is “Family & Home.” Reading through the issues, one is struck by the intensity of emotion—anger, longing, and the passion of grappling with language that both confines and liberates. Submission guidelines seek prose that “Is messy and complicates (in all the necessary ways)” and poetry that is “as dirty, funny, or as deliberate as you wish.” Sam explains that “we want artists to share the truth—not to make a spectacle out of people’s stories.”

Beyond the website, Melanin Speaking is also what Sam calls “a community in the flesh.” Their first Open Mic Mixer at ZuZu Café attracted over fifty people from the university, and beyond: “One person actually came from the airport during her layover!” Manny laughs. The power of presence had its impact: the group hosted a second mixer in February and hopes to continue the open mics on a monthly basis. The success of the mixers comes down to the raw, no-holds barred nature of its performances which, Manny later realized, ought to come with a content warning.

With its recent successes and publicity—Sam gave an interview on WORT 89.9 FM, and the Badger Herald published a write-up—the group is turning its attention to recruitment. Sam and Manny, as well as the entire staff, are seniors. Sam looks ahead to graduate studies, and Manny to studying abroad in Peru, but both want to stay involved in Melanin Speaking in an advisory capacity. In addition to the platform they’ve built together, the group also has a vision to pass forward. They want to see an official Melanin Speaking website, and for the journal to appear in print—and maybe even an office in Helen C. White. “I want us to be a force on this campus that people recognize just as they recognize Madison Review or Illumination,” Manny says. “I want us to be something that students of color are proud to be a part of.”

Lauren Hawley