Adraint Bereal’s Lens Captures the Essence of Black College Life

Posted inPhotography and Design

I’m a white, cis-gender woman, far removed from college life, so I recognize the irony of delving into Adraint Bereal’s photographic exploration of the lives of Black college students. But for my role in higher education at the School of Visual Arts, understanding these perspectives is essential. As per the introduction in Adraint Bereal’s book, I’m taking to heart, “In all thy getting, get understanding” (Proverbs 4:7). The difference between knowledge and wisdom is perspective. Knowledge is being informed; wisdom is understanding what it should mean to you.

Bereal’s work, encapsulated in The Black Yearbook, offers an intimate portrayal of the joys, challenges, and truths encountered by Black students navigating higher education. The book challenges our societal narratives with honesty and depth, and in the process, Adraint Bereal opens our eyes.

I was fortunate enough to ask Bereal about his educational and creative journey in bringing The Black Yearbook to life; below is our interview.

(Interview edited for clarity and length).

Left: The Black Yearbook cover, Right: headshot of author Adraint Bereal

Bereal’s profoundly personal project began with his alma mater, the University of Texas. Through a collection of portraits, personal statements, and interviews, he provided a window into the lives of Black students in a predominantly white environment. Inspired by his initial exhibition, 1.7, a raw and candid portrait of the experiences of Black men at UT (1.7% of the student population), Bereal expanded his vision. He embarked on a nationwide exploration from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) to predominantly white institutions and trade schools.

What sets Bereal’s approach apart is his commitment to showcasing more than just the trauma often associated with Black narratives. Instead, he amplifies stories of resilience, joy, and triumph amidst adversity, challenging societal perceptions and stereotypes.

In visiting schools for The Black Yearbook, what was a pivotal moment or encounter during your travels that deeply resonated with you and shaped your understanding of the complexities within the Black student experience?

AB: Traveling far west to Alaska to conclude my travels was such a reflective moment. The four to five months of travel were filled with the constant noise of trains, planes, and cars. My best friend accompanied me to Alaska, and it was the most peaceful moment I had experienced. Because The University of Alaska-Juneau is a relatively small campus, I interviewed only two students, which left me with a lot of time to relax—something I hadn’t really been able to do. On our second day in Alaska, my best friend and I hiked to see the Mendenhall Glacier, after which we found ourselves running back to our taxi in a snowstorm. The conversations with the 116 students were kind of like this – enthralling, and before you know it, you are caught in the middle of a storm trying to seek shelter. Work like this requires courage, and I learned I have no shortage of it while running into a storm head first.

The heart of The Black Yearbook lies in its dedication to honest dialogue. Each profile is a testament to the individuality of Black college experiences. Through stunning photography and compelling narratives, Bereal captures the essence of each interviewee, allowing their voices to shine through.

What struck me most about Bereal’s work was his design approach. Every page of The Black Yearbook bursts with energy and creativity, reflecting the diversity and vibrancy of the Black college experience. It’s a refreshing departure from the monolithic portrayal of higher education, offering a multifaceted representation that celebrates the richness of Black culture and identity.

You weave together interviews, photographs, and illustrations to capture the multifaceted narratives of Black students navigating the educational landscape. How did you approach the storytelling process to ensure that these narratives were accurately represented and celebrated in their fullness, capturing moments of joy and triumph alongside the challenges and adversities?

AB: Creating a book like this requires a lot of openness, and that’s at the core of each conversation. I went into each meeting with little to no expectations, knowing that the conversation could be as short as a few minutes or as long as a few hours. Had I approached this in a measured and solely quantitative way, I may not have been able to cut through surface-level conversations to reach a more personal and lived experience. Patience is a virtue.

The Black Yearbook has been described as both radical and reverent, offering a space for Black students to see themselves reflected while challenging societal prejudices. How can creative projects like yours contribute to conversations around diversity, equity, and inclusion within educational spaces, and what do you hope readers, particularly Black students, take away from your book?

AB: The Black Yearbook continues work previously done by artists and scholars such as Toni Morrison, Monroe Work, and W.E.B. Dubois. The increase in digital technologies has created a lack of physical media to preserve Black existence. We must be the architects of our narrative, and that is what I’ve done. I’ve created a lasting document of existence to preserve our stories for future generations. Understanding – that’s the takeaway.

In a society where mainstream narratives often overlook or stereotype Black experiences in higher education, The Black Yearbook serves as a powerful corrective. Bereal’s work challenges us to reframe our perceptions and embrace the complexity of Black college life. It’s a testament to the resilience, strength, and beauty of the Black community and a reminder of the importance of amplifying diverse voices in the narrative of higher education.