Growing up in a predominantly Black and Latinx community, Texas, photographer Adraint Khadafhi Bereal experienced culture shock when he first arrived at the University of Texas in Austin in August 2016. For a school that prides itself upon diversity, the numbers tell another story: of the nearly 52,000 students, only 2,473 — a mere 4% — are Black. By 2019, that number had fallen to include just 925 Black men, roughly 1.7% of the campus population.
Bereal, who took up photography as a high school senior, began to document the stories of Black men on campus for 1.7, his first solo exhibition at George Washington Carver Museum. From this work, The Black Yearbook came forth, an expansive series of vivid images accompanied by 100 interviews.
“In The Black Yearbook, I document small moments of radiance in the lives of Black Texan college students,” Bereal writes in his artist statement. “By inserting myself into the domestic spaces of these men and women as they navigate coming of age, reality, and the pressures of fitting in within typically white spaces, I’m able to situate Black joy within a greater conversation on being. My works primarily look at the lives of University of Texas students as we navigate life in a campus environment in which we are an extreme minority.”
In being an insider and telling stories from the sources themselves, Bereal’s portrait of Black life encompasses the dynamic, nuanced complexities of being Black in America today. Born of resilience and resistance to systems of subjugation dating back to colonial times, Black identity is forged in its ability to create a culture that connects people across time and space to a shared vernacular. It expresses itself though style and sense of self, in everything from language to etiquette.
Where Black history has been marginalized, erased, appropriated, or otherwise misrepresented in so many way, The Black Yearbook begins to fill in those blanks. In controlling the narrative, Bereal’s work reveals the depths of experience that encompass and go beyond ideas of Blackness that have been proffered by the dominant culture. Far from emphasizing existing tropes, Bereal offers new paradigms that speak to the multi-layered facets of Black identity.
“The title The Black Yearbook references the absence of Black students at primarily white academic institutions” Bereal writes. “By exploring the unbelonging in between space students at such universities must experience, I’m able to isolate moments in which we feel power and lightness. Finding a sense of inclusion in a space not necessarily carved out for us, our strength and joy is an act of defiance. The Black Yearbook represents these Black bodies as reshaping the culture of the space we inhabit simply by existing within that space.”
Long in the making, The Black Yearbook has finally arrived. Originally slated to release in May, the book was pushed back to August release due to the COVID-19 crisis. In light of all that Black America has endured this year, The Black Yearbook is particularly poignant, reminding us that the future of our country lies in the hands of youth charged to follow their dreams in a country that continues to deny universal human rights to the very people who built this nation from the ground up.
All images: © Adriant Bereal