Celebrating Black Excellence in the Many Forms It Takes: Atinuke Lardner ’22

Atinuke Lardner ’22 is the kind of curious person who spends much of her free time delving into “disparate topics,” constantly investigating and developing new interests and building upon her various streams of knowledge. When she’s not in the classroom or hanging out with friends, she’s probably playing The Sims or watching YouTube.

On campus, she serves on the executive board of Swarthmore’s African Student Association, works as a Diversity Peer Advisor, tutors for the Petey Greene Program, and volunteers on-campus for the Bernie Sanders 2020 presidential campaign. 

Raised in South Orange, NJ, Lardner went to a predominantly white school. While there she led the Black Cultural Association — her school’s version of the Black Student Union. After experiencing high school as one of five Black girls enrolled, Lardner was looking forward to seeing, engaging, and becoming friends with more Black folk at Swarthmore. Although she felt a little uneasy at the start of her first year, she’s now finding her stride and building her community. 

“As of now in sophomore year, I think I found my own in that way. I have cultivated really beautiful, strong friendships that I wouldn’t have if I’d gone somewhere else,” Lardner said. 

Being at Swarthmore has allowed Lardner to lean into her own fascinations in a way she didn’t have the resources, support, or positive reception to do before. 

“Being at a different school and being able to explore Blackness through different academic disciplines and lenses has allowed me to broaden my view of excellence so it’s no longer me just trying to make a bunch of prep school girls care about Black History Month, for a month,” said Lardner. 

At Swarthmore, her sights and the limits of her reach were expanded. Lardner is excited by her special major: philosophy, political science theory, and economics, which is a combination of her main interests. 

“My motivations behind [studying PPE]…is coming out of a place of wanting collective liberation. And this is just the way that I see fit for my mind to process things in order to put myself in a better position to be a part of that battle,” Lardner said. “Blackness permeates everything, race permeates everything.”

Being able to explore her intellectual pursuits at Swarthmore has allowed Lardner to view Black excellence differently or rather grapple with the phrase itself. 

“There is not a single discipline where [Blackness] isn’t relevant … When I think of [the phrase “Black excellence”], it’s often used to describe Black people in certain places and positions of power and … Black people being represented in a variety of industries and spaces.” 

But Lardner is invested in the expansion of the use term. According to Lardner, Black excellence includes recognizing more Black folk who are not traditionally celebrated.

 “I don’t think that’s the definition that really resonates with me so much … [Black excellence also means] recognizing the thousands of Black Folk that we don’t necessarily recognize in Black History month that have contributed and that have done important work and have just lived their lives joyfully. I think that’s excellence too,” said Lardner. “I don’t even know if I like the word excellence. It’s the brilliance, miraculousness of Black people living their lives and creating art and loving each other for centuries. I relate more with that element of Black excellence,” reflected Lardner

This appraisal of Black excellence is directly connected to Lardner’s appreciation for the Black folk at Swarthmore of the past and present. 

“I look around at people at this school, especially my fellow Black peers and I am in awe and amazed at what they’re achieving and what they’re doing.” 

Lardner feels that it’s important to recognize the Black students from 50 years ago who fought for more enrollment, the Black Studies Program, and the Black Cultural Center, all of which were ignited by their eight-day sit in at the current President’s office.

 “I’m considering the magnitude and weight of everything that any Black person has ever done till this moment … to bring me to where I am and for me to be here.” 

Lardner asserted the importance of remembering the deeply embedded exclusionary history of Swarthmore; the college was not conceived in the interest of supporting Black excellence or developing Black minds. 

 “[Swarthmore] was clearly not built in the interest of Black students, for Black students, educating Black students, educating Black experiences, any of that, to even have this department that even now is not like what it could be.”

Lardner hopes to engage Swarthmore’s history of Black resistance and resilience while she is here. She recognizes that it is rather easy to take that history for granted, especially when that history is not made visible. Her ideas of Black excellence have been shaped by, but also help to shape, the identities she holds. 

“My identity as a woman has informed especially how I perceive women’s liberation movements, and the ways in which they can often be exclusionary towards Black femmes. That’s something I think about a lot.”

Additionally, because of her familial connection to Nigeria, Lardner feels her idea of Blackness was informed by and allowed a more global, multi-faceted perspective of black liberation. She is interested in the ways Black liberation has been directly connected with leftist politics and how this informs her queries. 

In high school Lardner constantly felt the ways in which Black stories were made to fit into a larger white narrative in her curriculum. Although she feels this is less the case at Swarthmore, she is still concerned about performativity.

“[My highschool] was paying lip service to Black, quote unquote, excellence and Black history, but was still very much protecting white supremacy and not creating a space that felt welcoming or uplifting to the Black students.” 

To Lardner, the speakers and the programming that have occurred this year is a step, but not enough on its own. 

“[The events are] cool, great. But at the end of the day that doesn’t really matter to me so much as the way the school comes down when it’s difficult.”

What does matter to Lardner, though, is that the college not forget its history and to grapple with the ways it still falters or fails its Black community. 

 “Because of how Swat purports and markets itself, it’s in such a way that we forget how recently, how very recently you know the institution acted very differently and also the ways in which it continues to fall short of supporting Black students.”

She asserted that the college’s accountability and growth requires an on-going self-reflexive and self-critical process.

“If the institution itself is not constructing itself and constantly evaluating its values, its priorities, the ways that it’s harmed students in the past, the way they might continue in the future, looking at faculty, looking at curriculums — that’s what matters to me. That’s the substance. You don’t need the school to just pay lip service.”

Similar to her reflections about her highschool, Lardner believes that the events celebrating the 50 years and theme of Black excellence this year are a good, but very small, non-critical part of the picture. It is truly the work that goes beyond these events and this year that matter. 

 “The way that Swarthmore can uplift Black students is by being there for them and supporting them as an institution, never mind any sort of event.”

When imagining herself as an alum looking back, Lardner says she wants to see more Black students enrolled and Black Studies fully recognized as a department. 

While Lardner hopes the college will continue to work on uplifting Black students, she still feels supported by her found community at Swarthmore. 

“People that are curious people, people that are open-minded, people that are driven by compassion and love, people that have a sense of humor. Beyond that I’m not that picky.”

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