Celebrating Black Excellence in the Many Forms It Takes: Mikayla Purnell ’22

Mikayla Purnell ’22 is a spirited sophomore from Newark, D.E. An engaged person in all facets of her life, Purnell channels her energy into her studies as a candidate for a double major in the Economics course major and a special major which coalesces Black studies and Peace and Conflict studies. 

On campus, Purnell is a Diversity Peer Advisor, a finance fellow with Redefine Her Street (Women in Business), and a campus leader for Swarthmore’s chapter of Up To Us, which works to raise awareness about American fiscal policy. She is also an executive board member for Swarthmore’s African American Society and a coordinator for RevFest, Swarthmore’s art festival started by Emma Morgan Bennet ’20 . RevFest is an annual festival which celebrates the various creations of artists of color on campus. Outside of her roles on campus, Purnell finds time to appreciate and engage with visual art, spoken word, and dance. 

Purnell is impassioned by her studies; she is not just interested in learning in the classroom and taking her studies outside of it, but is dedicated to changing the classroom itself. She has the foresight, compassion, and confidence to assert her ideas in order to assist with what she believes to be necessary paradigm shifts in particular parts of academia. 

“I really love to study ways in which communities have historically been, and continue to be, resilient in spite of various forms of structural oppression. Those are my academic passions … I would love to be able to change narratives that I feel are perpetuating some of these power structures. I feel like a lot of times in academia, there’s a serious lack of alternate narratives in certain areas of study. And … I have a lot of things to say where hopefully I can help change the narratives or change parts of the discipline, and change the way people in the discipline think sometimes.” 

In light of celebrating the history of the Black Cultural Center and Black studies program in the name of Black Excellence, Purnell reflected on her own relationship with the term. Purnell’s understanding of Black Excellence has changed over time, especially from her transition to highschool, to her first year at Swarthmore, to now. Purnell came to realize her previous internalization of the term did not necessarily capture its broader implications. 

“[Before coming to Swarthmore,] I thought Black Excellence was just embracing the melanin magic of black people and loving yourself. Then, when I came to Swat and was exposed to a much more elite environment in many ways, I started to think about [if] Black Excellence … promotes the toxicity of exceptionalism. I was starting to ask these questions … there’s a very narrow conception of what Black excellence is and what occupations or things you have to do to be considered excellent in the Black community.”

Purnell’s investigation did not stop there — it was only the beginning, a prompt. She was further intrigued by the potential process of reconciliation and the possibility of the term’s reapplication.

“I’ve been wondering: is there a reclamation in the term? … Is there a reclamation that you can find in … trying to take this framework that says, ‘Black excellence is when you get a higher education at these institutions and stuff’? Can we reclaim [it] by saying, everybody, or different forms of knowledge, are valid and excellent too?” 

While Purnell has begun to imagine what it might be like to reapply the term, she also grapples with its complications and resists its potentially confining effects, especially as she continues to encounter people with different viewpoints and experiences. 

“I reflect on the way I used to think about [Black Excellence] just as celebrating your Blackness and then being that Black Excellence. I feel like I’ve been exposed to too many perspectives to think of it that simplistically anymore … But I don’t really think about how I situate myself in it because I feel like it’s too complex …  it’s overwhelming.” 

In her transition to Swarthmore and her identity formation that was fostered by this move, Purnell feels that although she was aware of systems and structures of oppression and could see it with her eyes, her education at Swarthmore helped her to develop an academic vocabulary and larger understanding of what was at play. 

“Being here, I was able to take classes that were allowing me to put names to those things that I would see. So I think that has really changed everything. Now, I step back and I see everything as a lot more interconnected than I did before and more structural than I did before.”

Purnell’s identity as a Black American woman is important to her, and it has become more salient to her in college. It informs her approach to her studies, to her understanding of herself as a Black student at a predominantly white institution, and to collective liberation. 

“I’m drinking from a well that I did not dig, [the reason] I’m able to be here today. There are so many sacrifices that had been made and the work on the backs of Black bodies and Black labor in this country … Yet there are still many structural barriers to our exclusion. It is paradoxical because these institutions largely acquired the economic and political capital to thrive from many contributions of Black people. So when I think about being Black at a PWI, I think about this, and I also think about the argument to make like Solange, just go F.U.B.U. on ‘em to build another table!”

At Swarthmore, Purnell is very invested in the role of the Black Cultural Center as a locus for Black culture and life but also as an emblem which represents a longer history of Black resistance and survival that is often forgotten. According to Purnell, in order to not take the Black Cultural Center for granted, we must see its installation as symptomatic of something much bigger at work. 

“A lot of people think of [the BCC] as something that just happened. [That] these students protested in 1969 and boom, we have a Black Cultural Center. But it’s standing on the culmination of hundreds of years of people trying to form spaces to thrive culturally … the moment that we start to simplify it to one moment in time, when we think about it as something that just appeared out of the fervor of racial violence, then, as we’re moving on to this age of colorblindness, the necessity of the Black Cultural Center seems less and less important.”

Purnell stressed the obligation to actively consider the history of the Black Cultural Center and to constantly reflect not only on its past, but look to its ability to guide the future. 

“How are we going to continue to grow, and to heal, and to build resilience within our community as time goes on? As things continue to change and progress, what does the Black Cultural Center mean now?” 

As for making Swarthmore better for Black students, Purnell believes our classes, especially those engaging with the topics of structural violence and racism, need to be structured in a way that have regard for the fact that people in the classroom have lived experiences and that the work does not just live in theory or in media. The balance between respect for trauma and the need for knowledge and reflection is something Purnell is curious and concerned about. 

“How can we support and be in [this] community?” Purnell asked. “But also, people need to know these things if they’re going to go on through the world with power.” 

Purnell feels grateful for the amazing people she has met at Swarthmore and beyond, who are just as critically engaged as she is in their respective disciplines of study. She is glad she has been able to make use of Swarthmore’s resources to experience new things and to share her perspective.  

Photo courtesy of Isabelle Titcomb of The Phoenix

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