Arts & Culture

Onyx: Carving a Space for Black Voices

For a curious Tufts student armed with the power of technology and social media, there are always layers of this hallowed institution left to explore. This student might have happened across an Instagram story posted to the account @tufts.onyx calling for submissions of visual art and creative writing. Clicking on their Linktree leads the viewer to a sign-up sheet for an open mic night in collaboration with the Pan-Afrikan Alliance. There are a number of niche publications out there, albeit unknown to a large number of the student body. These publications are putting out quality journalism and catering to a diverse set of interests every semester. If one were to continue scrolling through their page, they would find that Onyx, a student-run arts and literary magazine for the Black community with roots spanning decades, was just revived. 

Tracing this history through the digitized editions preserved in Tufts Archives sheds insight on what makes this magazine so special. According to an editor’s note by Margot Mosley, written in the magazine’s inaugural issue in 1984, “the purpose of Onyx, the magazine, is to expose the power and the beauty of black expression in its purest literary form.” The form that this takes has been diverse, showcasing everything from poetry and personal narratives to art and photographs. She also stressed the importance of a magazine centered on Black voices, which are often overlooked at a predominately white institution like Tufts. Since then, Onyx has become a TCU-recognized club and thus an established campus organization. Although recent years have seen Black students turning towards alternative platforms to showcase their creativity, the need for a cohesive space dedicated to amplifying these voices has not diminished. 

In Mosley’s last publication as editor-in-chief in 1987, she explained that, while the aim of the first edition was to engage white members of the Tufts community directly about the experiences of Black Tufts students, the 1987 edition witnessed the magazine pivoting toward a more internal focus. “The current edition reveals how we, the Black community at Tufts, have converted our anger, frustration, and pain into positive energy which we have redirected and channeled into our community in order to give us motivation and strength for our continued struggle. We no longer feel compelled to define ourselves to the rest of the world, instead, we have become more concerned with communication and unity within our own community so that we can cultivate our strength,” Mosley wrote.  

The magazine partnered with and was supported by a number of other campus organizations in this effort, notably the Africana Center, the Office of Equal Opportunity, and the Pan-Afrikan Alliance. In 1997, Onyx, which had traditionally been a yearly publication, put out its first fall issue, indicating that the demand for a space for Black art at Tufts remained high. Specialized themes, like the arts of the African Diaspora, were explored starting in Fall 1997 and subsequent releases. The Fall 1997 edition also marked the establishment of the Editor’s Choice Award, which was an award selected by the art and literary selection committees for exemplary pieces in each category as a way of highlighting and celebrating students. 

In this special edition, editor-in-chief Dominique Johnson wrote, “I would love to say that the Black population of Tufts no longer has a need to air out their artistic abilities… but we all know as long as there is a Tufts University there will always be complaining from people of color on this campus (let’s not play ourselves!).”

Enter Des Porte, a senior and the current editor-in-chief of Onyx and the force behind the publication’s return to print this spring after a semester of absence. They described their serendipitous discovery of the magazine’s existence in their second semester at Tufts after finding a copy of the 35th-anniversary edition sitting in the Africana Center common room. Something in them clicked as they flipped through its pages and gazed at the artwork. Even though they had limited experience with journalism, they resolved to do something to revive the magazine before they graduated. A large part of Black community building at Tufts is housed at the Africana Center, which is the space from which Porte recruited others committed to rebuilding this literary and artistic outlet that they believe is wrapped in “so much history, beauty, and authenticity.” 

While it does not have the same audience as other notable magazines at Tufts, Porte underscored its significance as a publication celebrating Black joy and fostering a space for Black students to express themselves. Other identity centers at Tufts have corresponding publications that act as vessels for the creative contributions for confronting issues specific to their communities; for example, the Women’s Center formed their yearly literary magazine Out of the Ashes in spring 1975. Porte cited the importance of leaning on the example of the community built over the course of Onyx’s 38-year history, which has allowed them and their team “to find ways to continue to celebrate and enrich Black culture.” Looking towards the future of Onyx after their graduation this May, Porte expresses hope that new leaders will continue to use this platform to foster supportive spaces for Black creatives to come together and share their art with the community without any expectations for perfection.

Isabelle Charles, the incoming co-editor-in-chief, is set to take up this torch. She reaffirmed the publication’s commitment to serving the Black creatives at Tufts. She has always loved writing and reflected, “It’s been an exciting experience because I’ve been able to uplift Black voices.” Her hope for the future is that Onyx will become a well-loved, staple publication for the Black community at Tufts. As the magazine gets back on its feet and continues to gain steam, she hopes word will get around and will motivate more Black students to contribute. She also wants to make sure that incoming students become aware of Onyx early on in their college career so that they can be involved for as long as possible.

Already, the promise of the community Onyx will create is uplifting others on campus. Ace Arias, a freshman, performed an original spoken word poem entitled “A Woman She Is” at a recent open mic night hosted by Onyx in collaboration with the Pan-Afrikan Alliance. She expressed her gratitude to both organizations for giving her the perfect platform to showcase this powerful work, stating, “I thought that what I had to say was too raw and intimate to be read [but not too raw to be] heard.” She added, “I’m very happy to have found out about Onyx. Since I’m a freshman, I’ve spent the year looking for groups of people who I identify with and share the same passion for creating. Even though I found some clubs I love, I hadn’t found a club where I could do my ‘thing’ until I heard about Onyx’s open mic [nights]. I definitely want to get involved next year and continue working with them.” Previously, Onyx hosted a writing workshop with prompts brainstormed by members of their editorial board as an opportunity for students to write and connect with others in a non-academic setting. Onyx’s upcoming edition will be published by the end of the semester in both digital and hard-copy forms. In their parting words from the interview, Porte also disclosed that future events reflecting Onyx’s mission, such as additional writing workshops and open mic nights, are on the horizon. That same curious student (who could now be you!) should maintain a vigilant eye on @tufts.onyx, and continue exploring the hidden gems on campus that have made Tufts the multifaceted community it is today.