Dec. 7, 2021
Following the murder of George Floyd, Black Lives Matter activists in 2020 sparked a global racial reckoning, demanding reforms against police brutality, toppling Confederate monuments and forcing the country to confront its racism. That fall, Virginia Commonwealth University student Winfred Walker wanted to contribute to the movement in a tangible way, something more than just posting on social media.
So when he heard Mignonne Guy, Ph.D., an associate professor and chair of the Department of African American Studies in the College of Humanities and Sciences, suggest forming an organization, the Committee on Racial Equity Student Advisory Group, or CORE SAG, Walker immediately signed up.
The group — comprised of undergraduates, graduate students, faculty and alumni — set out to address systemic oppression and promote equality in VCU’s curriculum by advocating for the creation of a mandatory course on racial literacy. While not mandatory, the course, “Race and Racism in America,” will be offered this spring and will fulfill VCU’s general education requirement in the “Diversities of Human Experiences” category.
Walker’s contributions to CORE SAG were significant. He sat in on numerous administrative meetings as a student representative, he helped at tabling events organized by the group, and he provided input on materials that should be included in the course.
“When Dr. Guy told us about the racial literacy course and trying to make it a requirement at VCU, I thought this was important because it would foster critical reflection and give people that basis of understanding in the history of racism and how power structures have upheld white supremacy for so long,” Walker said. “In my mind, with this course we could encourage more empathy and compel more people to want to make substantial change and not just participate in activism when it is convenient.”
Walker’s interest in creating a more racially just society extends to his research as a student. A double major in African American studies and psychology, Walker’s senior capstone thesis for African American studies focused on the portrayal of Black characters in comics, and how those portrayals have historically relied on stereotypes and tropes.
“Oftentimes when Black people see characters that look like them on the big screen or in comic books as a main character doing extraordinary things, it empowers them and helps them believe that they can do extraordinary things as well,” he said, citing the film examples of T'Challa in “Black Panther” and Miles Morales in “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.”
“My main argument for the thesis is that proper, non-stereotypical representation is necessary for healthy identity development of Black people no matter the age because it does not reduce them to stereotypes that are on the page or the screen, but rather opens up a world of possibilities,” he said. “It shows the diversity of Black people and can even help people find their authentic selves.”
Walker received a travel grant from VCU’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program to present his research, which was conducted under the mentorship of Grace Gipson, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of African American Studies and whose research includes a focus on Black popular culture and representations of race and gender within comic books.
Walker will present his research, “Me on the Screen: The Psychological Journey of Self-Identification Through Black Comic Book Characters,” at the 43rd annual Southwest Popular/American Culture Association conference in New Mexico in February and the Network for Undergraduate Research in Virginia conference at Hampden-Sydney College in January.
Following graduation, Walker plans to take a gap year to save up and build his skills, including in creating comics. His career goal is to grow his personal brand as a streamer and content creator in the hopes of making it a full-time job down the road.
Looking back at his time at VCU, Walker said his proudest accomplishment is graduating as a double major in 3 1/2 years, finishing school a semester early amid a pandemic.
“It wasn't easy, but I'm proud of myself for doing it,” he said.
He added that the entire faculty of the Department of African American Studies had a profound effect on him as a student and as a person.
“All of the AFAM professors I've had during my 3 1/2 years here have taught me firsthand the importance of standing up for what you believe in as well as tapping into your own personal power to make a change,” he said. “They have shown me that there are endless possibilities when it comes to AFAM and what I can do post-graduation.”
He’ll carry that lesson through life, he said.
“It is important to understand that you have the power to choose your own path in life,” he said. “Nobody has the power to choose that path for you. With preparation and planning, you can do anything you set your mind to.”
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