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The murder of Elijah McClain triggered me more than I ever thought possible. It made me feel the same anxiety I felt 16 years ago as a freshman at CU Boulder. I come from a diverse community in Aurora, Colorado. I grew up in a loving and nurturing, traditionally African household. My parents taught my sister and me to respect that which is different from you as it is part of our existence in this world. At Gateway High School, I began cultivating my cultural networks and identity. The acknowledgment of varied cultures, styles and languages were held in the highest regard amongst students and staff. As a first-generation Nigerian I never felt that I did not belong. I truly felt seen and heard.
My experience at CU Boulder changed that. Attending CU was a culture shock. It was the first time in my life that I was the only Black student in my classroom. It was the first time I felt all eyes were on me everywhere I went. Honestly, I only felt comfortable with the community I found in the Black Student Alliance and African Student Association. We created a safe space. We felt safe in the BSA and ASA office in the UMC, and even at the number of tables we commandeered and called Chocolate City. At Chocolate City we studied, played cards and listened to music. We formed ties that felt familial. We became each other’s network of support through the good and the bad.
I was Elijah McClain — a young, vibrant, dream chasing, fun loving, ambitious Black man just trying to live.
Therefore, it was especially hurtful — and honestly terrifying — when we received racial threats through the BSA office and one of our sisters received racial death threats and hate mail. This thrust us into what seems like years of student protests. I spent the majority of my time at CU split between my studies and my activism; I wanted to create a space at CU Boulder that was safe for me, my friends and for those who would follow us.
It was a hard fight. I was thrust into an era of change against systemic racism. It was difficult to be a Black student in a predominately white space, so I joined the BSA and ASA leadership teams and the Arts & Science Student Government — catapulting myself into student activism. Who knew that I would have to fight for my freedom while enhancing my education?
As the president of the BSA, I joined committees and task forces and attended meeting after meeting after meeting, intending to make the university administration recognize the pain and anguish the student body was facing while on their self-discovery journeys. We fought to have a seat at tables that were not inherently welcoming.
It’s crazy — 16 years later — we are up against the same issues. I am thinking about the same traumatizing things I thought I could forget and move on. Not that I feel my time for activism is over — rather, a natural change of the guard has taken place. I was once the young people, so I unapologetically support them and love them, and I understand them on a spiritual level.
The young people protesting have my undying support because I know how they feel. I remember what it was like to begin the journey of self-discovery while simultaneously fighting to be seen as worthy. As I continue on my journey of life, I look forward to further curating spaces for others to have the opportunity to create their personal narratives and share their stories with the world.
I was Elijah McClain — a young, vibrant, dream chasing, fun loving, ambitious Black man just trying to live. His life was tragically stolen by hate. That could have been me.
Obinna Onyeali (Comm’09) is the past president of CU Boulder’s BSA and the current co-president of the Forever Buffs Black and African American Alumni Club. Since graduation he has worked at CU, the Daniels Fund and the Denver Scholarship Foundation helping students and scholars to navigate higher education.
Photos by Matt Tyrie