Whatever Happened to “The Vigil”?

By Iliyah Coles ’22

I have been looking for information about The Vigil, a minority newspaper that the University published in the late twentieth century. As a black student at a predominantly-white institution, I wanted to see what the newspaper would be about and how effectively it incorporated voices not usually heard. After researching and reading several of its later publications, I was offended by many things that I found. Expression within the paper seemed to be limited–confined to what was deemed acceptable during the time period. I was ultimately disappointed with my discoveries, but I still wanted to share them with others so that readers could become more aware of the racial tensions that persist even in the most unlikely of places. 

The Vigil, written for and mostly by minorities, was first published in 1980. The Third World Center (now known as the Carl A. Fields Center for Equality + Cultural Understanding) supported the paper. According to the Daily PrincetonianThe Vigil had been discontinued several times over the span of six years, mostly due to financial issues and infrequent publication. Though I was not able to determine why the newspaper was discontinued the last time (seemingly in 1999), there are some red flags, mostly in the articles written on black people, that might have had something to do with its failure to achieve broader support.  

Cover of The Vigil, February 1995. Carl A. Fields Center for Equality and Cultural Understanding Records (AC364), Box 1.

The idea of a newspaper on campus written specifically for minorities has immense potential. This would give minorities a campus community and a platform they could use to connect and express ideas. Many of the pieces about black people were written by minorities and black people themselves. Even so, its writers showed some lack of familiarity with minority culture. It is possible that the students who were directly involved in trying to address the issues and eradicate the prejudices that surrounded minority culture on campus were not the ones actually submitting any work to The Vigil. Though it may not have been intentional, the very newspaper that was supposed to be advocating for blacks and other minority students ended up degrading them. 

In the 1997 Black History Month issue, I found “Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown and the Impact They Have on Images of Black Women,” by Jackie Boney ’99. Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown were both successful black female rappers in the 90s and early 2000s. Though some saw them  as “risqué,” their styles were primarily a form of expression through clothing common in the music industry. Boney singled out these two musicians, asserting that they were “contributing to [all] of the negative images surrounding black women,” which can be considered culturally ill-informed. Boney went on: “There are very sensitive issues surrounding black women, their sexuality, and their image which stem from their lives as slaves.” Historiography has evolved since the 1990s and many historians now avoid the term “slave” because blacks were not born slaves. Further, not all black women were enslaved people at some point, especially not during the 1990s, which is what Boney suggests. Boney then goes on,“The variety of positive roles black women have held historically is overshadowed by a negative image–that of a sexy, lustful individual.” To say that black women are “lustful individuals” is extremely disrespectful and sexist, and this stereotype should not overshadow any of the accomplishments black women have achieved. Boney defames Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown for doing things that their white contemporaries, like Britney Spears and Madonna, were also doing.

Clipping from The Vigil, February 1995. Click to enlarge. Carl A. Fields Center for Equality and Cultural Understanding Records (AC364), Box 1.

In “Affirmative Action: And the American Dream” in the same issue, Rai Wilson ‘98 attempts to sympathize with black people and the need for affirmative action in impoverished black communities. However, this attempt ultimately falls short: “Some black students I know worked full time during high school, not for drugs or nice cars, but for lunch money and clothes.” This suggests that numerous black students were only working for drugs and nice cars, which is both inaccurate and derogatory. Wilson offers what he believes are solutions for poverty and unemployment in black communities: “Black children and teenagers could be given state or federal jobs rebuilding neighborhoods, parks, and schools. This would simultaneously reduce free time (which might lead to trouble), give them money (which would make criminal life less seductive), and improve their environments.” Wilson consistently gestures toward the myth that all black people who lack essential resources (i.e. money) will resort to criminal activities. The prevalence of this myth is dangerous; it allows innocent black people to be jailed and killed for crimes they did not commit. Nonetheless, Wilson’s writing reflected views then being expressed within the Princeton community. The Concerned Alumni of Princeton publication Prospect asserted that affirmative action was a form of discrimination against the majority and should be abolished (See “Princeton’s Second Race Problem,” Prospect, Winter 1982). 

However, not all of The Vigil’s articles were troubling. In “Learning to Talk of Race,” Professor Cornel West discussed the plight of black people in America and the issues surrounding misconceptions of black culture while also emphasizing that the African American race is not a threat to society, but a part of society. West’s expertise most likely contributed to the value of his writing, which could be why the student writers were not as effective in theirs.

Cover of The Vigil, May 1997. Carl A. Fields Center for Equality and Cultural Understanding Records (AC364), Box 1.

After researching the authors of the first two articles, I found them both to be of African American descent. At first, this discovery confused me and I internally debated the significance of this blog post considering that they were writing about their own race. However, I soon realized that the fact that they were black makes this post all the more important. Boney and Wilson’s pieces both exemplify an incredible lack of cultural pride and understanding. Many might attribute this to peer influence, which is a possible contributing factor, but I think the primary explanation is the failure of the education system. We cannot blame these writers because they attended a predominantly-white institution at a time when it was even less socially acceptable to be a minority than it is now. It is plausible that they were not taught about their own race in a way that was not whitewashed and offensive considering this is still an issue in American schools today. The students wished to advocate for their culture through writing, but these articles showed that they might not have known how. 

Another factor that could have played a role in the content of these articles is the concept of the “politics of respectability,” a phrase coined by Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham in Righteous Discontent. The term can be defined as a way of showing one’s values to be similar to the white majority in order to attempt to counter the stereotypes and negative associations with one’s culture. It seems as if the writers of these articles were using this form of politics, but this method doesn’t further black people in society, as many believe. It rather sets us back because it requires our culture to be repressed in order to allow for assimilation. It is possible that the writers of these articles did not know these adverse effects.

Though The Vigil was supposed to be uplifting to students of color at Princeton, some of the articles written on the social standing of minorities were demeaning. This newspaper was a great idea, and it would still be a great idea today. Nonetheless, if ever revamped, it must be done differently. In order to prevent offending a certain group of minorities, it may be helpful to get feedback on an article before its publication. This feedback should come from several different people of various backgrounds and races, especially from the demographic that will be discussed in the article. It would also be helpful if the writers of the articles were well-versed in minority issues. In order to publish truly beneficial articles, an environment must be created in which the voices and opinions of minorities are truly welcomed and encouraged.

Sources:

Carl A. Fields Center for Equality and Cultural Understanding Records (AC342)

Papers of Princeton

Princeton University Publications Collection (AC364)

For Further Reading:

Garcia, Mario. “‘The Future Princeton Is Whatever Emerges from the Battle Now Joined’: The Concerned Alumni of Princeton, 1972-1986.”

Higginbotham, Evelyn Brooks. Righteous Discontent: The Woman’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993.

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