As an aspiring television writer, Safyque xRichardson is obsessed with story in all forms: novels, anime, comics, Netflix shows. So the junior double-majoring in creative writing and psychology couldn’t help but notice that stories about Black people’s lives often followed a different narrative arc, one centered on suffering and violence.

“We literally determine who’s Black and who’s not by who is in pain and who's not,” she said. “But if you categorize us by our pain, then that’s the only thing that's going to make us who we are.” 

A moment of brutality against an enslaved woman in "The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass" led xRichardson to explore ideas of Blackness, suffering, and identity in an essay that won first place in the 2022 John D. Wilson Phi Beta Kappa Essay Contest, sponsored by the Mu of Virginia chapter of Phi Beta Kappa to recognize excellence in undergraduate writing.

Since 1984, the Mu of Virginia chapter has conducted the contest, offering a $500 prize for the best analytical or interpretive essay written by a current Virginia Tech undergraduate student. The contest is held in commemoration of John D. Wilson, who served as Virginia Tech’s provost from 1975-82. Credited with “transforming Virginia Tech into a comprehensive university that values the arts and humanities along with the sciences and engineering, and by establishing the university's intellectual agenda as paramount," Wilson was honored with the William H. Ruffner Medal in 2000.

In its award statement, the 2022 John D. Wilson Prize Selection Committee wrote, “Through her analysis of Frederick Douglass’s autobiography, xRichardson addresses questions that are just as pressing today as they were in 1848: What are the consequences of objectifying one’s suffering body — of showing the literal scars — when trying to get others to care for one’s suffering? What becomes of oppressed people’s voices — of their ideas and their demands — when our focus remains on their bodies? These questions and their answers are central to an understanding of the past, present, and future of our civil rights movements.”

The committee selected xRichardson’s “Reduction to the Black Body: Brutality in The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” for the urgency of the essay’s argument, the clarity of its voice, and, notably, the innovation of its form. “The writing pushes against the strictures of conventional essayistic structure in a manner that allows xRichardson’s voice to be truly heard,” said Evan Lavender-Smith, an assistant professor of creative writing in the Department of English and president of the Mu of Virginia chapter.

Though xRichardson wrote “Reduction to the Black Body: Brutality in The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” for an Introduction to Critical Reading course taught by Associate Professor of English Karen Swenson, she drew on ideas she’d been mulling since she picked up a copy of Ralph Ellison’s "Invisible Man" several years ago. “It all just kind of came together in my mind.”

Safyque xRichardson hopes to write for television as a career. Photo by Christina Franusich for Virginia Tech.
Safyque xRichardson hopes to write for television as a career. Photo by Christina Franusich for Virginia Tech.

xRichardson called on her own experience as a Black woman to explore the question, “Is it possible to maintain our Blackness in the fight for ourselves without linking it to the presentation of our pain?” In the essay, she contrasted the expectations of a white woman capitalizing on systemic inequities to request special treatment with performative activism after the death of George Floyd. “We still are left to show white sympathizers our scars in hopes they side with us,” xRichardson wrote. “We have just enough voice now to be seen across the world, dying.”

To read and respond to Black texts is xRichardson’s way of reclaiming stories that were systematically stripped away from Black people for 400 years. Ultimately, she hopes to continue telling stories as a career, which made winning the Wilson essay contest a happy bit of encouragement. “It feels good because to say you want to be a writer is crazy,” she said. “The first thing my dad said when I told him that I had won the award and that the award was $500 was like, ‘You're finally making money from this.’” She added with a laugh, “Yes, I am.”

Virginia Tech’s Mu of Virginia chapter also awarded three faculty members Albert Lee Sturm awards for published writing. Matthew Gabriele, a professor and chair of the Department of Religion and Culture, was awarded the Albert Lee Sturm Award for Excellence in Research for his book "The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe" (HarperCollins, 2021), written with David M. Perry. The Sturm Award for Excellence in Creative Arts and Performance was given to Associate Professor of English Khadijah Queen for her book of poetry "Anodyne" (Tin House Books, 2020), and to Professor of English Matthew Vollmer for "This World Is Not Your Home: Essays, Stories, & Reports" (EastOver Press, 2022).

By Melody Warnick