Aja Monet speaks at Black History Month lecture

Poet and activist Aja Monet speaks at an event organized by the African American Student Union in recognition of Black History Month. Her speech focused on methods for change in society. // Photo by Tyler Parker Student Publications

Aja Monet, acclaimed spoken word poet and activist, opened her keynote speech on a rousing note at the 2024 Black History Month Lecture on Wednesday, Feb 21. 

“This isn’t a time to be content about what you see, but a time to be vocal about what you see is wrong,” Monet said.

The Los Angeles-based lyricist and author of “My Mother Was a Freedom Fighter” took to the John Lewis Student Center’s Atlantic Theatre stage.

She hooked the audience with a discussion and Q&A on relevant politics interspersed with musings and personal poems about the meaning and context behind the celebration of Black History Month.

Tech’s own African American Student Union (AASU) hosted the annual lecture, one in a series of similar activities intended to increase engagement and celebration during Black History Month. 

The organization leads its initiatives on five fundamental responsibilities: to provide a platform for Black students to speak out, to promote cultural and historical awareness, to foster an opportunity for students’ experiences and ethnic backgrounds, to provide opportunities for social and cultural outlets and to lead as an active voice in the body of resident student organizations across campus. 

Led by its Eight Pillars of Unity, AASU intends to “redefine the Black experience” by hosting annual events to increase community-wide engagement both inside of Tech and across local campuses. 

The organization is known for its involvement in the Black Leadership Conference, the Safe Space Series and the Black History Month Keynote Lecture.

The annual lecture is one of the organization’s largest and farthest-reaching events that they hold during February. Held alongside its host of other activities to increase engagement during Black History Month, such as the Party Games Tournament with Alpha Phi and the Harlem Renaissance-themed Onyx Ball, the Black History Month Lecture stands out as the one of the most popular events held during the month. 

With the success of last year’s discussion featuring professional wrestler and mixed martial artist Zion Clark, the 2023–2024 AASU board quickly began reaching out to contacts to plan this year’s keynote speaker as early as April of 2023.

“As soon as the new board transitions, this is one of the first priorities on our agenda,” said Azalia Cyphers, fourth-year BMED. 

As a long-time member of the AASU organization, Cyphers filled in both the roles of Membership Chair and Secretary before taking on the role of Student Body President in her senior year. 

“Our goal is, of course, to find a speaker that is in line with Georgia Tech’s values, but more importantly, a speaker that can be real to the students, who doesn’t hold back, and isn’t afraid to speak up on prevalent issues that deserve a platform to be acknowledged,” Cyphers said.

She explained that Monet’s ability to fulfill that niche role is ultimately why she was selected by the AASU board to perform as this year’s keynote speaker. Cyphers said Monet’s attitude to “call things out for what she thinks are necessary to hear,” was certainly a factor in chosing her to be the speakers at this year’s Black History Month Lecture.  

Cyphers realized after the event how necessary it was to have Monet speak to the student body in the midst of international and widespread dissension.

“At a school where we students can get caught up in the pursuit of academic perfection, Aja brought everyone back down to Earth and helped us realize the significance of our actions and our representation on a global scale. She was the perfect choice,” Cyphers said.

Recently, the University System of Georgia (USG) voted to dissolve the University Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) offices. This decision  hit Tech and its students particularly hard and brought widespread backlash and push for long-term recovery for the equity and compliance programs. Monet’s discussion served as a reminder of the necessity that disruption proffers in a society.

“I was terrified [when DEI was disbanded], but having that internal dialogue between right and wrong, very similar to what Aja was talking about, is what is helping us recover DEI and disperse it through other campus initiatives to keep it alive,” Cyphers said.

In her rhythmic speech, Monet contextualized the acts of societal dissonance and advocacy with a historical and present-day lens. 

She spoke thoughtfully and slowly, a tactic which led many students in the audience to the realization that Monet was talking to them as an people and not simply at them as an audience.

“She came on stage with her laptop of speaker notes in hand,” said King Solomon Ladzkepo, first-year AE, who attended the event as a fan of Monet’s studio album. “I don’t think she had to look at it a single time.”

Monet posed a single guiding question throughout her discussion: What keeps us from being compelled to do something about things that
we know are wrong? “My talk wasn’t supposed to be about this, but I guess it is, in some way, shape or form,” Monet joked. 

Monet’s signature reactionary approach to addressing cultural issues through writing was, in essence, stimulated by James Baldwin’s “Quest for Belief,” wherein he divulges that “the poets, by which I mean all artists, are finally the only people who know the truth about us … soldiers don’t, statesmen don’t, priests don’t, union leaders don’t… only the poets.”

Throughout her speech, Monet carefully deconstructed her interpretation of that quote, which has long been the force that compelled her to put pen to paper.

“These words affirm something in me which I cannot fully grasp and cannot quite comprehend yet, but as I begin to live in this world, and move around as a Black artist, much less a woman, I begin to understand the torment that a poet must endure,” Monet said.

Monet likened the fight for Black culture as most similar to the blues: the color, the music and the feeling of immense sadness, all of which contribute to a Black aesthetic rooted in dynamic expressionism and, yet, twisted into a form of embellishment and teasing language.

Though initially intended to be a lecture on the significance and historical contexts of Black History Month, Monet used her platform to illustrate the significance of disruption and the necessity of disorder. She cited her own stake as a Black woman, but also the context of a world where, she described that we are “hung in limbo as we witness headlines of civilian death and historic destruction on a near-daily basis.”

At the end of her discussion, she issued a final call to action to the audience. “College students tend to be some of the most courageous, imaginative and inventive people of our society, often because they don’t know what they’ve got to lose yet, and we need that” Monet said. 

The 2024 Black History Month Lecture served to help students recontextualize their actions by examining Monet’s reactions. 

AASU offers a handful of other events to take in, including Picture Day with AASU where students can get a headshot. 

AASU also invites students to dance the night away at the 2024 Onyx Ball, a Harlem Renaissance-themed dance on Mar. 2, 2024. More information can be found on their Instagram @gtaasu.