Community holds annual Hortense Parker celebration

Photo by Di Guo ’21   Dr. Yaba Blay speaks at the event.

Photo by Di Guo ’21

Dr. Yaba Blay speaks at the event.


Hortense Parker was the first recorded African-American student to graduate from Mount Holyoke. On Tuesday, Oct. 2, the SGA Students of Color Committee organized a celebration in honor of the 10th annual Hortense Parker Day. Members of the community gathered in Gamble Auditorium to listen to students, faculty and guest speakers discuss the significance of Hortense Parker’s life and her ongoing legacy, as well as honor the experiences of current students of color.

Shay Schafer ’21, the co-treasurer of the SGA Students of Color Committee, began the event with a biography of Hortense Parker’s life. Parker was the daughter of a slave abolitionist, and she was described as “modest, retiring, [and] graceful” by her peers at Mount Holyoke College. She was known as an incredibly talented pianist and went on to become a music teacher following her graduation.

Dr. Yaba Blay, the keynote address speaker, is a top voice on colorism and global skin color politics, according to the Mount Holyoke website. Blay is also a Dan Blue Endowed Chair in Political Science at North Carolina Central University, as well as the producer and founder of #professionalblackgirl.

“While a simple Google search can tell you many things about Ms. Parker, there is still so much we don’t know,” said Blay. She stated that descriptions that characterize Hortense Parker as “well-behaved” and “mild-mannered” must be considered in the context of racist standards set upon black women. She continued to say that Parker “must have had a nearly indomitable spirit” to attend an all-white college, particularly since her term shortly followed the abolishment of slavery and significantly preceded desegregation in America.

Blay also emphasized that even today, the same spirit is necessary for students of color to attend predominantly white institutions. Blay also shared how her own experiences as a Ghanaian and “Black, capital B, not African-American” woman shaped her life. She went on to explain how her personal experiences inspired her to pursue academic work that would lift up and celebrate other Black women. In particular, Blay shared accounts from her dissertation on skin bleaching in Ghana and her development of the #PrettyPeriod movement (which counters the “backhanded compliment of ‘You’re pretty for a dark-skinned girl’”). All of her creative pursuits revolved around the importance of personal connection and expressing one’s truth, particularly her research on skin bleaching, which she explained went against the “National Geographic approach” of remaining so objective that you do not allow yourself to truly connect with the people you’re claiming to study. “I guess what I hope to do,” she concluded, “is help you tell your own story, even if you tell it to yourself.”

SGA president Adelita Simon ’19 also spoke. She expressed that, as a first-generation student, she connected to Parker’s accounts of travelling over a thousand miles alone to Mount Holyoke. “This campus can feel lonely, and sometimes it’s harder to get here and harder to survive here,” said Simon, “but our existence on this campus paves the way for future students like us.”

These speeches were followed by spoken word performances from Ilika Tripathi ’22 and Linda Zhang ’20. Tripathi’s piece, titled “Growing Pains,” reflected on her transition into the Mount Holyoke community as a firstyear international student from India, while Zhang’s poem focused on her overall experiences through the lens of her Chinese-American identity. A later performance by Raunak Bhangra Dance Team, Mount Holyoke’s traditional folk dance group from the Punjab region of India and Pakistan, celebrated student creativity through high-energy dancing.

Anastasia Morton ’13, who currently works as the youth leadership coordinator of the Amherst Regional Public Schools Family Center, was also present, and shared her struggle to find her place in an academic setting. Morton explained that she faced challenges because of her reluctance to listen to the advice and lessons provided to her. She closed with two statements: “A lot of times we may not see our potential, but don’t be afraid of those who do,” and “As J. Cole says, ‘we ain’t — and I meant to say ‘ain’t’ — we ain’t picture perfect, but we worth the picture still.’”