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BHM Profiles: Ayana Sterling ’24

Ayana Sterling ‘24 (they/she) is a second-term student from Chicago. Their work primarily focuses on the Black queer experience, a subject they’ve been interested in depicting since their high school career. 

While working on a documentary project that they’ve since moved on from, Sterling interviewed their friends regarding the Black-queer experience, a process which, they say, “taught me a lot about my identity as a woman at the time—a young woman who was Black and queer.” 

To them, the two identities exhibit a powerful symbiotic relationship with each other. “Blackness is queerness and queerness is Blackness,” a notion that initially inspired conflicting feelings. “It really sucked being queer too, like it just kind of hit me… it feels really free, and it’s beautiful, but there came along with it a lot of shitty things.”  

Excerpt from “Sweet Tooth” by Ayana Sterling

The idea of being in a majority-white community is one often met with apprehension and discomfort by BIPOC students. Sterling shares these concerns, expressing  “everything I’m scared of is what I face when I go to Bennington… It’s very much [a] culture shock to me.” However, this doesn’t hinder Sterling or their art—instead, it’s a source of power. 

“Sometimes being around [white people], it kind of helps my art. It makes me wanna make more change, cuz there’s a lot of shit they need to change.” 

For instance, in their academic studies, Sterling shares a common frustration regarding the lack of African American-focused courses, a concern which they consider to be a reflection of a curriculum overly geared towards white students. They perceive their goals and what they would like to accomplish with their work as something that will hopefully improve the experiences of Black queer students “in hopes they [will] give other students who come after me the fucking strength to create their own shit and make Bennington… an [easier] experience for them.” 

Only at the age of seven, following their father’s arrest and subsequent incarceration, did Sterling recognize the potential catharsis in writing and creativity. Despite the complicated history Sterling shares with their father, it’s a history that has profoundly influenced their work; born from letter writing, today their writing defines a large portion of their creative output and transcends a broad range of genres and forms, including fiction, poetry, songwriting, and journaling. 

Excerpt from “Sweet Tooth” by Ayana Sterling

“When I write poetry or do anything, it’s based off my dad and the relationship I have with him, growing up.” Sterling says that writing became a way of “dealing with my hurt, and the trauma I was feeling at the time… he had done a lot of stuff to add onto that.” In spite of this,  Sterling says that “a lot of good things come out of shitty situations, especially when you’re a kid and everything’s happening so fast you don’t know what’s going on.” In these situations, “what else can I do but write.”

Participating in slam poetry events during high school resulted in a poem titled “Visiting Hours,” focusing on the experience of visiting their father while he was in prison, and their perceptions of other families who were going through the same experience of having a loved one behind bars. 

“I would always kind of try and feel what other people felt when they were with their families. It made me sad, but it also put a lot of love in my heart.” As Sterling grew more focused on artistic creation, their empathy would begin to be featured prevalently in their work. 

“There’s not one kind of Black experience—there’s so many, and that’s what I want to show in my art.” They say, referring to the tendency in the media to present a limited scope of experiences, which may imply that the majority of Black people live in the same kinds of environments; thus giving way to common portrayals spawned from stereotypes, with many dating far back in history. 

They do believe, however, that “we are all related in some way… when I see a Black man I see a reflection of myself. When I see a lack woman I see a reflection of myself, and everything in between.” They hope to travel in order to learn more about the experiences of Black people around the world. Through this, they mean to provide alternatives for representation in popular media that consist of more diverse depictions of Black and queer experiences, for which they say is currently “mostly about the people around me.” 

Excerpt from “Sweet Tooth” by Ayana Sterling

Sterling cites controversial filmmakers Larry Clark and Harmony Korine as being particularly influential to their growth as an artist. “It was mostly them who made me want to be so fucking creative and just do whatever I want… I ain’t never seen no shit like that.” While these two individuals are neither Black or queer, Clark and Korine’s unabashed approach to their work features little heed to subject matter such as violence, sex, animal creulty, and poverty, often depicting adolescent characters filtered through a transgressive, nihilistic lens.
“I’d never seen anything like that… I wanted to be as crazy as they were. I wanted to make things that shocked people… they’re really fucked up people and I like that. I like the rawness.” In their view, the Black queer experience is meant to be portrayed without the polish and sheen of Mainstream Hollywood, but instead with an emphasis on realism and subject matter that isn’t afraid to delve into the transgressive. Another individual of notable influence is Spike Lee, due to the variety of representation of Black people in his films. 

“All different types! People who look like me and people who look like you, and dark people—I see everything.”

While they may be greatly influenced by film, Sterling says that “a book is the only way I can put it into one thing.” They helm a self published zine known as Sweet Tooth, currently distributed through Etsy. Established in their junior year of high school, they consider it to reflect the growth of their artistic work. 

“My junior year was the point in my life where I just wanted to step outside the box.” 

This point doesn’t just mark their coming into their own as an artist, but when they began to truly identify with being both Black and queer—it was the time, they say, “when I started doing what was right for me.” At its core, Sterling says, the publication is “about me, the people I met when I got to Chicago.” It’s “the beauty I found in my friends, and again, Blackness and queerness.”  Sweet Tooth functions as an extension of themselves, not only in its content, but in the collaboration and interactions that come through in the zine itself, and in the act of creating it. 

Moving forward, Sterling intends to continue carving their individual path for themselves. While remaining in the realm of mixed media, they express a desire to study and possibly incorporate African American literature into their work. Black representation is something that is often autobiographical to many who often relate with the situations and experiences being depicted.  especially when it comes to when it is expressed in an artistic media. Sterling sees this as having stagnated into several common portrayals and depictions. 

Excerpt from “Sweet Tooth” by Ayana Sterling

“There’s a lot of shit we don’t talk about,” they remark, citing a lack of presence in subcultures such as BDSM at the current moment. However, this is something they regard as less of an obstacle and more of an inevitability. 

“I just go with the flow. That can be really bad sometimes, but I’m here for a good time not a long time.” True to their word, Sterling will be spending their summer fulfilling responsibilities like Field Work Term, but until then, you can bet they won’t be giving it much thought. 

“If I’m not sure, then I’m not fucking sure and that’s okay. I’m not gonna force myself to do something I don’t wanna do… I’ll figure it out eventually.” It’s all a matter of taking it one step at a time. “I just do what feels right, today, in this moment, right now…  I don’t make big plans or anything, tomorrow I could wanna be a fucking baker, and that would be it, but I don’t know.”

Kaleb Yawand-Wossen (YW) is a first year student who plans on studying screenwriting, photography, directing, and perhaps audio engineering. 

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