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Return | The Making of Charcoal: Blueprint Behind the Binds

The Making of Charcoal: Blueprint Behind the Binds

Written by Stacey Dubreus | Edited by Chike Asuzu | Layout by Rayne Schulman

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“The Making of Charcoal: Blueprint Behind the Binds” was inspired by the commitment to amplify dynamic voices and stories. There was a lack of our founders’ presence in our current work, and it was highly necessary to give space for them to reflect, emote, and critique. The goal of this piece is to better understand what Charcoal is as we explore who our founders are.

Three strong voices convened on a zoom call to speak on the intimate development of what we see today as the impactful multimedia arts publication– Charcoal Magazine. These voices consisted of Adia Turner and Remy Usman, the founders of Charcoal, as well as our current Editor-in-Chief (EIC), Chike Asuzu. Their albeit distant conversation reverberated across each other’s screens as they discussed the emotional and transparent truths behind the makings of Charcoal. Today, we applaud how the manifestation of a nebulous concept unfolded into a 5-year-old and growing publication led by a team of 100+ creatives and directors. Today, we pass the mic to the giants whose shoulders we stand on. Today, we present to you the blueprint and the tools to expand it. Absorb, appreciate, enjoy.

CA: Honestly speaking, do either of you believe y’all received your well-deserved flowers for founding Charcoal?

AT: I don’t think we felt accomplished until senior year, which is sad, looking back. But from the adults and the kids coming in, we got flowers. I remember, I worked at [Boston University’s] admissions, and I had a lot of Black girls come up to me and say, “I think I’ve seen your name on BU’s website? Yeah, you started a magazine, right?” And that to me was kinda wild because you’re on a website and you see something Remy and I literally cried over, almost stopped being friends over. But, I don’t know if we really got flowers from our peers. Our friends showed up. Our Posse showed up. But if you’re talking about the wider BU community, it’s not the way it is with y’all. For the first issue, it really was just everyone who loved us.

RU: What was crazy to me was that so many students thinking of attending BU said they heard about Charcoal before they even got accepted, and that was a big reason on why they even decided to go to BU. So, in that moment, I felt really accomplished. Another big thing to point out was that we didn’t really have time to stop and smell the flowers because we were just grinding. I mean, I was really passionate about Charcoal, but I also wanted to do well in school.

CA: It’s so funny because I was recently talking with Archelle about how important that perspective is when it comes to how hard you all worked to get this off the ground. Y’all had to crawl, so that when Archelle and them were here we got to walk, and that today we can soar. That doesn’t make what we’re going through anything less, but it does put into larger context, that anything we experience today in Charcoal, much like that of before, is something that we can take on. It is something solvable. It is something we can navigate.

*Archelle Thelemaque was the Editor-in-Chief of Charcoal Magazine from September 2019 to May 2021.

CA: A bit unrelated, but were there any rumors or misconceptions about yourselves or Charcoal that you’d like to clear up?

RU: Often, if I shared it [the idea of Charcoal] with adults, I think that’s where most of the misconceptions would be. The main one, which still frustrates me, is “Can non Black people or non people of color read it? Can they still enjoy the magazine?” And, it’s like, I’m not gonna stop you.

IT WAS MORE IMPORTANT, I THINK, ABOUT WHO WAS TELLING THOSE STORIES FOR US, WHO GOT HEARD

AT: It came up a lot more than either of us expected. Cus, you know, BU is supposed to be progressive, but people were really pushing back that this was for only Black and Brown people. But, we stood ten toes down, and I was really proud of us because I think there were moments when we were like maybe if we don’t have enough people we should let like one or two [non students of color] in. But I’m glad we never did because it would’ve grown not to what the vision was.

CA: And there can be, almost, antagonizing feelings around that where it’s like, girl, this ain’t about that. But, there’s also marginal areas where we’ve seen people grow beyond that. I remember at the Ego Death launch party, after, Ms. Kennedy2 was like, “Chike, this group of white boys who came over to me kept flipping through the book and they were mesmerized! You guys are getting so big that they can’t help but love it!” So there’s definitely some differences nowadays. Granted, I still end up having to really clarify just how much this publication is made on behalf of people of color (POC). Non-POC can be fans of the work, but they should never misunderstand their positionality in Charcoal. They are not who we aim to center in any aspect of Charcoal.

*Katherine Kennedy was the first paid Director of the Howard Thurman Center for Common Ground.

CA: With Charcoal, it always feels like a double-sided coin of need and want. I think so much of the space is about letting people have some fucking fun doing whatever they want to with a drive and a hunger, but there is a magnetism to it too. There are certain stories that felt like they just needed to happen and be told somehow.

CA: What stories do y’all feel were absolutely necessary to be told throughout your time in Charcoal?

AT: There’s one photoshoot in Sankofa that really encapsulates what we were trying to do, and it’s the one with the three Filipino women [“Adarna”]. Remy, do you remember? I was proud of every issue, but that photoshoot, I remember thinking this is what we’ve been talking about. And what’s her name? The girl on the cover, she’s so beautiful.

CA and RU (simultaneously): Rosie, Rosie.

AT: Rosie, yes! I just remember being like, when in Charcoal’s history, BU’s history, have you seen a woman like Rosie on anything that isn’t diversity related? So when I think about stories that Charcoal wanted to tell, it was more important, I think, about who was telling those stories for us, who got heard. When I look back at Charcoal, I don’t think there was one story that we needed to hear. It was more like we want everyone to feel like they had a story to tell. And the culmination of that was really Sankofa–this idea of going back. You don’t know where you’re going unless you know where you’ve come from.

RU: And being on set for that shoot was one of those moments where it’s like this is really what we can do and this is what I want to be doing every time we publish a story in Charcoal. But, I’m gonna take it back to the first issue because the two stories, “My Grandmother Carried White Babies on Her Back” and, “Digital Brownface,” were so moving, so eloquent. When I think of storytelling, those are prime examples for me.

CA: With all the work it takes to do any sort of creative storytelling, I am curious about who you all tend to be inspired by in any way?

RU: Ruby Carter. She’s a black costume designer, and most recently, she’s worked on the Wakanda Forever movie. I think the talent and skill, cus it’s not just something you’re born with, to tell a story, to explain someone’s background and their personality or where they came from and where they’re going within a story, just from a glance, is pretty

Chike Asuzu, Charcoal Editor-in-Chief May 2021 to now

Chike Asuzu, Charcoal Editor-in-Chief May 2021 to now

insane. It’s not something I can really wrap my mind around. It takes so much research and dedication and a desire to be faithful to your subjects, especially if they are fictional.

I WOULD LOVE . . . SOME SORT OF INVOLVEMENT AND CONNECTION WITH ARTISTS OF COLOR IN THE BOSTON COMMUNITY

AT: One of my biggest influences is Jesmyn Ward. I first read her work, The Men We Reaped, as a freshman at BU. It’s a bit of an autobiographical conversation about how all these men in her life died, and how white supremacy played a role in their deaths. So the way she writes, magical realism, a Latinx-originating form of writing that blends myth and reality, influences a lot of how I write. It’s this idea that religion, myth, history, all blends to create a beautiful story. Also, I would say in some ways, Remy has been a muse for me. I did not know jack shit about art. I was an “art appreciatist”, as she would call it. I knew something was pretty, something was nice, and I had done AP Art History in high school, but I had no understanding of things like Afro-Futurism.

RU: You did AP Art or AP Art History?

AT: I did AP Art History! Come one now, you know I can’t draw!

CA: This next one is a funny question because I personally don’t know if there necessarily is one, but do either of you think there is a secret formula for being an effective storyteller?

RU: Kinda lame, but just do it. Just start. If you have an idea, pursue it. Make a shity draft. Keep working at it over and over again because eventually you can get to something good. I think what prevents new artists from pursuing their craft further is the fear of failure and that their taste may be years away from their ability. Welcome failure. No one is gonna start at the finish line; there is no finish line for something like this.

AT: I struggle with the idea that there is a formula to do anything. Right now, I’m doing NaNoWriMo, a non-profit that provides resources and encouragement to write 50,000 words everyday, and it goes back to what Remy was saying. Part of the reason why I haven’t written in like two years is because I thought I peaked in college. I actually had a family friend who read my work in Sankofa and said, “Adia, you can do this. You can write. You have so much worth listening to.” So, going back to not giving up, that really lit a fire under my ass. I needed that reassurance.

CA: You need that imagination in yourself that your story is worth telling. You need to be able to keep going and going because that is what’s gonna make a story effective. That’s how you can say for certain that it was intentional.

CA: I am curious though, and I ask this expecting full honesty and transparency. Is Charcoal today what you envisioned it to be? What things should we stay mindful of in this work?

RU: For me, it’s absolutely what I was envisioning. It seems like it is a real name on campus, which is amazing! The events you are doing are so fun; that’s what I was hoping to have been doing when we were on Charcoal, but we were in the trenches absolutely pouring into the foundations. What I would love to see happen is some sort of involvement and connection with artists of color in the Boston community. Now looking back, that’s something missing from my initial vision for Charcoal– a mentorship connection. Adia, imagine how different things would have been for us if we had someone whose primary focus was growing us and so many others behind Charcoal? Would have been even better if they’d come from the editorial field and understood where we wanted to take things.

AT: Remy and I have talked about this a lot, you know, the growing capacity of Charcoal. Everytime you all host a launch or a different event, we’d text each other like, “Oh my gosh, look how many people showed up!” Our launches were not like that.

Remy Usman and Adia Turner, co-Founders of Charcoal

Remy Usman and Adia Turner, co-Founders of Charcoal

RU: Our biggest launch was in the basement of the George Sherman Union (GSU).

AT: Yup, yup, yup, the Sweet launch! We would have 50-or-so people come, and we were proud of that. But, to see all these people come at once, and that it’s a production, is really cool. We built something to be built on, we wanted this to go further. It’s like having kids. We wanted y’all to succeed us.The one thing, for me, that I would love to see is more written pieces in Charcoal. I think it has moved towards visual art, which is beautiful and wonderful. But I would love for it to be equally matched.

WE WANTED SOMETHING THAT WE WERE PROUD OF, SOMETHING THAT PEOPLE CAN SEE THEMSELVES IN

RU: Absolutely, and also always ensuring the quality of what you all are doing. Not just the mission and values behind Charcoal, but the curation of the work as well. You want someone to flip through these books and really think about how uniquely curated they are all around. It’s funny, because prior to this conversation when you walked us through the curation behind Return, and how you all are piecing together so many concepts and inspirations–that’s what I wanted. The ability to weave together a story, not just with artwork and stories that you are soliciting from people, but connecting so many larger stories by connecting it to so many previous stories of Charcoal across the past 5 years.

RU: That is a rare skill, especially in professional creative environments. People can’t link concepts together and make those ideas possible. I hope you truly take a step back and understand how unique that really really is–

AT: And how proud we are of y’all of it! If no one else has given you your flowers, from the people who started it to those who are leading it now, there is not a time in my life where I think “Oh Charcoal is going down the drain.” It’s the exact opposite! Something I want to actually thank you all for is keeping the conventions of the cover with the woodmark, one-word titles, and image composition. It keeps the artbook style rather than leaning super traditionally into a typical magazine. It was a conscious thing for us to make it this way, and so to see that intention continue throughout the years. You all ensure that Charcoal feels the same, no matter how much it may grow larger and do new projects. Not everyone has vision, and not everyone knows how to implement a vision. It takes a lot of leadership and planning to do what y’all are doing.

It is a big deal to be doing this work the way you all are, so thank you.

CA: That… that is really sweet to hear. I always try to remind the team how much we are all babies. Charcoal is a baby. It’s 5-years-old! We aren’t always going to know what we are doing, but we can care enough to wanna figure it out because it’s fun and it’s worth it. For a while when I first started, I felt like I was cosplaying Editor-in-Chief. I didn’t know exactly what it meant to be this, and now I don’t think I was ever going to until I was doing it actively. It’s funny too, because getting to talk with you both so much and Archelle, especially throughout the building of this issue, it makes me a little sad that I don’t get the chance to work with you 3 as the person I am now.

CA: As you both now continue to move forward and live your lives, what has life been like for y’all recently? I mean, the last time you both were in Charcoal was Spring 2019!

RU: I don’t think I fully understood the environment of BU that helped conceptualize something like Charcoal, and create it in general. It’s college, so inspiration was everywhere. People and professors were constantly looking for different ways to engage with students to work our minds more. But I am finding it, that spark again. It may not come as easily, but it’s there. I have projects on the horizon that I have been working on, and I am really excited to start seeing some of these projects become reality.

AT: No one talks about how that transition from college to post-grad can be so disorienting. Things become so centered on survival and the day-to-day. Personally, I’ve been living paycheck to paycheck in New York for a community-oriented job I recently moved to Harlem for. Just trying to survive in this world, it can be really tricky finding time to be with yourself and pursue storytelling. I would say to anyone in college now that it is something you have to fight for, and you should.

CA: That is so incredibly real and I think it’s so important for all creatives to never forget that. It really is something you have to be hungry for. Something you have to want for yourself. I think it can be either overly ambiguous or overly rose-colored when it comes to conversations of working as a creative after experiencing higher education. It’s not an easy transition to make, let alone confidently and with fair financial compensation. But you’re right, it’s something worth fighting for.

CA: Lastly, with everything we have been talking about with history and the implications of Return, how would you both currently define the idea of legacy?

RU & AT: (collective silence)

CA: I know, it’s a toughie!

AT: (Laughing) That’s a great question, and it’s probably the question I’ll cry at. I think when Remy and I started this, legacy was the last part of our minds. We wanted something that would survive, but we did not expect this. We wanted something that we were proud of, something that people can see themselves in. All those moments of grinding and crying and confusion and struggling for money, we sound like a broke couple, but that’s what legacy is. (Crying) And, yeah, I’m getting emotional because Charcoal was such a defining moment for Remy and I, carving out a space for each of us.

RU: I love you!

AT: I do love you! And I hope that love we have for each other is felt.

RU: I don’t have much to add, but if Charcoal were to have ended with Sankofa, I would have still been happy. I never set out to do Charcoal with legacy in mind. Just the hope that it will continue to be a space for young people of color to come together and create community. We are so proud of where you and other students have taken it. I feel like it’s in good hands, and I look forward to how it continues to evolve.

Stacey Dubreus (she/ her) is a Haitian-Amercian junior majoring in Human Physiology on a pre-med track and minoring in Entrepreneurship. This is her second semester working in Charcoal, starting as a copy editor and now working as the Managing Editor. Born and raised in Jersey City, NJ, she developed a love for writing and poetry upon loving music first, as she often says that music lyrics are poetry within itself. Through storytelling, she hopes to encourage emotional and mental healing, and through working in the medical field, she hopes to physically heal.