Angela Byars-Winston is a tenured professor, a recipient of the White House "Champion of Change" award and the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s 2014 Outstanding Woman of Color award.
She’s also not afraid to play dress-up to make her point.
On Monday morning, in front of a crowd of about 70 middle-school African-American girls, she placed a tiara (borrowed from her 7-year-old daughter) on her head.
“Let’s talk queendom,” she said.
Her talk, which channeled the themes of royalty from the movie “Black Panther,” was full of affirmation for the African-American girls in the audience. Its message was emphasized by the sparkling crown on Byars-Winston’s head: be you, and be confident.
Byars-Winston was the keynote speaker at the ninth annual “Yes, I Can! Yes, I Will!" Middle School Girls Conference put on by the Madison Links. The conference for African-American girls from middle schools in the Madison Metropolitan School District gathered at Fountain of Life Church.
The Links, Incorporated is a national service organization led by professional women of color, and hosts a Madison Metropolitan Chapter. The Madison Links planned the half-day conference as a day to inspire, encourage academic success, talk about STEM career opportunities and explore social issues like bullying, said Camille Carter, the chair of the Link’s Middle School Girls Conference Committee.
“You will be empowered with self-confidence, positive attitudes, character and self-esteem,” said Julia Holman, president of the Madison Metropolitan Chapter of the Links, told the girls at the beginning of the day.
Byars-Winston, a professor in the Department of Medicine, Division of General Internal Medicine, brought all of the above to her keynote talk “African-American Girls Succeeding: Supporting and Living Wakanda.”
Wakanda is the never-colonized fictional African nation depicted in the blockbuster hit “Black Panther,” a movie that has made over $1 billion worldwide and, as Byars-Winston said, “got everybody shook.”
“Why is that movie speaking to us so deeply?” she asked, “The people in Wakanda had one very powerful characteristic: they know who they are.”
The women of Wakanda carry themselves like royalty, Byars-Winston said, and she invited the girls to share in this “queendom.” Being a queen means having “the courage and the strength to allow myself to be me,” she told the audience.
Having a firm sense of self allows girls to separate truth from facts, she said.
“The truth is black girls rock, but the fact is they are often told they are less than those around them. The truth is black girls are gifted and talented and beautiful, but the facts are: there are many voices telling them that they are not,” she said. “The truth is black girls have everything they need inside of them, but the facts are that they often don’t believe it themselves.”
She talked about the oppression of African-American women and girls: slavery, the segregated south, Jim Crow, the fight for civil rights and stark health disparities with drastic consequences for African-American women today. She listed the statistics for health inequities, like high rates of Type 2 diabetes, hypertension and death from preventable diseases.
Byars-Winston preached empowerment in the face of these realities.
“Some folks think T’Challa is strong because of the powerful vibranium suit he has on. But he is actually existing with power inside his heart … because he knows who he is,” she said.
Genesis Woodards, a “Black Panther” fan from Spring Harbor Middle School, left the talk with the takeaway that “people are more powerful than they think.”
“One thing I’ve learned so far is to love yourself no matter what, and don’t let anybody bring you down,” Alisha Ghelfi, a student at Sherman Middle School. “We are powerful.”
Along with the keynote address, the day offered four workshops, including “Computer Science from Scratch,” a chance for girls to learn the basics of coding.
"Click on the sound tab," instructed Tracy Lewis-Williams, faculty associate in the Department of Computer Science at UW-Madison.
She helped the girls, huddled over laptops, find sounds to add to their program featuring a cartoon cat. Some of the girls threw up impromptu dance moves as they found a catchy jingle.
JoAnne Brown, Multicultural Services Coordinator at Memorial High School, led the workshop “Using the Black Girl Magic Within You!” She provided guidance on the transition to high school and on to college, talking about the importance of freshman year GPA and taking advantage of school resources like tutors.
“Grades matter,” she said. “You want to strive for success at all times.”
Although the day comes with lectures and learning, it also just lets African-American girls from different schools be in the same room and connect with each other, Carter said.
“Peer pressure, it can be an obstacle or it can be a catalyst. And we certainly know that this age group is very impressionable,” she said.
This is Ghelfi’s third year at the conference, and she likes it because she enjoys “meeting new people and understanding where they're coming from.” There are some people of color at her school, but not like this, she said.