Onyx Magazine began as a dream in Theophina Gabriel's Oxford student bedroom in 2017.
Her vision was to launch a creative publication that would be filled with poetry, short stories, artwork, and fresh think pieces; a publication that would unapologetically platform creative Black writers and artists whose work continues to barely scratch the surface of the publishing world.
Theophina has since lead a consultation on diversity within the creative industry at 10 Downing Street, been featured in The Guardian and published three editions of Onyx Magazine.
Her vision of uplifting talented Black creatives in academic institutions and the publishing industry has become a reality.
We spent some time with Theophina to discover more about her vision for the magazine, experience of the pandemic and how the publication has felt more important than ever.
What inspired you to set up the magazine?
The inspiration to set up Onyx came from being surrounded by the talented work of young Black writers, poets and artists. I set up the magazine because I hadn’t seen a creative literary publication solely dedicated to uplifting Black creatives and I saw the importance of unearthing these voices.
I had seen magazines that focused on marginalised creative voices as a collective, but I wanted to dedicate the publication solely to Black creatives, as there are so many nuances within the diaspora itself, and when the focus is narrow there is more room for depth. The magazine is an opportunity to give Black creatives a chance to be celebrated and published.
How have you changed your content throughout the pandemic?
Since the pandemic we have adjusted our content in order to try to provide meaningful ways to connect Onyx supporters. We came up with a BUY 1 PASS 1 scheme for the lockdowns, which allowed people to buy one copy of the magazine for themselves with the option of asking us to send another copy on to a person of their choice for free. This helped to create a sense of community during an isolating time.
How have you found the pandemic personally?
Personally, I’ve found the pandemic and lockdowns quite difficult to process, especially when having to consider the wider implications as well as the current devastations. There’s a pervasive feeling I get at times of the future seeming hard to conceive.
One idea that has helped ground me, and it’s something I said to my team at our first team briefing, is as long as there are still Black artists, writers and poets expressing themselves, we have a purpose, and that purpose is to amplify those expressions.
Do you think the experience is different for students of ethnic minority?
I can’t speak for all minority students, but I read a Guardian article that stated that Black people are four times more likely to die from the virus than our white counterparts. I think the virus has definitely exposed socio-economic and racial inequalities which affected the experiences of Black students before the virus and is only exacerbated by it now.
How do you condense the essence and spirit of the Onyx into a magazine?
The essence and spirit of Onyx is uplifting the talent of Black creatives, and we condense that into a magazine by making sure each page reflects this. We make sure that throughout the process we affirm the concepts and ideas of our artists and writers, as well sharpening their work by providing constructive feedback.
We condense the essence and spirit of Onyx, which is the celebration of Black creatives into a magazine by collating and refining impactful work that is worth celebrating.
What did quarantine survival look like for you?
I escaped by delving deeper into fiction, reading Kindred, by Octavia Butler. I binged both seasons of HBO’s Succession (think Mad Men meets King Lear). Also, I mostly restructured Onyx to accommodate the biggest team we’ve had since our conception which is exciting.
The pandemic has been a tumultuous time in a lot of ways, but particularly for the Black community, including Black students. As an Oxford graduate, what would you like to see the University do next in this context?
Changes need to be made to protect future Black students. I would like to see the University show a long-lasting commitment to Black students wellbeing with a series of standardised actions for handling racist incidents at Oxford.
All students experiences hinge on the systems in place within colleges, and currently, each college at Oxford is free to handle racist incidents as they see fit. A series of standardised actions would give balance and encourage fairness. It is not enough to support Black students to get into the University, systems need to be in place to protect them during their time of study. The University has stated that it understands this, now we need to see it.
A clear symbolic start would be the removal of the Cecil Rhodes statue from Oriel College, as would holding colleges accountable for individual incidents of racism, with the implementation of a clear University-wide standard set across colleges, outlining steps to follow when investigating racial abuse and racial harassment incidents. There needs to be consequences if these steps are not followed adequately.
I also think that all staff should have adequate implicit bias training and anti-racist education to stamp-out discomfort with the issue and make them more conscious of it in their day to day work.
What is one thing you would like people to know and understand about racism / anti-racism?
Being anti-racist involves organisation and demonstrable action. Anything else is performative.
When you express concerns about racism, or outright share your own experiences, often you are met with defensiveness and asked to demonstrate who is racist. I think this is reflective of a wider problem. It is the view of racism as a singular person, or event. This sudden social rallying and need to express action has come as a result of the Black Live Matter protests, but the same level of awareness and accountability should always be there. That is anti-racism.
Racism is more subversive and deep-rooted than pointing out who is racist. It won’t be solved with workshops and statements.
To me, in a university context, anti-racism looks like active and continuous conversation, reviewing and reporting on how Black students are being supported, with the voices of Black students being centered. There should be for instance, a Black mental health fund, so that when Black students are harmed there are ways for welfare to accommodate their mental wellbeing with Black counsellors who understand their experiences.
What advice would you have for other students struggling with the situation?
Each experience will differ, but some general advice would be to communicate your needs boldly and don’t let the pressure of what’s happening around us make you feel like you need to carry this in silence. Advocate for yourself, and if that’s difficult, call out to your SU for backup if you need.
Band together! Students looking out for each other matters now more than ever I think.