“It’s imperative that we be the architects of our narrative”: Adraint Khadafhi Bereal on documenting Black college life

The photographer’s mixed media approach unearths the multi-layered perspective of Black students in colleges throughout the United States.

18 March 2024

Sometimes with Black art, literature and expression, there is a tendency to reduce it to the ‘Black version’ of an otherwise ‘white thought’ and narrative. While some are purposefully doing that – queue the many Black renditions of plays and films and the work of Kehinde Wiley – there seems to be a way that a lot of work is spoken about rather reductively, as if it is merely a flavour added to a base ingredient. Like when the literary world couldn’t stop calling Toni Morrison Faulkner-inspired, Faulknerian or the next William Faulkner because of her visceral language and lyrical form. She later denied this and instead attributed her oeuvre to the work of Black women writers and the African-American experience at large, which is always immediately clear from her first paragraph. It is also clear for a myriad of Black artists throughout time – the work may be conceived by a lack of seeing yourself out there and utilising traditional forms, but it is far beyond the Black version, it is a world unto itself.

Adraint Khadafhi Bereal’s resonant book The Black Yearbook is one that conjures the same feeling. The project started while he was a student studying at the University of Texas, and he came upon the knowledge that only 1.7 percent of his student body, at the time, was made up of Black men. The photographer soon began doing the thing that came naturally to him, taking photos of the men on campus and exploring experiences. The project blossomed into him documenting Black students in colleges nationwide, from historically black colleges and universities to predominantly white institutions. And in the wake of the pandemic, he self-published the first edition of the book, which also coincided with the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and more. “It felt like happenstance that I was working on this thing that would inevitably be amplified by global dysfunction,” he tells us. “There wasn’t a eureka moment, but rather a curiosity I had been chasing.”


Adraint Khadafhi Bereal: The Black Yearbook (Copyright © Adraint Khadafhi Bereal, 2024)

Adraint was born in Waco, a city in central Texas, and was raised between there and Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Growing up, photography and art were a prevalent part of his life – with his parents owning a fashion retail store in the early aughts – but he only formally began photography after school when he got his first camera. “I always had this obsession for capturing what was in front of me,” he says, “and I would spend hours watching YouTube videos breaking down the latest tech, but it wasn’t until I got to college that I began manifesting something purposeful”.

The Black Yearbook has gone through a myriad of phases. After self-publishing the body of work in 2020, Adraint found himself presented with a number of opportunities, one of which was to publish with Penguin Random House. “The relationship with Penguin was developed through my mentor who had been kind enough to steward me through many conversations with people who were pursuing creative rights to my work,” Adraint tells us. And after this, he began working with designer and longtime friend/collaborator of his, Huê Minh Cao. “We spoke a lot about ephemera and handwritten letters early on”, which are a huge feature throughout the 224-page book. Adraint collectively assembles a wide range of media from black-and-white photography, to illustration, scrapbook assemblings including ephemera such as letters and instant photographs, posters and drawings. “Minh has a way of bringing all these visual elements together that truly sold it for me,” Adraint shares. “The process included a lot of conversation and testing. We spent a lot of time in the basement crafting a variety of letters and applications trying to find that sweet spot. I feel lucky to have collaborated with someone so talented.”

For Adraint, the book had to be multimedia because “what I’m displaying is difficult to capture in 224 pages”, he tells us. “Plus I wanted to add illustrations and a little Dungeons and Dragons lore to magnify my unique perspective on HBCUs (historically Black colleges and universities).” For this effect, he and Minh collaborated with illustrator and another friend, Jeb Milling to create a trail of easter eggs throughout the book to reflect the fact that “college is an adventure”.


Adraint Khadafhi Bereal: The Black Yearbook (Copyright © Adraint Khadafhi Bereal, 2024)

All in all, The Black Yearbook showcases the wonders of showcasing something that would otherwise remain unseen, and creating a visual world around it. Which is why it’s no surprise that Adraint sees it as a continuation of the work done by artists and scholars such as Monroe Work, W.E.B Du Bois and Toni Morrison. But the book isn’t only a book because it’s the typical mode to showcase photography and showcase ephemera, it’s also for the preservation of Black existence in an increasingly digitised world. “It’s imperative that we be the architects of our narrative, and that is what I’ve done. I’ve created a lasting document of existence to preserve our stories for future generations. Understanding – that’s the takeaway.”

GalleryAdraint Khadafhi Bereal: The Black Yearbook (Copyright © Adraint Khadafhi Bereal, 2024)

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Adraint Khadafhi Bereal: The Black Yearbook cover (Copyright © Adraint Khadafhi Bereal, 2024)

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About the Author

Yaya Azariah Clarke

Yaya (they/them) joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in June 2023 and became a staff writer in November of the same year. With a particular interest in Black visual culture, they have previously written for publications such as WePresent, alongside work as a researcher and facilitator for Barbican and Dulwich Picture Gallery.

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