5 Questions with… Courtney Napier, founder of Black Oak Society

This writer and antiracism coach started an outlet for Black creatives in the Triangle — here’s how it came about.
As told to Ayn-Monique Klahre

Raleigh native and WALTER contributor Courtney Napier has worn many hats: minister, journalist, mom, and antiracism coach. But it’s through Black Oak Society that her interests in activism, connection, and storytelling combine. Recently, we hopped on the phone to chat about why she started the group, the latest issue of its magazine, BOS Zine, and what’s next.

Give me a little bit of your background — where’d you go to school?

I went to Benson Memorial Preschool, Underwood Elementary, Exploris Middle School, and Raleigh Charter High School. I was part of a bubble class at Raleigh Charter, one of the biggest classes they had in the early days. I studied ministry at Wave Leadership College. Over the years, I’ve worked in ministry, journalism, and antiracism coaching. When I had kids, I expected to work as a stay at home mom — I love being a mother — but writing is something I’ve always loved. I was working with a local activist organization and found myself wanting to do something more outward-facing. On a wild hair, I wrote a blog post about Raleigh’s affordable housing crisis, and that kicked it off. During the pandemic in particular, writing has become my full-time job. 

So where does Black Oak Society come in?

I remember watching Living Single and loving Khadijah, she was the coolest and was the publisher of her own magazine. I loved Murphy Brown and the world of news and publications. But when I worked in a newsroom, I found it really difficult and toxic, I got a lot of pushback in terms of my perspective as a Black woman. But I’d talk to my mentor and she kept encouraging me to keep going and to reconnect to my passion, to thinking about writing and publishing as something that could be impactful and nourishing. In winter of 2019 I had this idea to celebrate the history of Black Raleigh and the surrounding areas, but not in a straightforward, history book way, but to center the narrative around Black artists and let the work be interpretive and provocative and beautiful. So I started Black Oak Society in December of 2019.

How did it grow from there?

I have such an amazing village of people who supported me! I cold-called artists I knew or people I had connection to, like Carmen Cauthen and Clarence Heyward. We put out our very first BOS Zine in March of 2020, days after the shutdown. Fast-forward and we’re putting together our fourth issue, I’ve gone from five contributors to 18, and we’re going full size, not pocket sized. I’m just so thrilled, I’m amazed as to how it’s been received and the people who want to be involved, like Samantha Everette, Colony Little, Jade Wilson… Jaki Shelton Green judged our youth poetry contest! 

What niche does BOS Zine fill?

It can be isolating to be a Black journalist, and I saw that many Black and brown creatives felt like there wasn’t really a place for them, whether it was in the art studio or the publishing world. Raleigh has this amazing talent but there wasn’t really a gathering place to support each other as humans, particularly in a Southern capital city. This is a way to mobilize our voices for things that matter, like telling our history here in the city, or galvanizing advocacy efforts. These things happen when people work together. I’m deeply inspired by the Harlem Renaissance. As I was writing and meeting people and doing advocacy work, I realized that there is a Renaissance of Black artists in the making here in Raleigh, but it wasn’t being recognized like it has been in Durham or Charlotte. We have some really phenomenal artists working here in all kinds of fields and genres, but also a rich Black history and culture here in Raleigh. I wanted to create a space where we could explore and expand on that. There are so many people that deserve recognition, not just the bigger-name artists like Dare Coulter, but lesser-known ones like Akira Dudley and Nieya Garland and Aerial Sanders, who aren’t yet in the mainstream.

In addition to the magazine, what does BOS have coming up?

We have been doing our BOMM Conversations interview series on IGTV. We have a virtual documentary screening of Shantrelle P. Lewis’ film, In Our Mothers’ Gardens, at the end of this month, where we’ll talk about Black women and our history here in Raleigh. We have a lot in the works! On May 15, we’ll have a booth at the Black Friday Shopper’s Block, come visit us then! We’ll be collaborating with Liberation Station for a Juneteenth celebration at the NCMA, and hope to start having live events this fall. We also have an exhibition in the works for next spring with the Black on Black project and Anchorlight Studio. 

Click here to buy BOS Zine Issue #4 and to subscribe to the magazine.