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Friday, February 23, 2024 — Houston, TX

Black at Rice: Zahrah Butler keeps good company

Katherine Hui / Thresher

By Nithya Ramcharan     4/4/23 10:14pm

According to Zahrah Butler, everyone should shave their head at least once. Now a senior, Butler commented on their growth over the years and how shaving their head after wearing long dreadlocks came to symbolize that growth and the environment that propelled it. Looking back, they said they have become stronger and more capable of thriving in the face of adversity.

“I think I have become more comfortable in my own skin,” Butler, a Duncan College senior, said. “Coming to Rice, I was a very shy, quiet person.”  

Although Butler hails from the nearby suburb of Missouri City, they did not consider Rice until they received financial aid from The Rice Investment. They said their high school was extremely diverse, something they felt Rice lacks in comparison. 

“Being from Houston, I have never felt more racially isolated [than at Rice],” Butler said.

This isolation was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic on top of living at home half an hour away from campus. However, they eventually found a means to feel more comfortable under such circumstances. 

“It’s about finding balance … within communities,” Butler said.

Several of Butler’s extracurricular activities revolve around striking this very balance. As former Orientation Week coordinator for Duncan College, they helped welcome new students to Rice. As Rice PRIDE co-president, they said they prioritize casual social events over spectacles to help the PRIDE community connect. 

“So many people feel the need to be grand and be big in their identities. It can be easy to forget the people who don’t desire that or don’t have it come easily to them,” Butler said. “So I try to do stuff like send out once-a-semester compliment forms where you just say something about somebody who just really made your day … It’s really nice making people feel seen.”

Beyond Rice, Butler — a religion major and African American studies minor — said that they are passionate about engaging with the greater Houston community, particularly through their research on SlaveVoyages, an international database on the Transatlantic Slave Trade, with history professor Daniel Domingues da Silva. Their involvement stems from a desire to learn more about the history of slavery and its impact on Black people today, and more importantly, recognize those who work hard in their research surrounding slavery, Butler said. 

“Like most other Black people in the U.S., I don’t really know anything about my ancestry,” Butler said. “When I was trying to get into that research, I was also trying to [research] my own ancestry.”

Butler also works with the Center for Civic Leadership to study Houston’s Freedmen’s Town, located in the Fourth Ward, after Juneteenth, which they said reflects their interest in the rich history of Black culture in Houston and Texas.

“It’s a really fun opportunity to get a chance to tell that story in a way that makes it very publicly accessible because the research that we’re doing is in association with Houston’s public libraries,” Butler said. “If you have internet, pretty much, you’ll be able to look at the digital map our work is going towards creating.”

Butler had the opportunity to sift through documents like high school yearbooks, play records and other more personal items families chose to donate rather than government records. To Butler, who has family around Houston, these documents are reminiscent of home.

“I’ll be going through yearbooks trying to learn about some teacher at a school and I’ll run into pictures of my aunts and uncles when they were like 15 and 16,” Butler said. “It’s another way to connect with my own family history and community and serve them in a way that I don’t think I would have had the chance to do if I wasn’t at a place like Rice.”

After graduation, Butler said that they plan on staying in Houston for the proximity to their family and hopes to work at the Museum of Fine Arts at some point.

In their free time, Butler likes to explore more of Houston’s development as a burgeoning city. They can be found shopping, frequenting restaurants, visiting the nearby museums and watching movies and anime like “Sailor Moon.”

“I like hanging out with my boyfriend, doing stuff like [taking] the train, [taking] the bus, [walking] around,” Butler said. “Just keeping good company is what I like to do.”

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