Noella Williams is a Pisces sun, Pisces moon, and Libra rising—thanks for asking. Her hobbies include lounging around with her Animal Crossing–themed Nintendo Switch; talking about Loki, the fictional character played by Tom Hiddleston; who’s an “acquired thirst”; and yelling at old men who are trying to control women’s bodies. Before our interview, she admits, she just rolled out of bed because she’d been up late dyeing her new locks a vibrant purple. If you knew her personally, you’d know it’s on brand for the 23-year-old Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University graduate. The Manic Panic hair dye and the button-down aloha shirts (what she jokingly refers to as her “bisexual uniform”) are all a part of Williams’s era of embracing her softness as a Black woman. It’s something she didn’t really pay much attention to until she began at FAMU as a transfer student in the fall of 2019.
“I had to do a lot of unlearning of the expectations that were set for me by my parents or the world around me,” Williams says, alluding to the fact that Black women have always been policed for their voice, body, hair, and politics. She shaved her head earlier this year to combat that—a decision her high school self would have gawked at. Throughout her adolescence, Williams went to a private Christian academy, where no one looked like her. “I’ve had to unlearn what people expect a Black woman to be,” she says.
She grew up in Pensacola, Florida, a part of the state so northern it’s considered Southern—practically an extension of Alabama that sits right above Florida’s panhandle. For those familiar with the region, proudly proclaiming your status as a radical queer pro-Black organizer is unheard-of, but that’s exactly what Williams prides herself in being. During her undergraduate years at FAMU, she was driving to the state capitol building nearly every week with Planned Parenthood Generation Action to protest antichoice legislators seemingly handpicked by Governor Ron DeSantis. Now she’s the assistant news and culture editor at Apartment Therapy, working with LGBTQ+ writers to amplify their stories after her time at FAMU’s journalism school. For Williams, standing up for Black queer people and Black women is at the forefront of everything she does.
“There are a lot of students that get taken advantage of and that get bullied on campus, and aren’t adequately represented by our administration or our community at large,” she says. “If I can be someone that is making an uproar that encourages someone else to make an uproar, I’m going to do it and make it everyone’s problem.”
Glamour: Did you always know you wanted to go to an HBCU?
Noella Williams: I didn’t know what HBCUs were until high school, and after graduating as senior class president, I went to my hometown’s community college to figure out my life and not accumulate a ton of debt. I applied to two schools in Tallahassee and got into FAMU—my boyfriend went there, but other than that, I didn’t really know what to expect. This mystery for FAMU eventually turned into a love and had me excited, asking what’s next for me and what this next chapter is going to look like.
You’ve professed your love for music and music festivals very publicly before. Do you remember your first festival experience and how that’s shaped your life?
My first music festival was Camp Flog Gnaw organized by Tyler, The Creator, in 2017. It was a golden lineup: Solange, Lana Del Rey, Mac Miller, Kehlani…. To this day I’ve never seen a better lineup. I remember as a kid I always wanted to go to concerts, but my parents were working-class and didn’t have the time to take me to see live music. It kind of opened the doors to the world and travel, and having a friend who’s always down for a random concert. Funnily enough, I’m going to five shows this week alone.
What is the one article you’re most proud of during your career so far?
One of my favorite pieces is my Washington Post article. It’s about how I found community in the South as a Black queer woman. I never expected to have a Washington Post byline so early in my career. I 100% stand by defending the South, whenever people try to slander it and throw it away. Communities of color are the reason the South is still trying to be as progressive as it can be. I didn’t always feel that way—there was just a lot of hurt and trauma that I had to kind of do away with. But being back home and surrounded by my HBCU and other radical organizers is what made me really love the South.
You have Pokemon Trainer in your social media bio, which I’m obsessed with. As a Black woman enjoying a predominantly white industry filled with Twitch streamers and alpha male gamers, how have you come to reclaim your space?
Gaming is so important to me because my brother introduced me to it and gave me my first GameBoy—the same one I have tatted! A lot of men will try to minimize you whenever you remotely talk about anything that’s more male-dominated, like music or Marvel. There’s so many spaces for Black girl gamers now, but after so much misogynoir, it’s what inspired me to write a little chapter about it in my upcoming book. Like, why did I have to wait until I was in my 20s to be able to select my skin color in a video game? It’s identity destroying, but I’m glad there are people today who are making in-game mods to customize skin color on games like The Sims.
In January you and Planned Parenthood of Florida went viral for—to put it crudely—shaming lawmakers in Tallahassee at a hearing and demanding better in regards to Florida’s 16-week abortion ban. Tell me a little bit about that experience.
I was so nervous for that moment! I remember writing my speech and asking my boss if it was good. I had never done anything like that before—I’d only spoken at a high school graduation with hundreds of people, at least. But for this, you are literally facing people that determine your fate. I’m so grateful for everyone that was supporting me throughout all of it, because I did it multiple times after that. I think a community like that needs to be fostered by an HBCU, because without Gen Action, I wouldn’t have had a platform to do any of that. I kid you not, I think I was at the capitol every week. It was very tiring and I was very burnt out while organizing and also finishing my last semester in college, but I would not trade that for anything.
We were joking earlier about demystifying the art of being a “hater,” especially in regards to holding people and organizations accountable even if we love them. What is your experience with that when it comes to FAMU?
Being a transfer student at an HBCU is not the easiest. You are usually coming from a PWI [predominantly white institution], making a ton of adjustments, and maybe you’re celebrating the fact that you’re somewhere where other students are like you. At the same time, you’re coming to terms with things that aren’t great about HBCUs: the waiting times to receive funding, the stigmas associated with how your degree may be viewed as “lesser,” or problems with student housing. I wrote an article about how queer Black students don’t feel like they’re being celebrated during Pride month, and that it’s wrong. It’s wrong that I spoke to seven queer students at HBCUs and they told me they were publicly outed and administration did nothing. Sometimes it feels like when you talk down upon your HBCU, people can think you’re condemning it or you hate it, but I just want better for them; I want to critique them because I love my HBCU. I love that there are universities and colleges that Black people can attend and feel like they are seeing people that are from cultures like them. But we still could be doing better for our students.
Earlier in our conversation you mentioned that HBCUs fostered radically inclusive and left-leaning spaces in the ’60s and ’70s—and how so much of that propels your work today with organizing and activism.
There’s this one book, Shelter in a Time of Storm, that was required reading by one of my professors. It taught me about how different HBCUs were the threshold for radical change and politics, and I wish that were more present on my campus. There are so many organizations—Planned Parenthood, Gen Action, and Spectrum, a club for queer students—but I wish there were more spaces. I joined Gen Action my first semester, and we did a campaign for access to period products across campus because it would be beneficial and students wouldn’t have to walk across campus all the way to the infirmary to get free menstrual products. Gen Action taught me you just have to keep pushing because the student government or administration isn’t going to prioritize that and we have to keep our foot on them.