Remembering Omar Benjamin (‘20)

Benjamin, who recently passed away, leaves behind an enduring legacy of compassion and inclusion
Omar Benjamin poses in the picture used for his Graduation Tabloid story in 2020 (Courtesy of Omar Benjamin).
Omar Benjamin poses in the picture used for his Graduation Tabloid story in 2020 (Courtesy of Omar Benjamin).

It is a crisp, fall afternoon in 2017, and the LGBTQ+ Center is bustling. As you walk by, you may notice the distinct smell of baked macaroni and cheese and the unmistakable sound of roaring laughter. If you walked by on another afternoon, you may have heard an intense  conversation about queer issues dissolve instantly into a passionate discussion about Paramore. 

That is how Antayzha Wiseman — then a freshman at Wake Forest, now assistant director of its LGBTQ+ Center — remembers it. And central to those memories was one Omar Benjamin (‘20), who began working as a student staff member in the center that fall. 

“This space is always going to be special to me,” Wiseman told me as we spoke in the Center. “I can’t talk about it and not think about [Benjamin] and the relationship that we had. I definitely think a lot of people who were deeply invested in the Center…share those same sentiments.”

By the time he graduated, Benjamin had left his mark, not only on the LGBTQ+ Center, but on nearly every brick of Wake Forest’s campus, from the volleyball court to Japanese classes to the Student Union. It rocked many to their cores when Benjamin passed away earlier this year. An informal memorial Zoom was organized shortly before the start of classes this semester, and plans for a more formal memorial event are forthcoming, but it is evident that Benjamin’s legacy — and those who are committed to honoring it — are everywhere.

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Antayzha Wiseman has a photograph in her office of her (front row on the right), Omar Benjamin (second from the right in the top row) and many of their friends.
(Aine Pierre)

Shining in Many Spectrums

Kayla Lisenby-Denson also met Benjamin in 2017, when Lisenby-Denson was assistant director of the Center (they are currently the director), and Benjamin was starting as a student staff member. As Benjamin established himself as an integral part of the Center’s team, the two became closer. 

“He would take you places you didn’t know you were about to go in conversation,” Lisenby-Deson recalled, “And especially [with him having] history in Alabama, we bonded a lot over being from the Deep South and our love for Alabama football, but also like what that meant on a larger scale around racial politics and family history and roots and things like that.”

Lisenby-Denson remembers Benjamin as someone who was ceaselessly authentic and marched to the beat of his own drum. 

“[With Benjamin,] it was like, ‘I’m gonna show up. I’m going to bring what I’m good at, and I’m going to do what I’m interested in, and if you’re cool with it, cool, and if not, okay,’” Lisenby-Denson said. 

His ability to be himself was contagious, said Wiseman.

“I was nervous [as a freshman] because everywhere I went at Wake [Forest], I was like, ‘There’s nobody that looks like me and that has my same identities just as far as being a queer person of color.’ And then I met Omar, and so I think that kind of gave me solid permission that I could exist in a lot of ways.”

I met Omar, and…I think that kind of gave me solid permission that I could exist in a lot of ways.

— Antayzha Wiseman, Assistant Director of the LGBTQ+ Center

Benjamin’s ability to be himself also showed in the equipment room, where he worked frequently with Assistant Athletic Director Roxann Moody.

“He became a friend…,” Moody said. “I always felt like he was a great and amazing person.”

That authenticity also led Benjamin to pursue his passions across campus, including the Japanese classroom, where he met Dr. Yasuko Takata Rallings, who described herself as Benjamin’s “school mom” to the Old Gold & Black back in 2020. 

“Every day, he was so excited and motivated to learn…,” Takata Rallings said. “You could feel that he [was] so interested, speaking up all the time and working together with other students.”

Benjamin followed his passion for Japanese to become a delegate to a Japanese-American student conference, which involved traveling to Japan, meeting with government officials and learning more about Japanese culture. 

“I think he really [sought] to build community [by] reaching out to the people,” Takata Rallings said.

And it was like that everywhere. At the Center, Benjamin’s passion for connecting with other queer students led him to revive Spectrum, the then-dormant queer-straight alliance on campus. 

“[Under Benjamin,] Spectrum was really involved,” Wiseman said. “They showed up every time everywhere, and they were a place for a lot of students who didn’t feel like they fit into other student organizations or that they could find community in other ways.”

Wiseman, who is now the adviser of Spectrum, continued: “As a student organization…Spectrum is capable of so much, and I saw that under Omar.”

Leaving a Legacy

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Spectrum briefly fell dormant again, but in 2022, a group of queer students, largely belonging to the Class of 2026, revived the organization. Now, Spectrum’s leadership, along with Wiseman, must grapple with how to honor Benjamin’s legacy — both formally and in everyday life. 

And what a legacy it is. While the Old Gold & Black did not attend Benjamin’s memorial Zoom out of respect for the privacy of the space, those who were there remember how many people from many different corners of campus came to remember Benjamin.

“When we had his memorial call, we had folks from [the] Japanese [department] who were on who I’d never heard of, but who were super close to him,” Lisenby-Denson said. “And then we got an Instagram message from someone who wants to plant a tree in his honor on campus, who’s like, ‘I was one of Omar’s best friends from such and such,’ and I’m like, ‘I didn’t even know he was involved with [that organization].’”

Omar Benjamin poses with Professor Yasuko Takata Rallings at a tie-dye event (Courtesy of Yasuko Takata Rallings).

In the Japanese department, Takata Rallings says that Benjamin’s legacy was his passion.

“I tell all my students to not just do [work] to get by, just to finish the assignment or to finish the course so you can get credit, but to be passionate about what you do and cultivate interest and do your best,” Takata Rallings said. “And I think that’s his legacy.”

As an example of that, Takata Rallings recalled Benjamin’s advice to incoming students in the 2020 Graduation Edition of the Old Gold & Black.

“He said, ‘Make Wake Forest part of you,’ and that really showed — he wanted to be engaged…and his message to us was to be a contributing member of Wake Forest. And I suppose I just want to send that message to [a lot of] students.”

In his work with the volleyball team, Moody spoke of Benjamin’s work ethic and his work teaching the next generation of student managers.

“[As an upperclassman manager,] you become a leader of that manager group for the team, and I know that he did a really nice job,” Moody said.

In the LGBTQ+ Center, Benjamin’s personability and love of reaching out to people continue to inspire Lisenby-Denson.

“As we were preparing to have our welcome events this year, I was like, ‘You know, the one thing we can do, the best way we can honor his memory now is to welcome new students,’” Lisenby-Denson said. “And so even when I [thought], ‘I’m such an introvert,’ I was like ‘Hey person, where are you from?’”

And to those who were his friends, Benjamin’s legacy is the love and care he consistently showed. Nearly everyone I interviewed recalled Benjamin’s love of cooking — and not just cooking, feeding his loved ones. That the Center sometimes smelled like macaroni and cheese was because he enjoyed bringing it in.

“If Omar cared about you, and you were really friends, sometimes he would feed you, and it was kind of like his love language,” Wiseman recalled.

Wiseman continued: “Ever since he passed, when I’m at home, I’m thinking about [him when] I’m making meals for my partner, and it makes me want to put more love into it — because I remember how much I really needed that and how it made me feel to be invited over to a friend’s house and for him to say, ‘I’m gonna feed you.’” 

Benjamin’s legacy, from those who spoke to the Old Gold & Black, is one of passion, commitment and care, and according to Moody, Benjamin left this legacy despite financial and personal hardships throughout college. 

“I think we…saw how strong he was, due to his pride,” Moody said. “He was willing to do it again and do what needed to be done…and he met his commitments.”

Gone, But Only in Some Ways  

An Instagram post from the LGBTQ+ Center announces Benjamin’s death (Screenshot of Instagram).

When someone with such an enduring legacy passes, it can be hard to believe they truly have left.

“It’s still hard to process,” Lisenby-Denson said, tears in their eyes. “It’s still hard to process that he won’t be coming back for Homecoming or just popping in to visit because he happened to be driving through town…with a tray of macaroni and cheese that he brought to leave in the fridge.”

Though Benjamin will not be present at Homecoming, he will be honored in the event’s annual Service of Remembrance on Oct. 20, 2023, according to the LGBTQ+ Center. But that will not be the only event to honor Benjamin.

Sophomore Nick Beckom never met Benjamin — the latter graduated two years before the former matriculated at Wake Forest. But as Spectrum’s presidents, and students responsible for reviving the organization, the two are linked through time.

Beckom and other members of Spectrum’s executive team are currently planning a memorial banquet for Benjamin — to pay homage to Benjamin’s love of cooking for people. There is no set date yet, but Beckom hopes that it will be some time in October, to honor Queer History Month.

“I definitely feel this responsibility to really try and put myself in his shoes and try and bring Spectrum back up,” Beckom said. “I feel like after [Benjamin] passed, my eyes opened, and I was like, ‘Wow, he did do so much for Spectrum.’ Especially after my conversations with [Wiseman,] I was like, ‘I gotta honor that in some way.’”

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