Glass displays filled with photos, research and local archived material of prominent black activists and visionaries like Nina Simone, Maya Angelou and Chris Rock line the far wall of the second floor lobby of Feinberg Library. Onlookers may just see a tribute to a unknown aspect of the campus’ history, but for Plattsburgh State’s African-American Political Thought class the exhibit is a culmination of months of work.
Through the collaboration of PSUC students, faculty and library staff, the “And Still We Rise: Celebrating Plattsburgh’s (Re)Discovery of Iconic Black Visitors” exhibit highlights the work of black activists and their connections to the college, while trying to spark inspiration for advocacy.
The students of PSC 371, taught by political science professor John McMahon, took on this project in January and collected information throughout the semester about influential African American icons who visited PSUC in the past few decades, spanning back to the 1960s.
Students were each assigned an icon to research, and coordinated the rest of the exhibit – the name, format, etc. – as a group for the past four months.
The goal of the exhibit was to showcase the student’s work, to contextualize these figures and to emphasize the importance of their influence on black activism and cultural performance, especially on PSUC’s campus, according to McMahon.
“As the campus as an institution is trying to think more about social justice, racial justice or what the meaning of diversity is, our hope as a class is that the past activists and cultural figures can be used as an inspiration and a challenge for all of us,” McMahon said.
About 40 people packed into the lobby Wednesday, May 1, for the official opening of the exhibit. Of the many presenters, the Dean of Arts and Sciences Andrew Buckser spoke to the idea of carrying the ideals of diversity and inclusivity forward with the future of PSUC.
Buckser said in order for the college to figure out how to become the institution it wants to become, it must first figure out what the college is, and the only way to do that is to look at “where we came from.”
“This is not the first time that Plattsburgh has wrestled with questions of cultural, ethnic and gender diversity,” Buckser said. “These aren’t new things in the North Country, anymore than they’re new across the United States, or across the world at large. If we want to understand how we got to where we are now, it’s essential to the develop the understanding of our past that incorporates the social and cultural differences that existed. Ones that makes visible the thoughts, viewpoints and experiences that have always been a part of this campus.”
Student presenter and sophomore English writing and literature double major Marie Alcis said the class brought out a lot of her, and is passionate about all the work her class has done.
“Activism is truly so important,” Alcis said. “Different groups on campus, or off-campus, who are trying to bring awareness to everybody, they try to support everyone and every campus. They [the activists] show it’s OK to keep fighting because they already set the blueprint for you, they were already here. It’s important for any student to know that Plattsburgh did something. People tried to bring awareness to this campus. It wasn’t all of a sudden ‘Black lives matter.’ No, it was a important foundation of this campus and should continue to be.”
During McMahon’s first semester as a professor, junior political science and philosophy double major and student presenter Josh Shaw said he enjoyed McMahon’s Political Ideas and Ideologies class, which led to him joining this course.
Shaw said one of the most important aspects of the exhibit is how long it will stay up, as it is currently marked to be up “indefinitely,” so enough people can experience it.
“Being that this is a predominantly white institution within a predominantly white community, it is important to acknowledge the influence that has come throughout the times that still holds sentiment within the values of the SUNY Plattsburgh community today,” Shaw said. “We need to acknowledge those facts being that the need for inclusion, intersectionality and diversity, are all things we need more on campus.”
McMahon hopes that the exhibit will act as a vehicle that will carry conversations about social justice and racial equality on with the students.
“I hope they [students] at least can be reminded of this history, and be reminded of the conversations that we should still be having now on campus,” McMahon said. “We as a campus don’t really know this history very well. This is the chance to remember it.”
The exhibit is also available online at https://plattsburghrocks.org/exhibits/show/and-still-we-rise.