“I am Michelle, I am Dr. Cromwell, and I am not your negro.”
This resounding opening statement was made by Michelle Cromwell, the vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion at Plattsburgh State, last Sunday. It reiterated the message of the event being held in the Strand Theater in downtown Plattsburgh.
Over the weekend, the PSU Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, in collaboration with the Strand Center for the Arts, hosted a screening of the film “I Am Not Your Negro.” The film is based off of author James Baldwin’s unfinished book “Remember This House.” It explores the history of racism in the U.S. and discusses the lives, work and assassinations of three civil rights activists — Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.
Cheryth Youngmann, an English major at PSU, said she was excited for the event. “I love Baldwin, and I loved The Strand,” she said.
Youngmann was one of many PSU students in attendance that night. There were also PSU professors and local residents in the audience.
Cromwell said the decision to show this film was in response to learning about PSU students who faced racial slurs while walking through campus. She watched “I Am Not Your Negro” multiple times, and she feels it shows the suffering faced by Black students, faculty, staff and more on a daily basis.
The film screening was followed by a panel discussion moderated by Cromwell and featured three PSU professors — Breea Willingham of the criminal justice department, Jose Torres-Padilla of the English department and John McMahon of the political science department.
“It’s sobering to me every time I watch this movie,” Torres said, “and depressing.”
Willingham, who was a newspaper reporter for 10 years before teaching, said when she was initially asked by Cromwell to take part in the panel, she wanted to decline. She said she does not wish to ever be used as a prop or “gap filler.”
Ultimately, Willingham decided to participate in the event. She also pointed out her sweatshirt that read “Respect Black Spaces,” emphasizing the importance of its sentiment.
After making their opening remarks, the panelists welcomed questions and comments from members of the audience. Many came forward to share their thoughts.
While most showed their support for the film and its message, not all did so. At the beginning of the discussion, a man in attendance addressed the panelists by saying he was displeased with their choice of words.
He claimed the panelists kept referring to white individuals as “you people,” and he expressed his disdain for that. The panelists assured they had not done so. He also questioned points raised by both the panelists and film, such as speculating if Black Entertainment Television (BET) had created division between the two races.
The panelists and moderator welcomed his criticism, despite the audience vocalizing their opposition, while still staying true to their mission and defending their points. Another audience member called for the man to leave, while others whispered amongst themselves.
Cromwell said to the crowd in order to make progress, conversations like these must be welcomed. To that, audience members applauded.
However, the conversation did not end there and subsequently, Willingham decided to leave the panel. She thanked all involved, but voiced that she is tired of both these discussions and the fight, and reiterated her desire not to be a “gap filler.”
“It showed a lot of presence of mind and self-respect for Dr. Willingham to get up and leave,” Youngmann said. She felt the panelists dealt with the situation the best they could.
There were also other questions and comments brought forward by audience members, including the question of how to fight racism in schools and the idea that white people must make a conscious effort to understand and support the fight.
And what can be done to help put an end to racism today? According to Willingham, much of it depends on what we ourselves are doing in our everyday lives. It is a question we must ask ourselves, not just others.