On Wednesday, the Africana studies department celebrated 51 years at Binghamton University with a webinar entitled “Black Education Matters: Fifty Years of Black/Africana Studies at Binghamton.” Moderated by Dr. Titilayo Okoror, chair of the Africana studies department and co-organized by Nathaniel Mathews, assistant professor of Africana studies, the event showcased four speakers in a panel discussion — Dr. John Reilly, Larry Gottheim, Rodney Young and Dr. William Luis. Reilly, Young and Luis were among the first students of color at BU and founded the Afro-Latin Alliance (ALA) in 1969. This organization played an instrumental role in the origins of the Africana studies department.
First, the three alumni discussed how they wound up at BU, then named Harpur College. Young said a certain kind of prestige surrounded the institution then, as it was known as “The Swarthmore on the Susquehanna.” Young said he was raised in a household where a good education was of the utmost importance ever since his grandmother received her degree in 1906.
“She married a farmer who could not write his own name,” Young said while showing a photograph of her. “She maintained [her] standard of education when she passed it onto my mother and she passed it onto me.”
Luis said he felt out of place at Harpur College and described himself as “a black dot, a small dot, on a white piece of paper.” At the time, there were only six students of color in his freshman class of 550 and one Black faculty member. Reilly said he lacked the opportunity to simply make connections with other students. Even though most of their peers did not express overtly racist views toward them, it became clear that a line separated the students of color from their white peers.
“It was a space where it was kind of bleak for us,” Reilly said. “It was incredibly, kind of, lonely, in terms of having people that I could converse with about the full range of my experiences and being, and make those connections with where we could shoot the breeze about any old thing.”
According to Young, nonwhite students realized that the curriculum at Harpur College revolved around Eurocentrism.
“The courses that were offered were excellent, except they did not reflect us,” Young said. “So we knew that we had to take bold and sustained action in this strange and exciting environment — which it was — that was filled with such possibilities.”
United in their experiences at Harpur College, Reilly, Young and Luis formed the ALA in 1969. Comprised of about a dozen Black and Latinx students across the campus, the organization was meant to create a space for friendly conversation.
“It was very comforting to see that there were other students of color, and we all gravitated toward each other,” Luis said.
Luis said that the ALA’s commitment to intersectionality was reflected in the Spanish translation of the ALA acronym, which meant “wing.”
“I think at that time, we looked upon the African American students and the Latinx students coming together, being two wings of the same bird,” Luis said. “I think we were visionary without really knowing what we were doing [though] we knew that it was a matter of survival to us, to find some sort of identity. We didn’t want to assimilate, and we were proud of who we were, but we didn’t know how to express that.”
The speakers discussed the ways the ALA addressed the lack of diversity and representation at Harpur College on multiple fronts. Reilly, who had graduated by this time, returned as the first African American counselor in the admissions department. The ALA sat on a board with other students that worked with Harpur College to bring these goals to fruition. However, this process faced many challenges that were largely due to fiscal restrictions.
“In universities, if you’re not in the budget, you don’t exist,” Young said. “And it takes a while to work your way into the budget.”
It was during these times that the organization slowly laid the groundwork for what would eventually become the department of Africana studies. There were some faculty members at Harpur College who supported the creation of such a department. Reilly had taken a course with former English professor Larry Gottheim, who went on to establish BU’s cinema department and found himself raving about it to Young.
“Among the faculty, we found what would be called today ‘white allies,’” Young said. “And one of those white allies was [Gottheim].”
At the time, Gottheim said he was on his way toward becoming a filmmaker and founded BU’s cinema department in 1970. Gottheim shot an unnamed 12-minute film featuring the ALA which was played during the discussion.
“I was impatient and looking for something else to do with my life, and I had gotten a 16mm camera and was feeling my way toward becoming a filmmaker, which I did eventually become,” Gottheim said. “Somehow, it now seems to me kind of marvelous, I was just so close to the [ALA] before the film even started.”
The film began with a traditional analog, old-timey countdown with black and white numbers that revealed twelve students of African or Latin origin, with the ALA logo at the end. The film explored Harpur College, Harlem and the Lower East Side of Manhattan and juxtaposed Black and Latin joy with Black and Latin oppression. Some striking shots showed a young Black woman finding herself enticed by a Malcolm X book, a young Latino man, who we later learn is Luis, sharing a meal with his family, contained in the embrace of his home’s walls and Black school children cheering their friend on as he attempted to do a handstand, yet in the next image the boy was shot dead. Close-ups of individual ALA members were periodically inserted throughout the film. Most were smiling, talking, others awkwardly laughing and one lit a cigarette. Photographs depicting police brutality and slaves picking cotton were also in the film.
Before the webinar ended, Reilly said that it’s important to do what you can, no matter who you are, to get involved in activism.
“I was born an activist when I said ‘yes’ to life,” Reilly said. “Saying yes to life means you have to be an activist, you have to be proactive, not saying ‘yes’ to life means you’re reactive — you’re just the opposite of that. And life is about always evolving, life is about ever-growing, life is about expanding your consciousness, about opening your heart, opening your hands, opening your spirit. It’s about always moving to those places where other people fear to go, for positive purposes, for positive transformations.”