Two powerful female graduates return to campus to have a conversation about social responsibility with the community.
On Monday evening, chatter and jazz music warmed the fall night in anticipation of the evening’s alumnae speakers in Lecture Center 100. Janus Adams (‘67) and Ilyasah Shabazz (‘85) were soon to greet the bustling room with SUNY New Paltz’s first fireside chat “To Be, or Not to Be?” as part of the 11th year of the Distinguished Speaker Series.
The title of this conversation was inspired by William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” Shabazz explained that the particular soliloquy from this play impacted her (and her father).
Adams, an Emmy Award-winning journalist and NPR’s first National Arts Correspondent, had an intergenerational conversation with Shabazz, an award-winning author and daughter of Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz, on “social responsibility in times of challenge and change,” according to the event’s brochure. The mission of the Distinguished Speaker Series is to connect attendees, including students, staff and community members, with notable guests.
Adams received her bachelor’s degree in theatre and an honorary doctorate, while Shabazz received her bachelor’s degree in biology and is now an adjunct professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Their conversation began lightheartedly. Adams and Shabazz reflected on their journeys from childhood to now, which included memories as students of SUNY New Paltz and how times have changed since then.
“We are either going to be a part of the problem or we’re going to be a part of the solution. I know that my fellow New Paltz-ians will be a part of that solution,” Shabazz said. “It’s up to us to not see injustice as a black and white issue, but to have the capacity to recognize the difference between right and wrong and to have compassion and courage for that.”
The speakers shared personal stories, such as an anecdote about Shabazz’s initial arrival to campus, when she was made the chairperson of the Black Student Union. She expressed how New Paltz is the place where she grew and discovered her father’s image away from her family.
“I didn’t understand at the time that the challenges existed, because I had come from a place where my mother guarded her children because she saw her husband [Malcolm X] gunned down in front of her, and so my mother made such an effort to ensure that her six daughters were raised understanding the importance of self-love,” Shabazz said. “I thought about love, peace, joy and when I came to college they wanted me to be this fiery person that I wasn’t.”
This event was the first time that Shabazz and Adams officially met, but they already had connections, including how Adams knew Betty Shabazz and how Malcolm X and Adams’ late husband, Max Roach, were “very good friends.”
When Adams began college, the March on Washington was held and John F. Kennedy’s assassination was that November. For this reason, Adams described her years at New Paltz as the “height of the turmoil of the ‘60s.” She also shared a story about how Rosa Parks was at court for refusing to give up her seat to a white male at the “exact same hour” that her grandmother was in court herself to become an American citizen.
By speaking at this event, both women hoped to have ignited thoughts of societal change.
“There is no civil rights era. There’s been a civil rights era since our ancestors were brought here,” said Assistant Professor of the Black Studies Department Blair Proctor. “[The speakers] understand very clear that the students of this era are very much like the ‘60s. That they are looking for change, not sitting back and being complacent.”
“These women revealed their experiences about being in spaces where they don’t necessarily feel like they can recognize with anyone else, and that’s something I personally relate to,” said fourth-year public relations major Cassie Bailey. “The unity in that is important to recognize.”
The next event of the series will take place in the spring and will feature two guest speakers, according to Program Director for the Development & Foundation Office Lisa Sandick.