1967 SUNY New Paltz alumnus Janus Adams was invited as a speaker in SUNY New Paltz’s ninth annual Distinguished Speaker Series, which seeks to enrich the campus and community with compelling insight from well-known figures. Janus Adams fits the bill.
On Thursday Oct. 12, Lecture Center 100 buzzed in anticipation, awaiting Adams’ arrival.
She is an Emmy Award-winning journalist, historian and a bestselling author of 11 books. In addition to these accolades, she is also a musician and a former correspondent of National Public Radio (NPR). Her articles and columns have been featured in The New York Times and The Washington Post, while she contributes regularly to news outlets such as CBS News and The Huffington Post.
Azer Khan, a senior at SUNY New Paltz, elaborated on why he attended the event.
“I wanted to see the NPR talk show host,” he said. “But I am also interested in how the campus community and society in general are tackling issues of racism.”
Khan added that he was particularly interested in Adams’ opinion on the “renaming of the buildings” on campus.
New Paltz President Donald P. Christian introduced Adams, reminding the audience that Adams was one of four children chosen to desegregate the school system in New York City after the landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.
Janus Adams took her seat at the podium, draped in black with an elegant necklace, and was endlessly gracious. She opened her talk, “Know When To Leave the Plantation,” with a quote from her grandmother who once said: “In this world, everything is related. All things are one.”
Adams then launched into a narrative spanning decades, elaborating on her experiences growing up as a black woman in America during the ‘60s and ‘70s. Adams elaborated first on her experience traveling to Washington D.C. “54 years and six weeks ago,” to march against injustice, and witness Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speak.
She painted a picture of the journey, where she and her family were harassed because of their skin color.
“[We were] foot soldiers of justice against an army of evil, but we were not alone.” Adams said.“King then ascended the podium. I felt myself levitate, soar.”
Adams has long described Dr. King as her childhood hero, remarking on the significance of his words to her. She was nine years old when she met Dr. King, but he held her chin, said that her role in desegregation was important, and that she was pretty. She expressed that these were inspiring words for a young black girl to hear.
As King demanded justice, Adams reflected on how her and the people around her could not know, “how much or how little had changed [since then].”
Adams then described her arrival at SUNY New Paltz campus as an undergraduate. On the first day, she experienced blatant racism. A mother wanted to check if she was “good enough” to be her white daughter’s roommate.
“[I was] put up for inspection as if on an auction block of old,” Adams said.
She interweaved her campus experience with the changing of the tides in the ‘60s. Adams mentioned the Vietnam War, Cassius Clay and witnessing the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald on live television. She said the latter moment “changed everything we thought about ourselves.”
She spoke affectionately of Cassius Clay, better known as Muhammad Ali, and praised his desire to “reject his slave name,” and “resurrect himself as Muhammad Ali.”
Her traumatic experiences in New Paltz did not end with that first day with her roommate’s mother. She described a particularly rainy night in New Paltz, where she crossed Main Street at night. A car pulled up, one she presumed to be a state affiliated vehicle, and offered her a ride to the house she was living in off-campus. She accepted, and the driver then reached under her skirt––she escaped the vehicle by stabbing the man with her umbrella.
Adams later consulted a policeman
“[He said to me] ‘Why, you little whore! You think I’m going to ruin a good man’s life for a little whore?’” This was a significant example of the racism and sexism she experienced. She then described how she left New Paltz, traumatized and tired. “I left for 40 years,” she said.
The talk then became more politicized. Adams shifted from the discussion of her history to a discussion of institutionalized racism and sexism in America. She related her points to the title of the talk.
She asked, “What is a plantation, today?” Adams answered herself, listing “our deficits of culture through the Jim Crow Era.” She mentioned the issues of mass incarceration, of police officers “entitled to kill” and the flaws in the educational system, particularly for children of color.
She finished with a startling fact. “Blacks are less likely than whites to be prescribed pain medication,” she said, solemnly, adding, “It all goes back to the plantation system.”
Adams finished the talk with some final points. She described that when she is asked how to end racism or how to end sexism she responds, “stop teaching American history as we teach it today.”
Adams continued, relaying a message to the students and young people in the audience: “To young people – make your movement here, join the Underground Railroad movements of today.”
The enlightening talk concluded with a song, uniting her and the audience in a sing-along. The whole of the hall sang together, “This little light of mine / I’m gonna let it shine.”