April 20, 2009

The Straight Takeover on Celluloid

Print More

Last week, Cornell University commemorated the 40th anniversary of the Willard Straight Hall Takeover, a historic event that has greatly influenced the nature of student activism on the Cornell campus. Besides the numerous articles published by The Sun, the Schwartz Center sponsored a screening of Straight ’69, a student film by Catherine Galasso ’05 that was made in her final year at Cornell. The screening also included a talk by Ed Zuckerman ’70, the managing editor of the Sun at the time of the takeover.
The film made by Galasso presented the Straight takeover through the eyes of five African-American students who have now graduated. Although the film did not indicate at what time these events occurred during the academic year of 1969, they included two nonviolent demonstrations by students of the Afro-American Society (AAS). One such demonstration included dancing atop the tables in the Ivy Room. The other, a much more novel and poignant protest, involved 150 students removing roughly 3,000 books from the stacks of Uris Library and placing them on the librarian’s desks. When doing so, these students stated to the librarians that those books were irrelevant to their past, their present and their future. This remark illustrated the belief held by most black students (and others who supported the initiatives of the AAS) that the university lacked a curriculum relevant to black students’ interests; in turn, this made the need for a Black Studies program at the university much more pressing.
The general feeling gained from the film as well as from Zuckerman was a sense of urgency and totality by the AAS. The desire of the AAS for racial equality at the university and a Black Studies Program made the need for protest, for revolution, all the more inevitable. It was as if they were being denied the right to embrace their identity simply because the tools needed to do so were vastly lacking.
The five students highlighted in Galasso’s film spoke of how the Straight takeover is relevant to black students at the university today. They also addressed the issue of identity as well as racial discrimination and race relations. One such student, a senior at Cornell in 2005, related his experiences with regards to racial dynamics in his encounters with police. While riding his bike around campus, he had been stopped numerous times by police and questioned, primarily as to where he had acquired the bike (or in other words, whether or not he had stolen it). This sort of discrimination is still present today, not only on campus, but throughout the United States. For white students, it is hard to imagine having to grapple with the very nature of one’s identity, especially in relation to others, on a daily basis. But, for many black students (as well as other minority students) this is a persistent focus of their lives.
Another issued raised in the film was the diversity experience at Cornell. One of the students highlighted was the then president of the Black Students Union, who spoke of the need for a black community at Cornell. He emphasized the importance of program houses like Ujamaa in uniting minority students. One issue he raised was that of diversity at Cornell and the protests of white students against program housing, citing the reason that such houses detract from white students’ diversity experience at Cornell. In response to this, the student rhetorically asked, “How is it on me to make your diversity experience at Cornell?” In many ways, these sorts of program houses are the primary means by which to unite and collectively organize to promote minority students’ rights at the university level, making the need for them much more important than ensuring that white students have racial diversity in their dormitory experience.
As many have heard, there is presently a fear that the program houses at Cornell are not being given sufficient attention by the university, which may ultimately lead to the demise of some of them. Yet the university is nationally applauded for its commitments to diversity, and, as the Straight takeover demonstrates, students have fought long and hard for the minority benefits that they are now guaranteed. If anything can be taken away from the commemoration of the Straight takeover, it is this: Equality must be fought for, even if at a great cost.