Black List: Who owns the narrative?

Sam Spokony, Photo Editor

   When President Kleniewski leads the commemoration of the 20th anniversary of SUNY Oneonta’s Black List — the first commemoration, that is — I hope you’ll be there to take part in it.

   But, since it won’t happen until the start of the fall semester, we also have some time to think about this event before it takes place. In the months leading up to it, we are, in fact, obligated to think about the impetus for its creation. For better or worse, that’s actually the first thing I realized when I read the email President Kleniewski sent to the student body several weeks ago, informing us of the Black List commemoration.

   For many reasons it would be pointless to criticize the intentions or integrity of the college’s administration as they begin planning what will be a historic step forward for this campus community. But I still think it’s extremely important for us, as members of this community, to recognize in this the very deliberate creation of a narrative — a narrative reconstruction that will, from this moment forward, exist alongside one horrible thing that took place two decades ago.

   What I mean is to look at the language. In her email, President Kleniewski wrote that, among other things, “The Black List represents SUNY Oneonta’s low point” and “…we shall never forget the events of September 4, 1992, and their impact on our college.”

   Though these may be — in many ways and to many people — appropriate ways to describe the Black List and its aftermath, they also struck me as very clear appeals to the kind of absolutist, emotionally-driven sentiments that the U.S. government uses to mark each anniversary of the September 11 attacks. They’re appeals that tell us it’s more valuable to remember than to learn, and more valuable to hate than to understand and grow. As long as we never forget, the narrative tells us, we’ve done our jobs.

   Listen: I’m not comparing the two events. And I’m not telling you that I sympathize with the people who, 20 years ago, gave a list of Oneonta’s African-American and Latino students to the city’s police department without cause. What I’m telling you is that, as we look back on something awful — something that did not happen to any the students currently on this campus — we need to take great care in understanding the stories we’re told about it, and the motivations of those who provide the stories for us to consume.

   Would this commemoration be taking place if minority students hadn’t taken great steps to challenge the college’s lack of equity and inclusiveness over the past year? Would it be taking place if the college hadn’t implemented a strategic plan for diversity in 2010 — one likely made to present a brighter (public relations) image of this administration? You don’t have to answer those questions. You just have to be aware of them.

   In her email, President Kleniewski also outlined some potential elements of the Black List commemoration. I was very pleased that, along with planning a look back at the details of the infamous day and providing a place for students to hear recollections from people who were actually there, she added this: “Continuing discussion about our campus today, initiatives now underway, and future opportunities to make it more welcoming and inclusive.”

   It’s a very exciting prospect, and it will mean so much to this campus community. I just hope that, like the college itself, it will be founded — purely — in honor and good faith.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.