This week the documentary, Agents of Change, dropped for a limited time on PBS (2/20, 2/21, 2/24 & 2/25) and chronicles the events at San Francisco State in 1968 and at Cornell University in April, 1969, where Black students demanded that the administrations of these places of higher learning give them freedom to be Black Inteligencia without compromise.
While watching this, one is reminded of when author Virginia Woolf wrote, “There is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind” in her book, A Room of One’s Own. Of course, her context is 1929 post-war Europe and she is looking through the lens of a feminist, young white woman, so she couldn’t possibly fathom what these students’ reality might be. But in theory she is “correct. ” The boundless horizon that your mind can traverse is infinite. While your mind is free, there are tools that can leave it in shackles. Black students in this documentary (and across this country) know this reality too well.
This is the crux of this film. Many Americans can boast immigrating to this land of “Milk and Honey” in pursuit of a better life, most Black and Brown people cannot. Their maafa experience (highlighted by enslavement and exploited labor) was forced, and it reduced the dignity of their transplantation to these shores. Black folk weren’t welcomed with the promise that this new world offered. They considered these people beasts upon arrival, thus their minds were of no value nor could it exercise freedom lest it hurt itself. They believed that the African — and other non-white people were unteachable and that their cultures were not substantive. The “theys” were wrong. Agents of Change as an educational tool displays what students did to show them that they were wrong.
Black students used their minds to demand the respect that equity yields.
The film shows how one of the reasons the movement had to be done by young people is because their parents clung to notions of assimilation as a device of survival. Blend in. Don’t cause trouble. Look at King. This un-tutoring of the Black psyche was necessary but with the urgency of the work at hand in San Francisco and at Cornell, the youth with their Shango Spirit of Emancipation had to move covertly and swiftly. Indeed, elders offered wisdom and history, but were so conditioned by the lash (literal and figurative) that they resigned to being intellectual second tier thinkers. History proves that our children passed on that juice and created a well throughout movement (coupled with slight force) to push for their seats at the table.
This excellently researched film explores how these thinkers recruited students to predominantly white colleges, specifically San Francisco State, and then nurtured students to be the best citizens in the space without neglecting their Black identities. They founded the Black Student Union organizations and worked with out people of color (Asians, Latinos, Indigenous) to found their own. These Black students (and the instructors that advised them) also pushed and developed a Black studies department.
At the BSU offices, they made connection with people that would become heroes many now read in history books or study in social studies… they are also in many ways your favorite rappers mentors: Sonia Sanchez, Amiri Baraka, Danny Glover and then a loose association with The Balk Panther party. Producers of Agents of Change have rescued the term, Black Power. It shows how layered the movement was: How socially and academic was two different things, two different methodology but all reaching the same goals.
These students’ goal was to create curriculum that spoke to them with dignity and with real historical accuracy about the African diaspora, Black faculty to teach this curriculum, benefits and increase Black student enrollment.
Agents of Change, as a tool, is needed in every school, in every city, in every state. The Civil Rights movement is often colored as Blacks only operation. Just as the thought that Black Power movement at San Francisco State was a violent activation, prompted by the Black Panther party. It was not. It was a joint movement with students and teachers. That myth was fueled by then governor Ronald Reagan who suggested that this protest was the countries own Vietnam. He fanned flames that he himself created. He took the college students and placed their prison, trying to shackle their minds.
The doc shows how students stepped up to make a change. Two years later, multiple after incarceration of students, after many nights of blood, sweat and tears, the protest ended and these students won what is considered the equivalent of Brown vs. The Board of Ed for the university level. And schools in 2018 reap the benefit.
When the documentary shifts to movement on Cornell’s campus, the focus was on the social dynamics of race inside of academia. The sense was that the sole purpose of Black people being in Cornell was to teach Whites how to get along with people of color. One interesting note is that some students we reported for smoking marijuana, because their white counterparts did not identify the smell of Black hair being pressed. Even teachers talked about how Black women were promiscuous by nature. This prompted these Black women to move off campus to create a space that would be safe for them, this flushed them square into the community. But the straw that broke the backs of these students were that Blacks had made no contribution to the world, historically or economically. This prompted their move to creating Black Studies on the campus. Like San Francisco, they organized and work to make this a reality- against staunch resistance including the burning of crosses in front of the Black women’s lodging during parent’s weekend at the school. The question…. why target the Black women to stop the movement?
The cross burning happened early in the morning (3:00am), before classes the Black students united under the Afro-American Society (AAS) banner sprang into full swing, starting the first major racial demonstration of the campus. It was called “The Takeover.” Cornell had officially joined the ranks of many of the Black students at PWIs across the country. They had to take over.
Agents of Change gives a history lesson on how Black students found their voice, and lifted their minds to do so.
See what happens when minds fight to be free. Check your local listings to see this amazing film: http://www.agentsofchangefilm.com/