Honoring the legacy of Otelia Cromwell, the first Black woman to earn a degree from Smith College, Northamptonites and Smithies gathered in John M. Greene Hall to hear Roxanne Gay speak on November 2. Gay is an accomplished American writer, editor, and commentator; her latest work is Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body.
Opening remarks were given by Otelia Cromwell Day Planning Committee co-chair and CRSL Program Coordinator Kim Alston. Per tradition, the poem “Maven” was read aloud by Traci Williams ‘18J, followed by a viewing of the award-winning video “The Life and Legacy of Otelia Cromwell,” which follows the life of Cromwell, including her time as a student at Smith in great detail. President Kathy McCartney gave remarks and introduced the keynote speaker, Roxanne Gay.
Gay’s keynote address, “Age of American Disgrace,” largely focused on the state of the nation under the Trump presidency. Gay began by recanting the time leading up to the 2016 election.
“I had an opportunity to raise my voice and I squandered that opportunity,” Gay said, expressing her regret of not writing more in support of Hillary Clinton.
Gay went on to discuss what to do next and how to analyze where we are now. She discussed Michelle Obama’s often-quoted phrase, “When they go low, we go high,” explaining that in dealing with Trump a different strategy is necessary. Gay touched on the Otelia Cromwell Day theme of “Resist, Act, and Preserve” and explained that instead, “When they go low, we have to be willing to go subterranean,” followed by cheers and applause by the crowd.
She also touched on the topics of diversity and allyship. Gay admitted, “I don’t know how to fix racism,” and expressed that she is “so very tired of talking about diversity” and the assumption that “as a black woman I somehow have access to some magical euphemism on how to make the world a better and more inclusive place.”
Gay then made the point that diversity as a word has been overused to the point that it is often meaningless. She critiqued the notion of allyship as simply offering affirming words and challenged the audience to show real material support and have a willingness to sacrifice.
Gay ultimately declared, “we have to fight for and with each other.”
As the final question of the question and answer session, students asked Gay to explain the benefits of affinity housing. A group of students coordinated a banner drop in John M. Greene during the Otelia Cromwell Day celebration, and the question allowed Gay to address the elephant in the room that is also a pressing issue for students on campus.
Gay acknowledged the administrative challenges of creating affinity housing, but concluded with the point that “in terms of humanity, if students want affinity housing, they need it.”
Blackappella performed a beautiful rendition of “No Mirror in My Nana’s House” to conclude the event.