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May 16, 2016

Alumni/Student Clubs Sponsor “Resurrecting Nat Turner”

Image caption: Left to right are student Omar Richards, presenters Jean McGianni Celestin and Brian Favors, Dean Cynthia Ward and alumna Melba Tolliver ’98. Photo/David Fullard
Image caption: Left to right are student Omar Richards, presenters Jean McGianni Celestin and Brian Favors, Dean Cynthia Ward and alumna Melba Tolliver ’98. Photo/David Fullard

On Wednesday, April 27, the Black Male Initiative and Voices Poetry Group, two of SUNY Empire State College’s many alumni/student clubs, co-sponsored "Resurrecting Nat Turner," an overview of the controversial slave revolt led by this enslaved African-American as a result of enduring the norms of the day in 1800s Southampton, Va.

More than 60 SUNY Empire administrators, students and faculty attended this significant, thought-provoking event at the college’s Hudson Street location in Manhattan.

According to David Fullard, a visiting assistant professor, faculty advisor for the Black Male Initiative and a member of the Empire State College Foundation Board of Directors, the event's success was significantly impacted and enriched by the efforts of BMI and Voices Poetry Group Vice President Omar Richards, BMI President Larry Johnson and Kristen Laboy president of the Voices Poetry Group.

“Their vision and energy were integral in making the evening such a resounding success,” said Fullard.

SUNY Empire student and BMI member Eddie Shellman said the event "did not disappoint … [Our presenters] gave us their heart and soul when telling us historical facts about Nat Turner and the upcoming film ‘Birth of a Nation’. Our healthy discussion increased the pride I have in my African heritage and history. I hope to share the premiere of the film with my sons, so that we will play a part in keeping African-American history fresh in the minds of all Americans."

SUNY Empire student Caroline Koralik said, "It was wonderful hearing new insights about this watershed historical event, where I enjoyed learning about the new upcoming film … and the intricacies of producing [it].  It was a wonderful evening."

Brian Favors, educational consultant, and Jean McGianni Celestin, co-author of the groundbreaking 2016 film "The Birth of a Nation," delivered the presentation and led the discussion, encouraging the audience to examine the relevance of Turner’s rebellion in the context of the current conversation surrounding racism in America and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Alumna Melba Tolliver ‘98, writer, journalist and a 2015 recipient of the college’s Distinguished Alumni Award, said she was "thrilled to be in the audience … [and] felt actively included in an inspired, ambitious project envisioned by actor Nate Parker, writer/filmmaker Jean McGianni Celestin and educator Brian Favors. Together they have skillfully merged filmmaking, history, slave narrative, purposeful storytelling and audience dialogue in what is certain to provoke a compelling new look at the life and times of the enslaved Nat Turner, leader of the largest recorded slave uprising in history. His resurrection, looking back some 200 years, poses both questions and answers relevant to the ramifications of race in today’s America. Kudos to SUNY Empire and the Black Male Initiative for bringing this thoroughly thought-provoking event to the college community and to the public at large and for demonstrating, yet again, the college’s commitment to lifelong learning.”

Judith Gehrke, special consultant to BMI, said she "found the presentation of the film's genesis and the reactions of the audience to be illuminating. As a member of the 'white, entitled majority,' I am ashamed of how little I know of black history … skewed to what whites have chosen to record. Other than a handful of names (Tubman, King, Turner, Parks, and a few others), I have no knowledge of individuals who fought to end the oppression of black Americans." She mentioned traveling in Europe and asking African-Americans there about their roots, but most had no clue because "[t]heir oldest relatives had been descended from slaves and none had told their descendants about their origins. How sad to have no roots, no sense of the culture they had had to abandon. No last name that was truly theirs—just the name of a former 'owner' … the legacy we white Americans, have crafted for them. It is time to set the record straight, to acknowledge that these descendants of proud, ancient cultures have every right to what white Americans take for granted: freedom, a history of heroes and heroines, a legacy that is full of achievements. That is the message that I took away from last night's discussion and that is what I will try to honor by seeking to learn that history."

Comments from the SUNY Empire Faculty

“The parallels to the overt issues that adversely affected persons of color in the days of Turner and those affecting persons of color in the 21st century have become abundantly clear with every incident that occurs in communities, facilities and penal institutions today,” said Fullard. “There is a feeling of wheels spinning in mud that is contributing to a growing movement for all who continue to embrace justice and equality as the primary issues of importance around the world.

“Such presentations speak to current issues and needs, especially as they involve persons of color, and provide a voice for those who fear to speak or are too hoarse from trying to make themselves heard.”

Daramola N. Cabral, assistant professor of health sciences, called "Resurrecting Nat Turner" a "thought-provoking and intellectually stimulating presentation." She found profound parallels to the past and present, saying, "Just as Nat Turner rebelled against the ravages of chattel slavery, today’s youth rebel against social injustice and fight against 21st-century slavery, as epitomized in the prison-industrial-complex, which is fostered by corporate exploitation of prisoners … Turner led a violent rebellion against slavery. Today, youth work on the micro-level to enculturate their children, establishing early on a strong sense of self-worth, at the meso-level to rebuild community esteem and identity; and, on the macro-level, through writing legislation to overturn unjust sentencing laws, which disproportionately impact black people.”

Lisa Whiteside, adjunct professor, also spoke of the learning experience that resulted from the event and how she had "limited knowledge of the extent of [Nat Turner's] heroism. He was a highly adept revolutionist. The presentation served as a reminder of the value of freedom, mentally and physically, and the response when devoid. His legacy is worthy of resurrection and promotion for all members of society."

Steve Tischler, associate professor, said the co-presenters "reminded us of how patterns of oppression and control have persisted into the 20th and 21st centuries. They also showed us that while such attempts to restrain humanity were resisted by enslaved Africans prior to the Civil War, so too are such efforts resisted today, as events in Ferguson and Baltimore reveal. Nat Turner has indeed been resurrected."

About Brian Favors

In the 1990s, Favors became a social studies and special education teacher at Bushwick Community Alternative High School and adjunct instructor at Medgar Evers College. He then partnered with actor Nate Parker in 2008 to create a national campaign featuring "The Great Debaters," a film, as an educational tool to promote literacy, leadership and debate among inner-city youth and college students throughout the country. In 2014, he was a contributing writer to "Internalized Oppression: The Psychology of Marginalized Groups," a book that explores the impact of internalized racism in marginalized communities, while introducing educational programs to confront this phenomenon. 

A member of the Adelaide Sanford Institute and chair of its Professional Development Committee, Favors is also co-founder and director of Sankofa Community Empowerment, Inc., a nonprofit organization servicing urban communities through culturally responsive educational programs in New York and Philadelphia, and co-founder of Breaking The Cycle Consulting Services, training educators to use culturally responsive teaching methods to increase academic achievement in at-risk student populations.

Favors reminded all to remember that the Nate Parker Foundation provides educational programming to support the film "The Birth of a Nation" through a curriculum and workshop series designed to provide "deeper understanding of both the life and legacy of Nat Turner, as well as contemporary racial tensions." The foundation hopes to "engage educational stakeholders, as well as the public, across the country" via a three-unit high school Nat Turner curriculum aligned with state standards, including workshops that give educators "the pedagogical tools and cultural competence to effectively engage students with the curriculum," and screenings of the film at high schools, colleges, churches, community centers and museums. 

About Jean McGianni Celestin

Celestin is a writer whose work focuses on the intersection of race and culture. He has been featured in The Root, The Haitian Times, Bleacher Report and other publications. He and his co-author, Nate Parker, received the 2016 Sundance Film Festival Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize for their film, "The Birth of a Nation," starring Parker, Armand Hammer and Gabrielle Union. 

As a result of the earthquake in his homeland of Haiti in 2010, Celestin also has been involved in long-term community-based projects there and is a youth coach with the USA Wrestling Beat the Streets Program in Brownsville, Brooklyn. He is deeply impassioned about social justice and empowerment and often contributes his energy and time on behalf of the Fortune Society, Rikers Island Correctional Facility and Carter G. Woodson Academy in Lexington, Ky. His media appearances include FOX NY Good Day Street Talk and BBC Radio.

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