Reflecting on Joy and Justice
- November 6, 2023
- By Barbara Solow
Through speeches, workshops, song, dance and meditation, the Smith community spent this year’s Cromwell day reflecting on ways that joy can accompany the hard work of addressing racial injustice.
"Joy is not a distraction from our mission,” said President Sarah Willie-LeBreton at the opening ceremony on Nov. 2, in John M. Greene Hall. "All of us benefit from finding and cultivating joy.”
In her keynote address, Black feminist scholar and cultural theorist Brittney Cooper described how joy can be a “steadying force” in the face of racism and other forms of injustice.
“Maintaining the capacity for joy is critical to the struggle for justice,” Cooper said. “Joy is an invitation to make new worlds rather than being held hostage to the old ones.”
Joy is not the same as happiness or comfort, Cooper added. “The injustices and outrages scare us and exhaust us,” she said. “We have to balance all of the rage with pleasure and love and joy and hope.”
Cromwell Day honors the legacy of Smith’s first Black graduate, Otelia Cromwell, class of 1900, and her niece, Adelaide Cromwell ’40, the college’s first Black faculty member. This year’s theme—”Finding Joy on Our Journey to Racial Justice”—aimed to inspire reflection and learning about diversity, racism and inclusion through activities centered on care and community.
“We know this road we are on to racial justice is a long and difficult one, and we need to find ways to sustain ourselves,” said Floyd Cheung, vice president for equity and inclusion and a member of the Cromwell Day Committee of students, faculty and staff. “While we still have work to do, there have been moments in each decade where we have made progress.”
Among the day’s activities:
- A “Campus Climate Survey Data Walk” in Neilson Library, where participants viewed initial results of a survey about feelings of belonging at Smith. Students, faculty and staff used Post-it notes and a QR code to share reactions to the survey and offer suggestions for follow-up actions. While the Cromwell Day data walk focused on survey questions related to race, the Office of Equity and Inclusion plans more data sharing and invitations for feedback in meetings with the Student Government Association, Staff and Faculty Councils, and in other venues.
- A pop-up exhibit at the Smith College Museum of Art curated by the Black Student Alliance and Mellon Mays Scholar Sena Amuzu ’24. “Be/Held: Embracing Ourselves, Our Joy and Our Future” featured photographs, paintings and drawings from the collection telling “the stories of the Black experience.” Gallery visitor Raina Plevyak ’25 said some of the artworks brought her close to tears. “Seeing this [Cromwell Day] theme through pieces of art has a different meaning and brings people together,” she said. “Especially the photos of real people. Having that memorialized was very powerful.”
- A Q&A session with Professor Brittney Cooper following her keynote address, during which participants asked about how to access joy in the face of violent events, such as those now occurring in the Middle East. “The challenge of a moment like this is we all want to fix it now,” Cooper said. “We can hold each other’s grief and rage. In this community, maybe that is what we owe to each other.“ As to how she defines joy, “It’s just the internal sense that being here, and being in the process is valuable,” Cooper said.
Perhaps nothing captured the spirit of this year’s Cromwell Day more vividly than a performance by Smith’s Blackapella and former Sweet Honey in the Rock vocalist Evelyn Harris at the close of the ceremony in John M. Greene Hall.
As the performers invited the audience to join in singing the spiritual “Somebody Prayed for Me,” the hall literally shook with joy.
Photographs by Shana Sureck