March 15, 2023
This year’s Women’s Herstory Month (WHM) at Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC/CUNY) presents the central theme, “Resiliency of her Terms.”
According to the WHM committee, “Women are expected to be strong and even celebrated for taking on more as they rise above all odds, regardless of the situation, especially BIPOC women.”
WHM events challenge this narrative — which ignites stereotypes, burnout and oppression —and redefine what resiliency looks like on a woman’s own terms.
The work of reclaiming narratives and seeking truth is carried out at BMCC, year-round.
BMCC English Professor, journalist and essayist Syreeta McFadden reclaims historical and cultural narratives in her teaching, writing, research and reporting. Her work shows that when stripped of bias, narratives can reveal the truths and stories of marginalized BIPOC communities.
In McFadden’s timeless 2014 essay in BuzzFeed News, “Teaching the Camera to See my Skin, Navigating photography’s inherited bias against dark skin,” she examines the racist development strategy behind lighting standards used in the camera film industry.
As a girl, she says, “I began to retreat from situations involving group shots … I only knew, though I didn’t understand why, that the lighter you were, the more likely it was that the camera — the film — got your likeness right.”
The essay follows McFadden’s technical and personal understanding of that phenomenon.
“You took your roll of film to a lab where the technician worked off a reference card with a perfectly balanced portrait of a pale-skinned woman,” she writes. “Technicians rely on it to render an image as close as possible to what the human eye recognizes as normal.”
“But there’s a rub,” McFadden explains. “With a white body as a light meter, all other skin tones become deviations from the norm.”
In the 1970s and 1980s, she writes, Kodak did finally modify its film emulsion stocks — “but only after complaints from companies trying to advertise chocolate and wood furniture.” Even today “the science of digital photography is very much based on the same principles of technology that shaped film photography.”
In other words, in low light, the sensors search for something that is light in color, before the shutter in released. Or as McFadden puts it, “Focus it on a dark spot, and the camera is inactive. It only knows how to calibrate itself against lightness to define the image.”
Over time, she found work-arounds while cross-processing slide film; double processing the film stock and other strategies that “subvert the blinkered design of tools that were never imagined for my hands, my face.”
Eventually, she says, she began shooting color film again. “The Fuji film I use now still struggles with a bias toward lightness in its color standard. But it does seem to be more forgiving to darker skin.”
Inspiring a generation of journalists to tell stories that matter
McFadden closes her essay on the racist roots of film development standards with this: “What the camera obscures is my work to retrieve.”
The retrieval of truth is at the heart of what students learn as they complete their studies in a new journalism concentration provided through the Associate of Arts (A.A.) in Writing and Literature program housed in the English department.
Professor McFadden coordinates the journalism program.
“My colleagues and I realized it could be an opportunity to train and teach future journalists from historically underrepresented groups in newsrooms,” she says.
They also took into account, the fact that their existing journalism courses were in high demand.
“Our department leadership, including our Chair, Margaret Pamplin, saw the new concentration as an opportunity to build equity and access,” McFadden says. “We thought about what it means to have students from unrepresented communities tell their stories, or the stories that matter to them most.”
Other faculty who worked on developing the new journalism concentration included Andrew Levy, Maria Alvarez, Chaumutal “Tali” Noiman, who was chair of the department curriculum committee at that time; James Hoff, Elizabeth Berlinger Daniels and Jason Schneiderman. Joyce Harte was Chair of the English department during that time.
“We’re really excited to have a journalism concentration at BMCC and what we’re aspiring for, is expansion,” she adds. “We would love to see a student newspaper reemerge at BMCC, with stories of students’ communities, the greater BMCC community. We say New York City is a laboratory, that the city itself is a classroom, so what better vehicle to make use of that, than the lens of reporting and storytelling?”
Storytelling that deconstructs and reconstructs narratives mired down in racist expectations anchors McFadden’s work.
“Editors have taken a chance working with me and I’ve gotten a range of opportunities to tell a wide variety of stories,” she says. “Knowing what it means to take a nontraditional path helped inform what I thought about in helping to shape the journalism concentration.”
Some would question the choice to enter the field of journalism at this time, when so many venues are going out of business.
“We know local newsrooms are feeling the pinch with closures and venture capital money gobbling up newsrooms, but there still are signs of real hope,” McFadden says. “What does local reporting look like in this kind of climate? What kinds of skills do students need, to be competitive in such a climate?”
She and her colleagues also realized that journalism is often an elite field that excludes students with public educations. “We sought to close that gap,” she says.
Sharing first-generation insight as a graduate of Ivy League schools
Syreeta McFadden joined BMCC as an adjunct instructor in 2013 and became a full-time faculty member in Fall 2016. In addition to coordinating the journalism concentration, she teaches English composition, feature writing, literature courses, a course on urban writers and a Special Topics course on Tony Morrison.
McFadden also works with Sharon Reid, director of the BMCC Internship and Experiential Learning program, to deliver the NBC University internship initiative, and she is part of the Exploring Transfer Program (ET) at Vassar team at BMCC, sharing personal insight with students, into what it’s like to be a first-generation student at an elite, private college.
“I’m a first-generation college graduate and I did attend schools that were really well resourced, but my family was working class, out of Wisconsin,” she says. “I moved to New York and got my bachelor’s degree in political science at Columbia, where I was student body president as an undergraduate, and the first African American woman at Columbia to hold that post. After working for about seven years, I earned an MFA in Creative Writing, Fiction, at Sarah Lawrence College.”
She also worked for almost 10 years as an urban planner and housing development specialist, before focusing on her work as a journalist.
“Those early years as a writer afforded me a way to understand the rigors of reporting; fact checking and gathering, thinking about the big story,” she says.
Some of those lessons involved push-back from an audience that wasn’t always receptive to her focus on Black identity and her own identity in particular.
“My focus on identity is very intentional,” she says. “It was born from the fact that there is a blind spot in America. I wanted to send out a defiant rebuttal to the blowback I’d gotten when I was a columnist at The Guardian — ‘Go back where you came from.’ It makes me think of Baldwin who said, ‘Love America, but critique it perpetually.’”
She says that tracing her family on the matrilineal line back seven generations was made possible through the grace of elder relatives and genealogy searches.
“That helped pinpoint when our family line was brought to the shores of the United States,” she says. “This is a deliberate way to assert Americanism without being ‘othered’ by the larger narrative about who gets to be American.”
Meanwhile, she continues setting a high bar for her students who are aspiring journalists.
“I did a profile for the Carnegie Reporter at the end of 2022 about the female vice chancellor at the University of Ghana,” she says. “I’ve written for Rolling Stone recently and I’m working on an art criticism piece now for The Atlantic.”
On March 8, her article, “What Ordinary Family Photos Teach Us About Ourselves” posted in The Atlantic. The article looks at the impact of familial archiving in a new book, Black Archives: A Photographic Celebration of Black Life, by the multidisciplinary artist Renata Cherlise.
For more information on the Associate of Arts (A.A.) in Writing and Literature with a concentration in journalism, visit here or call the English department at (212) 220-8270.
For more information about Women’s Herstory Month at BMCC, visit here.
- Women’s HerStory Month theme “Resiliency on Her Terms” challenges the narrative that women, especially BIPOC women, must rise above all odds, regardless of the situation, and often at their own expense
- BMCC English Professor, journalist and essayist Syreeta McFadden reclaims historical and cultural narratives in her teaching, writing, research and reporting, revealing truths about Black experience
- Coordinator of the English Department’s new Journalism concentration and through other roles at BMCC, she inspires students to find the truth in stories that matter to them most