Being Rosa Clemente ’95 is not for the faint of heart. The longtime activist has led a life filled with all the twists and turns of a Hollywood blockbuster. In fact, recently, she’s even helped produce an Academy Award-winning film. UAlbany Magazine caught up with Rosa on a recent visit to campus to recall some of her memorable moments.
When I entered in 1990, my major was political science. I was put into an Africana Studies class [by mistake] but it was my first Black studies class ever. Dr. Vivian Gordon was the chair of the Africana Studies department and I just switched majors! She began to mentor me and I became involved with ASUBA [Albany State University Black Alliance] and anything around student activities. At that same time, I was taking Civil Rights, Intro to Puerto Rican history. I was taking Africana Studies classes, so I was becoming more aware of racial and social justice issues.
At that time, I began to realize I was a person of African descent. I really had never been told that.
As a Puerto Rican, you just grow up and that’s always what I was. I was being called a ‘sellout’ [by other Latino students]. So, my home was ASUBA where I was completely embraced and welcomed. What I started to do as [ASUBA] president, everything was Black and Hispanic to show that unity. I would not be who I am without it.”
Kwame Ture had come and spoken here before, but this time the University said, ‘No.’ So, we said, ‘We’re bringing him, but we’re not telling anybody.’ So, we snuck him in. We went through the underground tunnels to LC7. The Brothers (Albany civil rights activists) were doing security. The janitors opened the door and I’m in LC7 and there are about 500 to 600 people. [It] was packed. And then I introduced him by saying, ‘We’re ASUBA, so welcome, Kwame Ture!’ That room went…I mean you could, literally, feel the electricity.” By the time he starts speaking, the whole campus is on alert. [The administration] suspended me right there. They moved to expel me from campus. All the students rallied and surrounded the building where I was having the judicial hearing. Dr. Gordon was in the meeting because we were not allowed to bring lawyers as an advocate. And Dr. Gordon [said]: ‘You don’t want to do this. If you do this, we’re going on strike.’” In 1994, Dr. Gordon had become really sick and by 1995, she had passed away. I went to the funeral with some other students she had chosen.
She put us in her will and testament and left us last instructions of what to do with our lives. Mine was, specifically, to organize and research for [my] people.
In 2004, I got pregnant with my daughter and I was very, very sick. I almost died. I met Cynthia McKinney the year before at a conference. She was a Congresswoman [from Georgia]. She would bring us out to speaking gigs. Then I get a call and it’s Cynthia McKinney [who asked]: ‘Do you want to be my vice-presidential running mate?’ I knew people who were running in the Green Party. I had joined the Green Party after I had heard Ralph Nader speak. He was the first politician that I had ever seen address mass incarceration in the Clinton era and what that meant. I said, ‘Sure, I’ll run.’ And then, on I think it was, July 12th, 2008 — we got the nomination in Chicago.
It was crazy. I was thinking, “I don’t have a job. I’ll run for Vice President.”
I’m part of this collective called Blackout for Human Rights that [director and Academy Award nominee] Ava Duvernay, [“Black Panther” director] Ryan Coogler, and [film producer] Charles King are a part of. I’ve been in the collective for a while. I got a call from one of the members in Blackout. His name is [film director] Shaka King and he says, “Rosa, do you know how to get in contact with Fred Hampton Jr.?” [son of slain civil rights activist/Black Panther Party leader, Fred Hampton] And I said, “Yes, and why?” and he says, “I have a script.” So, I got Ryan and Charles. I called Fred. It took a month. We go to Chicago, 8-hour meeting. And that’s how it began. So, my involvement was literally getting Fred to have the meeting and being at all of the tables. I was one of the first people who said ‘Daniel [Kaluuya who an Oscar for portraying Hampton] is going to get the nomination.’ I was there, on set, in the church
I was there, on set, in the church scene. That was the most powerful scene in the movie and when Daniel first did [that scene], I was like, “Oh my God! Fred Hampton is here.”
We need more movies on all the Panthers. Every one of them has a story. Every Weather Underground person has a story. If we can watch 105 million movies on World War II, can we have a movie on [Puerto Rican civil rights and community organization] the Young Lords?
I’m serious about my work but then, <red-text>I’m also very funny!<red-text> I could be a comedian on the side. I make my friends laugh. I love to have fun. I’m serious, but I have levity in everything I do.
[Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed]