Slavery and Justice Center teach-in reopens discussion

March 1, 2013

The speakers reflected on the legacy of slavery at the University and the center’s role in promoting justice

By Katherine Cusumano
Senior Staff Writer

The Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice continued its spring semester events series with a teach-in last night exploring the University’s Slavery and Justice report, released in 2006.

The event, “Slavery, Justice and the University,” featured talks by Seth Rockman, associate professor of history, Marco McWilliams, founder of the Providence Africana Reading Collective, and Anthony Bogues, professor of Africana studies and director of the center.

Rockman’s introductory remarks focused on how the University has set itself apart from peer institutions in its willingness to ask difficult questions about its troubled past and moving forward.

During the question and answer session that followed the teach-in, Rockman said the University’s efforts have shown that an institution’s reputation will not be ruined by confronting its past — instead, the consequences will be overwhelmingly positive.

“The University offers the space to think and really think hard about what has been and what can be,” he said.

Rockman then reflected on the history of the Slavery and Justice report. As of the 2011-12 academic year, many of the promises contained in the report had not come to fruition, he said.

Some people had “doubts as to whether anything would happen at all,” he said. The report was only the beginning of a wider conversation that must take place about the work involved in slavery and justice and opened up questions about the role of accurate history and narrative in social justice, he added.

He urged students to take a leading role in efforts to spread the center’s work.

“You must push. You must drive the faculty beyond its comfort,” he said.

McWilliams then took the floor with an understated retelling of the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till in Mississippi. This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, he said, which calls for reflection about whether the 13th Amendment really abolished slavery. He said the dynamic of slavery has changed but similar institutions remain, citing prisoners on work release as a “captive audience” for labor.

Each generation needs to determine what slavery and justice mean in its own moment, which entails reorienting styles of thought and challenging ingrained ideas, he said.

“You don’t know how many times I’ve been called into the principals’ offices,” he said jokingly.

Bogues began his speech with the genesis of the Slavery and Justice report, which arose from “robust discussions” aimed to “smash the idea that somehow slavery was just a southern phenomenon,” he said.

The University could not shy away from its history — its founders, the Brown brothers, were entrenched in the slave trade, Bogues said.

After deciding to label slavery a crime against humanity, the committee had to decide what sort of repair it could undertake, he said. One result was the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice, which serves as a center for scholarly research and public education.

At the heart of public education is the need to construct a narrative involving slaves’ perspectives instead of simply a story in which “freedom is given from above,” he said, citing an exhibit about the history of slavery in France in an abolitionist museum that fails to account for the involvement of the slaves in their own emancipation.

“We don’t live in a post-racial society,” Bogues said, adding that the structural legacies of slavery are visible in education and justice.

Last night’s teach-in was the first in a series of four planned for the semester, said Sharina Gordon ’13, the event’s organizer.

The series was created after a group of students brainstormed alongside Bogues about how best to resume discussions about slavery and justice.

The University’s entire student body has turned over since the report came out, so its ideas need to be reintroduced, she said.

The center will also host a range of other events throughout the semester,  including film screenings, lectures and musical performances.