Black Mechanics: The Making of an American University and a Nation

On display until December 21, 2016

Cohen Gallery
Granoff Center for the Creative Arts at Brown University
154 Angell Street, Providence, RI 02912 

Black Mechanics: The Making of an American University and a Nation examines the ways in which slavery shaped the founding of our country and its universities. Furthermore, the exhibit speaks to tensions between the ideas of freedom and liberty in the nation's founding documents, the ways in which these have been denied throughout American history and how people have fought to reclaim them.

Exhibit Opening December 1, 2016 at 6:00 PM

Generous support also provided by the Office of Institutional Diversity & Inclusion and The Brown Arts Initiative.

Since its founding in 2012, the Center for the Study of Slavery & Justice (CSSJ) at Brown has curated exhibitions which explore complex and oftentimes forgotten histories of racial slavery in the Americas. We do this while paying careful attention to the ways in which this social system continues to influence American life. Drawing on materials from previous CSSJ exhibitions and exploring new sources, Black Mechanics: The Making of an American University and a Nation examines the ways in which slavery shaped the founding of our country and its universities. The exhibition's title "Black Mechanics" comes from a 2016 poem written by Evie Shockley commissioned by the Center. The poem's line, "you are the byproduct of a process that does not know your names : you are our black mechanics, our working parts, so work it..." reflects the exhibition's focus on the unnamed and unrecognized individuals whose labor was the foundation of our nation and universities. Black Mechanics speaks to tensions between the ideas of freedom and liberty in the nation's founding documents, the ways in which these have been denied throughout American history and how people have fought to reclaim them. The poem's dual focus on the structures and individuals entanglement articulates a conversation that we have not yet had in the United States. Throughout the exhibition this tension between slavery, the proclaimed liberty of the Founding Fathers, and the enslaved's desire for freedom is explored through excerpts from Evie's piece black mechanics (or, offshore manufacturing avant la lettre), artist Joseph Holston's Colors in Freedom, Professor Geri Augusto's Negro Cloth Nkisi and materials from local archives. Together they reveal how slave labor and the Atlantic slave trade fueled the creation of elite universities such as Brown, the United States, and our modern world.

Brown's story provides important insights into the historical and national dilemmas the country currently faces. How should slavery as a system be remembered? What are its continuing structural legacies? How might we create a democracy when such a difficult past continues to shape our present? We hope this exhibition provides the viewer with a space for reflection about the issues that continue to challenge our society today. 

Black Mechanics: The Making of an American University and a NationBlack Mechanics: The Making of an American University and a Nation