Audience for slavery and justice committee’s events largely from outside Brown

The University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice continues to attract an eclectic audience as its last events of the semester take place, consistently drawing more people unaffiliated with Brown than students and faculty.

President Ruth Simmons charged the committee in April 2003 with helping “the campus and the nation come to a better understanding of the complicated, controversial questions surrounding the issue of reparations for slavery,” according to a letter she wrote at the time. Since then, the committee has held public lectures, discussions and screenings on a regular basis and organized a town meeting in mid-October, where anyone curious about the committee was invited to attend and ask questions of its members.

This fall, the committee has seen a wide range of people in its audiences – locals, members of the Nation of Islam and even, at the town meeting, two representatives from the National Alliance, a group described by the Anti-Defamation League as “the largest and most active neo-Nazi organization in the United States.” Some community members have attended all or nearly all of the events this fall, making it clear that the issues being tackled by the committee – the “bigger picture” – are important to them.

“I was surprised that so many residents were there, or at least that they were the most vocal,” said Itiah Thomas ’07, who attended the town meeting. Thomas said “it would have been nice to see more students at the meeting,” but she hypothesized that those students might be addressing similar issues in other academic venues or might not feel that slavery and its local implications resound with them.

“I sense there is a core of people, and that has made it possible for a sustained discussion across topics and things,” said James Campbell, associate professor of history and chair of the committee. “On the whole, I’ve been delighted and surprised by how good turnout has been.”

Events usually draw at least 50 people, and over 300 came to see John Hope Franklin, chairman of President Bill Clinton’s National Initiative on Race, speak at the committee’s kickoff on Sept. 21. Student interest in the committee’s events, however, fluctuates depending on the specific event.

Two weeks ago, Marlisa Wise ’08 attended her first committee event, a lecture by author Tony Eprile ’79 about apartheid in South Africa, and was confused about its relationship to the mission of the committee. “I went because I was interested in South Africa and apartheid” more than the committee itself, she said. “If it’s supposed to be dealing with Brown’s relationship to slavery in the U.S., it didn’t really do that.”

Matt Sledge ’08, who also attended Eprile’s lecture on apartheid in South Africa, was also unsure of the lecture’s relationship to the committee.

“I don’t think I would have gone unless it was under the Slavery and Justice banner, but by the end of the night I wasn’t sure it should have been,” he said. Sledge first found out about the committee on The Herald’s Web site over the summer and understood it was “meant to address race issues in America, slavery, Rhode Island’s relationship to slavery and Brown University’s relationship to slavery,” he said.

In fact, the committee’s charter is broader than that. In her letter to its members, Simmons specified that “it will be important to explore comparative and historical contexts that may shed light on the issues of reparations and retrospective justice (for example, the history of the Holocaust, the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII, apartheid in South Africa, etc.).”

“We need to establish what we can about Brown and its entanglement with slavery, (but) we have to think about how to approach these issues in terms of two major things: contextualization and comparison,” Campbell said last night at a lecture on the Tulsa, Okla., race riots of 1921 by Alfred Brophy, professor of law at the University of Alabama.

“Would I like more students to come? Oh, yeah,” he later told The Herald. “What students are being offered is unique – an opportunity to participate in a dialogue of genuine historic significance.”

Campbell emphasized that it remains students’ responsibility, if they have interest in the committee’s charter, to make the long-term commitment to attending events so that they can participate in the larger discussion.

“If people are conscious, they know these events are happening,” Campbell said, adding that the committee advertises on Morning Mail, on the Daily Jolt and in The Herald, and with fliers in the dining halls. “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.”