Students and faculty react to slavery and justice report

Monday, October 30, 2006

The Oct. 18 release of the final report from the University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice garnered national media attention, but did students and faculty on College Hill pay attention? Though a daunting read at 106 pages, the report has already inspired a range of reactions from some members of the Brown community.

“Knowing this new true story behind the development of this institution I have grown to love is kind of like realizing that your girlfriend isn’t perfect after all,” UCS President John Gillis ’07 wrote in an e-mail to The Herald. “Personally, I think the report and some of the documents included give a new level of depth to my experience here at Brown.”

History concentrator Jenny Weissbourd ’08 said she read through the report after her interest in the subject was piqued while taking HI 184: “Capitalism, Slavery and the Economy of Early America,” taught by Assistant Professor of History Seth Rockman. As part of the course, Rockman referenced facts about Brown’s ties to slavery that were discovered by undergraduates working on a Group Research Project he advised.

“These issues don’t seem unique to Brown,” Weissbourd said. “They’re present at many East Coast institutions, so American life is very much rooted in issues of slavery. It’s appropriate and even noble to address them, but I don’t feel as deeply invested as some students.”

Curtis Harris ’09, who has taken two history courses addressing slavery, said he was impressed with how the University is taking responsibility for its past.

“We’re an Ivy League institution stepping forward – not just saying society is wrong, but saying that we are personally wrong for our role,” Harris said. “It was thorough and it wasn’t swept under the carpet.”

Robert Self, assistant professor of history, said the report was important because it “moves beyond the Southern exceptionalism model of understanding slavery.”

“This is especially significant for an institution not in the states of the old Confederacy because it points to how the U.S. as a whole was shaped by slavery, and not especially or superficially the Southern states,” he said.

Pratik Chougule ’08, a history concentrator and vice president of the Brown College Republicans, said he read through the report and was disappointed by some aspects of its methodology.

“I think it was a worthwhile study for sure. I think it’s a fascinating topic, but I also think there are all these problems in the report that stem from, in general, a bad approach to history on the part of some of the people involved,” said Chougule, who is also editor-in-chief of the Brown Spectator. “A good historian looks at the past in the way that the leaders of that time did. You look at things from the way they were at the time.”

“There was an obvious political agenda in the report,” Chougule added.

Self said he didn’t have the same perception of the report. “My reaction, having seen similar kinds of processes outside universities, is that oftentimes these examinations are carried out at a superficial level. That is not the case at all here. This was a deeply thoughtful, complex, intense historical examination,” he said.

A tepid response?

How many students and faculty have read the lengthy report is impossible to determine. In an Oct. 18 campus-wide e-mail, President Ruth Simmons urged “those who have the time and interest to read the report in its entirety, rather than simply turning to the recommendations first.”

But anecdotal evidence suggests community interest in the committee’s recommendations may fall short of the reaction to its creation nearly three years ago. No one asked Simmons about the committee during her question-and-answer session over Parents Weekend. Several students interviewed by The Herald said they suspect few of their peers have read the report.

“Brown is perceived as an intensely ideological and political institution in a way that was more true five years ago than it is today,” Weissbourd said. “There’s more political apathy, especially on issues that aren’t as politically mainstream.”

Chougule said he thinks low student interest is not surprising. He said the slavery and justice committee and its report represent the priorities of the faculty and the administration – not the concerns of students.

“Everyone knows there have been racial problems in the past and as Americans we’re all tainted by that legacy,” Chougule said. “But the idea that it should be a top priority for this University just reiterates the same old racial rhetoric that we can’t get away from at Brown. It’s not surprising that people aren’t interested.”

Harris offered a more practical explanation.

“Length might have been a problem,” he said. “We’re college students, and a lot of people probably don’t have the time to read the whole report.”

As a first-year who participated in the Third World Transition Program, Ruhan Nagra ’10 said she was aware the University had ties to slavery but was struck that she has not encountered discussion of the issue outside the minority community.

“I was surprised people weren’t talking about it more because I feel like the minority voice was pretty strong here,” Nagra said.

Considering the U.’s next steps

While the community awaits Simmons’ response to the committee’s recommendations, those interviewed by The Herald expressed excitement about the potential outcomes of the report. Recommendations include a memorial commemorating the slave trade, a center to study slavery and a public acknowledgment of the University’s ties to slavery.

“I believe they might not solve all the problems and heal all the wounds, but it’s a step in the right direction,” Harris said of the recommendations.

Tade Abidoye ’08, who is from Nigeria, said he was pleased to hear the report suggested the University “dedicate particular attention” to the recruitment of students from Africa and the West Indies. “Obviously, that’s good news,” he said. “Anything to increase people’s chance to get an education – the more the better.”

Professor of History of Art and Architecture Dietrich Neumann said the report’s proposal of a public competition to design a memorial is a good idea. “If you look at the history of memorials in the U.S., it’s astonishing how few there are that address the issue of slavery,” he said.

“A famous Austrian architectural critic named Karl Bitter said memorials and monuments are the purest form of architecture because they have no other function than to commemorate,” Neumann said.

He added, “One of the great problems is that they should help continue memorializing instead of taking over the task of memorializing from the viewer. It’s a very delicate, beautiful task for an architect.”

The report also recommends commissioning a new history of the University that will include its ties to slavery. Self said historians at Brown are enthusiastic about finding ways to further explain Brown’s history and that he looks forward to the community’s response in the town hall meeting that will take place Wednesday in Salomon 101 from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.

“The history department will certainly play a role” in explaining Brown’s past, he said. “It’s just too early to tell what that role will be.”

The John Carter Brown Library is planning an exhibition for November on slavery in Rhode Island. “A lot of the documents related to this subject are here at Brown and will be on display,” said Richard Ring, the library’s reference and acquisitions librarian. “The exhibition will be a little more richly historical than the report could afford to go into.”

For the first time, the University’s ties to slavery and the slave trade were addressed as part of this year’s Orientation programming in a mandatory lecture delivered by the committee’s chair, Associate Professor of History James Campbell. The report recommended the University make similar programming for first-years permanent.

Nagra said she thought Campbell’s lecture was the most worthwhile part of Orientation.

“They should continue that in the future. That’s the one I enjoyed the most and found really interesting,” she said.

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