Reading highlights U.’s past with slavery

Arts & Culture Editor
Tuesday, September 4, 2012

First-year students learned about the University’s connection to the slave trade in this year’s summer reading choice, “Sons of Providence: The Brown Brothers, the Slave Trade and the American Revolution.” The selection came in concurrence with the appointment of Anthony Bogues, professor of Africana studies, as the inaugural director for the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice in May.

 The University selects first-year summer reading books based on faculty recommendations, said Katherine Bergeron, dean of the College. After the University initially considered a science-based book, the history department suggested “Sons of Providence.”

“They recommended this one, and it really was very resonant with the announcement for the Slavery and Justice Center that was about to happen,” Bergeron said. “It seemed like a good moment.” In May, the University announced that Bogues would serve as inaugural director for the center after years of external and internal searches. Plans for the center were originally announced in 2006 as part of the Slavery and Justice report, a document written after years of research analyzing the University’s relationship with slavery.

“Few pieces of writing better capture the kinds of conversations around slavery and its legacy in the United States than (the report),” said Seth Rockman, associate professor of history. But the time gap between the publishing of the report and the recent official creation of the center deadened excitement about the center throughout the student body, he said.

“We have graduated an entire class from beginning to end between the publishing of the report and the start of the center,” Rockman said. “Pretty much all of memory on campus has disappeared.”

Bogues’ appointment and the transition in the University’s top leadership “offer us the opportunity to reflect more deeply on the complicated histories that shape Brown’s past, present, and future as an institution,” wrote Ann Gaylin, associate dean of the College for first-year and sophomore studies, in an email to The Herald. “‘Sons of Providence’ will, we hope, help engage first-year students, their advisors and other faculty in this crucial conversation.” 

Bergeron also said the transition of leadership within the University administration was a factor in choosing the book. 

“It’s a time that does make you begin to think about, or think again about, the origins or the history of leadership in the University,” Bergeron said.

She said the forthcoming 250th anniversary of the University’s founding also spurred the decision.

 “All of these things kind of converged together to make it seem like this was the right book,” she said.

Rockman said he is not surprised by the lack of knowledge among students regarding the University’s relationship with slavery.  He said he has dealt with mainly uninformed first-years in his first-year seminar, HIST 0970: “Slavery and Historical Memory in the United States.” As part of the course’s curriculum, students read the Slavery and Justice report.

“Not one of those students knew that Brown had studied its own relationship to slavery,” Rockman said. “Not one of them had chosen to come to Brown because they thought this was an important part of the school’s identity, so they were all surprised that here was this document about their own institution, buildings on their own campus.”

But by the end of the class, Rockman’s students were adamant on spreading the word throughout campus, he said.

“They were captivated by it and quite insisting that this should be part of every freshmen orientation here on out, that the Slavery and Justice report itself should be assigned reading for incoming students, and that in fact the university should reclaim this as part of their identity,” Rockman said.

Grace Adler ’16 said she had no knowledge of the University’s connection to slavery before attending, but “Sons of Providence” did not negatively affect her perspective of Brown.  

“For me, it changed the way I think of Brown, but not in a destructive way because of the way the book handled the material,” Adler said. “It was very humanizing. They didn’t let anyone become purely good or purely evil. Even though I was learning things that were new about the school, it still tied in to what I already knew, so it wasn’t the biggest shock of my life.”

“It gave a history to the school, and it embodied the relationship between the two brothers,” said Cassie Sutten Coats ’16. “The history gives the school something new. It makes it feel real.”

Bergeron said the ability to allow students to see the University in its historical context is valuable.

“We tend to think we love our school, and we think of ourselves as progressive and it’s a little unsettling to have history laid out in ways that are uncomfortable, but that’s what history is,” Bergeron said. “And that’s what education is ­ to confront things that we didn’t expect.”

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