Blog Post

Slavery and a Temporal Problematic

I have spent much of the last week reading twenty-first century responses by America's universities to their institutions' ties to slavery. My receipt--of what may be the very best intentions on the part of university presidents now grappling both with the difficult history and with the reality of leading their institutions in an era of social media--is dubious.

Eighteen years ago, I completed a doctoral dissertation which essentially argued that all utterances are shot through with the political. Not only that, but they both emerge out of a political landscape, constructed in time and space, and contribute to ongoing construction of these. There is no answer to this problem except to acknowledge as best one can the ways in which our own words and acts make us participants in time and space making.

Consider, if you will, the words of Corinne Ruff, summarizing in a Chronicle article Assistant Dean Kirt von Daacke's response to recent developments:

Since Brown University took major steps in the early 2000s to explain its connection to the Atlantic slave trade, more scholars have felt an urge to investigate institutional histories. Now, with the escalation of student activism on race and national influence of the Black Lives Matter protest movement, scholarly interest has reached a 'critical mass' [emphasis mine.]

Continuing along these same lines, Ruff reasons that some institutions are trying to stay ahead of potential protests. The pressure, she believes, is on. She quotes von Daacke, whose own words try to read the current political climate surrounding the subject: "Everyone is saying, If we do this now, we may avoid protests."

Other than economic incentives, I cannot imagine worse motivation--pure politics--for intellectual work. If von Daacke's characterization is true, then the whole thing reeks of pragmatism, institutional and even personal responses to slavery and racism that are merely timely. And reading coverage, whether news stories or official committee reports, is how one discovers a temporal problematic that asks, why today?, why not yesterday?, why not one hundred or at least fifty years ago? Why at the end of a presidential administration does one initiate A Commission on Slavery and the University?

Some theorists of political movements would answer that this moment had to be reached through political process. While this answer seems reasonable, the political process explanation always potentially provides an escape route away from difficult questions like who benefitted during the wait and how? What are the myriad ways in which people across the globe were daily advantaged or disadvantaged by inattention that allowed the world to go on? By way of explanation of the time it took for universities to turn toward the subject of slavery, their institutions' relationship to it, von Daacke reasons that the personal had not been political, local history had been seen as "navel gazing." Thinking people have to ask, then, what has changed such that professors are now digging, searching, sending even undergraduate students into the archives, into graveyards of their own neighborhoods. Von Daacke admits that the interest both in slavery and in local history represents a shift in scholarly thinking. As for Ruff, she observes that professors and students alike, in the new interest, are gaining traction. "In some cases," she writes, "administrators' heightened attention has given new validation and influence to scholars who study their institution's histories."

It may be unfair to generalize about motivation, or to personalize accusations, even subtly implied ones. On the other hand, not to question at all the springs of action is to be naive, charmed. And lest we forget capitalist roots, it is worth mentioning as well that information constitutes an economy. Committees and a consortium have been formed to study slavery. These are jobs. Who will sit on said committees? How will members be appointed? What institutions will be included in such study--only the wealthiest, only those with direct, discovered ties to slavery? And how funded? The irony would be obvious to all if people weren't so resigned to business as usual. What if the Black Lives Matter movement had never begun? Economy is clearly tied to movement. Nearly twenty years ago, then President Bill Clinton announced his initiative on race--"One America in the 21st Century: The President's Initiative on Race." What has been its harvest?

In June of this year, Corey Menafee, a diswasher at Yale's Calhoun College, smashed a stained-glass window that portrayed African American slaves laboring. His explanation--"It's 2016, I shouldn't have to come to work and see things like that." Menafee might have left the window alone, as evidence, of the institution's and the nation's economic foundation and because of another truth, African Americans remain disproportionately respresented among America's most economically disenfranchised. Menafee's action, like that of some responding anew to slavery, disconnects present from past and even present from present. We make connections we want to make, ones we are comfortable with. We draw and redraw time. Menafee too has learned to do this.

This particular redrawing that we are witnessing now--remembering slavery because we might be shamed into doing so--is no less tied to economy than was the actual practice of slavery. Institutes will be established, conferences will be convened, books will be published, tenure will be awarded. On an optimistic note, Rhondda Thomas, a professor at Clemson states that such study will lead to "a reworking of [Clemson's] history." And she asks, what we will do with the reworked history. It is a good question, but doing is rife with trouble so tied is it to profit.


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