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Teachable Moments

When protests erupted following the publication of an anti-reparations ad in a campus newspaper, Brown University President Ruth Simmons decided her community could benefit from taking a closer look at the university’s historical ties to slavery

By Kendra Hamilton

It all started as a rather run-of-the-mill campus controversy over race and slavery: an anti-reparations ad ran in The Brown Daily Herald; students cried foul, formed human chains and demanded “reparations” in the form of free advertising for the opposing side; still others responded with shouts of “political correctness.”

But then something entirely unexpected happened.

Rather than just hunker down and wait for the shouting to subside, Brown University President Ruth Simmons did something courageous. She decided to seize on the eminently “teachable moment” and convene a campuswide committee to study in depth the issues of slavery, the role the institution held in the state’s and Brown’s history, and the question of what form, if any, efforts at restorative justice should take.

It was an unheard-of move for any university — much less one of the stature of Brown, which, like many Ivy League institutions, numbers both slaveholders and abolitionists among its founders and early benefactors. The chattering classes went to work — with critics calling the move both a cynical attempt to ward off a reparations lawsuit and a devious attempt by an African-American president to open the door to reparations. Some imagined a backlash among the other Ivies — others opined that fund raising for the school’s capital campaign would suffer.

Nearly a year after the committee’s formation was announced, the prophecies of doom linger only in cyberspace, where the click of a mouse reveals a mishmash of ill-informed opinion, both pro and con. Meanwhile, on the ground in Providence, R.I., something quite rare, perhaps even life changing, appears to be underway.

There’s only one word to describe the programming that’s drawing students, professors and the wider community together, says Farid Azfar, a doctoral candidate in history who serves as the graduate student representative to the Committee on Slavery and Justice —  “extraordinary,” he calls it.

There was the discussion on slavery led by Yale University’s Dr. David Blight that left one audience member groping for contemporary parallels. The one she found probably scandalized the pro-choice academics in the audience: The unborn, she said, are today’s slaves — the people whose lives are of no account — while anti-abortion activists are today’s abolitionists. It was a moment camera-ready for Fox News, but no one tried to shout her down.

Then there was the town hall meeting that attracted the extreme ends of the political spectrum: members both of the Nation of Islam and of the neo-Nazi National Alliance. The members of the Alliance made their case: “White people were enslaved, too,” they said.

“But we listened to them. They were treated very politely — I think possibly too politely,” Azfar adds with a laugh, “to try to elicit debate.”

It’s the kind of dialogue that may only be possible these days in the academy, notes Dr. James Campbell, the committee’s chair and a professor of history, Africana studies and American civilization at Brown. “If there’s one institution that can open up uncharted terrain and encourage people to engage in a responsible dialogue about complicated legal, ethical, political and historical issues, we think it’s the academy,” he says.

“So basically we are trying very hard to create a context in which all ideas will be regarded seriously,” he adds. “People have come from the university and the wider community, they’ve come with differing educational backgrounds, from across the political spectrum and had their ideas listened to without eye-rolling, hissing or heckling.”

It’s an approach that’s not always comfortable. “As you can imagine, the reactions are very mixed — there’s fear, excitement, resistance, all of that,” says Dr. Brenda Allen, another committee member who also serves as associate provost and director of institutional diversity at Brown. But it’s also a dream come true.

 “As the director of institutional diversity, this is heaven,” she says. “Lots of times there’s lots of passion — the exchanges can be uncomfortable. But this is the deepest learning you can stimulate. We’re having stimulating, intense, provocative dialogues and we’re doing it in a civil, engaged manner. It’s helped to bring out the broadest range of ideas and opinions I’ve heard in all my life,” she adds.

Vanessa Huang, a 20-year-old anti-prison and social justice activist who serves as the committee’s undergraduate representative, agrees: “It’s been an invaluable resource to bring all these scholars and historians to Providence and start highlighting the connections” between slavery and the world we live in today. “Even if you’re White or East Asian like me, you can’t escape the reality that we’re all tied into this puzzle of what racism looks like today, and we’re all privileged or oppressed in varying degrees by it.”

The existence of the Committee on Slavery and Justice was officially announced in March of 2004. And while periodic speculation about its operations and aims has appeared in the media, what it’s doing is not exactly designed to resonate in this age of instant news.

That’s because, committee members say, the group is just plain taking its time.

The president’s charge, after all, gave the committee a two-year time frame in which to “organize academic events and activities that might help the nation and the Brown community think deeply, seriously and rigorously about the questions raised by the controversy.”

Simmons directed that there be discussions not just of the distant and more recent past, but also of comparative contexts that might shed light, such as the Holocaust, Japanese-American internment and apartheid in South Africa. And that’s precisely the process that’s underway.

Programs began by exploring Rhode Island’s history — the state’s direct and indirect involvement in the slave trade. “The North and New England, particularly, have written this information out of their histories,” explains Azfar. “At the level of official (state) history, of family history, of institutional history, it’s been disowned.”

Last semester’s topics explored the Underground Railroad, the Tulsa Race Riots of 1921, the Brown v. Board of Education anniversary, with speakers such as Professor Derrick A. Bell Jr. and Dr. John Hope Franklin. In the semester that’s now underway, the committee will move to comparative contexts — the Holocaust, South Africa, even Mississippi, where the arrest of a suspect in the deaths of youth activists Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Cheney is stirring up buried resentments and anxieties.

Indeed, Campbell just returned from Mississippi with some of the students enrolled in the committee’s yearlong “group research project” for undergraduates. While some of those students are focusing on topics related to Brown — they’re working on, for example, an oral history of the Black experience at Brown as well as a documentary Web site on Rhode Island slavery, the slave trade and Brown — still others are researching “crimes of the Civil Rights Era” and efforts to promote racial reconciliation in the aftermath of the violence.

In Mississippi, the students interviewed informants from many different backgrounds with a view toward learning “what do you do with a past that’s painful, that’s awkward, that’s bitter? Do you try to forget and move on — or do you seek closure, reconciliation before you move on?” Campbell explains. “Obviously, the state and cities (of Mississippi) are grappling with this question in a very dramatic fashion.”

Campbell admits there are risks to the work the committee is doing. “One thing that has stunned me, for example — though of course, on one level I knew this — is learning how thoroughly every institution in New England was implicated with the slave trade.” He mentions the 1,000 North American slave trading ships, a large proportion of which had Rhode Island owners; the ordinary citizens who purchased shares in slave voyages — it was like the stock market of its day — or whose businesses provisioned the South and the West Indies with spermaceti candles, salt cod, iron, hay; the dozens of Rhode Island rum distilleries converting West Indies sugar to rum and funneling it back into the “triangular trade”; the textile mills honeycombed throughout New England that would not have existed without cheap cotton.

“And it suggests something about the nature of complicity,” Campbell continues, “that everyone is in some way complicit. But there you see the risk: if everyone is complicit, then no one is responsible. And if no one is responsible, then how can we apportion blame? That’s why I think it’s so important to look at other societies and their experiences.”

The committee expects to wrap up its work with a report to be issued in spring 2006, but, in the meantime, the learning and the changing and the growing will continue.

Azfar notes, “I am continually amazed at the depth and complexity of America’s racial divisions… It’s made me think quite a lot about the role of universities as public voices. But I guess more deeply it’s raised for me the question of: What can we ever do about the past? Can we ever learn from it?”— especially since, he adds, “I come from a part of the world — South Asia — that is expert at ignoring the skeletons in its closet even as they are wreaking havoc.”

 “I’ve come to understand that this thing is very complicated,” Allen says of her experience. “I always knew that but never fully understood it. And now I believe there’s no simple way to solve the issues. I thought I had a handle on some absolutes about race and slavery in America. I don’t feel that way anymore. I have realized I had some ideas that were very uninformed and that (realization) is a blessing.”

Some things haven’t changed for Huang, the Brown third-year student. “What hasn’t changed is my commitment to doing social justice and anti-prison activism; what hasn’t changed is my commitment to working toward the world that I would like to see,” she says.

But something has changed: her ideas about lawyers. Huang had always seen them as part of the problem, part of the White supremacist prison industrial complex that persecuted the poor, persecuted Black and Latino and some Asian communities. But now she’s seen critical race theorists talking about their work, and she’s worked with a dedicated group of lawyers in an all-female practice.

Every now and again, Huang thinks, she might consider going to law school.

For more information, visit the committee’s Web site at

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