Brown University and Reparations I
Bill Long 10/22/06
Report of the Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice
When Dr. Ruth Simmons, the first African-American President of an Ivy League University, took over as Brown University's 18th President on July 3, 2001, she was greeted with more than her share of unwelcome challenges. The University had just gone through a painful time with previous President Gordon Gee, with charges of deception and misunderstanding flying thickly through the elms on College Hill. Then, just four months before Simmons took the helm at Brown, conservative provocateur David Horowitz took out an ad in the Brown Daily Herald condemning in pointed terms any effort to use reparations as a strategy for "repairing" the past injustice of slavery. Thus, Simmons was precluded the customary honeymoon time for college presidents and was thrown directly into the swirling maelstrom of fiscal and social issues in July 2001.
By early 2003 she was ready to deal with the slavery/reparations issue, which had been sparked by Horowitz's ad. A March 2003 article in the NY Times tended to give the impression that she was herself committed to reparations to African Americans, but she quickly dispelled that notion through an "Op-Ed" piece in April in the Boston Globe. She was, in contrast, intrigued by the question of how the Brown University founders had been connected with the slave trade and slaveholding in the 18th and early 19th centuries. She felt that the university context was the perfect one in which to understand the historical realities of that involvement as well as probe the ethical issues surrounding what it meant to be the "descendants" of people who may have founded an enterprise which you love deeply upon, as Lincoln would say, "the sweat of other men's (i.e., the "Negroes'") brows." Ironically, a history of the university had been published just before Horowitz's ad and said nothing about possible participation of the university founders in the slave trade. Thus, the time was ripe, she thought, for engaging a representative committee from the university on the historical facts of the founders' involvement with the slave trade as well as more contemporary political, social and ethical reflection on that history. She was committed to using the university's past as a laboratory to see how a university should in fact function as an intellectual community.
In the three year history of the Committee on Slavery and Justice a number of things "leaked out," even though the process was not particularly a secret one. Dozens of forums were sponsored by the committee to educate them and the university community on all aspects of the reparations issue. The home page of the Committee gives a list of those forums. In addition, in a brilliantly researched and smoothly-written 2005 article in the New Yorker, Francis Fitzgerald laid out the history the committee was considering as well as the current state of "reparations issues" in America. Thus, when the final report of the committee was issued last week, the results were not unpredictable, even though the tone of the work could not have been anticipated. The purpose of these essays is to review both the content and tone of the committee's final report. My general conclusion is that the document is extremely helpful in laying out an approach for a community to try to study its past especially on a controversial issue. I think at times that the tone of the report alternates unhelpfully between a kind of self-righteousness on the one hand and an unjustified certainty, on the other, which probably will be toned down as the recommendations are implemented. First, however, two initial reactions.
Reaction One: No Rhode Island Historian
If we are going to score our 18th century forebears for moral blindness (I think this is an inescapable conclusion, since the committee equates slavery with a crime against humanity), we ought to score ourselves first for our own blindness. The blindness I refer to is that Brown University, which has been in Rhode Island for 242 years, has no Rhode Island historian and thus the work for this report was done by people without that expertise. Let's pause there for a moment. Why wouldn't Brown have a Rhode Island historian? Easy question to answer. Because of the shape of the modern discipline of history. There is no affirmation and no support in the historical trade for histories of "minor" states. The whole world wants to do "founding fathers" or "Puritan studies" or, now "early Republic," and the writings of distinguished Virginians, middle colony folks and people from New York and Massachusetts are the "gold standard" in the field. No one ever will get notoriety in history, which is what most historians are interested in, by focusing on Rhode Island. So, "leading" historians don't study it.
It is not only the case with Rhode Island history. My first teaching position was at an elite college in the Pacific Northwest, Reed College in Portland, OR. Reed had no historian of Oregon or of the Northwest. I think that such a person would probably have been denied tenure because his/her colleagues would have treated a person as "suspect" for looking at Oregon's history. After all, as some think, Oregon's history and culture is "derivative," its early settlers were cast-offs from a poorly settled region (the Midwest), and thus were at least two steps removed from the "real" world of the East. So, Reed looked down at its surrounding culture, denying that any culture really existed.
Isn't that a little bit of what happened on the Committee? Brown has no Rhode Island historian. Thus, a Committee which says it wants to "face the truth" and "get to the bottom" of our collective past is doing so in the context of an institution that doesn't even think enough of the State in which it has resided for these many years to have expertise in that history. How interested are we really in "facing the truth" if even those of us charged with studying the past have no one who is continually facing the locational truth of Brown University in its Providence and Rhode Island connection? Would the report have looked different if written by a Rhode Island historian (at least part of the report)? Yes, indeed. A richer context would have been created; numbers and figures would have slid in neatly to give "perspective;" literary charm, indeed, could have been expected.
Let's then, adjust our glasses to see with what a distorted lens we see the world.
Well, let's continue preliminary observations in the next essay.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long