Brown University and Reparations II
Bill Long 10/22/06
The Committee On Slavery and Justice--Its Report
The second preliminary observation I want to make about the report has to do with the tone of its introduction, which is also visible in its second chapter. That tone is a rather straightforward "we are going to give you a hard look at the truth"-tone. No matter how painful it is. As the report says: "Universities are dedicated to the discovery and dissemination of knowledge." And, "To study or teach at a place like Brown is to be a member of a community that exists across time, a participant in a procession that began centuries ago and that will continue long after we are gone. If an institution professing these principles cannot squarely face its own history, it is hard to imagine how any other institution, let alone our nation, might do so" (p. 6). Skipping for a moment the assumption, not really borne out in my experience, that academics are more eager or able than other people to examine their "painful" past, let's look at the concept of the "hard look" at truth.
Issue Two: Problems with the Hard Look
I am always a little suspicious with those who tell me they are going to do something "rigorously" or "with incredible focus" or, to give a "hard look" at something. It reminds me of the reaction I have when a student looks at me in class and says, "Professor Long, I am now going to ask you a hard question." Well, maybe the question will or will not be hard, but they are not the best one to know if it is. That is, the people who judge whether a committee gave a "hard look" are not the committee members. Indeed, I don't think I ever use the phrase, because I think it sounds too presumptuous. All I can say is that I have tried to look closely at the material, and here is what I have.
But this relates to another issue which may make academicians less good than other less intellectually gifted people in examining their past--and that is the ignoring of the emotions. Here is what I mean. When the committee examines closely the legacy of slavery that the Brown Brothers and other founders of the university bequeathed to us all, the first reaction, if you are a smart person, is to have some feelings about what you are learning. As a matter of fact, the first reaction you might have to learning about this past is fear, or disbelief, or suspended emotion until you know lots and lots more, or shame, or curiosity, or anger or surprise. I am not so much interested in people who tell me they are going to do a "hard look" as in people who look and then tell me what they are thinking and what they are feeling. One of the members of the committee whom I respect greatly, Professor Ross Cheit, has come "out" regarding his being sexually abused as a child. The whole process of coming to grips with that experience, the disbelief and shame, the terror and questioning, the anger and desperation, is really the process that a good historian of slavery must go through before s/he really has much of anything to say. So, why doesn't the committee use this style of writing when it actually gives us its report? Why does it just give us the "final result" of its "thinking" rather than some of the rawness of its own emotions as it became exposed to the material? I think the emotions make us all vulnerable, as they make us all human, too, and they are, as well, the stuff of enduring bonds and enduring learning.
Once again, however, we are up against the professional way of getting to and communicating knowledge. Just as the use of the first person in writing was absolutely forbidden a generation ago (and this author was brought up in that method, which I have subseuently abandoned), so a reference to the historian's emotions is verboten in our generation. But, it will not be so in the next generation. So, why don't we try to write something for that generation which will not be so chary of using emotion?
I think a great example would have been to discuss the variety of emotions one might have relating to the voyage of the Sally in 1764-65. The committee does a very fine job in beginning its Introduction with this incident. Indeed, this abortive mission, conducted by (future) trustee Esek Hopkins, seemed to be the mission that destroyed not only the lives of so many African Americans (more than 80 perished either before the brigantine left Africa or during the Middle Passage) but seemed to rend the Brown family right down the middle. What a rich opportunity for us to explore the way that our greed often ends up turning our life upside down and reorienting our lives.
Let me be clear at this point. I am an admirer of the report. I think what Brown has tried to do is head and shoulders above what other schools have done, and that makes me proud of my alma mater. I greatly admire the persistence in fact gathering and cogent historican narrative. I don't know if Professor Campbell wrote all of the first chapter (I suspect he did), but I would commend his thorough historical work and detailed anchoring of events in real time in the past. It is partly because of the fulness of his narrative that my criticisms are easier to state. So, thank you, committee. Now, we are ready to look at the content of the report. The next essay will look at the history as told. Then, I will tell an alternative tale of reparations, which no one tells today. Then, we will move to what is, for me, the most problematic section of the report.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long