Saturday, March 7, 2015

What about the North?


This morning I turned on the news, and besides all the continued U.S. weather-related news, in the comfort of my 70 degree day in Jordan (sorry beloved friends in the US!) I saw a story about the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, Alabama.  Of course with the outstanding recent movie about the march this event had been on my mind anyway, but watching the footage and hearing of the exact day 50 years ago that the protestors were turned away as they marched across a bridge, I thought about my own slim connection to this event in Civil Rights history. I thought of co-teaching the Civil Rights Era course at Hackley in 1999-2000 with my friend Doris (one of the supremely gratifying moments in my teaching career). I thought of reading the memoir by Congressman John Lewis (the moving Walking With The Wind) and then meeting him in New York City in 2000. I thought of going to the city of Selma in 2003 with my indefatigable travel partner Anne and walking across the Pettus bridge with her, talking with people who were there that day, and driving through Lowndes County towards Montgomery. I thought of the conversations about race and rights I have had over the years. I thought of students and marchers, protestors and educators, all who have struggled to make sense of problems and equality and the memory and legacy of historical events. Yes, all in all, a pretty weighty think on this sunny day…

Slavery is universally condemned, but I thought about how the meaning of its legacy is still so contentious. I remember an exhibit at the New-York Historical Society, maybe a decade ago, about the role New Yorkers had in the slave trade. So many slick New Yorkers walking through the excellent exhibit with that strange look on their face—you mean New York had slaves?  Until 50 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence? You mean New Yorkers were slave traders? You mean New Yorkers rioted in the hopes that slavery would not end??? I forget the year, but one year I assigned the provocative book, The Debt about Randall Robinson’s scorching argument that the United States owed blacks reparations. While I did not support the reparations movement, it certainly got ordinary people talking about race.  One parent said to me, “Because slavery happened, does that mean we owe black people something?”

Around the same time Brown University (one of my graduate schools) appointed Ruth Simmons as the first African-American Ivy League president. Here was a descendant of American slavery taking her place as the leader of a prestigious university. In her first year there was a debate on campus about reparations, and some students and most alumni opposed slave reparations. But there was debate! Simmons created a committee to discuss what role Brown University founders had to do with slavery. But wait—in the North? And Rhode Island of all places? This was a colony founded expressly to avoid the evils of slavery.

The committee researched and found what many had gossiped about: not only some of Brown’s founders owned slave ships but that slaves were among those who built University Hall. But the point was not, is not, to shame Brown University. However, last fall, as part of the 250th anniversary of the founding of Brown, they dedicated a new Slavery Memorial on the Front Green. Take a look above at the work by African-American sculptor Martin Puryear. As I ask in any class I teach with an art work, What do you see? This ductile-iron work depicts a broken chain rising from a half-buried dome. Hmmm… I went on-line to look at the images of the sculpture and I liked seeing it from many sides, up close, a little more perspective across the green, trying to see what the work would like going across campus on the way to class, home to study. The image suggests a ball and chain, but the broken link is polished to a mirror finish that reflects the sky, maybe an element of motion, surely glimmers of freedom and hope.  This minimalist memorial was also the brainchild of that committee started by Simmons, and they chose that 250th anniversary weekend to discuss and memorialize that part of the legacy Brown University played, perhaps more nuanced than the angry debates of 2001 over the reparations issue.

Brown has often thought of itself as forward-thinking and progressive, and I wonder what those debates felt like in 2001. I wonder what ideas Puryear went through and discarded as he worked in his commission to acknowledge and provoke us to think of the legacy of slavery. I love the buried half-dome of this sculpture, something that looks ancient and solid, of course, half-buried like the half-buried history of slavery itself, the unresolved tensions. I thought about the flack I took back in the late 80s when I assigned Uncle Tom’s Cabin to my U.S. History class in North Carolina. One family to whom I was particularly close, did not approve of my choice, and the grandmother of my student remarked to me, “That book, you know, made my grandmother lose her property.” Oh my…

I am sure there are those—all the time—who don’t quite know what the fuss is all about. Ruth Simmons, the president of Brown until 2012, always emphasized that while embracing her heritage, she never wanted to be measured as a black Ivy League president but as an Ivy League president. As an academic, she exhorted graduates every year with her mantra: “One’s voice grows stronger in encounters with opposing views.” Simmons hoped her place of employment, the alma mater of my A.M. degree, would research and discover what role slavery played in the founding of this university. What the committee reported was the observation, “What remains troubling about slavery…is the ease with which utterly reasonable, upright citizens decided to participate.” I can only imagine the burden that Mr. Puryear felt as he designed a memorial about the buying and selling of human lives. How can he use art to do justice to historic truth?

As I look at this sculpture, and read about the nearby (unseen above) engraved text on a stone plinth, I admire the work for not being polarizing. The text connects Brown’s connection to the trans-Atlantic slave trade and “the work of Africans and African-Americans, enslaved and free, who helped build our university, Rhode Island and the nation.” I read Puryear’s remarks at the dedication and he observed, “Those of us who can claim ancestry originating from Africa and the slave trade often have to struggle against a sense of shame from being descended from a people who were believed to deserve the treatment of being considered property to be bought and sold….The people who have descended from Europe, I think their struggle is not feel ashamed of a structure that privileged certain people for so many years at the expense of others. I think we are really much more family than people on two sides of a divide.”

I wish I had my copy of Lewis’ memoir here in Jordan so I could quote it, but I remember the conclusion of his book echoing some of that same sentiment as Mr. Puryear. I remember reading John Lewis’ book the week before I saw him speak. This memoir—more than other—made me cry. I cried for the suffering and hatred experienced by African Americans at the hands of Christian white people; cried for the depravity of heart and soul in those who inflicted such horrors upon others just because of the color of their skin; cried for the courage and hope of all the men and women who placed their lives at risk so that we might all be free of discrimination and segregation; cried for being inspired by those who came before me, with a newly found conviction to help people understand the legacy of these historical phenomena.

Last week at this time I was spending the afternoon with a group of Syrian refugee children who had come to campus to learn some English and play with some of our students who volunteer their time to work with these orphaned children.  These children were about aged 7-10 and I delighted in watching our students work with them. One of them, a boy named Walid, took a shine to me, and followed me around. We spoke in our broken Arabic/English, and I wondered what would happen to this charming yet somewhat neglected boy. Here is a young boy engulfed by the events around him—the civil war in Syria, ISIS and all that that mystery entails, certainly on a side in a conflict that many Americans don’t quite understand.  I am thinking of Mr. Puryear’s conclusion as I think and wonder about Walid: “I think we are really much more family than people on two sides of a divide.”