BROWN AS MICROCOSM
In early April, a copy of country singer Brad Paisley's song with rapper LL Cool J, "Accidental Racist," leaked to the Internet. The song — in which Paisley croons "Our generation didn't start this nation/And we're still paying for the mistakes/That a bunch of folks made long before we came," and Cool J rhymes, "If you don't judge my gold chains/I'll forget the iron chains" — was met with near-universal ridicule, labeled one of the worst pop songs of all time before it was even officially released.
In February, Emory University president James Wagner asked for forgiveness for his "clumsiness and insensitivity" after publishing a column in the university magazine that spoke favorably of the infamous "three-fifths" compromise tendered between Northern and Southern delegates at the 1787 Philadelphia Constitutional Convention. (A year early, the school's Board of Trustees issued a "formal statement of regret," stating "Emory acknowledges its entwinement with the institution of slavery throughout the College's early history. Emory regrets both this undeniable wrong and the University's decades of delay in acknowledging slavery's harmful legacy.")
These are just two examples of the ways Americans flail (and fail) in public discussions of slavery — those of us, that is, who publicly talk about slavery at all.
University of Pittsburgh history professor Marcus Rediker says he received hate mail when he recently toured the country to talk about his book The Slave Ship: A Human History. The reason for the letters is simple, he says.
"When you write about a subject that has been surrounded by repression for a long time, some people are going to be angry when you bring it out into the light of day," he says. People don't like to admit that slavery was not merely an unfortunate part of our history, he adds, it was a crime against humanity.
Rediker traveled to Providence in February to deliver one of the CSSJ's first public lectures, "The African Origins of the Amistad Rebellion." (The lecture, like many of the CSSJ's programs, is available on YouTube.)
"We have got this extremely violent history in which slavery is a centerpiece. And there is a real disinclination to face it," he says. "So in some ways what Brown did was to enact, in microcosm, what needs to happen at a much larger level."
"It could have easily just stopped right at the report," says Brown's professor Walker. "It could have easily stopped right at a series of recommendations that may or may not have been fulfilled." But by institutionalizing the center, the school refuses to end the conversation. "There is something about a the power of presence of a center that we cannot underestimate," Walker says.
INSURRECTION ON THE 'AMISTAD' An image from the new exhibit, "Ships of Bondage and the Fight for Freedom."
As part of this continuing commitment, on Thursday, May 9, the Center will unveil its first exhibition, entitled, "Ships of Bondage and the Fight for Freedom." The show focuses on three ships — the Amistad, the Meermin, and the Sally — remembered for the bloody revolts that took place on their decks. As visitors walk through the exhibition space at the Brown Center for Public Humanities on Benefit Street, they will view maps of global slave trading routes; read panels that describe the social dynamics between captains, sailors, and slaves aboard the ships; and learn about how slaves ships were specially outfitted with guns and nets. They will hear first-person accounts, recorded by local actors, of the experience of the middle passage and life on American plantations.
Next year, the Center's programming will grow bigger. In the spring of 2014, the 250th anniversary of Brown's founding, the center will host a multi-day international conference on the subject of slavery. By that time, Bogues says, he hopes the university will have installed its permanent memorial on the University's Front Green, in clear sight of University Hall and the famed Van Wickle Gates.
Bogues, who grew up in Jamaica, says he sees the legacies of slavery play out every day in this country. He sees it in the education and prison systems; he hears it in the conversations among local high school students riding with him on RIPTA buses.
Providence for him isn't just a place to work. It is "a space in which one can begin to think about America, the meaning of America."
It's true that the US is a place where people can remake themselves faster than anywhere else in the world, he says.
"But in that remaking, we tend to forget or minimize the business of history."
Philip Eil can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @phileil.