Confronting Historical Injustice — Past, Present, and Future
The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us… and history is literally present in all that we do… it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.
— James Baldwin
Historical truth shatters. It takes what was hidden in plain sight and foregrounds it. It troubles framing narratives.
When the Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice, appointed by President Ruth J. Simmons to explore Brown’s relationship to American slavery and the transatlantic slave trade, first convened in 2003, it was clear to us that we had been given a serious charge, which, if carried out successfully, could be consequential. None of us was aware of the deep historical evidence we would eventually find. Nor did we realize that the results of our research would dramatically transform our understanding of the founding history of the University, creating the possibility of a new course for Brown in the twenty-first century.
As the Slavery and Justice Committee’s work got underway, with the help of faculty and students engaged in research projects in and out of the classroom, a fuller history of transatlantic slavery in New England, and Brown’s place within it, began to emerge. Up to that point, although Rhode Island had been recognized by some as a settler colony founded on Indigenous dispossession and racial slavery, the University had always set itself outside of these contexts and conditions.1 Our research revealed that James Brown II (1698–1739), the individual who established the Brown family fortune, was part of a group of Rhode Island merchants who profited from the transatlantic slave trade, having “established himself early in the mercantile business, trading in rum, molasses, slaves and less controversial wares…upon his death, he left a considerable fortune to his sons, who followed him in business under the tutelage of their uncle Obadiah Brown (1712–1762).”2 And as James T. Campbell notes in this volume, many of the University’s founders and benefactors were involved in the transatlantic slave trade later in the eighteenth century. Moreover, Stephen Hopkins, the University’s first chancellor and author of the nationally popular 1774 pamphlet, The Rights of Colonies Examined, owned slaves.
The historical injustices associated with Brown extended to other populations as well. When the College of Rhode Island (renamed Brown University in 1804) moved from Warren to its current location on Providence’s College Hill in 1770, it settled on expropriated Indigenous land. The revelation of the University’s relationship to the Atlantic slave trade not only shattered the prevailing narrative of Brown’s origins — as an institution that had opened its doors to white male students of any religious affiliation and supported the American revolution against British colonial power — it also exposed a fundamental paradox in America’s founding, that American liberty was proclaimed in the midst of racial slavery and Indigenous dispossession, making it a selective kind of liberty from which enslaved Africans and Indigenous peoples were excluded. It is a paradox that continues to haunt this country.
Facing this history, the Slavery and Justice Committee had to grapple with this question: How do we reconcile our past complicity and entanglement with what the ex-slave and Black abolitionist Ottobah Cugoano described as “commerce in humans” with the precepts of religious freedom and liberty in general? In confronting the University’s embeddedness within the social system of racial slavery in America, the Committee faced a second question: How do we describe this social system? Following the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, held in Durban, South Africa, in 2001, the Report of the Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice proclaimed that racial slavery was a “crime against humanity” and, therefore, a social system of historical injustice. Framing the Report in this way allowed the Committee to explore the concept of historical wrongs and to think about the relationships between the past and the present, paying keen attention to the afterlives of racial slavery in America.
The Report is now recognized as a seminal document in the history of American higher education. One of its core recommendations for retrospective justice was that Brown create a center for continuing research on slavery and justice. That recommendation reads in part: “We believe that Brown, by virtue of its history, has a special opportunity and obligation to foster research and teaching on the issues broached in this Report, including slavery and other forms of historical and contemporary injustice, movements to promote human rights, and struggles over the meaning of individual and institutional responsibility.”3 This recommendation became the basis for the founding of the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice (CSSJ), which was established in 2012. A primary objective of its founding was to foster interdisciplinary study of historical forms of slavery while also examining how these legacies live on in our contemporary world.
The Center first had to position itself both within the intellectual landscape of Brown and also in relation to the few other centers devoted to the study of slavery that existed around the world. How would we shape both our mission and institutional structure? In the spirit of the Report — its processes deliberately democratic, filled with robust debate and dissent — we recognized that the deeply complex subject of racial slavery in America and its afterlives was a vexing one not only for Brown but for the entire nation. As such, it demanded continued research, debate, and attention to producing public forms of historical knowledge. As we began to find our footing, it became clear that the Center had to be set up as a scholarly research center with a public humanities mission.
Over the last decade, the Center has initiated and supported a series of projects, driven by faculty-led research clusters on human trafficking, the American criminal justice system, the ways in which slavery and race have shaped contemporary medical practices, and racial slavery as a comparative global historical phenomenon, among other subjects. A regular seminar series for faculty and graduate students includes the Carceral State Reading Group, described in this volume by Sophie Kupetz. The Center also offers undergraduate and graduate student support in the form of research opportunities and fellowships.
Because the CSSJ recognizes the centrality of racial slavery to the making of the modern world, a series of public humanities and public history programs not only serves to educate wider publics, but also aims to advance national and, where possible, international conversations on slavery’s legacy. Public engagement projects include the Civil Rights Movement Initiative (CMRI), an after-school program that serves students from three Providence public high schools; the High School Curriculum Project (developed in collaboration with Brown’s Choices Program), which challenges myths and absences in how our schools currently teach the history of slavery; and “This is America,” a webinar series that discusses certain social, political, and economic systems as forms of structural violence that are rooted in anti-Black racism. The Center is also collaborating with other institutions on a project titled “Unfinished Conversations” in Africa, Brazil, and elsewhere to create a unique repository of oral histories of enslaved memories.
The public humanities mission of the Center has led to numerous partnerships. With the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, the CSSJ leads the Global Curatorial Project, a network of scholars, museum curators, and community educators who are committed to creating critical new knowledge and innovative forms of public history about the historical experiences and contemporary legacies of racial slavery and colonialism, while seeking to collaborate and transform museum practice with international publics and audiences. Working with acclaimed American documentary filmmaker Stanley Earl Nelson, Jr., the Center is the research arm of a multi-part documentary series that will chart the economic and human cost of the slave trade across the Atlantic basin, underscoring how this expansive system of trade, violence, and profit built the modern world.
Since its founding, following the ethos of the Report, the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice has become a catalytic entity, pushing forward conversations and opening up public dialogues about the historical significance of slavery and its afterlife.
What propels the work of the CSSJ is its understanding of justice. As we engage in scholarly research and public humanities work, we practice a form of “cognitive justice,” which confronts historical elisions and framings that were constructed to conceal historical truths. In this regard, the Center understands history not as a fossilized past but rather as the foundation from which one acts in the present. Within the domain of political thought, justice is often understood as one of the primary principles of a society. The practice of justice demands action. When humans become “superfluous” in any historical moment, to borrow political theorist Hannah Arendt’s phrase, that moment can be identified as one marked by historical injustice. That moment is also marked by what the poet Aimé Césaire calls the process of “thingification.” Racial slavery was such an injustice. But it was not a single historical conjuncture; it was a historical catastrophe that resulted in a social system that lasted hundreds of years, sustained by an ideology — anti-Black racism — that has endured well beyond the formal abolishment of slavery. Informed by the historical catastrophe of racial slavery, the practice of justice now demands dignity and forms of equality that go beyond conventional procedural forms.
The CSSJ’s research and teaching on historical and contemporary injustice play a critical role in the racial reckoning that marks the current moment. Just as the Slavery and Justice Report opened the door for other universities to confront their own relationship to American slavery, two ongoing features of Black life in America have pushed society to grapple with the afterlives of racial slavery — the mass incarceration of segments of the Black population and the regular police violence against African Americans. From these injustices grew the Black Lives Matter movement, formed in 2013 after the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the death of Trayvon Martin. By the summer of 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and after the murder of George Floyd, “Black Lives Matter” became the rallying cry for twenty-six million people in America and marchers in over four thousand cities around the world. This demand for racial justice in the public square represented a remarkable effort to overthrow the ideology of white supremacy, and to reverse centuries of a hierarchical human classification system that began in the bowels of the European colonial project of the late fifteenth century. This project drew from and then was sustained by racial slavery. For the CSSJ, this worldwide movement prompted us to create new programs that foreground thinking around Black politics and to identify ways of presenting the debates and actions of those who were deeply involved in this historic movement to new audiences.
In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement and the current moment, one might be prompted to question the exhaustiveness of the Slavery and Justice Report’s coverage of comparative perspectives. Today’s readers might expect a fuller story of Indigenous slavery and its relationship to racial slavery, for example. All pioneering reports are creatures of their time, and Brown’s Report is no exception. The question then becomes, what steps must the University now take to better understand the dispossession and subjugation of Native American nations by settler colonialists, an established system onto which African slavery was then mapped? Recent investigations and new projects supported by the Center have allowed us to begin to grapple with this history. “Stolen Relations: Recovering Stories of Indigenous Enslavement in the Americas,” a community-centered database project, seeks to illuminate and understand the role that the enslavement of Indigenous peoples played in settler colonialism over time. “Reimagining New England Histories: Historical Injustice, Sovereignty, and Freedom,” a Mellon Foundation-supported collaboration between the CSSJ, Williams College, and Mystic Seaport Museum, will use maritime history as a lens for studying historical injustices and generating new insights on the relationship between European colonization in North America, the seizure of Native American land, and racial slavery in New England. What will it mean for the University as the CSSJ undertakes this research? How might the University grapple with the historical injustice of the dispossession of Indigenous peoples, on which the land we reside upon is predicated?
Both the Center and the University have reached an inflection point. If we say that history, in the words of James Baldwin, is carried with us and serves as a frame for who we think we are, if history carries sedimented deposits that shape our structures of life and society, then what kind of justice work should we do now? Over the past few years, the critical question of the various meanings and significance of history has bubbled to the surface, triggered in part by the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project and by Brown and other universities’ attempts to grapple with their historical relationship to racial slavery and settler colonialism.4 Meanwhile, other initiatives, such as The 1776 Report, have called for “a restoration of American education, which can only be grounded on a history…and a rediscovery of…founding principles.…”5 Yet these so-called “founding principles” are fraught. Exclusionary in practice, their conventional telling of American history elides the lived experience of entire groups of humans. The Slavery and Justice Report confronted the hidden historical truths that undergirded those “founding principles,” revealing that those principles were rendered meaningless for the lives of enslaved Blacks and dispossessed Indigenous peoples. Thus, one critical question today is not so much about the importance of history itself but, rather, of which history. From which perspective do we interpret the past? The past is not a fixed moment in time, but one very much informed by the concerns of the present. We all carry history within us, but is this not a moment when confronting history could offer a form of release?
At Brown University, as beneficiaries of settler colonialism and the Atlantic slave trade, we find ourselves in a pivotal moment. The initial impetus for the Slavery and Justice Report, and the concomitant transformation of our thinking, now enables us to move to the next phase of essential, transformative work. Our engagement with the past is not defined by an endpoint, but by the constant and ever-shifting trajectory through which we challenge ourselves to transform the afterlives of the birth of America.