In the Service of Ideas and Actions
As a senior in the 2004–2005 academic year, I was among a handful of students selected for a special Undergraduate Group Research Project tied to the mission of the Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice. For several reasons, the opportunity to participate was a no-brainer for me.
First, it seemed like a natural and fortuitous way to combine my intellectual interests. I was a philosophy concentrator with a focus on ethics and political theory and, at the time, was working on my honors thesis on Aristotle’s theory of slavery. Moreover, throughout my years at Brown, I had taken several courses in the Africana Studies department. A project aimed at examining the role of slavery in Brown’s history (and vice versa), as well as the University’s consequent moral obligations, was squarely at the intersection of my academic pursuits. The project also presented a chance for me to sharpen vital skills in research, writing, and presentation. The work required students to make regular trips to the University’s libraries and the Rhode Island Historical Society to review archived materials, and draft essays and present findings in our weekly small group meetings where Professor James Campbell and Professor Seth Rockman facilitated discussions. All of this was great practice for the rest of my schooling and my professional career, but most important for me was the public service aspect. I was a young Black man and first-generation college student nearing graduation and looking for ways to marry ideas and action. Given my personal and academic background, I viewed this project as a way for me to contribute. I thought it my responsibility to seize this unique and important opportunity to be a part — however small — of those who would start the tough work of uncovering the darkest parts of the school’s legacy so that it could begin fulfilling its duty to make recompense to the community today.
This important work of looking into the University’s past undoubtedly shaped my thinking about the future. How could I find similar opportunities to gain deeper insight into racial injustice and inequality in America, while applying those learnings in furtherance of the public good? The question nagged me at critical junctures that have led me to where I am today. It was in the front of my mind as I applied to graduate school, and while working to earn my master’s and law degrees. It stuck with me as a staffer on Capitol Hill and a federal district court law clerk working for two trailblazing African American women, themselves dedicated to the pursuit of justice and equality. And it resonated with me as a civil rights attorney, advocate, and researcher working toward a more inclusive and accessible democracy.
That experience with the Committee, and the many subsequent personal and professional experiences that it influenced, have surely played into my decision to join the academy as a law professor. They very much inform my research agenda, which focuses on race, democracy, and constitutional reform, and shape my current work that seeks to discover the ways in which slavery, white supremacy, and racism figured prominently in the establishment of our nation — our Constitution, laws, and government structure — and their continued impact on our modern institutions, political systems, and social norms. As I work to educate students in the classroom and connect with folks beyond the “ivory tower” through books, editorials, public-facing talks, and other media, I try to challenge audiences the way that I was challenged — and indeed the way that Brown was challenged — through that important project a decade and a half ago.
By undertaking the important task of unearthing the legacy of slavery at Brown and beyond, the Slavery and Justice Committee and its progeny, including the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice, can claim success for having fostered some profound and essential introspection. Over the next fifteen years, the University has a duty to use its extensive reach and resources to maintain and magnify that praiseworthy work by cultivating the vigorous research, education, and action required to make restitution for its unjust enrichment. As an alumnus of that project who fully expects to be doing some of that very same work over the next fifteen years, I can attest that it is worth it.