Teaching Slavery after the Slavery and Justice Report

Emily A. Owens

I routinely take students to visit Martin Puryear’s Slavery Memorial as part of my first-year seminar, “Narratives of Slavery”. The iron and steel monument was installed before any of my students came to Brown, and before I came to Brown, too. Its abstract form serves as an acknowledgment of the wealth that some of the founding donors and Corporation members of Brown University accumulated on the backs of enslaved people, and from which Brunonians past and present continue to benefit. We visit the memorial after slavery, and after the revelation of slavery. This is also to say that we visit it, to use Christina Sharpe’s poetic phrase, “in the wake” of slavery’s violence and in the wake of Brown’s attempt to repair past injustices.1

Although the events that the large ball and broken chain memorialize diverge sharply from those represented by other monuments on campus, the permanence of Slavery Memorial nonetheless renders it similar to them. Like various bears in bronze or replicas of classical portraits, this monument can fade into the background for passersby. Like monuments in general, Slavery Memorial explicitly honors a distant past while implicitly recalling the political moment in which it was installed. These layered memories emerge when one pauses to look. But again, like most monuments, Slavery Memorial has become part of the landscape, and so students do not frequently pause. Instead, they pass by, understanding its presence as part of the background, the setting in which their varied collegiate experiences take place.  

Slavery Memorial is a useful metonym for the work of the Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice and its subsequent Slavery and Justice Report, whose recommendations led to its installation. The memorial and the Report are artifacts of the process that President Ruth J. Simmons initiated at Brown in 2003 to excavate Brown’s historical ties to the slave trade, clarify the impact of those connections over time, and seek remedies to Brown’s entanglement in slavery’s violence. A ten-member Commission on Memorials, also appointed by Simmons, recommended the creation of the monument in 2009 after a year of discussion. Years later, the understated design of Slavery Memorial and the ubiquitous availability of the Report testify to the Committee’s success. Brown’s entanglement with the global historical catastrophe of slavery is so much a part of our community’s common knowledge as to require little exclamation.      

So it is that current students are much more likely to understand Brown’s historical relationship to slavery as a given rather than as an ongoing process of research and reconciliation that began in their lifetimes. Furthermore, the impact of Brown’s self-revelation has resonated so far beyond this university that it is now unacceptable for universities to claim naïveté about their relationship to the history of slavery. When asked, my first-year students typically report that they “have heard” that Brown’s hands were sullied by the slave-trading and slaveholding of its benefactors, and that this was also true of other schools that they considered attending: Georgetown, Harvard, the University of Virginia, and so on. These students presume that universities are not simply bastions of liberality, but also institutions that reproduce and sometimes generate the ideologies of white supremacy and imperialism that we deplore.

In this context, the work of teaching slavery changes shape. Students bring into my classroom a presumption that slavery’s history is present even where it isn’t immediately evident, even in New England, even at Brown. At the same time, their awareness is imprecise, rendered vague and diffuse as common knowledge that is just clear enough to not warrant further exploration. I worry about this second aspect: Have our students, and our community at large, come to know just enough about the University’s relationship with slavery to be comfortable? Once they get to Brown, they can maintain that state of semi-knowing. Incoming first-year students have been assigned the Slavery and Justice Report as their orientation reading in 2020 and 2021, but outside of classes in a few humanities and social science departments, most students won’t have occasion to study this precise history or take field trips to the monument or the exhibit in University Hall, and even fewer will delve into the rich archival holdings in the John Hay Library and the John Carter Brown Library. This raises important pedagogical challenges: What might it mean for our university culture to more fully integrate Brown’s historical entanglement in transatlantic slavery? How can we collectively know Brown’s relationship to slavery with acuity, specificity, ongoing curiosity, and accountability? Are all of us accountable, or only those who take history as their object of formal study?

Among students who do foreground this history in their coursework, some of whom end up in my class, their responses tend toward critique. When I take students to see Slavery Memorial, they rehearse a predictable script. Year after year, students approach the monument quietly, and a few remark that they didn’t even know it was there. We stand together, and I usually ask someone to read aloud from the placard. Sometimes, the reader will also verbalize the etching that asks children not to climb on the statue. We then move on to University Hall, where a permanent exhibit details the Slavery and Justice Committee’s findings, including reproductions of original documents that attest to Brown’s entanglement with slave trading; on other field trips we look at those documents in person, with the help of librarians and archivists at the John Hay Library and the John Carter Brown Library.

A grey stone plinth with engraved text that reads, "This memorial recognizes Brown University’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. In 2003 Brown President Ruth J. Simmons initiated a study of this aspect of the university’s history. In the eighteenth century slavery permeated every aspect of social and economic life in Rhode Island. Rhode Islanders dominated the North American share of the African slave trade launching over a thousand slaving voyages in the century before the abolition of the trade in 1808 and scores of illegal voyages thereafter. Brown University was a beneficiary of this trade.”

A granite plinth with explanatory text, which sculptor Martin Puryear considers the key element in Slavery Memorial, reads in part: “In the eighteenth century slavery permeated every aspect of social and economic life in Rhode Island. Rhode Islanders dominated the North American share of the African slave trade, launching over a thousand slaving voyages in the century before the abolition of the trade in 1808, and scores of illegal voyages thereafter. Brown University was a beneficiary of this trade.”

Martin Puryear, Slavery Memorial (detail), 2014. Front Green, Brown University. Photograph by Nick Dentamaro/Brown University.

Invariably, students critique the monument. They have told me that they are disappointed that it is located on the so-called “Quiet Green,” off the central path of student foot traffic on the main College Green. They have told me that they don’t like its abstraction. They have told me that it is too small. They have told me that it should be mandatory viewing — that their friends don’t know it is there, and that they hadn’t known it was there until our walk.

These multivocal critiques converge around a single point. Students experience Slavery Memorial as hidden in plain sight. Of course, the history of slavery at and having to do with Brown University has long been hidden in plain sight. The bricks that hold up University Hall are a familiar example of this kind of obscurity. This plain-sight-hiddenness was a core motivator for the Slavery and Justice Committee, which came into being not only because of President Simmons’ conviction, but also at the urging of students and other stakeholders who felt they knew too little of the story and wanted more. For students, faculty, alumni, and administrators, the history of Brown and slavery was just out of reach, nearby but difficult to locate. Therefore it is striking that more than a decade later, students express such a similar sentiment. How can it be that years after the explosive revelations of the Report, Brown students once again express frustration that this history feels obscure?

Their frustration is a call to action. Students’ desire for more (more revelations, bigger sculptures and monuments, higher circulation of the Report) is unknowingly rooted in the very revelations of the Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice, which created the possibility for students’ critique, to the extent that their desire for more of the story is predicated on their knowing some of the story. In other words, that they have a monument to critique is obviously a function of the existence of the monument. Furthermore, their critical capacity on the history of slavery is shaped by the bevy of classes taught at Brown that either dovetail with or specifically delve into slavery studies, in departments such as Africana Studies, Comparative Literature, English, History, and Political Science, as well as the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society, and the Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World. Students’ desire for more is rooted in the existence of the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice (CSSJ), with which students tend to become acquainted through exhibitions and through initiatives such as the student-founded, student-run Carceral State Reading Group.

The extent to which these many resources exist and thrive at Brown does not invalidate students’ critique, but rather should attune us to a different set of questions. Surely students are practicing their task as critical thinkers in the liberal arts, but they are also alerting us to work that remains unfinished, even as monuments, research institutions, and pedagogical commitments achieve one aspect of the Slavery and Justice Committee’s recommendations, to “tell the truth in all its complexity.”2 Their insistence raises new possibilities: What would it mean for the CSSJ to gain the capacity to offer a course on slavery’s many institutional lives, including at universities, and make it available to undergraduates every academic year? What positive outcomes for the field of slavery studies might emerge if the CSSJ could host an annual, year long residential fellowship program where established researchers could collaboratively undertake new research on these subjects? 

In addition to taking their critique at face value and indeed moving toward more — that is, a bigger presence for the history of slavery at Brown — this student message should provoke more teaching about historical methods alongside teaching on the history of slavery itself. The Report provides a documentary account of Brown’s involvement in the slave trade, but it is also an artifact of how that history was uncovered, and of the collaborative work of that uncovering. In this way, the Report is a case study in change-making that alerts us to a centuries-old past as well as to the very recent past of recovery. It is a resource for deepening students’ understanding of the instability of fact, the uses of history, and the living nature of historical narrative. It is a document that outlines, with precision, how a given historical narrative can change. The Report, then, is not only descriptive but pedagogical, and serves as an answer to students’ desires for more. It is a blueprint that can empower students to not just ask for more, but to set about the work of getting it. 

Teaching slavery after the Report, then, is a process of teaching recent history as well as deeper history. Even as students hunger for the history of the Atlantic slave trade (and they do), at Brown we have the unique capacity (and responsibility) to highlight that history alongside the process through which it was produced. If students arrive at Brown with a fundamental but diffuse presumption of universities’ complicity in slavery and other processes of violent capital accumulation, then the Slavery and Justice Committee, the Report, Slavery Memorial, and the CSSJ testify to our particular inheritance, in which we simultaneously know the past and the fragility of that knowing. 

These artifacts of the Slavery and Justice Committee challenge us as teachers to lean in when our students are unsatisfied, for it was that spirit of dissatisfaction — that desire for more empirical specificity and more ethical accountability — that made possible our conversations today. The Report provides those of us teaching slavery (while) at Brown a unique ability to put pressure on the stability of the past even as we also embrace and bring depth to the empirical realities of the transatlantic slave trade. At Brown, we are positioned to teach the deep past alongside the relatively recent work of the Committee and its impacts, to alert our students to their own capacity to produce new knowledge, and to elevate the next object of study that could become consensus knowledge.

The puzzle of teaching slavery after the Report inheres in our ability to retain a sense of closeness to this very near past as well as the deeper past. “After” is not a gesture of leaving behind or forgetting, but a simple description of time. We live in a new phase of the Slavery and Justice Committee’s work, occupying this campus in its wake. In this moment, our students call on us to remain alert, and help them to do the same. “After” does not — should not — mean finished. But it does suggest a different time, one that raises a new set of challenges for the pedagogical and cultural life of this campus. The brevity of time that has elapsed since the publication of the Report stands in contrast to the ways we have been acculturated to its existence; it seems to have been so long ago. Perhaps, in the short institutional memory of undergraduates, it is pretty old. But on my own annual sojourn to Slavery Memorial with my students, I mark time. I watch the monument get older as my students remain the same age, and with each visit I am reminded of the seductive way that shared knowledge sediments to the point of feeling common, as though it was always there. This knowledge was not always here, and that fact is essential to understanding what this monument was placed there to represent. It can serve as a reminder of the violent past in which Brown is implicated, but it is also a reminder of the bold willingness to confront that past.

To make “after” sound like “finished” is a well-trodden path that our students refuse to take. When they ask for more, they are asking for the specific, complicated, history of slavery. They are asking, also, for tools, and we are lucky at Brown to be able to hand them quite a few, in the form of the history of the Slavery and Justice Committee as documented in the Report and as remembered by my Brown colleagues Anthony Bogues, Michael Vorenberg, and others who participated in its writing. 

As usual, our students impress us with the high standards to which they hold themselves. As usual, we ought to meet them there.

Emily A. Owens is the David and Michelle Ebersman Assistant Professor of History at Brown University.