Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Teachable Moments

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Teachable Moments

Article excerpt

A Salute To Black History Month

WHEN PROTESTS ERUPTED FOLLOWING THE PUBLICATION OF AN ANTI-REPARATIONS AD IN A CAMPUS NEWSPAPER, BROWN UNIVERSITY PRESIDENT RUTH SIMMONS DECIDED HER COMMUNITY COULD BENEFIT FROM TAKING A CLOSER LOOK AT THE UNIVERSITY'S HISTORICAL TIES TO SLAVERY

It all started as a rather run-of-the-mill campus controversy over race and slavery: an anti-reparations ad ran in The Brown Daily Herald; students cried foul, formed human chains and demanded "reparations" in the form of free advertising for the opposing side; still others responded with shouts of "political correctness."

But then something entirely unexpected happened.

Rather than just hunker down and wait for the shouting to subside, Brown University President Ruth Simmons did something courageous. She decided to seize on the eminently "teachable moment" and convene a campuswide committee to study in depth the issues of slavery, the role the institution held in the state's and Brown's history, and the question of what form, if any, efforts at restorative justice should take.

It was an unheard-of move for any university - much less one of the stature of Brown, which, like many Ivy League institutions, numbers both slaveholders and abolitionists among its founders and early benefactors. The chattering classes went to work-with critics calling the move both a cynical attempt to ward off a reparations lawsuit and a devious attempt by an AfricanAmerican president to open the door to reparations. Some imagined a backlash among the other Ivies - others opined that fund raising for the school's capital campaign would suffer.

Nearly a year after the committee's formation was announced, the prophecies of doom linger only in Cyberspace, where the click of a mouse reveals a mishmash of ill-informed opinion, both pro and con. Meanwhile, on the ground in Providence, R.I., something quite rare, perhaps even life changing, appears to be underway.

There's only one word to describe the programming that's drawing students, professors and the wider community together, says Farid Azfar, a doctoral candidate in history who serves as the graduate student representative to the Committee on Slavery and Justice - "extraordinary," he calls it.

There was the discussion on slavery led by Yale University's Dr. David Blight that left one audience member groping for contemporary parallels. The one she found probably scandalized the pro-choice academics in the audience: The unborn, she said, are today's slaves - the people whose lives are of no account - while anti-abortion activists are today's abolitionists. It was a moment camera-ready for Fox News, but no one tried to shout her down.

Then there was the town hall meeting that attracted the extreme ends of the political spectrum: members both of the Nation of Islam and of the neo-Nazi National Alliance. The members of the Alliance made their case: "White people were enslaved, too," they said.

"But we listened to them. They were treated very politely - I think possibly too politely," Azfar adds with a laugh, "to try to elicit debate."

It's the kind of dialogue that may only be possible these days in the academy, notes Dr. James Campbell, the committee's chair and a professor of history, Africana studies and American civilization at Brown. "If there's one institution that can open up uncharted terrain and encourage people to engage in a responsible dialogue about complicated legal, ethical, political and historical issues, we think it's the academy," he says.

"So basically we are trying very hard to create a context in which all ideas will be regarded seriously," he adds. "People have come from the university and the wider community, they've come with differing educational backgrounds, from across the political spectrum and had their ideas listened to without eye-rolling, hissing or heckling."

It's an approach that's not always comfortable. "As you can imagine, the reactions are veiy mixed - there's fear, excitement, resistance, all of that," says Dr. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.