MUSINGS ON HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVES.
Those of us who harbor a liking for history keep having whiplash when we go over events that have permeated our lives over the past decade. A dilemma is to juxtapose an inspirational, aspirational, uplifting slogan of “Yes We Can” next to the divisive notion of racial animus in invoking ideas harkening back to the days when one group was blatantly disenfranchised, under the guise of bringing back greatness.
This definitely flies in the face of the woke mindset, a new generational attitude seeking the righting of the wrongs of the past and the present via peaceful means. Highly-biased, hidebound mental disposition spins this mindset as cancel culture. This misses the whole point. We need constant calibration of our societal pitfalls to achieve comity and harmony in a diverse res publica. Fortunately, such calibration is taking place starting with our institutions of higher learning.
Many of our Ivy League institutions have done some soul searching to come to terms with their blemished past. No less than Harvard University, probably the most prestigious university in the country if not the world, has avowed its involvement with slavery. It benefited in more ways than one from this awful form of human mistreatment. It’s a historical fact that many of the institution’s past presidents were slaveholders, many of its early benefactors grew wealthy by engaging in the slave trade and many of the buildings, departments were named after these philanthropists. Some of its faculty members gave cover to racist policies justifying Jim Crow laws by portraying us as intellectually inferior with the veneer of scientific treatise. These facts are well chronicled in a publication by a member of its faculty, Sven Beckert with his then-graduate student, Katherine Stevens, and it is published and available to all to peruse through, free of charge, at www.harvardandslavery.com.
This list also includes Yale University, Brown University, Princeton, Columbia University, and other well-known institutions such as Georgetown University and University of Virginia at Charlottesville. That last institution is well known for having been designed and built by Thomas Jefferson using slave labor for construction and operation and it has the dubious honor of its hosting city being recently the venue for a very infamous display of hatred by the same type of crowd attracted to the slogan of bringing back greatness.
It is also very telling that under this woke philosophy, the above reckoning is taking place under the auspices of enlightened individuals of both races. Certainly, it comes as reassuring that Brown University, a place with both a checkered past as well as a reputation for having graduated some very prominent African-Americans at the turn of the last century-at a time when few of us were being admitted at such prestigious schools-that the first steps were taken under the leadership of its first African-American president, a brilliant female, Ruth Simmons.
University of Virginia itself is also reckoning with its past and has established a memorial to the slaves that toiled there. It has recently named a Hall after a stonemason slave.
Georgetown University has a very interesting story. In the 19th century this Jesuit-led institution was broke and it decided to sell all of its 272 slaves. They were then shipped to Louisiana. That history recently came to life and a white graduate student, Cellini, who became interested about it was able to trace the descendants by starting out with a simple Google search. He has since started a nonprofit project call the Georgetown Memory Project (GMP) that was able to discover 212 descendants out of the original 272 slaves. There is an interesting podcast that recounts the experience of the above institutions titled “Shackled Legacy: Universities and the Slave Trade” at the site of American Public Media, www.apm.org.
This is reminiscent of the work of another white graduate student who broke the story about Henrietta Lacks, an African-American woman whose cancerous cells (HeLa) have been used the world over for research and commercial development without her initial consent and her family not having had any of the spoils or acknowledgement from Johns Hopkins University where she was attending a clinic as an indigent African-American woman.
At least Georgetown is making amends by offering free tuition to any of the descendants of the slaves. Johns Hopkins University has not extended any such courtesy to the family of Henrietta Lacks. Woke philosophy demands social justice, whether it be against racial prejudice, sexual harassment, ethnic bias. The genie has already left the bottle and it’s mushrooming into activities such as Black Lives Matter, Me too movement. It shouldn’t be confused with extremist ideations preaching intolerance and conspiracy theories.
Reynald Altéma, MD.
1. Romer, Robert H. “Higher Education and Slavery in Western Massachusetts.” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, no. 46 (2004): 98-101. Accessed March 5, 2021. doi:10.2307/4133691.
2. Bradley, Stefan M. “Bourgeois Black Activism: Brown University and Black Freedom.” In Upending the Ivory Tower: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Ivy League, 92-138. New York: NYU Press, 2018. Accessed March 5, 2021. doi:10.2307/j.ctv12pnq6c.9.
5. Skloot, Rebecca. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2010.
NB. References 1&2 can easily be found by going to www.jstor.org