Content Warning: This article contains information about the institutional erasure of historical trauma resulting from the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.
Disclaimer: The Black community does not interact with this memorial in a monolithic way. Blackness is not a monolith (something the industrious perspective of the Slavery Memorial denies). The authors are two Black individuals who have had triggering experiences related to the representations presented in the Slavery Memorial. We do not claim to speak for an entire community of people. However, just because Black people interact with the Memorial in different ways does not give non-Black people(s) a right to interact with it in ways that are problematic and triggering for Black community members.
On Saturday, September 27, 2014, Brown had the opportunity to publicly begin to set the record straight about its exploitation of slave labor. The Slavery Memorial, designed by Martin Puryear, demonstrates Brown’s remembrance of the role of enslaved people in the University’s construction. Supposedly a step towards transparency about the institution’s past, the Memorial instead falls short of this goal and advances a white revisionist perspective of slavery rather than validating the experiences and heritage of Black students. We see the Memorial as alienating us from our own history.
Redesigning Time and Space
We are not here to critique Martin Puryear’s vision as an artist. Rather, we wish to problematize Brown’s decision to commission his work.
Why would the Steering Committee choose a minimalist artist to design the Memorial when Brown’s connection to slavery and its impact on those enslaved as well as their descendants has been anything but minimal? We believe that this selection downplays slavery as solely an “industrial artifact,” as Puryear stated during his speech at its unveiling.
We do not see the laborious suffering of enslaved peoples present in the Memorial. Instead, we see a dangerously sterilized history of Brown’s construction, reduced to a mere industrial process in which enslaved people are “industrial objects” in an “inevitable” market operation. The combination of the iron material, the ball and chain symbolism, and the welding process in a foundry create a potent image of slavery as part of the capitalist process. Given the Western ideal that equates industrialization with “progress,” this is especially problematic; the industrial point of view frames slavery as simply another step towards the University’s economic “success” and “development.”
The Slavery Memorial missed an important opportunity to honor the humanity of enslaved peoples. This Memorial glosses over the experiences of Black people and instead privileges the perspective of white slave owners and beneficiaries of the trade. It twists the slavery narrative as only meaningful for capital gain: in this case, Brown’s financial foundation. The Slavery Memorial thereby silences the humanity, culture, and resistance present among Black communities in slavery-era Rhode Island. It ignores the presence of Black members of the Brown community today, perpetuating how this predominantly white institution has produced centuries of silence.
Brown commissioned the Memorial in accordance with the recommendations of the Slavery and Justice Report. This is a powerful and important historical document, which is why it deserves to be critically approached with effort and care. Released in 2006 by the Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice under former University President Ruth Simmons, the Report gave several specific recommendations; the Brown Corporation then endorsed these recommendations in February of 2007. The specific recommendation for the Memorialization states:
“… memorializing traumatic histories can be difficult and awkward. The challenge, easier to articulate than to accomplish, is to create a living site of memory, inviting reflection and fresh discovery without provoking paralysis or shame. We believe that Brown can and should answer this challenge. We recommend that the University
• undertake to create a slave trade memorial to recognize its relationship to the transatlantic trade and the importance of this traffic in the history of Rhode Island;
• sponsor a public competition to design such a memorial, keeping in mind that debate and controversy over an appropriate design are integral parts of the process of coming to terms with the past;
• designate an annual day of remembrance on the academic calendar, to be marked by a visit to the memorial by University representatives, an endowed lecture, and other activities designed to encourage continued reflection on this aspect our history.”
Brown has followed through on the first two points of the recommendation, and will surely make plans to enact the third. However, the Public Art Committee emphasized the importance of one line: “to create a living site of memory, inviting reflection and fresh discovery without provoking paralysis or shame.” We wonder in what ways trying to avoid these emotions erases the horrific reality of slavery and prevents the Memorial from reaching its full potential. For us, the Memorial did not provoke paralysis or shame but anger at its mistreatment of the memory of our ancestors.
Language Doesn’t Lie
The language of the Slavery Memorial’s plaque placates feelings of white shame rather than laying out Brown’s historical exploitation of Black labor. The plaque states that the institution “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.” The use of the word connection understates the extent to which Brown benefactors used that forced, free labor in Brown’s construction. The plaque commodifies Black people, only recognizing the “work of Africans and African-Americans,” rather than their intrinsic value as human beings.
The Slavery Memorial’s language does not place Brown as an active participant in the slave trade. The final line of the text reads, “Brown was a beneficiary of this trade.” It does not say “Brown benefitted from this trade.” The use of this passive voice construction allows Brown to rewrite the history of its involvement with slavery as a “passive” and “natural” capitalist process, thereby euphemizing this memory so that Brown’s image remains untarnished. The plaque ignores the fact that Brown continues to benefit from the foundations laid by that blood money as well as current forms of exploitation. The Memorial does not apologize for being a beneficiary, nor does it acknowledge that slavery is violent and dehumanizing. This is nothing new. Even under former President Ruth Simmons, Brown never issued a formal apology, and continues to implicitly accept slavery-as-institution-building as part of its ethos.
And who, in fact, is the “we” within the “our” inscribed on the plaque? It certainly isn’t us or any of the other Black students on this campus. If we were to “Party like it’s 1764” (as the advertisements for A Night On College Hill proclaimed) we could have been enslaved, possibly by the propertied white men who then attended Brown. The reality is that Brown, since its origin, was never meant for people of color. By using “our” in this way, many Black students and students of color feel alienated within Brown’s “community.”
The truth is, it’s never been about our history; “our” meaning Black peoples and descendants of African slaves. It’s never been about our bodies, our narratives, and our humanity. It has always been about the need for white people to see themselves at the center of history and memory. The Corporation commissioned this Slavery Memorial not for the healing of Black people or the remembrance of Black bodies, but for the alleviation of white guilt. Brown built the Memorial so that a white student walking through the Van Wickle Gates or a white administrator walking out of University Hall could think that this institution has sufficiently acknowledged its cruel past. The Slavery Memorial affords them the space to do so when the current power structure already provides them with enormous amounts of space; they have space to operate without shame or accountability for the injustices and violence Black bodies still feel today.
The Slavery Memorial is not for enslaved or oppressed peoples. It is a pat on the back for white privilege being more insidious than it once was, just as the institution got to pat itself on the back during the 250th Anniversary weekend. Is this glossing over of the memory of slavery what President Paxson meant when she said, “This is an end of sorts,” in her speech at the dedication? We certainly hope not. But what could it be an end to? It’s not an end to the commodification of Black bodies or the continued disrespect to the memory of slavery. It’s not an end for the “children of sorrow” that Brown continues to exploit. Instead, this is a continuation of all the injustices Brown has perpetuated throughout its history. Brown will reflect and move on.
As Martin Puryear spoke of the weight of history, a white man and his children took a selfie smiling in front of the Slavery Memorial.
As descendants of slaves, we felt dread upon seeing two white children standing and sitting of Martin Puryear’s vision, exploiting the Slavery Memorial. Their white father stood in front of them without saying a word. Some Black folks watched this scene in disdain, one murmuring, “It’s disrespectful.” And a little Black boy got to play on the sculpture too, only to have his Black father pull him back, bend down, and whisper in his ear why he couldn’t do that. Five minutes later, the white children were still on the Memorial and a Black alumna, though it was not a joke, laughingly said to the father, “They’re standing on the legacy.” And he laughed, too, as if this first physical recognition of the slave trade at Brown University was not literally under his children’s feet. The Memorial was played with as if it were an arbitrary object, just another art piece for white consumption.
Featured image courtesy of Brown University.
Pillar image courtesy of authors.