Last week, Harvard University officials announced a plan to create a plaque commemorating slaves who were forced to work on the campus during the 1700s. The Boston-based institution follows in the footsteps of fellow Ivy League member Brown University’s Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice, albeit considerably later. Yet they are far outnumbered by the army of institutions who, Ivy League or not, remain steadfast in their decision to continue operating under the assumptions that their institutions came to be without complicity in American slavery.
And while these institutions shamelessly tout the myth of diversity on their respective campuses, the ever-increasing number of demonstrations by students of color have made it clear that the toxic legacy of slavery continues to seep into almost every aspect of the college experience.
But without addressing the real root of these problems like, perhaps, centuries-old traditions of referring to dorm parents as “Masters” or the long line of white supremacists and segregationists who either presided over these universities and/or heavily funded them, the climate of racial intolerance will only continue to thrive. Take my university, an elite, predominantly-white institution located in the heart of Chicago, for example.
University officials would much rather paint the campus as a picturesque embodiment of diversity, inclusion, and intellectual rigor when the real truth is that we can barely last an academic year without a fraternity throwing a “Conquistadors and Aztec hoes” party or referring to the student government vice president, who just so happens to be a Muslim woman, as a “terrorist”. And as far as intellectuality is concerned, how could I forget a classmate of mine using Aristotle’s Politics to ‘suggest’ the idea that, philosophically, American slavery may have been justified.
The outrage I have felt in response to these events, along with the University’s responses, have become less potent as I began to realize that the original founder of my university was well-known senator and presidential candidate Stephen Douglas.
The very same Stephen Douglas who so deeply believed in the ‘righteousness’ of slavery that he allowed fundraising for the new institution to dwindle, rather than repeal his support of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The next go-round was spearhead by known eugenicist John D. Rockefeller.
How can I be shocked at the behavior exhibited by my fellow student body members when the very individuals who founded the institution for which I once proudly sported its expensive hoodies would never have allowed me, a Black woman, so much as a back-row seat in a crowded lecture hall?
Why expend emotional energy on discontent towards the seemingly apathetic responses from university administrators when it remains clear to all that the Blacks whose backs were broken to build this institution are not even worth being acknowledged, let alone commemorated?
As difficult as it might be to accept, the current disregard for students of color on predominantly-white college campuses stems directly from the unspoken yet omnipresent historical reminders that we were never intended to exist outside of the backdrop.
Affirming our right to be present on our campuses in 2016 means little to nothing if you cannot affirm our right to have been present in 1636, 1701, or even 1892. Once colleges and universities across the nation begin to own up to their complicity in systems of oppression of days past, they can begin to unhinge themselves from being complicit in oppression right now.
Image by Daderot