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Merchants increased cargoes by
laying enslaved people on their sides, chest to back, with little
more than a couple of feet of vertical space… Stripped nude to
make them easier to wash down and secure, shackled in pairs, and
often branded for identification, these prisoners spent long periods
in rat- and insect-infested bowels of ships, interrupted only by a
regimen of feedings, airings, and exercises under threat of whips,
blades, and guns.
Craig Steven Wilder,
writes Craig Steven Wilder, is an academic matter. Benjamin Franklin
didn’t “manumit” any of his servants. And yet, he
certainly profited from his ownership of them—as an educated
man who organized the College of Philadelphia—what is now the
University of Pennsylvania.
infuriated Rev. Samuel Gray, the founding trustee of the College of
William and Mary. Even if the runaway was a young child. No matter.
The boy in question is murdered as punishment, but not before he’s
tortured, made to suffer the placement of “a hot iron” on
his flesh, and afterward, when tied to a tree, an enslaved adult male
is ordered to whip him. Not surprisingly, the child dies. Rev. Gray,
however, lives on to become pastor at St. Peter’s Church in New
is routine on American campuses.
September 18, 1755, a slaveholder is found dead. Murdered. “Phillis
and Mark (Codman) were dragged on a sled through Cambridge to the
commons just outside the gates of Harvard College.” Enslaved
blacks, so by now, residents of Cambridge know the routine. The two
are hanged and then “burnt to death.” Their torture drew
a crowd of American citizens. For decades, Mark’s body remained
suspended, “in chains at the Charlestown commons.”
black labor toiled to build Thomas Jefferson’s University of
Virginia. What stories those enslaved black people could have told
about their owner, their overseers, and the building of that grand
monument of higher education.
New England, enslaved blacks cleaned classrooms and student dorms,
writes Wilder, including emptying chamber pots and clearing ashes
from fireplaces. The enslaved prepared meals for the administration,
faculty, and student body. They made repairs and crafted furnishings.
Whatever needed to be done, enslaved blacks were present to do the
bidding of the white elites, who, in turn, were learning how to be a
civilized and educated class of leaders.
American campus stood as a silent monument to slavery.” In
other words, violence, the practice of torture and murder, made it
possible to erect such lofty institutions of learning, turning out
American leaders, thinkers and doers, for a new world in which
progress demanded the systemic oppression of the black humanity for
white soon-to-be Americans to prosper economically as well as
the violent remapping of the continent, the number of Indigenous
people diminished as a result of extermination and removal pogroms.
Africans then were now more prominent by the mid-eighteenth century
thanks to the slave trade. “Nearly three hundred thousand black
people constituted a fifth of the population in the British mainland
colonies.” Slavery was thriving in “the new college
that’s how enslaved blacks came to campus, as property of the
learned and in chains.
the colleges engaged in the slave trade, required the unpaid labor of
blacks and the abject submission to the will of white slaveholders
who were often linked, one way or the other, to academia.
of the colleges and universities include, Dartmouth, Yale
(slave-holding common among the faculty), College of Philadelphia,
(University of Pennsylvania), Georgetown and College of Rhode Island (Brown
the work of Craig Steven Wilder in Ebony & Ivy: Race,
Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities),
we’ve only been privy to what we’ve suspected about the
connection between the history surrounding America’s rising
prosperity and it’s narrative of white supremacy and the
creation of some of the world’s most prominent institutions of
higher learning built on American soil, at the expense of black
enslavement—or, in other words, built as a result of the forced
sacrifice of black lives—lives that didn’t matter one bit
to white Americans.
devious is the cover up of routine violence? During my college years,
I attended a couple of campuses in the north and by the spring of
1977, when I graduated, I had never experienced a black professor as
instructor of any of my college courses.
centuries college graduates in the US, “apprenticed”
under the guidance of slaveholders, writes Wilder. The slave trade
was a global enterprise; consequently, graduates from the Ivy League
campuses traveled from the South or the West Indies in search of
careers as “teachers, ministers, lawyers, doctors, politicians,
merchants, and planters.” What an “intimate engagement,”
writes Wilder, between a campus like Harvard, for example and the
Atlantic slave trade? What an “inseparable” history? It’s
no wonder that in the last 50 years the presence of blacks in
academia as students, faculty, or administrators is so fraught with
anguish, particularly for black Americans. Affirmative Action for
blacks—not so good. We are invited to enter the front door only
to be urged to exit by way of the back door soon afterward.
back in the day, when America declared itself “great,”
the northward migration of Barbadians worked to make Harvard “the
most influential college in the colonial South.” Blacks
arriving as enslaved people were welcome to campus while Harvard’s
graduates (as patrons of an unofficial Affirmative Action agenda for
white Americans) became some of the finest citizens in a global,
slave trading market.
for a “great” people narrating their role as victims of
the era of yet another backlash disguised as “identity
politics” against blacks and people of color, I found it
interesting to read of Harvard graduates learning “theories of
racial differences, [making] scientific claims about the superiority
of white people.” Harvard graduates received “refined”
ideas about the “language of race,” all of which, writes
Wilder, provides “intellectual cover for the social and
political subjugation of non-white people.” Yet, today, to
include those “non-white people,” their history and
culture, in courses in which they are represented, front and center,
as both the subject and presenter of that subject, is to cause a
ruckus throughout colleges and universities in the United States.
Why do we need those useless
courses? Frills! No substance! We are ONE people. Americans!
discussing the slaughter of blacks parishioners in Charleston?
was Charlottesville? And the medical
graduate student (now governor of Virginia
who is, as
clear-as-day, photographed in his medical school yearbook either
wearing a KKK robe or black face?
the corporate mindset establishing itself as the new norm on American
campuses today, colleges administrations are donning the business
model. It’s global again—capitalist corporate enterprises
with little or no need at all for students well-read in the history
of America’s “intimate engagement” with conquest
and enslavement, let alone world literature or gender studies.
in New England, college students and faculty could trample through
Indigenous Mounds, study the Indian bones and artifacts. This
activity of leisure appraisal counted, no doubt, as dabbing into
“cultural” studies. However, the actual people, the
Indigenous, many slaughtered outright and survivors removed, were of
no interests to these students and faculty leisurely strolling the
halls of academia when not riding on horseback through land once the
habitat of the people so brutally conquered.
solemn contemplation, graduates and their teachers at Ivy League
campuses could look on from their classroom windows at blacks toiling
in the cotton fields while considering what their racial
identification as a “white” American grants them. As
Wilder argues, the pull toward acknowledging racial superiority as
studied and experienced on these Ivy League campuses, consumes even
those such as graduate student Henry Watson, originally wrestling
with the moral and social implications of history. In the end,
Watson, as so many others, acquiesces to the mindset that is so
catchy. He begins to regard his “racial advantages as a noble
race of beings of European blood.” Watson, two decades after
graduating, is the proud property owner of 100 people! And soon, he
becomes the founder and the president of the planters Insurance
Company. And yes, Watson becomes, writes Wilder, “a staunch
defender of human slavery.”
if you say to Americans today, this is history, not just black
history, but American history, the only history of America worth it’s
salt, the hate pours forth. You become a pariah.
academy never stood apart from American slavery—in fact—it
stood beside church and state as the third pillar of a civilization
built on bondage,” Wilder argues.
What are we to do with that fact?
sincere is the United States about the idea of democracy when it’s
colleges and universities are shutting down humanity departments,
shrinking to next to nothing history and literature courses? Here in
Wisconsin, the university campus at Stevens Point seems to be
pursuing, as are colleges and universities throughout the US now, the
business model for operating an institute of higher learning. Higher
learning? Well, let’s just say, re-training for a corporate
mindset. Which means, 13 majors, including Political Science,
Sociology, English, and History are to be cut or seriously shrunk
down to efficient departments with abiding faculty who, in turn, cast
their attention not on transforming the US from its downward spiral.
But instead, becoming servants (former called educators) on a virtual
assembly line, supplying corporations with the necessary fodder
(formerly called students) to ensure profits for the few. The nagging
past, with its atrocities and brutalities, disappears as questions
from the workers are silenced.
are blacks, calling for reparations now, to think about this move on
the part of colleges and universities in the US?
seems as if the corporations are benefiting from the long-standing
oppression of African Americans.
to someone like Watson, I spent a good deal of my last two years in
high school reading outside the classroom. During elementary school,
I read as an escape from the reality of a heart condition that kept
me away from physical activity; however, by my junior year, I’m
introduced to activism, hand-in-hand with a kind of reading intended
to empower in ways the texts at school wouldn’t dare do in the
late 1960s and early 1970s. Not for black students, anyway.
was the period of our introduction to “homework” that
specifically challenged young blacks to recognize ourselves and our
past while living in Chicago as witnesses to the marginalization of
African Americans and the subsequent incarceration and outright
assassination of our young leaders—Fred Hampton and Mark Clark,
were transforming, but so was the system, creating a narrative
intended to malign our Struggle with that of violence itself! The
backlash was imminent and as brutal as any packed bowel of a slave
ship or any whip. The violent foundation of a white supremacist,
capitalist regime ceased to be visible but to a few “branded”
in Nixon’s America as contrary. Militant. Criminal.
can’t say as so many do that my family looked to their oldest
granddaughter, daughter, niece and envisioned her sitting at a
college classroom. “The first from a working class family”
was never a phase any adult ever uttered in those last two of my high
school years, let along in the months before I left home for college.
educate children in my family was simply a duty: a child baptized
Catholic, attends Catholic school. Period! Afterward, if the child is
a girl, then marriage, a husband and children. No matter what’s
happening by way of black feminism. Nikki Giovanni or Audre Lorde.
matter if after reading The Wretched of the Earth or
Soul on Ice I became
larger than my frail body, expanding and rising above the confines of
gravity to cover the whole of the Earth and universe. And all I did
was to recognize my humanity there on the continent of Africa from
which all of humanity originates. All I did was to commit to reading
the history pamphlets on the lives and works of Denmark Vessey
and Nate Turner and Sojourner Truth, history that did more than that
depicted in the school’s history textbooks, where the familiar
narrative of might is right is the norm.
someone say, violence by another name?
certainly little that is innocent about that formal (traditional)
education I was learning to reject.
wasn’t encouraged at home to learn about the past (conquest,
enslavement) no more than I was encouraged to do so at school. My
existence as a black child was lived in the here and now—in the
way Doris Day sings or John Wayne walks with his characteristic
swagger. Is Frank Sinatra on Johnny Carson again? Oh, has Elvis
changed! Night followed day. Weeks become months. Then years. A long
nightmare until my real education commenced.
the Jack Benny show, Rochester embarrassed me.
I had never looked upon an image of an ancestor until this period in
my real education. I had not seen the brutality only the crusading
knights and missionaries saving the souls of creatures partially
depicted as animals. In the US, we black children were to become
obedient second-class citizens, in spite of the 1964 Civil Rights
no wonder my family, then, looked on at me as I looked on at
Rochester, that is, an embarrassment—especially as the white
educators were looking
on at me.
for at least another 40 years, at least, the divide within our family
mirrored that of the cultural gap among generations.
the time some of us arrived in the halls of academia, we were ready
to fight, even if at the time, many of us had no idea just how deep
the deception and how determined were those in charge of the
narrative to maintain that deception.
what has changed, all these years later?
are witnessing a new generation of “apprenticing,”
privileged youth, still beneficiaries of the slave trade.
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