REVISIONIST HISTORY Jamie Foxx as the title character in 'Django Unchained.'
It's a late April evening at Brown University and a crowd has gathered in an auditorium off the Main Green. Some guests have grey beards and hearing aids; most are teens and twentysomethings chatting excitedly.
Tonight's film, Django Unchained — Quentin Tarantino's Oscar-winning, $400 million-grossing seventh feature — needs little introduction, so professor of Africana studies Anthony Bogues offers a different kind of preface.
He introduces himself as the current director of Brown's Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice, which effectively opened its doors in February with free, public events like tonight's screening.
"The Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice, many of you may not know," he says, "emerged out of a series of discussions that happened on this campus between 2003 and 2006, in which we attempted to study the relationship of the origins of this university to the Atlantic slave trade." He refers to a sheet circulating around the room and encourages everyone — students, faculty, members of the Providence community — to sign up for updates about the center's progress.
"We are not just a scholarly center," he says. "We are a center with a public education mission."
Then the film rolls, in all of its cartoonish, bloody, pulpy, quasi-historical Tarantino-ness. It is a film that, among other things, purports to depict slavery in the antebellum American South. Over the course of the story, a slave named Broomhilda is branded on her face with a hot iron; bound and whipped while she shrieks in agony; locked naked in an underground metal cell called the Hot Box, then roused from the cell and carted away naked in a wheelbarrow. Other slaves are marched at gunpoint while wearing metal muzzles and shackles that cut their ankles raw. During one particularly gruesome scene, two shirtless slaves fight for the amusement of a plantation owner named Calvin Candie (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) who yells, "Keep fighting, niggers!" before one man kills the other by crushing his skull with a hammer.
The film's ending is vaguely analogous to that of Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, in which Jews orchestrate the explosion of a movie theater holding Adolf Hitler and hundreds of Nazi officers. In Django, it is a white-pillared Mississippi plantation house called Candyland that detonates while the title character — played by Jamie Foxx — rides away with Broomhilda. A spattering of confused applause fills the auditorium as the lights flicker on.
The following night, many attendees return to a lounge in the Brown Campus Center for a panel discussion of the film with a Yale film scholar and two faculty members from Brown's Africana Studies department. During the conversation, Tarantino is compared to a P.T. Barnum-esque "carnival barker" and participants pick apart the veracity of Django's use of phrenology.
"This [film] isn't about African Americans," professor Corey Walker, chair of Brown Africana Studies, says at one point. "This is about the white imagination."
Bogues, the moderator of the discussion, ends with an anecdote about how he once tried to sell a screenplay about the life of Marcus Garvey, only to be told by producers: "Where is the white woman? . . . This movie will not sell if there is no white woman in it."
Though no one mentions it, the panel takes place on a notable anniversary. April 30, 2013 is exactly 10 years after Ruth Simmons — Brown's first female president and the first African American president in Ivy League history — addressed a letter to Brown faculty members and students inviting them to serve on a committee "that I hope will help the campus and the nation come to a better understanding of the complicated, controversial questions surrounding the issue of reparations for slavery."
THE ROOTS OF THE CENTER
Brown isn't the first university to establish a center examining forms of slavery. The Centre for the Study of International Slavery at the UK's Liverpool University was founded in 2006 and, closer to Providence, Yale's Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, & Abolition has been hosting conferences and scholars since 1998.
But few schools have had a more personal or public tussle with their history than Brown, an Ivy League institution named for a family whose fortune came partially from the traffic and trade of human beings.
This history was discussed to varying degrees before Simmons's famous steering committee. Professor Walker points to a 1968 campus visit when the author Horace Bond highlighted the school's ties to the triangle trade.
But the issue exploded in the early 2000s. In 2001, stacks of the Brown Daily Herald were snatched when the paper ran an advertisement by conservative commentator David Horowitz that read "Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Blacks is a Bad Idea for Blacks — and Racist, Too!" In 2005, Simmons and her quest for institutional introspection were profiled in a New Yorker article titled "Peculiar Institutions."
The steering committee released their 100-plus-page report the following fall, writing in one section, "[T]here is no questions that many of the assets that underwrote the University's creation and growth derived, directly and indirectly, from slavery and the slave trade." Other portions describe how Brown's University Hall — "the 'Superman building' of its day," local historian Ray Rickman says — was constructed with the use of slave labor.
The report, available free online and for $7.50 at the Brown Bookstore, concluded with a series of recommendations. First was for Brown to "tell the truth in all its complexity." Second, was to create a memorial commemorating the university's — and Rhode Island's — ties to the slave trade.
The third recommendation read, in part: "We believe that Brown, by virtue of its history, has a special opportunity and obligation to foster research and teaching on the issues broached in this report, including slavery and other forms of historic and contemporary injustice, movements to promote human rights, and struggles over meaning of individual and institutional responsibility. We recommend the establishment of a scholarly center dedicated to these questions."
But then five years passed. The undergraduate population regenerated, with graduates taking with them much of the furor over Brown's potential response to its history. According to a May 2012 Brown Daily Herald article, controversy gave way to apathy. The report, the article said was, "essentially forgotten."
That month, Bogues was named the director of a new academic center on campus: the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice. After a few preliminary events and an open house in the fall, in February they began hosting lectures, film screenings (Lincoln, Amistad), musical performances, and panel discussions about mass incarceration and the lasting legacies of slavery. The programs are explicitly public, both in who is invited to attend and participate.
The week before the Django screening, a panel discussion called "Contemporary Forms of Human Bondage" featured Raymond Watson, director of the Mount Hope Neighborhood Association, discussing the differences between forced labor, slavery, human trafficking, and debt bondage. Next to him was Brown student Mariela Martinez, the daughter of sweatshop laborers in Los Angeles, who described her work interviewing factory workers in central America and organizing for Brown's Student Labor Alliance. Next to her was an activist from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and his translator (also an activist), who told students about an upcoming protest at a Wendy's in Providence against the chain's refusal to sign the Fair Food Program on behalf of underpaid tomato workers.
BROWN AS MICROCOSM
In early April, a copy of country singer Brad Paisley's song with rapper LL Cool J, "Accidental Racist," leaked to the Internet. The song — in which Paisley croons "Our generation didn't start this nation/And we're still paying for the mistakes/That a bunch of folks made long before we came," and Cool J rhymes, "If you don't judge my gold chains/I'll forget the iron chains" — was met with near-universal ridicule, labeled one of the worst pop songs of all time before it was even officially released.
In February, Emory University president James Wagner asked for forgiveness for his "clumsiness and insensitivity" after publishing a column in the university magazine that spoke favorably of the infamous "three-fifths" compromise tendered between Northern and Southern delegates at the 1787 Philadelphia Constitutional Convention. (A year early, the school's Board of Trustees issued a "formal statement of regret," stating "Emory acknowledges its entwinement with the institution of slavery throughout the College's early history. Emory regrets both this undeniable wrong and the University's decades of delay in acknowledging slavery's harmful legacy.")
These are just two examples of the ways Americans flail (and fail) in public discussions of slavery — those of us, that is, who publicly talk about slavery at all.
University of Pittsburgh history professor Marcus Rediker says he received hate mail when he recently toured the country to talk about his book The Slave Ship: A Human History. The reason for the letters is simple, he says.
"When you write about a subject that has been surrounded by repression for a long time, some people are going to be angry when you bring it out into the light of day," he says. People don't like to admit that slavery was not merely an unfortunate part of our history, he adds, it was a crime against humanity.
Rediker traveled to Providence in February to deliver one of the CSSJ's first public lectures, "The African Origins of the Amistad Rebellion." (The lecture, like many of the CSSJ's programs, is available on YouTube.)
"We have got this extremely violent history in which slavery is a centerpiece. And there is a real disinclination to face it," he says. "So in some ways what Brown did was to enact, in microcosm, what needs to happen at a much larger level."
"It could have easily just stopped right at the report," says Brown's professor Walker. "It could have easily stopped right at a series of recommendations that may or may not have been fulfilled." But by institutionalizing the center, the school refuses to end the conversation. "There is something about a the power of presence of a center that we cannot underestimate," Walker says.
INSURRECTION ON THE 'AMISTAD' An image from the new exhibit, "Ships of Bondage and the Fight for Freedom."
As part of this continuing commitment, on Thursday, May 9, the Center will unveil its first exhibition, entitled, "Ships of Bondage and the Fight for Freedom." The show focuses on three ships — the Amistad, the Meermin, and the Sally — remembered for the bloody revolts that took place on their decks. As visitors walk through the exhibition space at the Brown Center for Public Humanities on Benefit Street, they will view maps of global slave trading routes; read panels that describe the social dynamics between captains, sailors, and slaves aboard the ships; and learn about how slaves ships were specially outfitted with guns and nets. They will hear first-person accounts, recorded by local actors, of the experience of the middle passage and life on American plantations.
Next year, the Center's programming will grow bigger. In the spring of 2014, the 250th anniversary of Brown's founding, the center will host a multi-day international conference on the subject of slavery. By that time, Bogues says, he hopes the university will have installed its permanent memorial on the University's Front Green, in clear sight of University Hall and the famed Van Wickle Gates.
Bogues, who grew up in Jamaica, says he sees the legacies of slavery play out every day in this country. He sees it in the education and prison systems; he hears it in the conversations among local high school students riding with him on RIPTA buses.
Providence for him isn't just a place to work. It is "a space in which one can begin to think about America, the meaning of America."
It's true that the US is a place where people can remake themselves faster than anywhere else in the world, he says.
"But in that remaking, we tend to forget or minimize the business of history."