Saturday, December 6, 2008

Slavery, Monuments and Universities

What sorts of monuments should colleges and universities erect to encourage reflection about their slavery-intertwined pasts? The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill campus has a small monument on its campus (the "Unsung Founders Memorial" by the contemporary Korean artist Do-Ho Suh) that in part commemorates the enslaved. This low-to-the-ground modest monument consists of a disk held up by scores of African-American figures in relief; the inscribed words note that the "Class of 2002 honors the university's unsung founders...the people of color, bond and free, who held build the Carolina we cherish today." The monument is shaped liked a table and is surrounded by four stones which serve a rough-hewn chairs. The assemblage stands just next to the university's better-known, and much taller, monument to students who served as Confederate soldiers.

It is a fine little memorial, and I like its emphasis on the dignity of ordinary working persons. Yet at the same time it throws into relief some of the challenges of honoring those whose histories have been largely obliterated from the historical record. No persons are honored by name; the men of women and color in question are represented only by unnamed figures who, like Atlas, labor together to hold up the sky. Would it have been so difficult (from university and legal records) to identify by name at least some of the African-Americans who labored, in slavery and freedom, on the university’s original structures? The word “slavery” is conspicuously absent from the assemblage. One wonders about the negotiations and decision-making processes that resulted in these omissions.

Names matter. As Thomas Lacquer reminds us in his paper, “Memory and Naming in the Great War.” an important series of political and cultural transformations underpinned the historic shift in naming practices associated with military memorials from the early modern period (in which only generals and senior officers by and large were named) to World War I memorials, in which in principle all the fallen were honored.

At Emory University in 2000-2001, my students and I developed a series of exhibitions to honor enslaved persons whose labor helped to build the Emory College in its early years. See:

It seemed important to us, and to the African-American descendant families with whom we partnered, to identify as many enslaved people as we could. We established the names of about 50 people who were held as slaves in ante-bellum Oxford, Georgia, and in a few cases were definitively able to demonstrate that specific enslaved persons labored for the College. We first drew up a single document listing all these names to hang in the exhibition, until some students and community members pointed out that this looked too much like slave manifests. The class then made specific and discrete framed documents for each enslaved person, to hang on a wall of the exhibition.

The exhibitions and associated public programs were powerful indeed. But there is no permanent memorial to these enslaved persons on Emory’s campuses. In recent years, a number of northern universities that were financially embedded in the profits of the Atlantic slave trade have engaged in thoughtful reviews of this fraught history. Have these efforts led to physical memorials? I’m curious how many campuses across the country have such monuments?

See the UNC library's on line exhibition on slavery in the university's history:

which includes a downloadable student-written "Slavery walking tour" of the university, and a page on the Unsung Founders memorial:

1 comment:

Ellen Schattschneider said...

I also found the UNC "Unsung Founders, Bond and Free" memorial to be rather effective, and I liked the slightly archaic language, although I too wondered about the absence of the pivotal word "slavery," and the diminutive status of the figurines holding up the table. What precisely does it mean to have these miniature men and women hold up a picnic table at which visitors are invited, in effect, to have lunch? Is tangibly recreating the relationship of the Served and the Server that long characterized White-Black relations, an effective or a flawed instance of "iconicity" in C.S. Pierces sense of the term? I suppose this all comes down to the minute particulars:the faces are sculpted respectfully, so in that sense what is being represented is the dignity of labor, and not simple subordination.

I would probably feel uncomfortable about sitting down for lunch at the memorial, in effect "performing" the act of being served by the enslaved--but perhaps that is precisely the point: we are forcefully reminded that our enjoyment of a meal (and by extension the university) depends on other persons' labor. And that is an important function of art: to bring us to higher awareness of that which we have forgotten or repressed.

An interesting contrast would be to the many Jim Crow-era markers and monuments on southern college campuses, among them a plaque dedicated in 1966 at Emory College's original campus at Oxford (which I know Mark has written about). To my knowledge, these markers don't explicitly mention slavery. I suppose Do-Ho Suh's memorial on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus could be read as carefully navigating between this older model of the patrimonial Jim Crow monument and new more liberationist styles of monumentality: in that sense, the work could be interpreted as a "compromise formation."