Monday, March 15, 2010

Art, Music and Remembering Slavery in Universities

I'm delighted that we have now circulated the Call for Papers/Proposals for the conference, "Slavery and the University: Histories and Legacies", to be held at Emory University, Feb. 3-5, 2011. The CFP is posted on our slavery & universities wiki at

One conceptual challenge were are mulling over in planning the conference is the place of the visual arts and the performing arts in these observances. This is the kind of challenge many of us I think face in our teaching. For instance, the class I'm teaching at Harvard this semester has been fascinated by Wadsworth House (seen above), where President Benjamin Wadsworth resided from 1726 with his wife and at least two enslaved persons, the "mulatto Titus" and a woman identified in his diary only as a "Negro Wench." We have been assuming that the enslaved woman labored, among other places, in the kitchen, but had been unsure where precisely the kitchen was located. On Monday we were shown a closet in structure where the old bric kwall of the hearth appears to be visible; we will be looking at the excavation records for the house later this week and may get a better sense of the 18th century layout of the house.

In any event, this led us into wondering what kinds of digital projections might work on the outside of Wadsworth, or perhaps a more centrally located structure on the Harvard Yard, such as Massachusetts Hall. What kinds of images, incorporated 18th century engravings, passages from relevant diaries, or Phyllis Wheatley's poem to the Harvard students, could be developed as a projection works, to play on the walls of these structures at night? In turn, what might an appropriate soundscape consist of for such an installation? Is there evidence of, say, Senegambian drumming in 18th century Cambridge? Were sorrow songs or spirituals performed here during the period of New England slavery?

For the conference at Emory in February 2011 we are expecting that we will solicit a wide array of artistic work, in multiple genres. I would be most interested in seeing some sort of artistic work directly set up in the conference space, so that presenters would be encouraged to engage with it directly. We did this some years ago at a conference on the Mysteries, in which the artist Kevin Sipp created a latter day bottle tree incorporated elements drawn from the ancient mysteries and African-American bottle trees; that made for fascinating dialogue between scholars and artists. It would be exciting to do something comparable at the slavery and universities conference.