Thursday, December 3, 2015

The fruits of slavery

Recently, a national columnist wrote about how university presidents were being removed because of whining college students. She even remarked on the example of students – whining students – being subjected to racial slurs.

Whoa… Are you whining when you stand up and say, “Enough!”? When this problem keeps happening and happening and the administration does nothing … and only listens when the football team stands up, too? I must admit, I thought it was brilliant to get the football team’s support. Many football players leave university with barely a college education (not to mention brain injury), but they will have brought in alumni money. What a game changer to have them involved!

A few days ago, I heard about the Harvard Law students wanting to change the official seal because it depicts sheaves of wheat from the Royall family crest. The Royall family were slave traders. One person interviewed asked, “What are we going to do? Change the name of our capital because Washington owned slaves?”
Hmm, this is an interesting question. I thought, “What if the seal featured a swastika?” That would really offend me, make me feel like every time I saw it, it was saying, “You’re not welcome here.” That’s why we object to the flying of the Confederate flag.

But then I thought about what a new university seal would mean. It would mean that no one would know about Harvard’s history coming out of the slave trade. It could quietly disappear from awareness. We could pretend it didn’t happen. What’s the best way to proceed?

I recently read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me. Coates is a powerful writer, and he writes things like “Never forget that we were enslaved in this country longer than we have been free.”
“Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole.”
When I visited my sister in Berlin, I saw Stolpersteine, cobblestones or “stumbling blocks,” laid into the sidewalks in front of residences where people had been deported and later exterminated in concentration camps. They’re meant to remind people – maybe even those living in the residences – that they can live there because someone else was murdered.
We don’t have anything like that in the U.S. Imagine if people who bought homes with FHA loans had to put markers in front of their houses saying that they qualified for federal mortgages – and the homes which appreciated in value – because they were white, that nonwhites were barred from living there. What if when those houses were sold, their heirs had to sign a paper acknowledging that their inheritance was a result of the racism practiced by the U.S. government in enforcing housing segregation and the creation of ghettos?

I don’t know how many of you I’m losing here, but I firmly believe that racism is so ingrained that we don’t realize how many of our benefits TODAY accrue from that.

So what if the Harvard law students instead insisted that everywhere the seal existed, there had to be a companion statement: “These sheaves of wheat represent the slave trade, which was instrumental in financing the founding of Harvard Law”? Hey, we require warnings on cigarette cartons. Ooh, I just discovered a revised seal showing black slaves hauling the sheaves of wheat!
Oh, no, here I am in my Third Third, and I still prefer the in-your-face approach to social change. But you know what? Yesterday I thought about where I was when Star Wars came out. And then I thought of where I was when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Civil Rights defined our formative years, and I’m disheartened, frustrated, and so angry that the wrongs continue unacknowledged.

I wish America could confront our “moral debts.” I wish America could become whole.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. As an alumna of Harvard Law School, I have been following this issue with great interest. I really want to comment, but I am starting to overthink it, so I am going to remind myself that this is a blog and the best way to approach it is to just get some ideas down and run with it.

    A few preliminaries. I agree that racism is still a problem. I agree that it is important to be sensitive about our language. It is important to be conscious of how we act and how it may perpetuate a culture of racism, whether intentionally or not.

    I would also like to clarify that the seal in question is the seal of Harvard Law School. It is not the seal of Harvard University.

    Slavery is a horrible idea - cruel, unacceptable, uncivilized, etc. But I do not find a sufficient nexus between slavery and sheaves of wheat to justify a change to the HLS seal. The problem is not the wheat, or even that slaves labored to produce wheat. The problem is that a slave owner donated money to help establish HLS. Changing the seal doesn't change this fact.

    Many seals of states, counties, and institutions depict items that have a "connection" to slavery. Some of them show ships - just like the kind used to bring slaves to the US. I would be surprised if there aren't other state, county, etc. seals that show agricultural products. Wheat and other products are neutral objects. Wheat doesn't make me think of slavery.

    You cannot compare the sheaves of wheat to a swastika or the Confederate flag. Those two images are symbols of racism and antisemitism. They don't have much meaning apart from that. (I know that people argue that the Confederate flag has other meaning, but I don't buy it.) Wheat, on the other hand, is an an object or product, not a symbol. (In heraldry wheat is a symbol of hope, but it is just too much of a stretch to regard it as a symbol of slavery, even if it is found on the coat of arms of a family that owned slaves.)

    I don't want to get into a debate about whether the Holocaust and Jim Crow are equivalent. I just think this is an example that illustrates the point well. Symbols may be offensive because they stand for an offensive idea or institution. Not everything is a symbol just because it has some generic connection with a particular idea.

    So instead of saying "Why is there wheat on the HLS seal?" we should be asking what kind of place HLS is today? What kind of experience does an African-American student have there today? Or any student or faculty member of color, or with a disability, or a different sexuality?

    If the seal gets changed, nothing else will change. What actually does need to be changed at HLS and how can we make that happen?

    1. This is really thoughtful, and yes, I blurred the line between "symbol" and "something that would promote awareness of slavery in our history." You're right: wheat is just wheat and changing a seal does nothing. Raising awareness, "fixing" HLS are the important issues. I was looking for something that would effectively remind everyone that slavery wasn't an isolated occurrence in our history, that we are all beneficiaries to a certain extent. Thank you!

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