I’m super frustrated because I wrote my whole post but now I have to write it again because my internet stopped working when it was processing and now I have to write it again! Write things down on paper, kids.

Anyway, I was just struck by the way the enslaved people were humanized in this book, in a way that was very refreshing! I feel like I never was able to experience elsewhere. Especially after reading the second chapter, the reminder that these were people who were once children, and had emotions, and yet were just thrown overboard as garbage was stunning. And I think it is so easy to think about the history of slavery and not actually think about how these were human beings. The way it was written was marvelous. I think it is insulting to write about slavery and not bring in perspectives like these. Especially when talking about how elite education is directly related to slavery, I think it’s essential to say exactly why it is horrible. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Add Women and Stir?

Historian Michelle Moravec, our neighbor at Rosemont, has made public a presentation she gave last week on women’s history and Wikipedia. Who is a notable woman? Read more:

The Never-Ending Night of Wikipedia’s Notability Woman Problem

I post this not only because of our recent meeting with Jami Mathewson of the Wiki Edu Foundation but because of this nagging question I have about Ebony and Ivy — which you may have heard if you saw me at the Community Day of Learning last Tuesday. What would it look like to take seriously women’s and gender history in campus histories? Can campus histories be intersectional? [I think you know one part of my answer, or, why I find Dean Spade’s BCRW talk an important intervention.]

More in class!

Irrational Hope vs. Practical Change

In “Hope and the Historian,” Ta-Nehisi Coates offers a striking point of advice for the historian dealing with difficult histories: “If your writing must be hopeful, then there’s only room for the kind of evidence that verifies your premise. The practice of history can’t help there.” This paints a depressing but often accurate picture of history as “the story of things just not working out.” Thinking back to my early history education in light of this quote, I can see how complex issues were often given a more “hopeful” cast. Textbooks recounting the history of the Civil Rights and Women’s Suffrage Movements did not always spend time discussing the problems that remained in society afterwards. While it is important to celebrate the successes of the past, it is equally crucial to acknowledge what has yet to be accomplished.

That being said, “acknowledgement” can only go so far; at some point, one has to stop talking and start taking steps toward change. This does not necessarily have to be the product of naïve hope. Certainly it is disheartening to observe the persistence of racism regardless of what social advancements are made. However, if we as a country acknowledge such unpleasant truths instead of glossing over them, we can perhaps develop a more practical means of helping those in need wherever possible. The problems of poverty and racism run deep, and it would indeed be naïve to think they can be easily and completely eradicated. On the other hand, to conclude that nothing can be done would be just as detrimental.

The Consequences of Silencing at Bryn Mawr

Participating in the Community Day of Learning this past week gave me more insight into the importance of archiving and the public representation of Bryn Mawr’s history than I could have ever imagined.

I ended up going to three sessions throughout the day that each gave me some insight into the importance of questioning which voices are being represented on this College’s campus, how are they being represented, and what more can be done to amplify those most vulnerable and prone to oppression? I was confronted with all of these questions during the first session I went to, the Dining Services workers tell-all. The room was packed to the brim with students, faculty, staff, and even President Cassidy, as the dining service workers talked about the dehumanization and abuse that’s been inflicted upon them mainly at the hands of their peers. The student presenters linked their deplorable treatment to hierarchal structure and pay inequity of dining services at Bryn Mawr as well as to a deeper class and meritocracy issue that is part of American culture. The presenters revealed that they had been discussing and trying to inform the Bryn Mawr community about their maltreatment for years, only to be ignored or to have the cause die down with the high turnover rate of students. This would lead the current dining services workers to have to start from scratch, retelling narratives old and new to incoming dining services workers as well as facing the struggles of past workers with minimal knowledge of the counterattack strategies and coping methods of their predecessors.

Dining Services workers who arguably have the largest presence on campus sheerly in numbers are also the most prone to being silenced. This causes members of the Bryn Mawr community to be ignorant to the struggles they are facing and unfortunately increases the amount of apathy directed towards them. It also means that there is no documented or recorded documents that highlight their plight or their attempts to be heard available to the public. President Cassidy spoke at the session saying: “We should’ve been more responsive but we are addressing it….there are systemic inequalities that need to be corrected…..we are owning it and will try to take care of it.” While the Bryn Mawr community may never truly know how extensive the injustice of dining services workers has been, the first step towards setting ourselves on a new, more progressive path is to put resources into documenting, recording, and preserving the memory of the stories of Bryn Mawr Dining Services workers.

When I was at the “Black Labor at Bryn Mawr” session, I was blown away by the significance of silence as well as voice and visibility in remembering the lives of the black housekeepers and staff who worked at the College from its establishment onwards. While quite a bit of information was extrapolated from the few testimonies and narratives found on the workers at Bryn Mawr, so much was left unknown due to the institutional lack of demand for Black, working-class voices in Bryn Mawr’s history and representation.

I can envision future members of the Bryn Mawr community trying to do research on the importance of dining services workers on campus and coming up with a scant amount of resources due to the College’s past disinterest in preserving that part of its institutional memory. The sessions that I went to on Tuesday showed me how much needs to change in order for all Bryn Mawr histories to be accurately and ethically preserved for current community members and the ones to come.  

Education: One of the Master’s Tools Or the Great Equalizer?

“The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” — Audre Lorde

I was fortunate enough, by complete accident, to purchase a copy of “Ebony & Ivy” in which someone had not only underlined key points, but made several insightful comments in the margins.  At the top of page 136, where Wilder discusses how several slaveholders donated supplies and slave labor to the building of the College of Rhode Island, the previous owner of my copy wrote, “Is the university one of the master’s tools?  If so, this presumably represents an exception to Lorde’s famous assertion…”

On the Community Day of Learning, during the opening session, I engaged in conversation with a staff member and a faculty member.  As we talked about class, both asserted the idea, that I’ve heard time and time again, that education is the “great equalizer” — that the goal is to get everyone access to the same quality of education, because once everyone can attend an elite educational institution like, say, Bryn Mawr, they will automatically have access to equal opportunities and therefore equality will be attained.

There are, of course, myriad problems with this view of education as the automatic route to equality.  In a session I helped facilitate for the Community Day of Learning, on cultural, social, and symbolic capital, we explored how, even when students from marginalized groups gain access to a place like Bryn Mawr, they are often unable to attain the same opportunities as their peers from more privileged backgrounds because they don’t possess the knowledge, connections, and ways of being that, while never explicitly taught at Bryn Mawr, are required to gain access to many opportunities that are supposedly open to all.

There are of course many more reasons why education does not serve as a great equalizer, but I think Wilder, in “Ebony & Ivy”, introduces one that I hadn’t fully considered before — that higher education in America was a racist project, built upon slave labor and meant to sustain white superiority through the production of a body of “knowledge” that claimed to justify white domination.  A quote from “Ebony & Ivy” that really stuck with me, from page 182, is: “Atlantic intellectuals operated under social and economic constraints that limited and distorted the knowable.”  Thomas Kuhn, in his book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”, argues that the production of scientific knowledge is cyclical — knowledge is produced within a paradigm until enough evidence builds up to overthrow that paradigm, and then there is a scientific revolution and a new paradigm, that incorporates the new “facts” but is likely incomplete in other ways, comes into being. Since knowledge produced in the early years of the American academy came into being in a paradigm of white supremacy, evidence or facts that contradicted that paradigm were literally unknowable.  Even though our scientific and academic endeavors don’t operate in the same paradigm now (although that obviously doesn’t mean we’ve overthrown white supremacy, in the natural sciences or anywhere else; it just looks somewhat different), everything we have now in American academia — not only the buildings and the wealth, but the knowledge itself — is founded upon the ideology of white supremacy.  How can something that is both built by the master’s tools and one of the master’s tools itself ever be the “great equalizer” that we, at an elite academic institution that prides itself on being “liberal” and “diverse”, so desperately want to believe it is?

I want to believe that there is hope for academia, that there is a way to revolutionize and radicalize this fundamentally racist project, but reading “Ebony & Ivy” gives me yet more evidence that this hope is probably misplaced.  I don’t think I’m going to give up hoping though, and I wouldn’t want to. We need to walk a thin line between not hoping too much, lest we ignore all of the structural injustices impeding progress, and hoping just enough, so that we are spurred to join with our communities to work for equality. Universities likely can’t be made places of justice but, as long as we think there’s even the slightest possibility of that future, at least we will continue to be motivated to change them.

The Neoliberal White Feminist Academy

As I read Wilder’s analysis of how the academy provided the theological and scientific justifications for the genocide of native peoples, settler colonialism, and slavery, I thought about another historic and current way the academy intervenes in favor of white supremacy, by creating white savior narratives which justify neo-colonial intervention, foreign and domestic, supposedly on behalf of oppressed peoples. The reason I was thinking about this is that we recently read an essay entitled Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses in Junior Seminar, which discusses how Western feminists appropriate third world women’s lives and struggles through universalizing analysis that serves the narrow interests of white liberal western feminists while dehumanizing women of color. While Wilder discusses how Ivy league scientists, theologians, and activists helped justify white supremacist racial categories, I do not know how relevant this is to Bryn Mawr, which appeared later. Certainly M Carey Thomas would have endorsed the projects of racial science, because of her well known white supremacist views, but I think the space of a women’s college, indeed populated much by future privileged white women scholars who Mohanty critiques, is more interesting in terms of what types of feminisms it creates.

Thinking back on the Dean Spade lecture, I remember how he critiques the type of feminism currently endorsed by women’s colleges and encourages a gender justice framework which better incorporates indigenous and racialized peoples. Yet the actual feminism in women’s colleges can be the neo colonial Hilary Clinton feminism which endorses “humanitarian intervention” and universalizes the experiences of women, or all women of color. There is a long history, as Spade points out, of feminists excluding certain women from their project and universalizing, something we are certainly historically guilty of here. I think mapping how Bryn Mawr’s feminism discluded or included certain women in their feminist framework would be an interesting project, and the type of history one would write if attempting to write a racial history of women’s colleges. This history would be about race and feminism, and race in feminist scholarship, which is often produced at women’s colleges.

Legacies of Slavery

Wilder’s Ebony and Ivy brought up many important points about the history of race in America and the legacy of race and slavery in institutions of higher education. Even more broadly, I thought Wilder did a good job of showing that the history of slavery isn’t tangential to American history as a whole, but an integral part of story.

One of the parts of Wilder’s book that stuck out to me was his discussion of the Philipse family, which detailed the economic and social impact of the slave trade in Colonial America. I was very familiar with this particular story because as a child I volunteered at Philipsburg Manor, the Philpse’s plantation in the Hudson Valley. I’ve never really thought that much about that experience, but it was my first introduction to public history and a place is that is trying to grapple with its legacy of slavery and violence. While I was there the site hired a new staff member to who was trying to change the main focus away from tenant farmers to slaves, although still acknowledging the role of both. Before this change, the site had mainly focused on tenant farmers, with an extreme bias toward the history of lower class white people (and about 90% of the staff and volunteers were white).  I don’t think the site has flawless presentation, but I searched a little on their website and they’ve clearly worked to highlight slavery as a primary part of their history: “At Philipsburg Manor, the story presented touches on three important subjects: slavery, commerce, and cultural diversity — concepts as relevant today as in the eighteenth century.” — Philipsburg Manor website,

I haven’t been back in 10 years, but it seems like they are trying to bring the legacies of slavery into the present. Although institutions like Philipsburg are different from the colleges and universities whose legacies Wilder describes, it’s interesting to see how the site is trying to present slavery as a contemporary subject, and not relegated it the past.

Community Day of Learning: Healthcare and Class Panel

For the Community Day of Learning, I was only able to attend one workshop in the afternoon. I went against my gut, and attended “Healthcare and Class: Bridging Differences or Falling Through Cracks.” The guiding questions for the panelists (a post-bac, a senior undergrad at Bryn Mawr, and a Haverford alum who was a Pediatrician) were about the logistical barriers to healthcare in regards to class. While the post-bac and the senior had many insights and posed some thought-provoking  questions about our responsibility to help reform policies, the retired pediatrician was not so helpful. He ended up making very broad generalizations about people of lower socio-economic status, and of the people in the room. He assumed that everyone in the room was coming from an upper-class background, and that everyone in the room had insurance, for example. He asked us questions like, “Can you imagine what it’s like to not have a car, and to have to take the bus to your doctor’s appointment?” He also asked us to raise our hands if we knew the names of our housekeepers in our dorms, and then when most of us raised our hands, he said, “Oh, that’s better than I thought. Okay, but how many of you know more than just their names?”

While he made other generalizations, some definitely racist, the overall experience signaled a key challenge of the CDL: who are we teaching? His assumption that all of us were upper-class, though not entirely off-base as we are at an elite private institution, suggests that the goal of the CDL is to teach privileged people about “under-privileged” populations. I’m not sure that that is the goal, and I definitely don’t think it should be. I think that the goal of the CDL is to help every student find an access point into a conversation.

I’m attaching this tweet, a quote from the closing speaker, because I felt that it applied to our project. Connecting it also to my disappointing panel, I would also like to add that there were several people who jumped in to push back on some of the points that the retired pediatrician was making. Even though it was difficult to watch so many micro aggressions in such a short amount of time, it was nice to see a group of people participating in thinking critically about the language that we use, especially when discussing race and class and the healthcare system.


Does White Supremacy Ever Stop? (but actually, I need to know)

From reading Ebony and Ivy, the interconnected histories of Native people and enslaved Africans became overhwhelmingly clear. Further, I noticed that Wilder’s language is much stronger and clearer than other historians’ texts that I’ve encountered which write about the transatlantic slave trade. I appreciated Wilder’s honesty and how seriously he took his writing on slavery, especially when he says, “This was more than a normalization of commerce. It reflected the activity of the family networks that undergirded the Atlantic system and the city’s integration into and dependence upon a dangerous and brutal trade” (60). Wilder put new meaning into the history through putting the slave trade in conversation with the genocide and displacement of Native populations. I appreciate also that Wilder does not soften his language, but he uses the phrase “dangerous and brutal” in order to maintain the magnitude and severity of the history. Another part that struck me was when Wilder writes that Jasper Farmar, “had brought hundreds of enslaved Africans into the New York market in less than three years, and he owned several human beings” (56). This sentence struck me because in all of the history texts I’ve read, I can’t think of a time when a word or phrase other than “slaves” or “enslaved people” or “enslaved Africans” was used.

Another moment that struck me was when Wilder writes about the slave masters who served as the jury. The slave masters were the group that created the rules and decided what justice looked like, and who deserved specific punishments. This to me connected to Wilder’s other descriptions of violence and abuse of Africans in the Americas in public spaces. Ta-Nehisi Coates writes that white supremacy is a permanent guiding ideology in the United States, and I believe that we can see that in the justice system, and in what we as a society permit in public spaces. I wonder how far we can change if at our inception, white supremacist slave owners set norms for behavior in public spaces? How far can we adapt our institutions if at their inception they were created as colonial projects that displaced Native people and exploited human beings?

Holding Past Generations Accountable

While I felt at times that Wilder’s topic was simply too big to do his work justice, I did appreciate his massive scope, because it helped demonstrate that it was not just one university or a few outliers on the sidelines that helped perpetuate American slavery, but rather the entire American education system. In light of this, I began to think about the protests we saw particularly last November against buildings named for extremely racist or otherwise problematic figures (the two major examples being the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton and the John C. Calhoun College at Yale, but more recently the call to rename TGH on our own campus).

In each of these cases, the person identified as a problem comes from either the late antebellum period or the postwar period, not the era Wilder was examining. On the one hand, this sort of makes sense: to quote Latin American historian Steve J. Stern, “Denunciations of individuals for failing to rise above their times is an exercise that misses the point; it simply condemns choice targets for lacking the trans-historical vision that escapes most of us.” In other words, to call for renaming every building associated with a slaveholder may seem altogether too much, because slaveholding was a fact of the eighteenth century for most, while condemning Wilson or Calhoun or Thomas is made easier because they were particularly racist even for their own times.

While I have mixed feelings about the politics of renaming of buildings and colleges that I won’t get into here, there is a larger problem at hand here that I see (and that Stern goes on to address, too, although he speaks specifically about the historical era he is studying): why are we focusing on the later generations and not more on those that Wilder is looking at? Dismissing the revolutionary and colonials eras with the comment that everyone was a slaveholder back in the 1700s prevents us from identifying the extreme problems– in this case, the heads of universities– just as saying that everyone in Thomas’s era was racist by our standards allowed her particularly vehement and base racism to pass relatively unnoticed for so long.

We can’t condemn individuals for lacking trans-historical vision. But we can condemn them for lacking humanity, particularly when they failed to live up to the standards of their own era. Why, then, are we remaining silent on the myriad of other problematic names and figures in and around our universities?

Stern’s quote is taken from the introduction to the second edition of his book Peru’s Indian Peoples and the Challenge of Spanish Conquest: Huamanga to 1640 (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993) xliv. This section of his intro is available on Google Books, if anyone is curious: Stern — Peru’s Indian Peoples.