Peculiar Institutions

The man sitting next to me pushes his rimless glasses farther up his sunburnt
nose, his graying blond hair flipped across his head. Under a navy cardigan,
his starched t-shirt is emblazoned with the words "reparations now!"
He is one of about a hundred attendees of the "Yale, New Haven, and
American Slavery Conference." Co-sponsored by the Yale Law School and
the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition,
the conference brought together top scholars from September 26th to the
28th to explore how slavery "shaped local experience in New Haven,"
and to "examine… the contemporary implications of the history
we in New Haven and at Yale have inherited."

This topic echoes the title of last summer’s controversial report on Yale’s
connections to the institution of slavery: "Yale, Slavery, and Abolition."
Authored with the support of Yale’s labor unions by doctoral students Antony
Dugdale, jj Fueser, and J. Celso de Castro Alves, the report sparked a furor
of national media attention. It pointed out that initial funds for Yale’s
first scholarship and endowed professorship came from slave-trade money
and that seven of Yale’s twelve residential colleges are named for slave
owners-including former Vice President John C. Calhoun, who considered the
phrase "all men are created equal" to be "utterly untrue."
The authors called upon Yale to use the occasion of its 300th anniversary
to revise its public reputation as an institution with a "long history
of activism in the face of slavery," as purported in its brochures.
The authors urged Yale to acknowledge its connection to slavery-and, most
importantly, to consider paying reparations to descendants of slaves.

Robert Forbes, Associate Director of the Gilder Lehrman Center, described
Dugdale, Fueser, and Celso’s paper as "not a sophisticated piece of
scholarship," but conceded that their "work is an excellent launching
pad." Organizers repeatedly acknowledged that the graduate students’
findings triggered the initiative for the conference. "Without provocation
this conference would not have been conceived and we owe a debt to that
paper," said Yale Law School Dean Anthony Kronman. Forbes stated the
connection more explicitly. After the publication of the report, trumpeted
by blaring headlines in The New York Times, Forbes received a call from
Yale President Richard Levin’s office. "They weren’t interested in
a quickie response," said Forbes, but instead a "serious scholarly
conference that engaged the specific questions of the report" and "obligations
of institutions across time."

Though conference coordinators felt indebted to the graduate students for,
as President Levin put it, "bringing national attention to something
we often ignore," they did not include them in the planning process.
"My invitation to the conference arrived in the mail two days after
the deadline for registration had passed. This was the first time either
Antony, Celso, and I were contacted by conference organizers," Fueser
told me.

Despite the political demands of the grad students’ report, the conference
was conceived as a dispassionate, scholarly examination of a complicated
history. In his opening remarks, Dean Kronman defined the conference as
"an academic event [that] belongs to the world of scholarship not the
world of politics." David Davis, Director of the Gilder Lehrman Center,
asserted that this was "a scholarly conference that is in no way meant
as a reply to [the graduate students’] paper."

The conference certainly succeeded in bringing star scholars to Yale to
evince the hard history of slavery in the North, and to discuss the philosophical
hurdles of monetary compensation for past wrongs. David Blight, an award-winning
historian who will join the Yale faculty next January, delivered the keynote
address in which he probed the difference between history and memory. The
panel charged with examining "The Moral Claims of the Past: Justice
Across Time" included Princeton Professor Anthony Appiah and former
Solicitor General Charles Fried. Fried expounded on the problems of "attenuation"
and "calculating the half-life of injury" in relation to slavery
reparation claims. He asserted that all that was due was an "inquiry
into the truth … that above all is what is owed and that is a debt
this conference is paying."

Several attendees did not concur, and criticized the conference for being
overly scholastic. Warren Kimbro, who runs a half-way house in New Haven,
knocked the conference as "just another academic exercise," another
instance of "white liberals leading us down the road of reparations.
… I’d like to see Yale do a conference on why there’s a generation
of young black men in prison." Reverend Eric Smith of the New Haven
Reparations Coalition reiterated Kimbro’s worry that the conference, and
Yale’s stand on reparations, was merely academic. "Generations of school
children will learn about the Yale, Slavery and Abolition report and about
this conference," he said. "If nothing gets done they are going
to ask why and you can’t help but wonder how they will feel about this conference,
Yale … and about their world."

Blight opened his speech with a reference to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One
Hundred Years of Solitude, describing Marquez’s portrait of a world without
memory as one where "people lost their identity in the anarchy of ignorance."
But perhaps knowledge too can create a kind of anarchy, one in which a muddle
of phrases like "notions of memory" and "the half-life of
injury" distract institutions from their practical responsibilities.

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