Black Mechanics: The Making of an American University and a Nation


Like most college students who decide to go to an event on campus, my decision to go to the exhibition was driven by the fact that a friend of mine had worked on it throughout the year. However, what is available to us here is something more than just the culmination of a semester’s work of several scholars at Brown University. The exhibit which is entitled Black Mechanics, is a powerful and insightful creation that serves as a jumping off point for hopefully further discussion regarding the way that slavery continues to shape our institutions.

When you travel to Berlin (or anywhere in Europe really, but it’s particularly noticeable in Berlin) you are surrounded by historical testimony. Public memorials and art are ubiquitous and help form a collective memory, a collective act of remembering that is essential. The horrors of the period are paid tribute with constant acts of remembering.

This strikes us all as profoundly appropriate. The museums are always filled, the monuments are always surrounded, not only by tourists, but by everyone. The memory is public, the tribute is shared, and we try to honor those lives that were treated so horribly during darker moments in history.

Slavery is not treated the same way in the United States. The only memorial I’ve ever seen paying tribute to the lives of enslaved persons in the United States is the one outside of the Haffenreffer Museum at Brown University (and it still too me 3 years before i realized what it was  for). As a student, the structure of slavery and texts regarding the Black Experience were always discussed quickly in the beginning of the year in history classes, and perhaps again when we discussed Civil Rights Movements. However not only do we lack the same act and culture of public remembrance for the lives that literally built this country, we continue to criminalize and dehumanize black lives.

As a student at an institution that was literally built by enslaved persons, its important to be aware of the real human lives that built this campus. I live on a street named after a slave owner. Slavery is a system that continues to have real impacts on our lives.

This exhibit is critically important because it shows the way that Brown University has continuously been implicated in the use and discourse regarding slavery.

It is essential that if you are on Brown’s campus right now take a 20 minute break from your finals and go to this exhibition.

Learn about Brown’s role in slavery, and if nothing else take a moment to remember a life that has been lost to history, and a life that was dehumanized (with a literal lack of naming occurring in some instances). Especially if you are a white person it is important to take this opportunity to learn. We seldom take advantage of the vast resources available to us. And it’s difficult to read whole books about this issue. But the effort has taken place, the writing for the pieces is all exquisite, and Evie Shockley’s poem throughout the exhibit is tremendously powerful and evocative. Please go and honor the lives that have so frequently been forgotten. And a sincere thank you to all those at the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice at Brown University for putting in the hard work and making this tiny piece of history available to us.

The exhibit is open until December 21, 2016


Photo Courtesy of Brown University

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