Reckoning

Spawned in Athens, Georgia, alternative rock group R.E.M. produced back-to-back albums titled Reckoning (1984) and Fables of the Reconstruction (1985). Fittingly, Marcus Gray titled his band-biography It Crawled from the South: An R.E.M. (Rock Band) Companion.

While not unique to the South, “reckoning” and “fables” are at least illustrative of a region mired far too long in an uncritical embracing of its dark past, a region still controlled by a white majority resistant to that reckoning in the name of their fables.

Like municipalities across the South, universities and colleges there have begun the slow and painful task of reckoning with the racism enshrined from their inception as well as the lingering weight of that racism into today.

My home university, Furman, has recently begun a public reckoning with the release of Seeking Abraham. Provost George Shields explains in his introductory letter:

Many colleges and universities have taken on similar projects looking at their pasts. This project goes further by delving deep into an overwhelmingly southern, pro-slavery history and then confronting apathy with a proportional energy and redress. New campus rituals, landscape changes, and university commitments are holistic, sweeping, and minimally needed to make the pivot. This is something that our nation needs to do, and institutions of higher learning can lead the way.

One such example is nearby Clemson University, itself struggling (in my opinion) badly with the legacy of founder Benjamin Tillman and the eponymous Tillman Hall.

Like Clemson, Furman is tasked with confronting a tainted heritage and names, in this case the name of the university for Reverend Richard Furman as the report details:

The Reverend Richard Furman was the indispensable force in the creation of Furman University in 1826, even though he died a year before the founding of his namesake institution. The university stands as the crowning culmination of Furman’s life-long quest to promote Baptist education in South Carolina. Richard Furman was also, during these same years, the most influential voice in justifying slavery on moral and biblical grounds for Baptists and others throughout South Carolina. Furman’s defense of slavery and his support for Baptist education were, in turn, means to achieve a larger goal, namely, his life’s transcendent mission to save souls, to spread the gospel, and to baptize adults as a symbol of their faith and God’s grace. Richard Furman’s abiding vision to promote salvation through the Baptist faith links Furman University and slavery. His role as the undisputed leader of Baptists in South Carolina, at a time when both slavery and church membership were growing in the state, and his public support for slavery based on scripture, gave the institution a sanction among Christians that helped to drown out questions on slave-holding that had lingered from the age of the American Revolution.

The Southern Baptist perverse marriage with slavery allowed leaders such as Furman and his family to foster and perpetuate dehumanizing immorality behind the Christian veneer and hollow platitudes about education.

Compounding the ideological contrast between the university’s genesis and current claims about diversity and inclusion are the physical costs by unnamed enslaved blacks who created the buildings:

Slaves built Furman University in two ways. They were hired from their masters to work on the construction of a new campus in Greenville after the trustees voted in 1850 to move the school from Winnsboro. “Hiring-out” of slaves by owners was a common practice in South Carolina and throughout the South. Typically, wages were paid to the masters not the slaves, although slaves sometimes hired themselves out and split the money with their masters. The second way that slaves “built” Furman was through their labor that earned capital to fund the building of the Greenville campus on the banks of the Reedy River.

Ultimately against all this stained history, the Task Force admits:

This report is “symbolic,” in that it is “ just words” and alone could never deliver full justice. But on the other hand, it is “action,” in that it calls something new and meaningful into existence and comes as a synthesis of multiple, participatory voices seeking justice. This is really the purpose of a university—to take mere ideas and words and create a process that formalizes them into a reality of new knowledge shared by multiple individuals and fields.

The most difficult part will likely not be initiating anything in particular, but instead synthesizing it into existing programs and rituals and then keeping them going for decades to come.

On this last point, universities such as Furman, and Clemson, must add a troubling caveat to that goal of synthesis since current climates and policies at universities across the South and U.S. remain deeply inequitable—access to higher education and then the journey itself once in college deeply entangled still with racism, sexism, and a wide range of similar biases that cannot be erased by mere pronouncement.

In other words, reckoning is not simply about admitting past sins, but about confronting to change current and equally reprehensible realities.

As well, reckoning—in this example about racism and slavery, but occurring also throughout the U.S. for sexual aggression and misogyny—cannot be mere rhetoric, Task Forces and committees, and mission statements, and must not be left to the emotional and intellectual labor of the disproportionate minority of black students and faculty at universities and colleges.

Tokenism, as Jose Vilson confronts, too often provides another veneer in education for good intentions that are ultimately hollow. Black stakeholders in institutions with racist pasts and presents are assigned tasks, offered forums, and then objectified as ceremony while policies, practices, and environments remain mostly unchecked, unchanged.

As a faculty member with a social justice agenda, I have been regularly cautioned directly and indirectly for being too political—that “political” code for daring to address institutional and systemic racism and sexism, for example. As a faculty member, I witnessed my white male colleagues balk at a university gender equity study, deeming it a failure of scientific inquiry.

In a time of reckoning, whites and men all too often respond badly, with denial and with deflections of the job at hand for the architects of the inequity too often etched into the very buildings that house sacred institutions such as schools and universities.

So I am skeptical about how the recommendations—including renaming buildings, adding contextual placards, and new monuments that are more inclusive—will come to fruition, but even more importantly, as the report itself mused, how the culture and climate of an institution of higher learning will change for the better, in the name of diversity and inclusion, in the name of social justice and equity, while no longer under the names of the founding oppressors.

We must create a reckoning against the fables in order to begin the narratives we can all be proud are ours.

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