At the Slavery Memorial

Source: Brown University
Source: Brown University

There is a large slavery memorial installed in the front of University Hall at Brown University. A large ball and chain, slightly peeking out from the ground. Next to the memorial stands a small engraved podium, which reads:

This memorial recognizes Brown University’s connection to the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the work of Africans and African-Americans, enslaved and free, who helped build our university, Rhode Island, and the nation.

In 2003 Brown President Ruth J. Simmons initiated a study of this aspect of the university’s history. In the eighteenth century slavery permeated every aspect of social and economic life in Rhode Island. Rhode Islanders dominated the North American share of the African slave trade, launching over a thousand slaving voyages in the century before the abolition of the trade in 1808, and scores of illegal voyages thereafter.

Brown University was a beneficiary of this trade.

A couple weeks back, I was sitting in the grass, chatting with my senior graduate friends, when a white woman climbed up and stood on the Slavery Memorial. I frowned and immediately yelled out, “Hey, can you get off the slavery memorial?” She looked at me and quickly scurried down, embarrassed. Out of nowhere, a white man began yelling back at me.

Sigh. I should have known that there would be a white man involved in this debacle. Apparently, the white guy was the one who had told his girlfriend to climb onto the memorial to take a photo and felt challenged when I asked her to step down. There may have been threats to his masculinity involved, considering that I was a young flat-chested Asian kid with a button down and a high-pitched feminine voice. Probably. I never underestimate the fragility of masculinity.

I tried to keep it simple. It’s a matter of respect, I said. I told him to read the engraving. It’s a slave memorial, for goodness sake. Then he replied with the most arrogant, entitled argument I had ever heard:

“I read the sign. It doesn’t say I can’t step on it. There’s no fence around it.”

I stopped to really understand what he was saying. Climbing on top of the slave memorial was but a small fragment of the violence that his entitlement seemed capable of. Everything is mine until proven otherwise. The memorial was his to do what he wanted until there was a fence. The space is theirs until someone explicitly tells them to step back. The bodies of feminine folks are his until other cis men step in lay down their claims. The land is by default theirs until they don’t want it (ex: white flight), and when when they want it again, they’re free to take it back (ex: gentrification). Entitlement is the basis of colonialism, sexual violence, street harassment, and plundering of natural resources. At the same time, history has shown us that being marked as “not his” or undesirable by white men also has its share of violent ramifications: incarceration, police killings, forced sterilization, disowned neighborhoods with very little resources or investment. It’s a lose-lose game.

There was a couple more heated lines exchanged. Eventually the girl pulled the guy back. He pretended to “let it pass” and left with his masculinity intact. None of the friends I had been sitting with had said anything throughout the entire encounter. Only after the guy walked away did they note their surprise in me speaking out and begin adding on all the things that I should have done. “You should have taken a picture.” “Yeah, you should’ve posted it online.” I just sat silently, reflecting on how the white man and his unwavering claim to the steel art piece in a way made the slavery memorial more complete. What is slavery and capitalist exploitation of Black people, if not the manifestation of white masculinity and entitlement.

More on the critiques of the slavery memorial:


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