Monday, April 18, 2016

Book Review: 'Ebony & Ivy,' by Craig Steven Wilder

Harvard University's first school master, Nathaniel Eaton, owned a 'Moor' who served Harvard students as early as the 1630s. 

ALLEGRA DI BONAVENTURA, Wall street journalJan. 1, 2014 

Most people are still surprised to hear that there were once slaves at Harvard. Yet the university's first instructor and school master, Nathaniel Eaton, owned a "Moor" who served Harvard students as early as the 1630s. During the next century, university-owned properties housed slaveholders and traders, including Elias Parkman, who was known to sell "likely Negro boys and one girl" out of his rented rooms. As late as the 1830s, abolitionist Charles Follenwas forced to resign from the Harvard faculty for his anti-slavery beliefs. In "Ebony & Ivy," MIT Professor Craig Steven Wilder puts to rest any claims that the ties between slavery and the academy were merely incidental or inadvertent. He inventories these associations, and exposes their connections, to show the academy standing "beside church and state as the third pillar of a civilization built on bondage."
"Ebony & Ivy" builds on a growing public awareness and scholarly literature. More than a decade ago, Brown University took important steps in a slow reckoning among institutions of higher learning when its then-president, Ruth Simmons, formed a committee to report on Brown's ties to the slave trade. Official and unofficial initiatives have continued across American campuses. But "Ebony & Ivy" sets a standard. It is Mr. Wilder's vast and often seemingly banal catalog of mercantile transactions, charitable bequests, and academic and administrative appointments—all links in the chain that joins universities to slavery—that lends the book its disturbing power.
Ivy League schools were both early beneficiaries of the slave economy and 19th-century purveyors of racism in the guise of scholarship. Mr. Wilder animates countless historical footnotes, bringing to light economic and human transactions linking slavery and the academy. Philadelphia merchant John Inglis supported the founding of Penn as trustee using profits from the slave trade; Benjamin Silliman's mother financed his Yale education by selling two slaves from the family's home in Fairfield, Conn. But the story was often complicated: Silliman, who was to become a slaveholder himself, as well as a Yale chemistry professor and the namesake of one of the school's storied residential colleges, would advocate for abolition in his later years. 
In "Ebony & Ivy," Mr. Wilder's narrative wrestles with acts and events that refuse to submit to a neat, sequential rendering. Among the most extraordinary is a little-known New York bastardy case from 1808, Commissioners of the Almshouse v. Alexander Whistelo, which Mr. Wilder reveals as a repository of state-of-the-art "race science" to illustrate evolving race thinking. Whistelo, an African-American mariner, was accused of fathering an illegitimate child with a woman of mixed European and African ancestry, who claimed to have been raped by both Whistelo and an unknown white assailant. Medical and scientific luminaries with degrees from Columbia, Penn and Princeton gave evidence, most rallying the latest scholarship to support Whistelo's successful defense that no black man could father such a light-skinned child.


By Craig Steven Wilder
(Bloomsury, 423 pages, $30)
Mr. Wilder's is a passionate recounting of the collective dehumanization of African-Americans coincident with the rise in power and prestige of the Atlantic college, particularly the Ivy League. But he doesn't restrict himself to this principal story. "Ebony & Ivy" also addresses the role of American colleges in effecting a simultaneous dispossession and subordination of Native-Americans. "The racial constructs that coalesced in defense of slavery also allowed white people to redefine Native Americans as incapable of civilization," he writes.
Mr. Wilder may at times overrate the power and influence of some of our earliest colonial institutions—whether a fledgling Harvard or the nascent legal regime—but he accurately gauges the increasing importance of "scientific" theories to justify racial hierarchies. The author deftly dovetails Southern Indian-removal policies with an account of Northerners' highhanded opposition to removal. Northerners cited evidence of "civilization" in Indian "property, education, Christianization, and capacity for self-government." Yet Northerners hypocritically rejected similar markers of civilization in free African-American communities, which they feared as portents of a multiracial society. Instead, many Northerners embraced a movement for African colonization by Christian African-Americans. The contorted logic of prejudice allowed Northerners to embrace black "removal" enthusiastically, since it rested on the "moral and scientific truth" that the races were distinct and would thrive apart. 
As the Civil War approached, Mr. Wilder writes, the Northern elite and its universities strove to erase the "stain of human slavery from the story of its prosperity," rewriting the history of Northern slavery as "a tale of decorative servitude." The author denounces the historical lie that the North perpetuated: "The problem of slavery in the antebellum North . . . was located in the entangled economies, histories, institutions and lineages of the South. It was a problem so ugly and so personal that it invited dishonesty." Northerners would create a more wholesome version of their region's past. Slavery and the slave trade, as well as the innumerable souls crushed in the unrelenting grinding mill of an Atlantic economy, would be whitewashed from the story.
Surprising as this history might be for the general reader, it is well known to historians. Most, if not all, of our early institutions benefited directly or indirectly from bondage, and "Ebony & Ivory" doesn't adequately convey why universities warrant a unique moral accounting. We may want universities to embody current or universal ideals of racial justice divorced from a historical context in which racism, and even slavery, were received norms—but can we expect them to? Perhaps not, but we should at least require an open acknowledgment of this tortured past, and a work like "Ebony & Ivy" makes such recognition possible.
Ms. di Bonaventura is an assistant dean at Yale's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and the author of "For Adam's Sake: A Family Saga in Colonial New England."

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