The following is from a panel discussion at the 2020 Presidents Conference on the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade and its relevance for Christian higher education. The panelists included: Bishop Claude Alexander Jr., senior pastor of The Park Church in Charlotte, North Carolina; Dr. Bernard Powers Jr., director of the Center for the Study of Slavery at the College of Charleston; Jemar Tisby, executive director of The Witness Foundation; Dr. Michael Battle, former U.S. ambassador to the African Union; and Dr. David Emmanuel Goatley, director of the Office of Black Church Studies at Duke University. This discussion has been condensed for length; to view each panelist’s full remarks and watch the ensuing Q&A session, watch the video below.
Bishop Claude Alexander Jr. | Senior Pastor, The Park Church (Charlotte, NC)
Let us consider what August 25, 2019, means to our nation and why you, as leaders of colleges and universities, might want to lean into this reality. It is startling when you consider on that August 25, 1619 – one year before the arrival of the pilgrims on the Mayflower, 113 years before the birth of George Washington, and 157 years before the formation of our nation – 20 Africans from what is now Angola were brought in chains on a slave ship called the White Lion. They landed at Point Comfort, which is Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia. They were sold for food. They were the first enslaved Africans captured and brought to English North America. Thus began the transatlantic slave trade in the English colonies, which would later become the United States of America.
It is sobering to think how long the matter of race, racialization, and racism have been alive in this land. When you think of the fact that it was 113 years before the birth of George Washington, it causes you to realize that the matter of race, racialization, and racism was the amniotic fluid into which our founders were born. And therefore, it helps us explain the tension, the dissonance, of how those who spoke of freedom could hold others in bondage. How those who would write the documents that we continue to hold up as the example [of freedom] for the world could also have the Three-Fifths Compromise, which stated that the African slave was human enough to be counted for state representation, but also non-human enough to be treated as property that could be mortgaged, insured, publicly traded, and invested. When you think of the number 400 years, then you come to understand why just 52 years of the removal of the legal barriers [through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968] has not been enough to take away the residue of race that continues to exist within our nation. When you think about Washington D.C., which operated under legal segregation until 1952, you come to understand how entrenched this was at the very seat of the nation’s power.
Why is this important for us to discuss now? It is important because an undealt-with past remains present; an unconfessed and unrepented history must be dealt with by the present generation. One of the things that is going to be brought out [in this session] is this notion of racial indifference, which occurs because of an ignorance of history and a feeling that “it is not my fault.” So I want you to look at your neighbor and say, “It’s not your fault.”
It’s not your fault, and guess what? It’s not my fault either. It’s none of our faults because there was no prenatal cue where you got to choose the race into which you were born. That was conferred upon us by God. And yet we must admit and come to terms that with this conferral by God himself came certain burdens and certain blessings. And though it’s not our fault, it is our problem. So witness to your neighbor again and say, “It’s not our fault, but it is our problem.”
The issue, now that we acknowledge that, is what is our role as institutional leaders? If we understand that the church – both in its silence and in its statements – was complicit [in racism], and that these churches then built schools whose practices, policies, and even instruction informed the continuation of racism, then it is important for us to come to terms with our own histories and to raise them up before our students. It gives us a further appreciation of the students who come to our campuses to realize that their very presence is a sign of survival and resilience.
Bernard Powers | Director, Center for Study of Slavery, College of Charleston (Charleston, SC)
Since I’m a historian, let me just talk a little bit about the past. I love what William Faulkner says about the past – the past is not dead; it’s not even over. That’s particularly the case in the South, but not only the South. Claudia Rankine, the Jamaican-born poet, says that you cannot put the past behind you, it’s buried in you; indeed, it has made your very flesh its cupboard. So those are some compelling ways that I think we have to think about the past and its relationship to us right now in 2020.
Let me give you a personal example I share with my students in modern African American history. Now, probably most of you know about Ida B. Wells, the famous black journalist of the late 19th century, an anti-lynching activist, and an advocate for women’s right, born into slavery in Mississippi. In 1968, I was preparing to take the SAT exams to go to college, and her daughter was my tutor – the daughter of an enslaved woman. Then my students look at me and they really wonder, “How old are you?” But that’s how close slavery is to us today in 2020.
Now, Americans have never really faced up to this main feature of our history and its implications. I want to take a few minutes to talk about that and remember these things. … Some years ago in the early 2000s – and some of you might have seen this – there was an exhibit in New York City put on by the New York Historical Society, and the focus was slavery in New York City. It was very well-attended, and people were shocked. They said, “Slavery in New York City? Are you kidding me? There were slaves here?” Yes – and at one point in the 18th century, there were more enslaved people in New York City than in Charleston. On the eve of the American Civil War, the monetized value – it’s even hard to say that because we’re talking about people – but the monetized value of enslaved people exceeded the value of all the railroads, banks, and factories in this country combined. That’s an amazing and simultaneously disheartening figure. …
Most people in the U.S. do not understand the dual function of the system of slavery. We know that slavery coerced people to work, but in the United States, it was a race-based institution. For most of the history of slavery internationally, it was not based on race; historically, one group conquered another group in enslavement. But in the U.S. and other places in the Western Hemisphere in the modern era, slavery is based on race. And so the second function of the system of slavery in the U.S. is to regulate race relations. That’s why when emancipation happens, shortly thereafter the system of legally enforced, racially established segregation is created – to continue to provide that function of regulating race relations. That’s what the Civil Rights Movement grows out of – a legacy of slavery, a legacy of Jim Crow, and a legacy of political exclusion. …
There are lessons in all of these things that I’ve been mentioning, lessons for us in the present. We need to look at our own campuses and our histories, our present as well as our past. For example, if we want to examine the climate of race on our campus, [we need to realize that] in significant ways that climate, whether we recognize it or not, has been shaped by the legacy of slavery.
Now remember this, too: The schools that were established in the late 19th century or early 20th century are not off the hook, either. It could very well be that some of the funds that were used to establish them have antebellum roots. It could be that some of the buildings that were constructed on those campuses were constructed by convict labor, which many people describe as slavery by another name. And it could be that some of the buildings are named after people who were deeply invested in the system of segregation.
Now this is a past that cannot merely be studied. The legacy of slavery demands repair in the present. And that is because virtually every racial disparity that exists in the country today in one way or other has its roots deeply planted in the system of slavery. And so on our campuses, we need to talk about these things. We need to teach about these things, and we need to consider the ways in which repair can be effected.
Two final points are these, and these two points have everything to do with religion and faith and the working of God in people’s lives. First of all, it was religion, it was faith, it was hope, it was the story of the deliverance of the Israelites that enabled enslaved people to survive. When the first shots of the Civil War were fired, these people heard the voice of God in those canons. They heard the voice of deliverance.
But the other way that religion plays a role – let’s take the biography of John Newton as an example. A man deeply invested in the Atlantic slave trade – a ship captain of a slave-trading vessel – who had his heart and conscience pricked by God, ultimately then changes the course of his life, becomes an Anglican minister, and eventually joins the abolitionist movement. That’s a story of deliverance and redemption, and it says that there is no person beyond the redemption of God. These stories that are deeply embedded in the institution of slavery and its consequences, we can use those to talk about the effects of God in people’s lives at the same time that we think about what course of action we’re going to take to effect repair in society today.
Jemar Tisby | Executive Director, The Witness Foundation
I think the reason I’m amongst such distinguished personnel on this platform is because I wrote a book called The Color Of Compromise with the subtitle, “The Truth About the American Church’s Complicity In Racism.” So that’s a fun reading for you. In the book, I begin with the tragic story of the 16th Street Baptist church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963. The death of four precious young black girls as they were getting ready for the youth day Sunday service was an act of racial terrorism designed to instill fear and intimidation in the black community during the Civil Rights Movement, and we need to name it as such.
But I also talk about what happened the day after that. A young white lawyer named Charles Morgan Jr. had been scheduled to give a talk in front of the all-white young men’s business association of the city. He went on with his talk as scheduled, but he changed the content. He challenged his listeners, and he asked them a question, “Who threw that bomb? Was it a Negro or a white?” And he said the answer should be, “All of us. All of us who did it, all of us who said [the N-word], whose crude jokes rock the party with laughter.” And he also turned his attention to the church. He said, “How many of us visited the Negroes in their hour of travail?” He even went so far as to say, “How many of us allowed Negroes into the ranks of our churches?”
What Charles Morgan Jr. was articulating, I think, was the concept of complicity. Numerically speaking, the people who actually plan and plot racial terrorism and put the dynamite at the church is a very small number. But there was a neighborhood in Birmingham that already had the nickname “Dynamite Hill,” and the city already had the nickname “Bombing-ham.” The idea is that the most egregious acts of racial terrorism, like a church bombing, can only occur within a context of compromise.
So the book is about the way the American church – and to be specific, the white American church – was compromised and was complicit with the growth of a racial hierarchy in the nation. What we have to come to grips with is that it wasn’t the vast majority of white Christians who were physically doing the acts of violence, but it was the lack of action, the lack of pushing back, the lack of challenging the status quo, and the act of compromising instead of confronting racism that created what we have today.
The idea for us today is that, like Martin Luther King Jr. said, “There comes a time when silence is betrayal.” Or like what Elie Wiesel said – and I’m paraphrasing –silence supports the oppressor, not the oppressed. In the 21st century, as we are living in the legacy of slavery and segregation and racialization, how will Christians today – including Christian colleges and universities – confront racism instead of compromising and being complicit with it?
I have the privilege of going to many colleges and universities that are part of [the CCCU]. One of the points I make is that we need to reckon with at least three ideas that are inherent in compromise and racism in this country. Number one: We’ve got to reckon with money. Fundamentally, race-based chattel slavery was an economically exploitative system that profited off the backs and the labor and the bodies of black people. Why? In order to increase the bottom line of plantation owners and all those associated with the industry. Now, racism and racial hatred are certainly part of that. But if we neglect to talk about the financial aspect, we’ll never actually make progress in closing things like the racial wealth gap, which have vast implications for other things like education and healthcare, life expectancy, and infant mortality.
The second thing we need to reckon with is white supremacy. … As my friend Daniel Hill says in his book, White Awake, white supremacy is the narrative of racial difference. It’s the story we tell ourselves about race. And if we don’t reckon with this as an ideology, then we’ll never actually change the fundamental story that we tell about race, and racism is going to keep cropping up in different manifestations. … As Bryan Stevenson, the founder of Equal Justice Initiative, said, “The North won the Civil War, but the South won the narrative war.” In other words, there’s a consistency and even a resurgence from time to time of this narrative of racial difference. … It makes all people of color “the other.” For instance, all the theology I learned in seminary was “theology” until it was “black theology” or “Latin American theology.” The marginalization of the theological and intellectual contributions of people of color is something that we have to come to grips with in our institutions.
And lastly, we have to come to grips with the fact that racism is violent; it’s bloody. At the end of the day, in order to enforce a system of white supremacy based on greed and money, … when people push back against their own oppression, it has to be stamped down often through violence. So there’s very real fear for people of color, particularly black people, when we hear [racist] rhetoric, whether it’s coming from politicians or Christian leaders – we know what it ends up with down the road. This is not a theoretical issue for most people of color. It’s an existential thing: Are we safe? That begins with some of the emotional and spiritual safety, but it also includes physical safety as well.
So Christian colleges and universities, you have a tremendous opportunity, but also a tremendous responsibility, to address these issues in that critical stage of a life and a season where people are learning and absorbing and figuring out what they think about the world and how they’re going to make an impact. And if we in the 21st century are complicit and we compromise, then 50 years from now, should the Lord tarry, we will ask: Where was the Church?
Michael Battle | Former U.S. Ambassador to the African Union
I want to give context for my discussion out of my own background, both as a diplomat and as a theologian. In 2012, I was speaking at the All Africa Conference of Churches in Nairobi, Kenya, and while I was talking about American foreign policy, a young man from Ghana raised a question: “Why has the United States not been more actively and aggressively apologetic about the institution of slavery?”
I recounted for him the number of times that U.S. leaders had in fact apologized for slavery. While never sufficient is any apology, the apology was made. And then I said that slavery has dual responsibility. It has responsibility from the West, which participated in the vicious, inhumane, ungodly, downright sinful selling of human beings. And it also has responsibility with complicity on the African continent. … I knew that my family was from Ghana and the Ivory Coast. So I said to the young man from Ghana, “Had my ancestors not been defeated in a tribal conflict and not sold to the West, I might have been the Ghanaian ambassador and not the U.S. ambassador.” What happened as a result of that was that the All Africa Council of Churches committed that they would start intentionally dealing with Africa’s history in slavery. I was extremely glad for that.
The following year, I was in Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, at the African Union Peace and Security Council meeting, and we were dealing with the current slavery that still exists on the African continent. And I raised the question, along with some others, about the slave trade that now goes from Eritrea and Ethiopia to Sudan and Egypt. The president of Sudan, the prime minister of Ethiopia, and the foreign minister of Egypt were in the meeting. Hosting that particular conference was the former president of Nigeria. And I said to him and to others that I challenge the African continent to rid itself of the modern-day slave trade that exists on the continent. They committed to do so.
Now that’s interesting history. It’s also helpful and hopeful as we deal with the questions of reconciliation, because reconciliation is always a two-way street. It’s never a one-way street.
After leaving diplomatic service, I went to Cincinnati as the executive vice president and provost of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, which is the only museum in this country that consciously deals with the history of U.S. slavery and simultaneously deals with the question of modern-day slavery. Shockingly, there are more people in slavery today on planet Earth than were in slavery in the transatlantic slave trade. Every single continent on planet earth engages in some form of slavery. Not the same kind of slavery based on race, but slavery based on economic inequalities. Women being trafficked in sex trade; people who work hard and are never paid; people who are brought from foreign countries and forced into servitude paying off debt. Slavery is real; slavery is alive. The white church and the black church have dealt with the issues separately and in an interesting distinct way.
So we brought together leaders of the evangelical community and leaders of the African American church community in a freedom summit and raised the question: Why is it that many white churches are very comfortable dealing with modern-day slavery but totally uncomfortable dealing with America’s legacy of slavery? And why is it that the black church is extremely comfortable dealing with the legacy of American slavery, but unfortunately silent on the question of modern-day slavery? The intent was to say that in both instances, the root of a movement based upon seeking justice and equality is there, but the approach, unfortunately, is different. … Until we deal with a whole question of slavery, we will never reach transformation or reconciliation. …
Every major theological movement that has sought to emphasize human justice has been based on the notion of transformation and reconciliation: believing that God calls transformed and reconciled people to be actively engaged in the process of transforming and reconciling the world unto the message of transformation and reconciliation. There are five existential principles in such a theology: the [principle] of freedom, the principle of love, the principle of justice, the principle of courage, and [recognizing] that we will never be able to bring those principles together unless we can talk about this – the existential principle of forgiveness.
Forgiveness does not excuse wrong – it never has and it never will. Forgiveness is designed to bring people to a consciousness of reconciliation and, hopefully, transformation that leads to redemption. It does no good to say, “I forgive you” or “I am forgiven” if I never move beyond the moment of forgiveness to being transformed and changed, redeemed and reconciled with whatever it was that I needed to have been forgiven for or whatever it was that I demanded forgiveness for. Forgiveness is not passive; it is exceedingly active.
Love is the power – the only power – that can confront the history of racism. It is the only power that can confront anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. It is the only power that can confront and demolish oppression. Unfortunately, we have a tendency to bifurcate the notion of love. We think it’s okay simply to love our neighbor, if we define neighbor only as people who look like, walk like, talk like, worship like, and pray like us. But love means we reach across all kinds of aisles and intentionally reach the people who are not exactly like us.
David Emmanuel Goatley | Director, Office of Black Church Studies, Duke University (Durham, NC)
Those of us who are Christians have a call to truth, and Christian colleges and universities, as a part of your responsibility, have a vocation to pursue truth. The way the truth is handled, however, in many contemporary places around the world is selective. You never can get at truth if you only listen to the voices of privilege. So we have to ask ourselves: What voices are not at the table? When we talk about issues of truth, people without privilege are often not included. And so I hope that a part of your conversation will be about responding to and engaging in the truth about race.
We know [race] is a social construction, but we also know that it’s real, and its ramifications continue. And so part of the question is how do you leverage your institutional power to deal with issues of race and the legacy of slavery? Part of the truth of slavery is slavery was brutal. Not inconvenient, not sad – it was brutal. It was brutal to be physically branded with hot iron. It was brutal to have your body mutilated. It was brutal to be whipped and beaten with leather and then have salt poured in the wound. It was physically brutal. Slavery was sexually brutal. Women – not only women, also men and children, but primarily women – were raped at will by slave owners. And not only did men do that, but there are documented testimonies of slave owners taking their adolescent boys to slave quarters and showing them how to rape a woman. Slavery was brutal. That’s a part of the truth that we should confront. Slavery was brutal in terms of selling family members apart from each other. If you have a child, can you imagine someone taking your child, selling your child to someone else, and you never seeing them again?
Slavery was brutal. We need to acknowledge it and – while we can’t draw direct lines – [we need to] appreciate the ongoing trauma that that does in terms of people’s life stories and consciousness. But it traumatizes both the victims and those who are perpetrators – because for [perpetrators], they were taught that it’s all right to brutalize another person. And whether explicitly or implicitly, that permission continues, because black lives are not valued in this country the same as white lives are. It can be documented in terms of any study you want to do, but it’s clear that black people are treated with less value, less respect, and less honor because of the implicit and explicit lessons that race does matter in ways that make some people more valued than others. And if you value people less [in terms of their] body, you also value them less in terms of their emotion and their intellect.
That is a part of the legacy of the American experience. That is truth. And as people who are in higher education, we are called to deal with the truth of both the brutality and of the benefit accrued to some. There are unearned benefits in the United States that are accrued to people because they’re white. That’s a part of the legacy of slavery. Let me give you just two examples.
In the low country of South Carolina, that was swampland. The colonial residents couldn’t do anything with swampland, but West Africans who were brought as slaves had been growing rice since the second millennia before the common era – that’s a long time. And they had cultivated systems of irrigation where they could irrigate through rainwater, they could irrigate using clay that retained moisture, and they could irrigate through tidal waves. So they were experts in growing rice, and they brought both the physical capital and the intellectual capital that helped turn South Carolina into an agricultural powerhouse.
Another example. Most of us have benefited from inoculations. If you read the typical stories about that, you read about Cotton Mather in Boston and other physicians [working to stop a smallpox outbreak through inoculations]. That’s what comes up in the privileged story of inoculations. What does not come up is that Boston’s Second Church in Massachusetts gave a slave called Onesimus to Cotton Mather. Onesimus was from a West African village where they practiced making a small incision in the skin, inserting smallpox in it, and covering it up. People would get a little sick for one week, get over it, and never have smallpox again. That’s where Cotton Mather learned about inoculation, and that’s why most of us in here have not been affected by some illnesses that could have taken us out – because of the benefit of someone who was enslaved.
Those stories happened over and over. You are called to pursue truth in its brutality and its benefit. And so, as we said earlier, you sitting here, you are not culpable for slavery, but you are responsible. So part of the question is: How do you utilize and leverage your power in your institution and the power that your institution has in its denominational life, in its Christian network, in its locality, in its state, and with other peers? How do you exercise your power to influence the need to repair? What is appropriate action for addressing and redressing the lingering effects of slavery? You may not be culpable, but because you have power and because you are called to truth, you are responsible.