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Op Eds

Wherever You Go, Hold Your Community Accountable

By Sven Beckert, Contributing Opinion Writer
Sven Beckert is Laird Bell Professor of History at Harvard University and was a member of the Committee on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery.

To the Classes of 2020 and 2021:

Every Commencement is special, but yours is unique. The pandemic has delayed it for a year or two. In that same span of time, the country also faced a reckoning with racial justice in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in May 2020.

The ramifications of that murder are still with us. George Floyd’s death forced the country to stop looking away from its legacy of racism. It is fitting, therefore, that Harvard has just issued a 132-page report detailing the University’s involvement with slavery and other forms of racial discrimination during its almost 400-year-long history. The report makes for difficult but necessary reading, as it shows that Harvard was deeply complicit in one of the worst human rights abuses in history.

We cannot undo the past, but we can confront it. And that’s what we have begun to do as a community. I hope that this, too, makes you proud. The University whose name shines brightly on your diploma and in the world has taken an important step to seek a fuller understanding of its history.

As Harvard undergraduates, you have another reason to be proud: It was undergraduates who played an important role in making us reckon with our past. Almost 15 years ago, four students at Harvard College sat in Robinson Hall to begin a seminar on Harvard and Slavery. Little did they or their instructor know it would end with the University committing $100 million to begin to rectify its historical involvement with slavery.

On that September day in 2007, we had no idea what we would find. Inspired by a courageous report issued by then Brown University President Ruth Simmons on Brown and slavery, these four students began excavating a history that had been hidden in plain sight for more than 150 years. They, and dozens of other students who took the seminar in subsequent years, discovered a university deeply entangled with slavery for the first 200-plus years of its existence. They wrote about Harvard presidents and faculty enslaving people and documented how profits from the slave economy funded Harvard’s early expansion; they discovered how Harvard suppressed debate about slavery and revealed how Harvard scientists perpetuated racist ideas. In 2011, with President Drew Faust’s support, their findings were published in a widely distributed report; they also they created a website and offered a walking tour that traced slavery on Harvard’s campus.

When the University’s first responses to these findings were underwhelming, the students demanded that the University meaningfully engage with its history and find ways to redress these past injustices. In 2016, President Drew Faust unveiled a plaque on Wadsworth house that commemorated some of the enslaved people who had been forced to labor there for Harvard presidents. That same year, the seal of the Law School — which until then had been inspired by the family seal of the school’s early donors, who were slave plantation owners — was abandoned. And in 2019, President Lawrence Bacow tasked a committee to write the report and issue the recommendations that came out last month.

The students’ research laid the groundwork that made all this possible. Along the way, they taught us lessons that I hope will guide you as you leave campus and go out into the world.

For one, they intuitively understood that the privileges afforded by Harvard’s unmatched resources and stellar reputation come with a responsibility to scrutinize its history, including the unsavory parts. And once they knew what was there, they made it public, suggesting that the University follow the sage advice of an 18th-century rabbi that “the secret of redemption is remembrance.” They reminded us that we can only build a better future if we are willing to confront our past.

Second, the students focused on a local issue to confront a national, even global problem. The afterlives of slavery still stamp our politics, our patterns of inequality, and our institutions. With big issues, it can be hard to know where to start and what to do; the students remind us that we can always focus on the place, community, or institution that we find ourselves in. As the famous phrase puts it, we can think globally, and act locally.

Third, the students acted. They knew something had to be done. They followed the advice of the Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci who, while imprisoned by Mussolini, counseled that what we need is the “pessimism of the intellect, and the optimism of the will” — that is, to know the worst aspects of reality and nevertheless to act in a way that can change that reality.

I hope that, after you graduate today, you will remember the lessons of this experience. Do something with the enormous privilege that is a Harvard education. Try to make the world a better place. Like the brave young woman who stood her ground and filmed George Floyd's murder, speak up. Be persistent and patient — you may fail the first time and succeed the next. Be stubborn. And get into trouble — the kind of “good trouble” former Congressman John Lewis spoke about. Wherever your path takes you, remember that you can help repair our damaged world anywhere you find yourself.

Sven Beckert is Laird Bell Professor of History at Harvard University and was a member of the Committee on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery.

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