Service & Advocacy

Complex Truth Telling
A letter from the President

By Christina Paxson / September–October 2023
August 24th, 2023

Twenty years ago, President Emerita Ruth J. Simmons charged the Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice with telling “the truth in all its complexity” and sharing its knowledge widely. That impactful directive for truth telling paved the way for the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice, which was aptly renamed in her honor earlier this year.

As our community knows well, under President Simmons’s leadership, Brown became one of the first universities to examine its ties to the transatlantic slave trade with academic rigor and unflinching honesty. Her bold, enlightened action paved the way for what is now the Ruth J. Simmons Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice, one of the jewels of education and research at Brown.

Over the past 10 years, the Simmons Center has established itself as a leading force for original research, international engagement and public conversation on the legacies of racial slavery. Through rigorous scholarship, compelling conversations and engagement with Black and Indigenous communities across the globe, the Simmons Center is delivering powerful new insights on the history and reverberating effects of slavery.

What no one could have predicted at the time of the center’s founding is just how critical its work would become, particularly as state legislatures around the country have introduced dozens of bills with the promise of affecting what tens of millions of students will or won’t be allowed to learn. These bills take aim at teaching from elementary school through universities about so-called “divisive concepts,” including the history of slavery in America and its legacy in modern times, structural racism, and anything to do with diversity, however defined, among other important issues.

We must recall the failures of our past alongside the triumphs to inform our future.

As a private university in Rhode Island, Brown is not immediately threatened by new or pending laws that have
been enacted or are under consideration in other states, including Arizona, Florida, and Texas. Even so, these laws will impact children across the country who are the Brown students of the future.

As I shared in a New York Times op-ed recently, laws that prohibit the teaching of “divisive concepts” and other forms of censorship are so dangerous because they attempt to indoctrinate students into seeing the world through one lens. This is antithetical to Brown’s mission and the mission of higher education. College campuses are places for controversial issues and emerging ideas to be taught, discussed and debated. This is how we fulfill our missions of advancing knowledge and understanding in a democratic society.

Such censorship is exactly the opposite of what President Simmons called for when she called on the University “to tell the truth in all its complexity.” Brown not only tolerated slavery in the 18th century, it tolerated a form of historical amnesia that lasted for centuries as we overlooked critical aspects of our own story. But we must recall the failures of our past alongside the triumphs to inform our future. For example, we can and should condemn the role of slavery in the founding of our country while also acknowledging the pioneering principles of democracy established by the Founding Fathers.

This is the work that is being done every day at the Simmons Center, which has become a force for complex truth telling. Through unprecedented partnerships with museums and academic centers across four continents, including the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the center is unearthing new stories and stunning revelations about slavery and colonialism.

Groundbreaking research by faculty and students affiliated with the center has been featured in high-profile films, books, and exhibitions, shaping international conversations on slavery’s legacy.

And, the center’s education and outreach activities in Rhode Island and beyond are enriching young people’s understanding of American history by, in part, accurately portraying New England’s role in the transatlantic slave trade.

This is exactly the kind of scholarship and outreach that is needed in today’s society. When stewarded thoughtfully, such efforts can lead to transformation. I look forward to the next decade of impact at the center as it continues the critical interrogation of the history and consequences of slavery.

Read the September–October President's Spread on the Lindemann Performing Arts Center” here (PDF). 

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Related Issue
September–October 2023