Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Is How I Feel a Southern and/or a Black Thing?

The student senate at my university postponed voting on a resolution that would have declared us an "abolitionist university," committed to fighting the vestiges of human slavery that remain on this earth.

My initial reaction was that removing the idea of abolition from its original context, that of ending chattel slavery in the Western world 200 years ago, was somehow historically tone deaf, reducing a contextually potent word to an expression of empathy. For Americans, the idea of abolition is specific: the effort to end the enslavement of blacks, an effort that succeeded only when a civil war erupted.

The words "underground railroad" were used in the resolution, though the resolution does not seem to call on anyone to create a comtemporary underground railroad, thereby breaking laws and taking risks.

Somehow using the word "abolitionist" in the resolution seems to commit our school to very little more than advocacy and sensitivity -- and holding the equivalent of Bake Sales for Justice. I fear that trivializes the word and the historical context in which it was originally used.

Also, such a resolution seems just a little self-congratulatory, potentially a salve to our awareness of our own inaction. Like Hamlet we are sometimes tempted to unpack our hearts with words. Maybe we should resist the temptation?

On the other hand, the USF professor whose work seems to be behind this is a man I respect enormously for his thoughtful commitment to social justice, that murky term that can only be defined by specific acts. His work is specific. He's on a worldwide book tour now, it seems. I await his return to campus to hear his thoughts.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I, too, tend to feel that it trivializes momentous movements to use their terminology to describe other struggles. Pretty soon, nothing carries much weight, and the details become less distinct or less forceful. On the other hand, even the overuse of plantation analogies offends me.