Mea Culpa

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    “There is a luxury in self-reproach,” Oscar Wilde once famously observed. “When we blame ourselves, we feel that no one else has a right to blame us.” No doubt, the erudite Harvard historians who earlier this week published a 134-page report divulging their alma mater’s legacy of slavery are familiar with the quote, and with the psychology of absolution itself. Wild, of course, was living in a far less litigiously trigger-happy society than that of modern USA, and in times when a humble mea culpa might have been enough.

    Upon launching the report, Harvard also sent a letter to all its students, staff, and alumni, urging them to read the extensive paper and do some serious soul-searching by evoking the motto of the noble academic institution, Veritas. “It is incumbent upon us to acknowledge and understand the ways that Harvard’s strength today was built on human subjugation and the systems—including business—that perpetuated it. It is only with and through truth that we can learn from the tragic mistakes of the past.”

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    So, what is it all about? Digging up data from New England’s plentiful archives, libraries, and private collections, this report attempts to document some gruesome yet incontestable truths. Like the fact that between the university’s founding in 1636 and the end of slavery in the Commonwealth in 1783, Harvard faculty, staff, and leaders enslaved more than 70 individuals. Or that during the first half of the 19th century, more than a third of the money donated or promised to Harvard by private individuals came from just five men who made their fortunes from slavery and slave-produced commodities.

    The proliferation of eugenic theories on campus is another sore point[1], as is the legacy of racial segregation, exclusion, and discrimination that were all part of campus life well into the 20th century.

    Meanwhile, acknowledging the problem to yourself and the world is just the beginning of a long journey, as any recovering alcoholic would tell you. The breaking news is that Harvard ventures beyond a pure historical overview of past sins. To demonstrate genuine commitment and as a part of the healing process, the institution has now pledged USD 100 million to create an endowment, “Legacy of Slavery Fund”. It is a truly impressive sum of money. But there is hardly a lack of concrete tasks to fund, either: tracing the modern-day descendants of enslaved people at Harvard, building memorials and curricula to honour and expose the past, creating exchange programs with historically black colleges and universities, and forging partnerships to improve schools in the American South and the West Indies, where the donors’ fortunes were made on the backs of the enslaved.

    “The profound harm caused by the University’s entanglements with slavery and its legacies cannot be valued in monetary terms alone,” according to the report. “Nevertheless, the commitment of significant resources can and does signify Harvard’s acknowledgement of wrongdoing and a responsibility to undertake a sustained process of repair: financial expenditures are a necessary predicate to and foundation for redress.”

    We are yet to witness the repercussions of this woke willingness to eat crow displayed by Harvard. Let’s just hope that the endowment money will be put to work wisely to create real social impact. And inspire others to follow suit.

    [1] From the mid-19th century well into the 20th, Harvard presidents and several prominent professors, including Louis Agassiz, promoted “race science” and eugenics and conducted abusive “research,” including the photographing of enslaved and subjugated human beings.

    Photo by Manu Ros on Unsplash

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