Over the last few years, organizations across the United States – corporations, universities, and nonprofits like the American Academy of Arts and Sciences – have begun to reflect on their ties to slavery, Native genocide, and other troubling elements of American history. The Academy’s virtual event on “Reckoning with Organizational History” explored why historical self-examination matters and what can be gained from these studies. The panelists reflected on the reckoning process of their own institutions and highlighted what other organizations can use in their own work of historical reckoning. The discussion also focused on a recommendation in Our Common Purpose, the final report of the Academy’s Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship. The recommendation, “Telling Our Nation’s Story,” calls on Americans to develop new shared narratives that acknowledge both the glory and shameful moments of the nation’s history and encourages individuals and organizations to engage in direct, open-ended, and honest conversations about our country’s past faults and failures. An edited version of the presentations and discussion follows.
2100th Stated Meeting | June 14, 2021 | Virtual Event
Morton L. Mandel Public Lecture
Claudia Rankine is a poet, playwright, essayist, and Professor of Creative Writing at New York University. She was elected to the American Academy in 2020.
In preparation for today’s introductory remarks on “organizational and historical self-examination,” I reread Craig Steven Wilder’s Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities. It’s a disheartening read but a necessary one because Wilder’s work understands better than most that the history of enslaved people and the genocide of Native Americans are intrinsically tied to the formation of our universities, and by extension our culture, our institutions, and the relationality we negotiate every day in our institutions. He isn’t the only historian doing this work but his lens on the formation of the universities many of us are employed by makes him particularly relevant to this panel. Many of us have been more committed to the culture of prestige and sustainability these institutions bestow on us than to the truth of what they foster and who we are by extension.
I will focus on Wilder’s book about the formations of universities as a template for thinking about museums, newspapers, scholarly associations, our government, etc. Many of these various institutions, led by members of the American Academy, are also rethinking their history.
Wilder painstakingly explains how the long arm of white supremacy was hard at work before the United States was a stated thing. Before there was a United States, there was the evil inhumanity of the United States. I intentionally use the word evil because so much was done in the name of God and religion. A quote from Ebony & Ivy, penned by Governor John Winthrop, describes the fate of Native Americans: “The greatest parte of them are swept awaye by the small poxe, which still continues among them. God has thereby cleared our title to this place.” As you know, infected blankets were distributed by white settlers to Indigenous people in order to bring about their death. And a quote from Reverend Richard Mather, father to Increase Mather, an early president of Harvard, describes the same moment: “The government of God is now beginning to be set up where it never was before.”
Wilder’s book is divided into two parts: “Slavery and the Rise of the American College” and “Race and the Rise of the American College.” It’s important that Wilder separated the development and impact of slavery from the development and impact of race. Race or the supremacy of whiteness served to justify the subhuman behavior of whites. In order to reframe the bestiality of the behavior of whites toward Blacks and Native Americans, the language of superiority and justification had to be put in place. White superiority had to be made to be scientific and predestine. One of the most incisive lines in Wilder’s book reads: “Race did not come from science and theology; it came to science and theology.”
What the book does brilliantly is stitch together histories of individuals, who are amassing wealth through slavery, the shipping of enslaved people, plantations, and more, and then using those funds to found our most prestigious universities. The earliest colleges – Harvard (1636), William & Mary (1693), and Yale (1701) – graduated plantation and merchant elites whose ties to slavery were evident. But, according to Wilder, “although half of the graduates became ministers, that fact had little impact upon the pattern of alumni slaveholding. Northeastern parishes routinely gave black people to ministers, and divines bought and sold human beings, distributed slaves in their wills, advertised for runaways, and sold people at auction.” Consequently, whatever the graduates were learning, or not learning, justified support of the genocide of Native Americans and the enslavement of Blacks no matter their ultimate profession.
Again, to quote Wilder: “Throughout the Mid-Atlantic and New England, higher education had its greatest period of expansion as the African slave trade peaked.” Why I feel it’s necessary to begin in the 1600s is because that timeline makes transparent the systemic nature of anti-blackness in this country and its generative relationship to the institutions that remain standing today. These same institutions continue to instill messages of white superiority to this day. That is the culture our educated elites have been nurtured within.
We have been the inheritors of this history, and the question before us remains what are we going to do with this inheritance because we remain in relation to it? We have been indoctrinated into it and our children continue to be indoctrinated into it. They have been taught to see their own identities as consistent with the legacies of our universities and then with the institutions they become professionals within without being informed what that legacy really represents. While universities are at the heart of this discussion, they are not alone in having to reckon with their history.
Theorist Sara Ahmed, in her essay “A Phenomenology of Whiteness,” puts it this way: “If the conditions in which we live are inherited from the past, they are ‘passed down’ not only in blood or in genes, but also through the work or labour of generations. If history is made ‘out of’ what is passed down, then history is made out of what is given not only in the sense of that which is ‘always already’ there before our arrival, but in the active sense of the gift: as a gift, history is what we receive upon arrival. Such an inheritance can be re-thought in terms of orientations. . . . Whiteness is an orientation that puts certain things within reach.”
Ahmed goes on to say, “If whiteness is inherited, then it is also reproduced. Whiteness gets reproduced by being seen as a form of positive residence: as if it were a property of persons, cultures and places. Whiteness becomes, you could even say, ‘like itself,’ as a form of family resemblance.”1
If we understand the resemblance to exist, it’s easy to externalize the problem – the name on a building or a monument to a slaveholder. Change the name, remove the monument. Great. Hire one or two Black and Brown people. Perform land acknowledgment. Allow for individual success while simultaneously and indiscriminately othering the population-at-large. Again, I ask, how profoundly do these actions change the culture of orientation of all the institutions we are all associated with? True reckoning understands that alongside symbolic and equitable changes, we must also address our social commitments. What we need to come to terms with is the fact that the roots of our institutions are communicated in our relations – what passes between us, one to another.
How are we going to change the socialization that communicates in subtle ways that white people are superior to people of color and therefore they remain the preferred candidate even when the job goes to an “other”? How are we to change the socialization even as white people’s insurrections go uninvestigated? How are we to change the socialization even when their murders go unprosecuted? (Chauvin being the rare exception because a teenager stood and got 8 minutes and 46 seconds on video. Please don’t bring him up, until his case becomes precedent.) Indeed, how are we to change the socialization when in 2021 the tenure of a woman of color gets denied, despite departmental support and a Pulitzer Prize?
Are we really prepared not to perform in the ways we have been asked to perform for centuries? We need to take on the weight of this question. We can see what’s out there but how about the inside job? Aren’t our institutions made up as much by our socialization as they are by stated written policies?
The culture of our institutions is deeply troubled. That can’t be addressed unless we address ourselves. By “we” I mean everyone: those of us convinced by racist rhetoric of the superiority of our white skin, though this sentence would rarely be uttered or even thought consciously, as well as those of us whose goal has been to be inside institutions where we then support the inherited beliefs that have kept the culture the same for over four centuries. Resistance to change is sometimes named sustainability or tradition.
Given that we are gathered virtually to speak about how to redress the continued genocide of nonwhite people in forms addressed both by policy within institutions and by words and phrases like “comorbidity,” and “police killings,” and “mortality rates,” there is no quick fix for our present reality – and yet, some of us are already “done.” “I’m done with diversity stuff” is a sentence I heard recently.
We are up against four hundred plus years of evil before the United States was a thing: smallpox blankets, lynchings, redlining, segregationist police, voter suppression laws, degrading images, diminishing languages, and on and on. Am I making you uncomfortable? Does that mean I shouldn’t be hired? Does that mean I won’t fit in? Does that mean I’m a problem because I can’t get over what stays present? Does that mean that the culture of the listeners here today on the Zoom event is exactly what I’m suggesting? An inside job?
One question that kept nagging me after reading Ebony & Ivy was what did all the historians who read the same documents and letters that Wilder used in his account of our history have to believe not to have written this book two centuries ago? Fifty years ago? Thirty years ago? How are we going to change the socialization that allows for bad and incomplete revisionist work to pass for responsible work? All of this objection to critical race theory, for example, is really and simply an objection to history. Hasn’t that really been the inside job?
Maybe our esteemed panelists have answers for us.
- 1Sara Ahmed, “A Phenomenology of Whiteness,” Feminist Theory 8 (2) (August 2007).
David W. Oxtoby is President of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He was elected to the American Academy in 2012.
Thank you, Claudia. Your powerful opening underscores why this work is so important, and it is a terrific starting point for our conversation. I will briefly introduce our panelists, who will discuss how their own institutions are approaching the work of reckoning with organizational history.
Jack DeGioia is president of Georgetown University, which he has led since 2001. He is a professor of philosophy and has served in leadership roles of organizations that include the American Council of Education, Carnegie Corporation, and the National Association of Independent Schools. In 2016, Georgetown issued a historical study of the university’s involvement with slavery. Jack has received national attention for Georgetown’s approach to institutional reckoning and atonement in the wake of that report. He was elected to the American Academy in 2010 and recently served on the Academy’s Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education.
Susan Goldberg is editor-in-chief of National Geographic and editorial director of National Geographic Partners. In this role, Susan leads the journalism across all platforms, including digital journalism, magazines, podcasts, maps, newsletters, and social media. Under her leadership, National Geographic has been recognized for its excellence, including with nine national magazine awards. In a 2018 issue devoted to the subject of race, Susan took the opportunity to interrogate National Geographic’s own tradition of racism in its 130 years of coverage. The most recent issue of National Geographic is entitled “Reckoning with the Past” and continues that conversation by examining race in the United States.
Brent Leggs is executive director of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund and senior vice president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The Action Fund is a social movement for justice, equity, and reconciliation that promotes the role of cultural preservation in telling the nation’s full history while empowering activists and civic leaders to advocate on behalf of African American historic places. Brent is a national leader in the U.S. preservation movement and was recognized in 2018 with the Robert G. Stanton National Preservation Award for elevating the significance of Black culture in American history.
The panel will be moderated by Ben Vinson, provost and executive vice president of Case Western Reserve University, where his Think Big strategic planning initiative has received national attention for its approach to inclusivity. In addition to his role as an educational leader, Ben is an accomplished historian and currently serves as chairman of the National Humanities Center and vice president of the American Historical Association’s research division. He is also a member of the Academy’s Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship.
Ben Vinson is Provost and Executive Vice President of Case Western Reserve University.
As David mentioned, I am a member of the Academy’s Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship. The Commission’s final report, Our Common Purpose, advances the idea that reform in our political institutions is simply not enough to fix our democracy. We need to repair both our political culture and our civil society. The Commission found that an acute problem now facing our political culture is a disagreement over how to talk about the past. Our Common Purpose calls for a new and inclusive set of historical narratives that are truly honest accountings of the past, which will help us to build a better democracy and a better future. Given the recent debates over teaching history and particularly around African American history and the role of slavery in the founding of our republic, I would argue that this work has never been more urgent. And there could be no better time to spotlight organizations and individuals who have done the difficult and necessary work of digging into the past and reckoning with the legacies of some of the most shameful elements in American history.
Claudia has challenged us to tackle the troubled narrative of our institutions, to overcome sustainability and tradition to get to a better place. Our panel today includes practitioners who see this and know the work. I am going to begin with just a few questions of my own for each of our panelists and then we will turn to audience questions for the latter half of the discussion. My first question is for Jack DeGioia. Jack, what was the process for a 230-year-old university to engage with its historical reckoning? And how did it change your idea about the responsibility of institutions of higher education?
John J. DeGioia is President of Georgetown University. He was elected to the American Academy in 2010.
It is an honor to be here and truly a great honor to follow Claudia and to join my fellow panelists in this discussion with you. As you have indicated, over the past six years, Georgetown has been on a very important journey as a university. I hope that by sharing our story, I can connect you to your own stories and to our common, shared American story. Let me provide a brief overview of our Georgetown story. We were founded in 1789 as the nation’s first Catholic institution of higher learning in what was then the state of Maryland. Maryland was a slave state, and there were slaves on the Georgetown campus. In 1814, the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits, was responsible for Georgetown. And the regional Order of the Jesuits was responsible for a number of plantations in southern Maryland that funded the activities of the society and their works, including places like Georgetown. In what is now a well-known historical moment, in 1838, 272 enslaved children, women, and men were sold from four plantations the Jesuits owned in southern Maryland to slaveowners in Louisiana. And as the most significant project for the Jesuits in Maryland, Georgetown benefited from the sale. Approximately $17,000 from the sale was directed to Georgetown.
We knew this story. A distinguished member of our faculty brought this story to our attention in a paper he delivered forty years ago. And we have taught this story. In the mid-1990s, in a course in American studies, some of our faculty established one of our earliest digital humanities projects with a website entitled “The Jesuit Plantations Project,” and they placed online many of the documents associated with the sale. And yet, there was something about this moment in American history that led us to examine this part of our history anew. And so, we established in August 2015 the Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation. They began their work in September 2015. Throughout the year, the working group brought our community along with them in an engagement with this painful part of our history. And to follow up on Claudia’s reference, it included engagement with Professor Wilder, who shared both with the working group and with our community the results of his scholarship. The group continued its work throughout the winter and presented its report in September 2016. We have been implementing recommendations from that report over these past five years.
I would like to emphasize one important point. While the group was doing its work, something unexpected happened: The New York Times presented the Georgetown story through the lives of contemporary descendants of the 272 enslaved children, women, and men sold in 1838. And we began an engagement with that descendant community. We took a number of steps, and I can go into more detail during our discussion, but our most important work was only beginning when we received the final report. We continue today on a path seeking reconciliation with a large and diverse descendant community, but we also are trying to come to terms with what does it mean to be a university with this history, living at this point in time, recognizing the responsibilities we have as an institution to try to address this ongoing legacy: that we never ameliorated the fundamental dynamics and the fundamental consequences – the results that Claudia articulated so powerfully in her opening reflections. I have much more to share with you and I look forward to our discussion. I also look forward to hearing my fellow panelists offer their perspective.
VINSON: Thank you, Jack. As someone who has been watching what has been happening at Georgetown, it has been very illustrative for all of us in the higher education space. We are taking cues from your story, what you have done, the groundwork that you have laid, and how that has begun to impact and shape other institutions.
My next question is for Susan Goldberg. In 2018, National Geographic captured headlines with an acknowledgment of how for over a century, the magazine had perpetuated racial stereotypes of people of color abroad while ignoring those living in the United States. How did the magazine arrive at the process of grappling with its past? And how has that grappling changed your publishing decisions?
Susan Goldberg is Editor-in-Chief of National Geographic.
In 2018, we decided to do a special issue about race because April 2018 was the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King Jr. It seemed like a good time to stop and take stock with where we were on race. We did stories around the world and in the United States. And as we were coming to discuss these stories, it dawned on me, first slowly and then in a big rush, that we couldn’t just turn our reportorial gaze to other people and other institutions. We needed to look at how the journalism of National Geographic had perpetuated racial stereotypes for much of our history. We could not speak credibly about race without looking internally at our own organization.
I asked John Edwin Mason, a wonderful historian from the University of Virginia, to help us on this quest. I felt strongly that we needed an outsider’s eyes to help us get as close to the truth as humanly possible. John is a historian of the continent of Africa and a historian of photography. He was the perfect person to dive into our archives and tell us what he saw. He came back with a very stark report. What he discovered is that up until the civil rights movement, when National Geographic looked at people of color overseas, we pictured them in very clichéd ways. We perpetuated this hierarchy of Black and Brown people at the bottom and white people at the top. We pictured people as primitives, as savages, as happy hunters, as fierce warriors – as every kind of otherizing cliché. And then in the United States, we didn’t acknowledge that there were Black and Brown and all kinds of people in this country. They were not pictured unless they were seen in roles as laborers or as domestic workers.
I wrote a letter to our readers about these findings. And we didn’t pull our punches. In fact, the letter ran under this headline: “For decades, our coverage was racist. To rise above our past, we must acknowledge it.” I talked not only about the findings that John had made but, even more important, I put a stake in the ground to say, yes, we are very proud of aspects of National Geographic’s past. We showed people the world. But sometimes, we didn’t show them the world as it really was. From this day going forward, we are going to make sure to build on the improvements that we started to make in the 1970s. We are going to make sure that we are telling stories about diverse communities, stories that are inclusive, stories that are told through the lens and words of diverse writers and photographers. And we have been making good on that. Are we there yet? I would have to say no, we are not even close. This is an ongoing process. But we have made tremendous progress, and I really am proud when I look back over the last three years at all the stories that we have done, especially how many stories we’ve done just since 2020 alone. I am happy to get into the details in our discussion later.
VINSON: Susan, it is fascinating what you have done. I am mindful of that relationship between science and race, which Claudia spoke about, and how National Geographic chronicles that and these pivots. This is a historic pivot that your institution is making beyond bricks and mortar and into the mind. It is truly transformational. I can’t be more inspired and I’m eager to hear more.
Let me now turn to Brent Leggs. Brent, could you explain what the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund is, why the National Trust saw the need for this fund, and how the fund has transformed the organization?
Brent Leggs is Executive Director of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund and Senior Vice President of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
I want to start with a quote from Maya Angelou: “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived; but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.” Without a thorough reckoning with the complex and difficult history of our country, especially when it comes to race, we will not be able to overcome intolerance, injustice, and inequality.
That’s why, in November 2017, in the aftermath of Charlottesville, the National Trust for Historic Preservation launched its African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, a $25 million campaign to reconstruct a national identity that reflects America’s diversity. I am proud to lead this effort for the Trust, which preserves cultural landscapes and historic buildings that show the richness of African American life, history, and architecture. Through preservation practice, we aim to expose the world and our nation to the culture, contradictions, ideals, politics, art, and the hope of America. We tell overlooked stories embodied in these places: ones of African American resilience, activism, and achievement that are fundamental to the nation itself. Preserving this tapestry of our shared culture, pride, and heritage is an act of racial justice and should be viewed as a civil right.
As we come to a cultural reckoning with America’s racist past and see long-simmering racial and ethnic tensions return to a boil, this intensity pervades every aspect of our politics, society, and public spaces. The people of this nation, through their dissent, George Floyd protests, and collective affirmation of these concerns, have grown impatient with policy, including the work of historic preservation, that gives cover to ideas that oppose our democracy’s goals. Telling America’s overlooked stories is fundamental to building a true national identity and to fostering real healing, true equity, and a validation of all Americans and their history.
Historic sites that bring forward a diverse and inclusive national narrative are playing a crucial role in redefining our collective history and meaningfully expanding the preservation movement in equitable ways. We have an opportunity with this fund to broaden the American story to reflect our remarkably rich and diverse history. These cultural assets help us all walk toward a new era of justice.
Our work on equity and injustice is threefold. We have shifted our organizational priority and are developing an internal ethic for telling the full American story. We are focusing on our organizational culture in which equity-driven outcomes inform our work. And we are making room for Black preservation professionals to lead within our organization and drive social innovation. This reimagining is the beginning of our important work to honor and share the full contributions of Black Americans to our nation.
VINSON: Brent, you complete the power of this panel with those remarks. An Argentine president once said that history is too important to be left in the hands of historians. This quote has manifested itself in so many ways over time. What you are doing with the Trust, and I’m sure the audience agrees, points to that. And what’s more is that in our nation, there is such a way in which historic preservation has been embalmed in a particular patriotic narrative of exclusion. Your work is an intervention, a pickax at the very stones that have been that embalming process. I would like to invite all the panelists to reflect about why this historical reckoning is so important today and what is to be gained through the historical self-reflection process. Why should organizations engage in this work?
LEGGS: In my line of work in historic preservation, it is clear that our nation is rich in diverse history while being poor in the representation of that history and in funding its preservation, protection, and recognition. In order for the National Trust for Historic Preservation to be relevant to all Americans and to be able to create an inclusive American landscape that reflects all of American history, we must acknowledge and revere Black history as American history, which has shifted the soul and consciousness of our nation. As a nation, we have to confront again and respond to the cultural reckoning that has yet to happen. At the National Trust, we started our own reckoning when we established the Rosenwald Schools Initiative in 2003. It was our first regional diversity program that ignited a new organizational ethic for preserving America’s diverse history.
GOLDBERG: As a journalism news organization, National Geographic has an opportunity to help people make sense of the complex events of today. We can write about them and talk about them and show people those events, but because we are National Geographic, we can dive back into that history and help people put these events into context. When we were covering the events around the George Floyd protests, both photographically and in our writing, we were also looking back at the history of violence against Black Americans and the history of lynching in the United States. I wish it were true that our conversations, our stories, could help heal. But what I do think we can do is help inform and give a factual basis upon which people can have reasonable conversations. Later this week is Juneteenth. A lot of people don’t know what Juneteenth is. What we can do across our platforms, reaching millions of people, is write stories about Juneteenth and get people interested in it so they understand the importance of this date.
DEGIOIA: To add to what both Brent and Susan have shared: I think this moment is defined by a convergence of some external events that cannot be left unaddressed. And, at the same time, we are living through an extraordinary period of scholarship and of artistic creation, the kind of work that Susan, Brent, and Claudia are all deeply engaged in. The resources that are available to us right now are truly exceptional. And we know what the work is. We know that this enduring legacy of racism, of slavery and subsequent segregation, is sustained by two elements. It is sustained by our own beliefs, our attitudes, our biases and prejudices, our ways of interpreting and making meaning of our stories. As Claudia shared earlier, we know that the very ideas of race and subsequently of racism are social constructs, the product of early American scholarship, developed and nurtured in order to justify the institution of slavery. And the second element consists of institutional structures that perpetuate inequity and inequality. It is very important that we recognize two different kinds of work: what we might call interior work, the work on ourselves, of understanding our own interiority, and the importance of that work is right in front of us. And then, the institutional work of addressing the structural issues, the structural racism, the structural injustice built into our systems. I think the convergence of these external events and the resources now available to us make it imperative that we embrace this moment.
VINSON: Jack, let me follow up on the last point you made. Yes, we have the resources now. This is an incredible moment. All the things that Susan and Brent have signaled, that Claudia has called us to do, it seems like there’s a template. But how do we do this? How does an organization or other institutions or individuals learn from what you have been able to do? What are the best practices that will guide us? Do you have any words of caution?
DEGIOIA: I will say there is no formula. We can learn from one another. We can share with one another. But each of us and each of our institutions have some distinctive work to do. We come from different entry points. We carry distinctive aspects of our history and development as individuals and as institutions. Scholars of organizational design differentiate between adaptive change and technical change. What you are seeing a deeper grasp of is what might be called adaptive change. The kind of change that Claudia is describing is best understood as adaptive change. And here we want to recognize that for us, engaging with our history was inextricably connected with engaging with the questions of racial justice in this moment. And that animated our community in ways that were without precedent. We had some exceptional scholars doing great work, but we are also seeking to unlock new possibilities: the possibilities for deeper self-understanding as well as deeper understanding of the structures and systems. And you cannot predict where it is going to go. There is no telling where the work will lead. As I shared earlier, we certainly didn’t presume that descendants would be interested in working with Georgetown. That they were opened up all kinds of new possibilities for us.
GOLDBERG: When grappling with your past journalistic sins, it helps to look at your current work through a new lens. And to do that you need to surround yourself with people who can help you identify your blind spots and who are going to be brave enough to say you are really missing something there, don’t publish that picture, this needs a lot more explanation, or this needs a lot more context. As editors, we need to be open to those conversations. Does it mean we’re going to always get it right? No, we are not. But we need to listen. The other thing that we can do, which is very practical, is to keep track of things. They often say you measure what you value. So, we measure. What is our byline count? How many are women, how many are men, and how many are people of color? Who are our photographers? What kinds of stories are we choosing to tell? And, very important, who are we quoting as experts? Are they all white men? When we started counting, I was dismayed by our results.
LEGGS: As organizations, we need to measure inequity and injustice. We cannot track progress if we don’t quantify those numbers, and that is key to advancing equity-driven outcomes. What I have seen at the National Trust – and I have worked in this space for fifteen years – is that the places that we preserved have mirrored our nation’s social values. In many ways, what we see on the American landscape are mansions and historic sites associated with a few privileged and notable white men. When we look across our portfolio of historic sites in the National Trust, we have twenty-eight amazing places. But only one of those places directly reflects the Black experience. We have a lot of work to do to expand the American story and to hold ourselves accountable for creating inclusivity in the American landscape.
GOLDBERG: If I could add one more point about this: The January 2021 issue of National Geographic looked at the year 2020 in pictures. And on the cover, we put a photograph of the Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue in Richmond, which was covered with graffiti and Black Lives Matter sentiments and had George Floyd’s image projected onto it. This has become an important piece of public art and protest art.
VINSON: I have recently been rereading Alan Taylor’s book, American Revolutions. When you think about the progress of our nation over time, one thing stands true: One person’s justice is another person’s injustice. As we think about the work of historical reckoning, how do engage constructively with those who resist, with those who are skeptical, with those who are critical? The Academy’s Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship has put forth that we have a common purpose, that we are looking to get to the same endpoint. How do we deal with those natural pockets of resistance?
DEGIOIA: As we know, resistance comes from many sources. There are those who would question, can we be trusted to engage in this work with integrity and competency? There are those who will ask, do we really need to bring all this stuff up? And there are others who might say after we have been engaged in this work for a few years, can we now put this behind us and move on? Some might say, why is there so much process? Others will say we don’t have enough process. Adaptive change is difficult, and it can’t be done quickly. So, in response to your question, I think all we can do is show up every day and bring the resources that are now available to us. We can draw from folks like Professor Taylor and Professor Rankine. We have resources available to us. We want to pull all of that in and be unrelenting in our efforts to say there is a richer, truer story that needs to be told.
GOLDBERG: Jack, that is exactly right. One of the things I didn’t fully realize after we published our National Geographic issue in April 2018 was that there was a terrific public reception for what we had done. But there were also more people than I had anticipated who objected to our diving into the archives and for telling our story. Perhaps I was slightly naïve then. When I look at it now, I view it as a conversation that you have to have because we are not going to solve this country’s problems by not talking about them, by pretending these injustices didn’t happen. Elizabeth Alexander, a wonderful historian and poet, wrote an essay for us on “Reckoning with the Past” for our June issue in which she says, “Without learning, without knowledge, without the voices and the experience and the insights gained from a determined excavation of our country’s past, we will never eradicate racism and racial violence. We must live like we understand what history teaches us.” And that is true for a media organization like National Geographic.
LEGGS: I think resistance is rooted in the miseducation of Americans. I don’t know that we fully comprehend, as a society, the impact of place or the power of place on our individual identity as well as on our collective identities. When I think back to Charlottesville and to the white men in polo shirts and khaki pants holding tiki torches, rallying around a Thomas Jefferson sculpture on the campus of the University of Virginia, chanting, “You will not replace us,” that is clearly rooted in a misunderstanding of American history. But if we do the internal work to shift the culture within our organizations, which is often manifested in the broader society, then hopefully we’ll begin to make progress over the next couple of decades.
DEGIOIA: I would add one thing to what Susan and Brent have suggested, and that is, we all represent institutions. Part of the question before us today is the role of institutions. Growing up, I remember waiting each month for my issue of National Geographic to arrive, hopeful that there would be a map stuffed inside, because getting those maps was a great treasure. When Brent described some of the places that provide us with our sense of orientation, we need to recognize that our institutions are touchstones for all of us. The work that you’re asking us to comment on is fundamentally disorienting and destabilizing. Our institutions need to appreciate the challenge of sustaining this work. But if we can bring in Claudia Rankine’s work and Craig Steven Wilder’s work, we have grounds for hope that we might be able to come out of all of this in a better place.
VINSON: I have been watching the chat and I have to note that I agree with the comments that say that those who pitch this as a zero-sum game are perpetuating an atmosphere of injustice and are making it harder for us to reconcile. So, let me now ask, what does success look like ten years from now, fifteen years from now? Can we heal as a nation? Can we get to where we are trying to go?
DEGIOIA: Honestly, Ben, I don’t know yet what success is going to look like. I suppose the fact that we are so deeply engaged in this work may be a sign of success. We are living with a set of questions today that I believe are deeper and more profound than the questions we were living with before. More people are engaged in asking these deeper questions. We are developing new resources to engage these questions. We have built some new institutional structures. We have recruited new talent. We have new voices. We have new places. We know we are already the beneficiaries of an enriched framework and I just hope we can continue the work of deepening the richness of that framework.
GOLDBERG: Ben, I sometimes hear people ask if we are done yet. Are we there yet? I don’t think we are ever done because our country, our culture, and our demographics are evolving as we speak. It is important as a media organization to be aware of those conversations, to reflect those conversations, and to create content in which people can see themselves. So, what does success look like? I’m not exactly sure what it looks like but one of the elements of success will be: Are we doing stories in which young boys and girls of color see themselves in the meteorologists who are being quoted about the tornado or current weather event? Are we creating stories that are inclusive and that will attract the widest and broadest number of readers? And that, to me, means making sure that we have put a stake in the ground and that we are following through on our commitments to create the kind of content with the kind of storytellers who we need to have.
LEGGS: As a preservationist, I think success means that we have centered blackness in American history and redefined our nation’s traditional understanding of itself. This reimagining of American history would be very powerful. And if we do that through a lens of diversity, I think that is success. I also think if we build up a replicable process for other institutions to follow, that too would be success. I have been thinking about four goals that might inform what this process looks like. First, we have to tell the truth about our nation’s four hundred plus years of history. Second, we have to begin to reconcile our racist past and develop a shared belief for this cultural reckoning. Third, we have to acknowledge that we need to repair and make amends. And fourth, collectively, we have to want to heal the harmful impacts of racism in all sectors of society.
VINSON: Thinking about the future of American democracy links back to the work of the Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship and our report, Our Common Purpose. The word experiment was used by one of our panelists. In some ways, our work is like an experiment: we continue to tinker with it.
The work of reconstructing our democracy at this moment has to deal obviously with the question of race. I would like to ask each of our panelists to talk about how jumpstarting the process of renewing faith in American democracy, how thinking about the very fabric of who we are as a nation and as a democracy, and how moving across partisan divides can restore our civic faith.
LEGGS: We are seeing truth in place at historic sites like James Madison’s Montpelier and at Georgetown University, where descendant community engagement is crucial to realizing the goals of democracy, in which there are new models for shared governance and authority. I believe the only way that we can express our democratic values is to create that shared sense of governance and authority. An equitable American democracy means that we have to redefine our civic identity, and that goes back to my earlier point: it is critical that we begin to tell a fuller American story and that the collective experience of all Americans – LGBTQ, women, Asian Americans, Latino Americans, Native Americans, and African Americans – is evident on the American landscape. As institutions, we must self-evaluate and research our own failings in upholding the principles of our democracy, and we must fully understand the inherent biases and injustices perpetuated by our work.
DEGIOIA: We know we have a truer story to tell. I would like to share a quick anecdote. In the fall of 2016, the National Museum of African American History and Culture had just opened. At the time, I was teaching a seminar on justice, and we were reading very early in the semester Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told, which illuminates the connection between slavery and capitalism. The week after we read the book, we visited the museum as a class. We went on a Sunday, the week following the museum’s opening. One of my students came into seminar the following morning – we met on Monday mornings – and shared that she had taken time earlier that weekend to visit the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. And she told us that she was having a difficult time reconciling those two experiences. I think that is what Brent was referring to a moment ago in terms of the fuller story and a truer story. If we have faith in the power of truth, I think we have the resources that can enable us to strengthen this democracy.
GOLDBERG: This is where we find the real opportunity. As a journalist, you learn early on that you can frame your story to show people’s differences or their commonalities. As a writer or as a photographer, you are either showing how odd this group of people is or you are showing that we are all just people: we laugh at the same things and enjoy many of the same things even if we come from very different cultures and backgrounds. There is an approach to storytelling that can help remind us of our common humanity and our common bonds as Americans. I think it is imperative that we do not lose sight of that.
VINSON: I want to thank our panelists for indulging me in a few questions. The Zoom chat is really exploding, so I am going to turn things over to Darshan Goux from the Academy, who will manage the discussion session with questions from our audience.
Darshan Goux is the Program Director for American Institutions, Society, and the Public Good at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Thank you, Ben, and I want to thank all our panelists for a wonderful conversation. We are going to try to get to as many of the questions from our audience as we can. I also want to welcome back Claudia Rankine to the discussion. Our first audience question is: how can we reconcile and combine historical narratives that directly contradict one another?
LEGGS: The contradiction is that the Black experience has been defined stereotypically through the lens of slavery. The way that we flip the script on that narrative is that we also highlight Black excellence, Black contributions to science and business, and all the other overlooked and untold stories as a way to create a new perception of what it means to be Black and American.
GOLDBERG: Brent’s comments remind me of a story we did a couple of years ago about Rwanda. It wasn’t about the wildlife or the genocide of 1994. It was a story of how Rwanda is becoming a hub for technology, with many young people becoming computer scientists. As Brent said, we need to flip the script. We didn’t go with the expected story. We looked for a story that would tell people something that they don’t know about another group and by doing that we hopefully get to those real stories.
DEGIOIA: Contradictory stories place a different kind of demand on us. And we want to interrogate the contradiction. Are both stories true? If one is more dominant, why is it more dominant, and what’s the origin story of that dominant narrative? What is animating these contradictions? Can we work our way toward a true understanding of where in this contradiction the truer story lies? We can strive for a best account in any given moment, but it is always provisional, always subject to the next scholar or artist who comes along.
RANKINE: Susan, I’m wondering if you have addressed the story of January 6 in the magazine. It seems to me that not addressing the insurrection is one of the deepest wounds of the last year. And it will be difficult psychically to walk back from that if we allow it to fade away. What is being done in terms of thinking about the legacy and activity of white supremacy in this country, and how is that being looked at alongside the oppressive, systemic racism that we all know needs to be examined?
GOLDBERG: Somewhat serendipitously, we had a photographer there on January 6, Louie Palu, who was doing a story funded by the National Geographic Society about American democracy. He was taking pictures during Donald Trump’s speech. And as the crowd started moving toward the Capitol, he followed them. He got caught up in that hallway where all hell and craziness were breaking loose. He took pictures and a video, and we posted these stories and recorded what happened. I agree with you that while we don’t cover politics, we have to cover that deeper story. Our new June issue is about reckoning with the past. It contains the essay by Elizabeth Alexander that I referred to earlier and photos that show the Black Capitol police officer confronting the insurrectionists right inside the building. It is important to stay on these stories.
RANKINE: But if those images are not put in front of us, do we then allow for the benevolence of whiteness to become a continued narrative alongside the investigation of systemic racism?
GOLDBERG: What we can do is to cover the ongoing and important stories that get to racial equity and equality. We are working on a story about segregated housing; and we have done stories about environmental racism and about the unequal impact of COVID-19 on Blacks compared to whites. Those are the kinds of stories that highlight the inequities and the discrimination.
LEGGS: It’s important that these moments of racial violence are preserved and interpreted in a way that’s going to foster truth-telling and healing. I think about the Capitol building. I think about Fort Monroe, where the 1619 Project started. I think about Vernon AME Church in Tulsa. It is important that our nation begins to understand the role and impact of white racial violence and the racial massacres in American history, like the Tulsa Race Massacre, which have contributed to the loss of capital, both cultural and financial, and the need to repair a century-long injustice. Without these historic places, without the photographs and stories and all the ways that we communicate inequity and injustice, we will continue to be in a vicious circle without healing.
GOUX: Thank you. The next question is how should institutions respond to laws being passed that call on censoring history as it relates to race and racism?
GOLDBERG: I would say, and this goes back to Brent’s last point, that we need to make sure that history is seen, that credible, factual storytelling gets done on very public platforms. You mentioned Tulsa. We did a magazine story about Tulsa. We did a podcast about Tulsa. We have a television documentary about Tulsa. We have digital storytelling around Tulsa. All of this is a great example of what we can do to bring the truth into the light and put it out there in the most public way possible.
DEGIOIA: Our campuses provide forums for public engagement with the ideas that are defining any particular moment. As we are seeing now in terms of censoring history, it is that much more incumbent upon us to ensure that the distinctive roles that our universities play in our society are activated in these moments in ways that ensure that the kinds of voices that Claudia was describing in her opening reflections are protected and provided the framework to allow their engagement.
GOUX: For those members of our audience who are interested in taking on this work in their own communities, at their own smaller organizations, but they do not have the resources that your institutions have, what advice do you have for them as they try to embark on this journey?
LEGGS: Our preservation infrastructure includes the National Parks Service at the federal level working within the Department of the Interior. But the majority of the preservation work is done by nonprofits at the national, state, and local levels. Our charge is to help society manage change in ways that don’t disconnect it from the legacies of its past. And so, we advise preservationists across the country to engage descendant communities in the work. We advise them to recruit diverse talent in mid-management and senior levels. We advise them to be expansive in their programming and interpretation. We advise them to commit long term to this work of equity, diversity, and inclusion because the worst thing is to have this diversity work become a trend, as we’ve seen in the past. Having a perpetual commitment to the work is critical.
GOLDBERG: I would just add that I don’t think you need to be a gigantic media organization to decide what stories you want to tell. In your college newspaper, you can decide what stories you think are the most important ones to cover for your community and where you can shine a spotlight and really do some good. Many of us became journalists because we wanted to change things for the better. So, shine a spotlight into the dark corners to illuminate what’s wrong so it can be fixed. Shine a spotlight on the heroes of the world and where things are going well so it can be emulated. You don’t need tons of money or a giant staff to do those things.
RANKINE: I would add that if we begin to look at anti-oppressive practices within our own organizations, that is a place to start. Begin with simple things like who has access to your organization? If we begin to self-interrogate within our own boards and within our own organizations, that is the first step toward doing this work.
GOUX: I am grateful to all of you for this wonderful conversation.
OXTOBY: I too would like to thank our speakers. Thank you, Ben Vinson, Jack DeGioia, Susan Goldberg, Brent Leggs, and Claudia Rankine for leading such a powerful and thought-provoking conversation. I hope that our audience feels better prepared to approach reckoning at their own institutions. I know that those of us at the American Academy are looking forward to continuing our own historic self-examination and I encourage us to follow each other’s progress, to continue to share best practices, and to keep each other accountable as we undertake this work.
© 2021 by Claudia Rankine, Ben Vinson, John J. DeGioia, Susan Goldberg, and Brent Leggs, respectively
To view or listen to the presentation, visit www.amacad.org/events/reckoning-organizational-history.