RADCLIFFE YARD, MA — The conference, titled “Telling the Truth about All This,” took place in front of just 100 attendants on Friday, April 29 in a beautiful wood-paneled room that was once Radcliffe College’s basketball court. It was a star-studded affair, drawing speakers from the highest echelons of Harvard’s professoriate and beyond. Among them were former Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith, literary critic Henry Louis Gates Jr., historian Annette Gordon-Reed, and Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, author of the acclaimed novel The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois. Ibram X. Kendi was the keynote speaker.
Tomiko Brown-Nagin, a professor of constitutional law at Harvard Law School and the dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, began the proceedings, introducing Harvard University President Lawrence Bacow with a short speech. “We cannot dismantle what we do not understand,” Brown-Nagin said, “and we cannot understand the contemporary injustice we face unless we reckon honestly with our history.” When she yielded the stage to Bacow, he began his address with a simple sentence. “Thank you, Tomiko,” Bacow said, “not just on my behalf but on behalf of the corporation.”
So began a day marked by a rather self-congratulatory tone. Harvard, after all, had vowed to spend $100 million to atone for the sins of its past. In closing his address, Bacow spoke of his hope that future generations will look back on Harvard’s actions and think that the university showed moral fortitude.
Harvard’s report on its “entanglements” with slavery, which was released three days prior to the conference and cost $5 million to put together, ended with seven recommendations. These recommendations are vague. Harvard says this is by design. The university also says that, while admittedly vague, these recommendations are nonetheless substantial. Thus far, the media has been full of praise for Harvard’s plan for redress. Nobody has so much as alluded to the notion that vague and substantial are hardly compatible categories.
Neither has it yet been pointed out that Harvard has already shown an unwillingness to bring to fruition some of the recommendations it claims to want to implement. This is, for example, not the first time Harvard holds a conference on the legacies of slavery at the university. The last such conference was held in 2017. At that event, speakers — including Harvard’s then-president Drew Faust and author Ta-Nehisi Coates — addressed the audience from a stage that had a room-sized projection of Renty Taylor’s image as its backdrop. Renty’s image is one of a series of daguerreotypes held at Harvard’s Peabody Museum that were commissioned in 1860 by Louis Agassiz as part of his efforts to scientifically prove the biological inferiority of Black people.
Renty Taylor was conspicuously absent from both last week’s conference and the report released by the university. The photographs, in fact, are currently at the heart of a lawsuit brought against Harvard University by Tamara Lanier, Renty’s direct descendant. For years, Lanier has been mired in a fight against Harvard over possession of Renty’s image. The university has refused to return the daguerreotypes. According to Lanier, the school initially also denied her claims to ancestry.
“Tamara Lanier [claims] that she is a descendant of Renty,” Henry Louis Gates Jr. wrote in his foreword to an edited collection on the daguerreotypes that was published by the university in 2020. “But, in a larger sense, can any one person be the heir of these photographs, or does the responsibility for them fall to all of us to protect them as archival relics of history, to be studied, pondered, and reckoned with?” Still, one of the seven recommendations in Harvard’s report is to “identify, engage, and support direct descendants.”
To be clear, I have no intention here of arriving at a ritualized, performative condemnation of Harvard’s report and its plan for redress. There is enough of that out there. What I do think — what I, in fact, strongly believe — is simply this: We are what we do to change what we are. The great difficulties of American life — poverty, environmental destruction, sexism, racism, the debasement of our democratic institutions, to name a few — remain as yet unfaced and unsolved. They will remain unfaced and unsolved until the moment we recognize that these challenges can never be meaningfully tackled under the system of power relations in which we live. There can be no possibility of meaningful structural change until we recognize that the emancipation of enslaved Americans did not signal the end of slavery so much as its expansion and globalization. The university still, to this day, profits from exploitative, coercive labor regimes born out of that historical moment through its heavy investments in, for example, Brazilian farmland and South American lumber, which have had devastating effects on local communities.
In October 2020, Harvard Management Company, which manages the university’s $53.2 billion endowment, spun off its in-house natural resources team and its portfolio into an independent investment management firm called Solum Partners. During his tenure as CEO of Harvard Management Company, Narv Narvekar has sought to dismantle in-house teams in favor of distributing the university’s assets to outside managers, thus adding another protective layer between the university and its investments. While Harvard no longer directly oversees its natural resources assets, it remains heavily invested in the management firm that does.
Harvard knows, of course, that it is much easier to be a winner in a winner-takes-all world. And so millions of people continue to toil and suffer as powerful institutions offer grudging, meager, and hollow installments toward improvement.
Reading the report’s recommendations, it appears that much of this $100 million pledge will be spent on building a “permanent and imposing physical memorial,” funding exchange programs with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), and endowing a so-called “Legacy of Slavery Fund” that will “support the university’s reparative efforts.” This does not actually address the core structures of inequality at work. By the time the university is done spending this money, it will have made it all back with interest through its continued stake in exploitative practices and industries on a global level. To Harvard, $100 million is truly a bargain price for a fully laundered image.
Ultimately, the question that Harvard’s report aims to answer — that of the school’s involvement in slavery and the slave trade — feels insincere, even deceitful, if it leads only toward an answer that foregrounds such things as the names of affiliates who donated ill-gotten money to the university, or who owned enslaved men and women, or went on to have financial interests in commodities produced by enslaved people. The question feels especially insincere and deceitful when it leads not toward substantive change but toward tepid, symbolic measures — renaming buildings, building statues, retiring endowed chairs — that ultimately do less than nothing: as if history had been made by individuals rather than by institutions and states.
The real risk the university runs when it deals in such timidities is nothing less than to further and more deeply entrench the very histories it claims to want to tackle. It risks legitimizing the notion that the university, in its complicity, in its role as beneficiary and profiteer, is absolved, all the while continuing to benefit and profit, only now feeling better and more righteous about itself.
Some years ago, former Brown University President Ruth J. Simmons — who was among the speakers at last week’s conference — wrote a personal reflection about Brown’s own report on its legacy of slavery. “This is not an easy time for American universities, which face mounting public distrust of their mission, structures, and fairness,” Simmons writes. “A deep gulf has developed between [universities’] professed values and goals and the public perception of them.” The operative word here is, of course, “professed.” There is a long distance between a professed value and a held value. Universities ought to examine not the deep gulf between their professed values and the public’s perception of them, but the deep gulf between the values they profess to hold and the ones they hold in practice.
To illustrate: Between 2014 and 2018, Harvard University spent well over $100 million buying vineyards in drought-stricken areas of California. By the end of 2018, the Wall Street Journal reported, Harvard’s vineyards were worth $305 million. But this profit — more than twice the amount that Harvard has pledged to spend on atoning for its involvement in slavery — is largely incidental. Harvard is hardly interested in growing grapes. Harvard is very interested, on the other hand, in hoarding water rights in drought-stricken areas amid rising global temperatures. In 2016, fifth-generation Californian farmer Cindy Steinbeck wrote a letter to the CEO of the Harvard Management Corporation. The letter is quoted here at length: “My family has been farming grapes for five decades in this region, and such an investment does not make sense if your intent is simply to grow and sell grapes. It would, however, make perfect sense if the investment wasn’t for farming but rather for the brokering of water.”
“The local perception,” Steinbeck continues, “rightly or wrongly, is that Harvard has been doing the following: making purchases using multiple layers of disregarded entities such that it would be difficult for the layperson to trace the purchase back to Harvard; using agents to push for formation of a local water district that would allow Harvard’s properties to ultimately benefit from government grants and taxpayer funds; inducing certain property owners to sell with offers that are many times the going market rates and using this method to acquire properties that contain public water infrastructure; and generally not being forthcoming with the local populace about how these investments could affect the most vital of resources – all in the name of returns on investment.”
Indeed there appears to be a deep gulf between Harvard University’s professed values and the public’s perception of them. To Californian farmers — or to the Australian Aboriginal peoples whose burial grounds Harvard reportedly destroyed to build a cotton plantation in 2015 — Harvard University stands for excellence in nothing so much as greed and exploitation.
Harvard’s report has gone some way toward addressing the university’s history as a founding member of the structures that have led to the exploitation of millions of people, to environmental destruction, to a new economic order — in short, as a founding member of the world in which we live today. But no amount of monuments, promises, or exchange programs will by themselves make an iota of difference. Harvard can never remedy the atrocities it committed to become the world’s richest university. Having looked back to its past, all that Harvard can do now is come back to the present, take stock of its actions, and act accordingly. The first and best thing the university can do to atone for its past of exploitation and profiteering is simply to renounce its present-day exploitation and profiteering. Barring that, it is all little more than self-righteous grandstanding.
Franco Paz is a PhD candidate in the History department at Harvard University. He worked as a researcher for the Committee on Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery.