Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Napalm Halloween, a Harvard poem by Sam Friedman, and some recent changes at Harvard inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement

     There are many good things about and many, many good people who have been at Harvard.  See, for instance, on Stanley Hoffmann here and on Hilary Putnam here.  

       But there is also a steamy public posture about the University's distinction which many of us have long found repulsive.  For example, a Crimson story during the Harvard strike  uncovered that while the School claimed falsely to be a bastion of freedom of speech and President Pusey a defender of it, Senator Joe McCarthy had charged: "Harvard is a smelly mess of reds" and Pusey said "No it isn't. there isn't a single red on the Harvard faculty." Pusey had commissioned the firing of junior professors like Leon Kamin who would become a major writer on the fraudulence of genetic claims about IQ testing and Sir Cyril Burt as well as chair of the Princeton Psychology Department; as a student, Kamin had been a member of the Communist Party during World War II when the US was allied with the Soviet Union...Pusey and McGeorge Bundy, dean, Government professor, and LBJ National Security Advisor,  told the psychologist Jerome Bruner, the physicist Wendell Furry and the sociologist Robert Bellah that they must testify, if called, before the Massachusetts Un-american Activities Committee or be fired.   If there was anything more indecent and one would have liked to say unAmerican - against the spirit of the Statue of Liberty or being a country of immigrants (well, aside from slavery and genocide toward indigenous people...) it is quite hard to say.


      Now, today, Harvard has made a serious effort to fund a diverse student body, a great advance, and is responding to the movement from below in our country to do something about racism.  These changes come from the long and heroic effort of the civil rights movement from below, most recently from the emergence of Black Lives Matter, and the movement now sweeping across the country from the University of Missouri to Princeton.  See here and here.

    On April 6, President Drew Gilpin Faust, a civil war historian, commendably put up a plaque at Wadsworth House, with John Lewis, an heroic leader of SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), bearing the names of Bilhah, Venus, Titus, and Juba, four people who worked in bondage for Harvard’s early Presidents.


         In a rare editorial (only her second) in the Crimson on “Recognizing Slavery at Harvard,” Faust wrote,

        “Harvard was directly complicit in America’s system of racial bondage from the College’s earliest days in the 17th century until slavery in Massachusetts ended in 1783, and Harvard continued to be indirectly involved through extensive financial and other ties to the slave South up to the time of emancipation.  This is our history and our legacy, one we must fully acknowledge and understand in order to truly move beyond the painful injustices at its core.” See here.  


   This spring, Harvard Law School has removed the insignia of a racist from its seal.  And as at Yale, Harvard’s now-Deans have at long last  “retired” the odious  name “Master” for those who preside over the Harvard houses.


      In 2013, MIT Professor Craig Steven Wilder published  Ebony & Ivy (2013), an account - particularly in the first chapter, of how Protestant Harvard, a center of racism,  gained 2,000 acres of land in Connecticut from the infamous Pequot Massacre of 1638.  500 men, women and children "all fall down," wrote the Protestant officer who led it.  The crimes against blacks are linked to those against Native Americans...


         Veiled by a Founding Amnesia – consider Louis Fieser below and his students or that I, an historian of the role of black and white fighters for emancipation before and during the Revolution (see Black Patriots and Loyalists - Chicago, 2012), had never heard of the heroic Charles Follen until I read Sam Friedman’s poem below - the tales, like those of American Manifest Destiny, are legion.  And the effort to begin to heal these things will take listening to the pain of those long excluded, acknowledgment, humility (Drew Faust's just word), and, sadly, a very, very long time...


         Adam Cohen, author of Imbeciles on eugenics and the crime of American sterilization laws, recently published an article in the Harvard Magazine on the University's largely unquestioned dominance in this movement.  In response to my post on "Adam Cohen: Harvard as a propagator of eugenics/genocides"  here,  Sam Friedman, an early activist in Harvard SDS, gives an idea of what Halloween was like with Louis Fieser (inventor of napalm) once upon a time."



        As a Harvard alumnus ('64) and SDSer from 63, and ex-student of Tom Mayer, I think you might like the following poem,

sam friedman"


Harvard, 1961 

Innocents in our sophomore year
we visited anew the lecture room
where we had learned the mathematical theory of continuity.
We gazed enrapt at the annual Halloween presentation
as an esteemed chemist splashed plywood mock-up huts
with the napalm he had invented.
No one felt guilt,
It was a rare trick,
trick and treat,
a proper education at the very institution
which fired Charles Follen for the sin of Abolitionism,
the school of the merchant-masters of the Middle Passage,
an education for those they called the best and the brightest,
trained for the years of search and destroy,
of helicopters in the name of freedom,
as others had trained for the burning of genitals
from the dangling bodies of the grandchildren
of the cargo 
of the merchant-masters of the Middle Passage.


     Until Sam wrote to me, I had not known of Charles Follen.  Karl Follen, a German democrat, who was helped by Lafayette to flee Europe to Harvard, anglicized his first name, introduced instruction in German language, literature and culture  to the College, married Eliza Cabot (for whom Cabot Street in Cambridge is named), introduced the Christmas tree to America, became a Unitarian minister and was fired in 1835 by the un-Santas who ran the College for speaking out for the abolition of bondage.  All his contributions to the College, which might be deservedly celebrated (I once minored in German history and literature), could not outweigh his compassion and courage, a fatal crime in pre-Civil War Harvard...

      There was mass anti-racism in Boston - a demonstration of 50,000 against the return of Anthony Burns, a now free man in Boston, to bondage under the grim Fugitive Slave Act (James Freeman Clark preached about this) in 1854, but not in the Harvard elite.


         1796-1840, the brevity of Follen's life was affected by these German/American persecutions.  In 1837 Follen remarked to his wife, ‘Had I been willing to lower my standard of right, the world would have been with me, and I might have obtained its favor.’ Instead he lived by lines he sent to Harriet Martineau: ‘Those principles in which we live and move and have our being, though as old as the creation of man, are still a new doctrine, the elements of a new covenant, even in civilized [?], republican, Christian America. They are as the bread and wine of the altar, to which all are invited, but which few partake, because they dread to sign in their own hearts the pledge of truth which may have to be redeemed by martyrdom.’  A Harvard magazine article – “The Brief Life of a Vigorous Reformer” by Thomas S. Hansen from 2002 can be found hereEven its well-meaning author still refers oddly to Follen’s “extreme abolitionism.” But speaking for the abolition of bondage is merely decent, what a human being would do; qualifying this word on behalf of our founding Man-owners is, to this day, monstrous…


       Tom Mayer, a radical sociologist, was in early SDS at Michigan and has long taught at the University of  Colorado.

         Here is the text of Drew Faust’s moving Crimson editorial:

Recognizing Slavery at Harvard
By DREW G. FAUST March 30, 2016

      I write today about history, about legacies, and about our responsibility to our past and our future. On the morning of April 6, I, joined by Congressman John Lewis, will install a plaque on Wadsworth House in memory of four enslaved persons who lived and worked there during the 18th century in the households of two Harvard presidents. I have also convened a committee of historians from our faculty to advise me about other sites on campus that should be similarly recognized as significant symbols of Harvard’s connections to slavery. Next March, with support from the Office of the President, the Radcliffe Institute will host a major conference on universities and slavery, offering a broader exploration of the complexities of our past.

       Although we embrace and regularly celebrate the storied traditions of our nearly 400 year history, slavery is an aspect of Harvard’s past that has rarely been acknowledged or invoked. The importance of slavery in early New England was long ignored even by historians, and the presence and contributions of people of African descent at Harvard have remained a largely untold story. But Harvard was directly complicit in America’s system of racial bondage from the College’s earliest days in the 17th century until slavery in Massachusetts ended in 1783, and Harvard continued to be indirectly involved through extensive financial and other ties to the slave South up to the time of emancipation. This is our history and our legacy, one we must fully acknowledge and understand in order to truly move beyond the painful injustices at its core. As the late John Hope Franklin, distinguished historian and Harvard Ph.D., put it, “Good history is a good foundation for a better present and future.”

        We must explore this past first of all to recognize and honor the place and importance of enslaved individuals in our history. The plaque at Wadsworth will record the names of four women and men, Bilhah, Venus, Titus, and Juba, whose work formed a foundational part of what Harvard was in the 18th century and what it has since become. Until now, these laborers and their contributions, as well as the broader participation of people of color in early life at Harvard, have been all but invisible. The plaque is the beginning of an effort to remember them and our shared history.

       There is a second essential purpose in confronting the distressing realities of America’s racial past and Harvard’s place within it. We need to understand the attitudes and assumptions that made the oppressions of slavery possible in order to overcome their vestiges in our own time. It should not be because we feel superior to our predecessors that we interrogate and challenge their actions. We should approach the past with humility because we too are humans with capacities for self-delusion, for moral failure and blindness, for inhumanity. If we can better understand how oppression and exploitation could seem commonplace to so many of those who built Harvard, we may better equip ourselves to combat our own shortcomings and to advance justice and equality in our own time. At its heart, this endeavor must be about "Veritas," about developing a clear-sighted view of our past that can enable us to create a better future.

       The past never dies or disappears. It continues to shape us in ways we should not try to erase or ignore. In more fully acknowledging our history, Harvard must do its part to undermine the legacies of race and slavery that continue to divide our nation.

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