Race & Slavery in America
Transcript for Student Voices
Emily Owens/Sarah Pearlman Shapiro
You’re listening to Student Voices, a podcast featuring student-led interviews of Brown University faculty based on the Race & in America panel discussion series, curated by the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America in partnership with the Office of the Provost.
Sarah Pearlman Shapiro: I'm Sarah Pearlman Shapiro. I'm a fourth-year graduate student in history, and I'm speaking with Professor Emily Owens about the recent panel discussion on Race & Slavery in America.
So I did write out three questions. I think they all sort of feed into one another, and they all are centered on this idea that you spoke about: the rationalization of violence. I think it's very important given everything that's happened since September, since that talk. We're post-election, we're post January, but really what does it mean even if there is this change in regime? How do we talk about a rationalization of violence given everything that's happened, especially given these legacies of the ideologies of white supremacy, the legacies of slavery that we keep seeing over and over again, from the 19th century, from these legal structures, from these extra-legal means. How do we correlate that to what's happening today? How do we take a thread from the 19th century and really bring it into today?
Not that that is the only way to do it, but it leads into my second question: what do we see as our role as historians, or our role as public-facing, I would say, historians and even activists? Is there a dichotomy that you see? Is one separate from another? And how do we bridge those identities when we are talking about something that is supposed to be in the past, is supposed to be grounded in slavery, but we still see the evolution of it, we see the evolution of that rationalization of violence?
And then, you said in your remarks that "it's not as much out there, but it's in here." And my mind immediately went to this idea of Brown University, specifically not to make this an insular question, but struck by the university space, which I know is something that you are very concerned with and have spoken about. How do we see this play out on campus? What can students do, especially given this fraught history of Brown and a history of slavery that it has grappled with? But I don't know if it's always on the forefront of students’ minds. This might be for a different conversation about education and race in general, but how do we see this play out? How do we see all these legacies and what can students do next? What can happen next?
Professor Emily Owens: Thank you, Sarah. Thanks for chatting with me about these questions and for thinking with me about this history. Those are three really robust questions, so maybe I'll take them in bite sizes, and we'll see where we go.
I think that the idea of rationalization of violence or sort of normalization of violence are questions that I think about a lot in general. It's a big part of the work that I do. And I think that it, in some ways, harkens back to a thread in feminist theory called dominance feminism, which is a big block of feminist theory that's concerned with violence primarily and the prevention of sexual violence, and that in some ways has kind of fallen out of vogue. But I think [it] has some really, really, really important lessons. One of which is the idea that pleasure and violence are often woven in together, and that one person's pleasure is often enabled by violence against someone else.
Dominance feminism is not by a long shot the only place where this is a topic of conversation. I think Saidiya Hartman in the Black feminist canon is the originator of that idea there, so she's someone I'm also really in conversation with. In any case, I'm really interested in the ways that violence feels good and the frequency with which violence feels good for perpetrators, and the muddiness and confusion that that causes.
So I think in terms of this moment, it is really powerful to have to sit and think back on September because this year, now just over a year since the pandemic came to Rhode Island, has been such a funny, strange, confusing time in terms of actual literal time and how time passes. I think my sense of whiplash right now: that September was six months ago is startling. But also in terms of political time, framing my remarks in September was really rooted in the history of the summer of 2020, and the ways that racial agony was really on display in movements and institutions and institutions like Brown. In the case of this series, we were trying to respond, but also in advance of the election and not knowing what would happen afterward. So it's just a little bit of a weird whiplash feeling, I think, to even try to reflect on what it meant to talk about the uses of history and the uses of the history of slavery six months ago, given what a weird time it is.
But in any case, I think that your question about rationalization of violence with respect to the events of January is something that is, I think, on a lot of people's minds right now. And I think the category or, like, container that I see it being worried about by folks who are sort of interested in the history of white supremacy and racial violence is the phrase “new normal.” I think that there's a real fear, a really reasonable fear on the left, that the ascendancy of a kind of moderate liberalism in the form of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris -- and the vocal platform of their administration as bi-partisan and as trying to resurrect a form of American politics that was, in Joe Biden's heyday in the late eighties and early 1990s, a form of American, moderate politics -- is an ideal that he represents. I think there are really good reasons why that ideal is attractive after the bloodbath of the last four years politically and also quite materially. But I also think that's really scary because the 80s and the 90s were a really bad time for Black people in the United States.
I think that there are all kinds of racial violence and other kinds of violences that get folded into business as usual or life as normal in American history that feel pretty good to a large swath of the population. And I was going to say [to] a large swath of the voting population -- right? -- the people who Biden and others are paying attention to, which is in some ways a good example. The extent to which Black voter disenfranchisement is just explosive and has been since the late 20th century -- and really, really has been in the wake of the gutting of the Voting Rights Act in 2013 -- is I think a good example. For many Biden voters, they may not be thinking about all the people who could have been Biden voters but weren't because they couldn't vote! To the extent that Biden won, then that somehow becomes not an issue? That's terrifying, I think. That's really scary. So I think that those kinds of issues, some of which are political, others of which are about “the body beaten and bruised,” as E. Patrick Johnson wrote, and the different kinds of racial violence that remain invisible in the context of things feeling normal or back to normal.
Sarah Pearlman Shapiro: I completely agree. Just because the inauguration happened does not mean that life returns to normal and we have maintained the status quo. I think that is a horrifying and terrifying sort of way to go about it.
Professor Emily Owens: Yeah. I think that, in some ways, the events of January 6th have raised some interesting 'how' questions for me in terms of historical memory, in addition to historical reality. So I think there's some good history to be written in retrospect of January 6th through now, maybe through the next six months or several years in which American political actors are going to grapple with what level of spectacle is going to be useful to them and to their political aims to maintain and to kind of kick up around January 6th. I think that's what we're seeing right now with the impeachment process and continued attempts to mobilize simultaneously political spectacle and the idea of some kind of justice.
But one thing that I find is really interesting is the endless font of surprise that violent militant white supremacy is in our midst. I do think that the extent of publicness of these militant groups has changed over time. But I do think that there's this constant performance of surprise, or this sense of 'the right is on the rise' that must be doing some kind of work. And who is it doing work for? Why do we rely so heavily on this kind of shock and awe, 'we didn't see this coming' thing? When, of course, it's very clear now that there was quite a lot of evidence that was really vocal along the way, that people were paying attention to in positions of power. So I think it's not that we didn't see this coming. I think it's something else that goes back to this kind of rationalization of violence. When we see heavily armed, self-identified white supremacists saying 'we're going to bring our guns to the Capitol,' we don't believe them. And when we see unarmed Black guys running away, we think they're deadly, right? That's really interesting, that kind of mental work that has to happen, that kind of cultural work that facilitates that mental work happening in someone's individual brain. And I think that kind of simultaneity is really ripe for investigation.
Sarah Pearlman Shapiro: I agree. Yes. It is the false equivalency. It is, 'well, this is new,' but also, 'well, if we look at Black Lives Matter, how is what they're doing any different.' That [is the] narrative that kept being played over and over again in January, which I can't understand, but...
Professor Emily Owens: Well it doesn't work if you are an empiricist, but I think that this is also part of what's interesting here: empirical reality has lost a lot of credibility or cachet in massive swaths of American cultural conversation. That's interesting too! Like what's happening with our relationship to material reality? I think it's changing. You know, there were people during the Bush years who talked about "post-reality," and I think we're even post-post reality now. But, you know, I think that there's something interesting happening here in terms of political discourse and media discourse, but also in terms of the way that individual, everyday people interact with description. I find that totally fascinating. I'm a little baffled by it, but I think, you know, there's a lot of hand-wringing like, “that makes no sense to me,” “your reality and my reality are different.” But if you kind of lean into that, that's really interesting. How do we simultaneously...how do neighbors who are sitting next to each other on the street, living in the same material conditions, have a different reality? And that to me is...it's terrifying, but I think it's really interesting.
Sarah Pearlman Shapiro: No, it's right. And it goes back to what you were saying earlier about memory and that historical memory and who wants to deal with it? Who wants to think about it and say, well, “here's Reconstruction, here's [the] Civil Rights Movement?” Right? This is the cycle of violence in America. This is not new. It's something that we definitely need to grapple with more and keep talking about.
Thank you, Professor Owens, for speaking and chatting with me today. It's always a pleasure to chat with you.
Professor Emily Owens: Thanks, Sarah. It's really delightful to talk with you, and I hope I answered at least some of your questions. I think maybe half of one? But it's really nice to chat with you, so thanks.
Student Voices is a feature of the Race & in America digital publication series developed by the Brown University Library. Our theme music is “see the unseen” by Butter. Explore the series at DigitalPublications.Brown.edu