Stony Brook University President Maurie McInnis took the stage at the Charles B. Wang Center Theatre on Wednesday, October 20, and delivered one of the highlights of Inauguration Week, her Presidential Lecture on “The Shadow of Slavery in American Public Life.”
“Humanists like myself have been resistant to change, yet we have an opportunity to engage far beyond the walls of academia in a moment when our voices and our interventions are more needed than ever,” said McInnis in her opening remarks. “Looking at my own area of scholarship, many of the topics in the headlines today — sexual violence, racialized police brutality, mass incarceration, racial injustice, political polarization — all have deep historical roots and moving forward require that we grapple with both history and its lingering legacies.”
McInnis discussed two slavery-related research projects in her lecture, and described how as her research has evolved, she discovered that her work on the past had a deep resonance with issues of the present. Since then, she’s worked with historic sites and museums on projects that were tied to local conversations about racial division and injustice, memory, and civilization, and ultimately, working to chart a path towards a more inclusive future.
The first research project McInnis undertook explored the state of Virginia’s role in the American slave trade.That project began with her book, Slaves Waiting for Sale: Abolitionist Art and the American Slave Trade, which centered around a series of paintings and images created by a young British artist, Eyre Crowe, after he visited America in the 1850s.
“The images to his work were all set in Richmond, Virginia, one of the largest centers of human trafficking in the 1850s,” said McInnis. “What is particularly remarkable about these images is that they’re some of the very few images that were based on eyewitness accounts of a slave auction.”
Intrigued, she set out to pinpoint the places Crowe had visited and what he had seen in hopes of using those spaces to help educate Virginians about the horrors that had occurred there, and possibly trace some of the lives of the people that Crowe represented.
She later partnered with the Library of Virginia and the state archives on an exhibition that would complement her book, which centered on exploring both the material experience of those caught in the trade and the way in which the visual was harnessed to help further the abolitionist cause.
“I believed that an exhibition could help the city of Richmond acknowledge, confront and understand its role in human trafficking in the 19th century,” she said. “The Library of Virginia was willing to take on an exhibition that was expected to be quite controversial.”
The exhibition itself was viewed by tens of thousands, more than had ever been to an exhibit at the library. A traveling version was later made available to libraries throughout the state. This version is part of the current installation, To Be Sold: Virginia and the American Slave Trade currently on display at the Wang Center through December 10.
The second research project McInnis discussed focused on the University of Virginia, where she was a faculty member for nearly 20 years.
“I taught courses in art history and American studies and with time, my scholarship and my teaching merged,” she said. “I had also attended UVA as an undergraduate in the 1980s, and the community was completely unaware of the institution’s history of slavery. It was simply not discussed, not mentioned, not memorialized, not to be seen.”
McInnis said that it was the students who pushed her further into telling the important historical story.
“I learned from my students how acutely they felt the weight of this history,” she said. “They found the constant references to Thomas Jefferson oppressive, they did not feel welcome and included in the university’s historic spaces, spaces that had been built and maintained by slave labor and later segregated for an additional 150 years. They felt they were treated as unwanted. It was clear to me that even though the official public history of the university never mentioned slavery, and even though there was not a single public acknowledgement on the university’s landscape, the presence of slavery cast a long shadow over the present state of university life.”
After her lecture, McInnis took questions from the audience, including one regarding the responsibility of leadership in facilitating such difficult discussions.
“I taught one day on the basics of slavery at UVA, and after that my students were the ones who pushed me,” she said. “They wanted to know more and encouraged my research in that direction. As I learned more, I brought things back to them, my ideas got sharper, and they became part of that process. I see such a linkage between the research we do and the teaching we do. We need to keep moving these conversations forward, and also figure out a way to measure the impact we’re having in public engagement and public conversation. These are tough, tough questions, and I don’t have an answer. But I want us to talk about it.”
— Robert Emproto