As Upper School students filed into the Johnson Theater for Multicultural Day, they were handed a single sheet of paper, a copy of a historical document.
The guest speaker, award-winning historian Professor Charles B. Dew of Williams College, opened his speech by explaining the horrifying document they held in their hands: an 1860 listing from an auctioneer in Richmond, setting prices for a slave auction. “It's a price list for human beings," Prof. Dew told the students and faculty, who sat in stunned silence. He had encountered the document in the late 1990s, and he had no trouble recalling how he felt at that moment.
“I had the feeling of being slugged in the gut," he said. “You put this in terms of man's inhumanity to man." The document also aroused a sudden and profound sense of personal disturbance. Dr. Dew realized that he himself had been “complicit" in the system of racial segregation that shaped his childhood in the Jim Crow South.
Dr. Dew's stark realization prompted him to write a memoir, The Making of a Racist: A Southerner Reflects on Family, History, and the Slave Trade. Published in 2016 by the University of Virginia Press, the book is a hybrid: It explores his own experience growing up in the mid-century American South and his indoctrination in white supremacy through childhood songs, books, and experiences. The second half of the book explores how he grew up to repudiate racism--to remake himself as an individual committed to social justice--and it also delves into the historical document that began his self-interrogation.
After the speech, students met in advisory groups to discuss issues raised by the speech. Several videos spurred further discussion about racism in contemporary society. The discussion and activities for Multicultural Day were organized by the Upper School's UNITID Club. Sydney Beverly '20, the club president, introduced Dr. Dew.
Dr. Dew's speech drew his audience into a childhood suffused with racism, a realization that has tainted many memories that might seem idyllic. His “first conscious memory" was of sitting in his mother's lap as she read aloud to him from a children's book. The book was written in a dialect, designed to mock African American speech patterns and demean their intelligence. A few years later, he was present as his father “exploded in a fury" at a black shoeshine man, who had come to the front, rather than the back, door.
“It was a process of osmosis," he said. “I absorbed it. So much of it was non-verbal instruction."
Dr. Dew outlined two major events that shaped his awakening and his sustained effort to reverse the immoral education that he had received. He attended Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, where both classmates and professors began to reshape his attitudes. As a result, he opened up an ongoing dialogue with Illinois Browning Culver, the African American woman who had given decades of her life to serving his family.
Their conversations began tentatively but grew more candid over time, and he learned painful truths about “the gratuitous humiliations visited on her, just because of the way she looked." She asked an anguished question that still haunts him: “Charles, why do the grown-ups put so much hate in the children?"
Students were clearly profoundly moved by Dr. Dew's self-examination and candor. During an open question and answer session, several asked for further exploration of the topic, including his own sense of responsibility in sharing his more enlightened perspective with friends who were openly prejudiced. He said that it took awhile, but he did begin to confront those who made racist remarks. “Silence in the face of this sort of evil is not an option," he said.
Kedar Johnson-Smith '20 said that he appreciated the speaker's honesty. “The Illinois quote was the most powerful," Johnson-Smith said. “Imagine you are Illinois, and all you have given the family. The children represent innocence. When you see hate in the children, that's when hope is lost."
More information about the speaker: Charles B. Dew is Ephraim Williams Professor of American History at Williams College and the author of the Fletcher Pratt Award–winning Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War (Virginia) and Bond of Iron: Master and Slave at Buffalo Forge, selected as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year.