Family Legacies and University Lineages: U.S. Universities, Slavery, and Feminist Rhetorics of Redress


In the first two decades of the twenty-first century, we have witnessed a surge of public interest in and discussion around racial reckoning. Universities in the United States and across the globe are grappling with their historical associations with transatlantic and chattel slavery. This dissertation takes up the question of how the U.S. university—a social institution that is deeply structured by histories of white supremacy—reckons with this racial past at this present moment, and what reckoning might mean for the university moving forward. How might university-based projects of repair invite or impede the collective reimagining of more just futures? In this dissertation, I examine how, when, and to what ends twenty-first-century practices of racial reckoning at U.S. universities rely on and reinforce structures of the family. I do so by focusing on Universities Studying Slavery, a U.S.-based consortium committed to addressing legacies of slavery and understanding how these pasts continue to affect present-day practices. I argue that as universities grapple with their pasts, they rearticulate gendered and racialized forms of inheritance and identity facilitated by the family, first to determine the moments at which minoritized subjects “count” within the university and, second, to enfold these subjects in the university’s subsistence. I contend that this enduring recourse to the family delimits forms of institutional responsibility and care associated with repair, stifles the imaginative possibilities of redress, and risks reiterating the structures of racialized exclusion that universities purport to remedy. Feminist scholarship, most notably Black feminist thought and women of color feminisms, offers extensive insight into how disempowering university structures are maintained and transformed. Feminist scholars have also long engaged in debate around the family form and abolition. Further, current scholarship emerging out of the comparably nascent field of critical university studies probes the imperative of abolition in relation to the university. My project positions racial reckoning at the site of the university as a unique space that might bring these discourses together to reveal the entanglement of these abolitionist imperatives and to reimagine the possibilities of university redress. As such, my interrogation of university redress is grounded in Black feminist thought, rhetorics of reconciliation, and abolitionist discourses of the university and the family. By using this theoretical framework alongside rhetorical analysis, I analyze the extent to which U.S. universities rearticulate affective and material structures of the family while reckoning with legacies of slavery. This project presents three discrete case studies of U.S. university reckoning and of the ways in which familial belonging is conceived by and through universities. I first explore how Georgetown University approaches redress by reworking the racialized admissions practice of legacy preference through recourse to genetics and genealogy. Then I focus on how Virginia Commonwealth University engages local community members in the labor of social reproduction, inviting them to guide the university in reckoning with human remains discovered during a campus construction project. Finally, I turn to the committed partnership between Tougaloo College and Brown University, which was initially formalized in 1964 during the twentieth-century civil rights movement. I consider the ways in which the fiftieth anniversary of the Brown-Tougaloo Partnership prompts rhetorical negotiations of the lineage of this coupling—between a predominantly white-serving university and a historically Black university—and of institutional debts. As this dissertation demonstrates, practices of twenty-first-century university redress require enduring attention to the interlocking and unfolding relationships between race and gender. For racial reckoning at the site of the university to imbue transformative potential, we must scrutinize the ways in which the institutions of both university and family are inherited, the ways in which they continue to unfold at present, and the possibilities for their active reinvention and dismantling across time.

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