From February 2011
A bee startled two girls into shouts at the start of “History Relived”, a Black Student Union run event held at the University of San Francisco on February 10, 2011.
The event began with the playing of a Negro spiritual, which caught the attention of many students and faculty on the sunny day, before four members of BSU began to read Slave Narratives that described both the horrors of slavery and the difficulty of adjusting to freedom.
After the event, BSU President Krystal Aaron said, “I was actually very pleased with it. The narratives were very powerful and I think it got a lot of people’s attention.”
But, Aaron added, “I am kind of sad we didn’t get to do our original plan.”
BSU’s “original plan” was the staging of a historically accurate colonial American slave auction.
African American students, dressed in rags and chains, playing the roles of slaves for sale, would have been marched by a white student, playing the role of auctioneer, through campus onto the stage in Harney plaza. Aaron said the auctioneer would have inspected the bodies of students playing slaves.
The inspection was an important aspect to the slave auction process because it determined the prices of each slave. The ship captain who transported the slaves to the Colonies would work with the auctioneer to examine the body of each slave. The sickly slaves were sold for the lowest prices. For all the rest- men, women, boys, and girls- a price was agreed upon and would have been known by the bidders.
BSU’s plan called for white students in the crowd to make bids for the slaves on stage. The students playing slaves were meant to fill different roles on the plantation, such as, fieldworkers, house workers, or concubines, that is, female slaves bought and used for sex.
“We wanted it to be real,” said Aaron.
To help maintain historical accuracy, the Black Student Union recruited history professor Candice Harrison. She has researched colonial and 19th century United States history and African American history, as well as race and slavery in the Atlantic World.
Harrison immediately noticed concern from the faculty at USF concerning the BSU planned slave auction. Harrison said she assured her coworkers it would be based in historical fact, “not some willy-nilly recreation or interpretive whatever.” She said, “Once we addressed [faculty] concerns, I don’t think any of us stopped to think that students themselves might be uncomfortable. African American students, as well as the broader student population.”
Harrison and Aaron both noted it became obvious the slave auction did not have enough willing participants to go forward, either from the BSU, or from the USF student body in general.
Aaron said, “A lot of our members were unsure of the idea.” Therefore, Aaron said BSU thought it best to change the plan. She added, “If our own members don’t support us then we need to look again.”
USF student, Darius Halliday declined a request from BSU to portray a slave. “I thought it was too conflicting with me to do something like that,” Halliday said, “as in I wouldn’t want to portray myself as something so historically controversial to an audience that may not be able to understand what is going on or wouldn’t take it seriously.”
Slave auction reenactments have been done in the past, both on and off college campuses.
On November 13, 2009, The Daily Trojan, student run newspaper at the University of Southern California, reported the USC Black Student Assembly staged a slave auction.
More recently, St. Louis Today reported, an adjunct professor of American Studies at Lindenwood University staged a slave auction with a cast of 170 people in anticipation of the city’s Civil War commemoration.
The St Louis auction was staged on the steps of the Old Courthouse, the same courthouse where Dred Scott attempted unsuccessfully to sue for his freedom from slavery. In Dred Scott v. Sandford, the Supreme Court ruled slaves and their descendants were not citizens of the United States, therefore not protected by the constitution.
Though reenactments of slave auctions have been performed elsewhere, the BSU decided to change the event to a reading of slave narratives.
“Narratives are what slaves wrote regarding their experiences.” Aaron explained.
Harrison added, slave narratives were also written by others During the Great Depression. “Part of [President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s] work was to put writers to work in the south writing slave stories.” As part of the Federal Writers Project, which employed some of the United States best literary talent, including John Steinbeck, Richard Wright, Studs Terkel, and Zora Neale Hurston, writers collected thousands of narratives from the mouths of former slaves who were well into their 80’s or 90’s by the time their stories were recorded.
Harrison feels the timing of the event, though by accident, could not have been better.
Now, through February 27th, USF’s Thatcher Gallery will be hosting Textimonies: Early Etchings and Stencils by African American conceptual artists Glen Ligon, who has used slave narratives as influence for some of his work.
The BSU had been planning an event for Black History month well before they learned Ligon’s work would be shown at USF. Harrison said, Ligon “uses published narratives, he uses images from run away slave advertisements, and I think what he does so beautifully is talk about the past in a way that means something to him very much in the present.”
Harrison said of the BSU event, “Black History Month is often focused on the shiny topics, the black inventors for example or the civil rights movement, or looking forward. To me that’s always incredibly frustrating because we don’t take an opportunity to look back.”
Aaron added, “My mother always said a tree without roots is dead. We need to take the time to realize where we’ve come from, not only the black community here at USF, but the broader community.”
*This story was constructed based on interviews with Krystal Aaron, Darius Halliday, Candice Harrison, Anisha Knox, and Peter Micek. As well as consulting the works A History of African Americans by Robin D.G. Kelley and Earl Lewis, 1001 Things Everyone Should Know About African American History by Jeffrey C. Stewart, and The African American Experience: Black History and Culture edited by Kai Wright, and the articles “Old Courthouse ‘Slave Auction’ Serves as Wrenching Reminder” by Leah Thorsen published in St. Louis Today, January 16, 2011, and “Slave Auction Re-enactment Draws Crowd” by Alexandra Tilsley published in Daily Trojan, November 13, 2009.