As the 400th anniversary of the importation of the first Africans into colonial Jamestown approaches in 2019, Earl Lewis — president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation — argued that it is important to acknowledge that “slavery still haunts us today,” during a lecture Tuesday.
The racial divide recently highlighted by the Trump campaign is among the many forms that slavery has taken today, according to Lewis.
Lewis quoted an incident that occurred last summer when a white man and a black woman got into an argument over a seat on the New York City subway, during which the man bombarded racial slurs referencing slavery.
“The man went onto say a number of things and then he professed his allegiance to our president and told her, ‘When Trump gets elected, he’s gonna return you all to the fields,’” Lewis said.
According to Lewis, such an incident is a clear reminder that “the past is never the past.” Lewis argued that although this acknowledgment may be “uncomfortable” for many, slavery is an important topic that we must continue to discuss in the public sphere.
Lewis then shifted the focus of his lecture to the crucial role that the field of humanities has in dissecting complicated subjects like slavery.
“[As] our society comes to terms with the challenges that must be addressed, humanists have to understand they have a role to play in both identifying the challenges and forwarding solutions,” Lewis said.
However, there has been a “persistent anxiety” and a “negative image of the humanities” since the 1970s because of the “perceived youth uselessness” and “downturns of student interest in humanities to prolong perceptions” since the Bush administration, Lewis added.
To combat this false conception of the humanities, Lewis encouraged student scholarships in the field.
“Scholarship enables new discoveries from which may glean new insight to what makes a human complexity and the human condition,” Lewis said.
Lewis was invited to Cornell to speak in honor of the annual “Future of Humanities” lecture by the Society of Humanities.