Foreward

By Corey D.B. Walker

Completed while he was a Rogers Memorial Fellow at Harvard University, W.E.B. Du Bois’s 1896 classic, The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America 1638-1870, examines the “national, State, and colonial statutes, Congressional documents, reports of societies, personal narratives, etc.” in a comprehensive effort to engage critically “the question of the suppression of the slave-trade” from 1638-1870. For Du Bois, the question of the suppression of the slave trade “is so intimately connected with the questions as to its rise, the system of American slavery, and the whole colonial policy of the eighteenth century. . . .”[1] Du Bois recognizes that in order to comprehend fully the suppression of the slave trade necessarily involves a critical exploration of the cultural, ideological, legal, and political formations of society.

Du Bois exposes the fallacy of the myth of the nation. In Du Bois’s words, “There is always a certain glamour about the idea of a nation rising up to crush an evil simply because it is wrong. Unfortunately, this can seldom be realized in real life; for the very existence of the evil usually argues a moral weakness in the very place where extraordinary moral strength is called for.”[2] Dispensing with myth, Du Bois posits a more probing question: “The most obvious question which this study suggests is: How far in a State can a recognized moral wrong safely be compromised?”[3] For Du Bois, the issue which lies at the very heart of the nation is profound – the manifold ways in which a nation legitimates, substantiates, and maintains the trade in human beings across centuries through formal and informal social, political, juridical, and ideological registers. It is this question that resists narrative closure of the suppression of the African slave trade to the prevailing mythos of the nation. More importantly, it is the stubbornness of this question in its resistance to the allure of tradition that commands our attention.

The exemplary achievement of Du Bois’s 1896 text is how it demonstrates a style of critical engagement that is acutely instructive for our moment. The study of the multiple discourses of the suppression of the African slave trade reveals not so much its suppression, but rather its continuation by other means. It is the ways in which its continuation is manifested across formations in society that engages Du Bois and propels his innovative study. What at first glance would appear to be a straightforward investigation turns out to involve a deeper, more wide-ranging analysis of how and in what ways African slavery and its afterlives fundamentally transform the discursive and material relations of American society across space and time. “This trade,” Du Bois writes, “no moral suasion, not even the strong ‘liberty’ cry of the Revolution, was able wholly to suppress.” In other words, the historical discourse of suppression is a history of the failure of suppression due to the very impossibility of eliminating the African slave trade. The inability to suppress the slave trade reveals not so much an inability rather than an unwillingness that unfolds the manifold ways in which slavery is constitutive of the very idea and institutions of the nation.

The Slavery, Race and Memory Project at Wake Forest University moves within the wake of Du Bois. That is, the project and the university confront the question, “What are the costs of compromise?” Despite the wounded words used to formulate the question, we must extend Du Bois’s project of thinking the aporia of the myth of Wake Forest during the time as well as after slavery, after Reconstruction, after Civil Rights, and after Barack Obama. Such an afterthinking – which necessarily carries the trace of the theological – marks a moment not of transition as such, but rather the continuation of the same by an/other means.[4] The challenge remains to attain a style of thinking and a practice of living that consciously registers the in/ability to confront the past in all of its complexity and density. Such a challenge cannot be met by mere affirmations of acknowledgment, declarations of recognition, or politics of apology. Indeed, it requires a fresh thinking and an active practice that “consists precisely of those discomforting forms of belonging to a context of injustice that cannot be grasped immediately or directly because they seem to involve spatial, temporal, or social distances or complex casual mechanisms.”[5]

The Slavery, Race and Memory Project occurs in a moment when the question of slavery, race, justice, and memory preoccupies the broad public and many university campuses. In the introduction to their recent collection of essays exploring this subject, Slavery and the University: Histories and Legacies, Leslie M. Harris, James T. Campbell, and Alfred L. Brophy believe this moment forces the questions:

“What are we to make of all this? What have recent revelations about universities and slavery taught us about our nation’s history and about the history of American higher education in particular? Equally important, what do they tell us about our own time? Why has the relationship between slavery and universities – a relationship hiding in plain sight for the better part of two centuries – become such a pressing concern today?”[6]

These questions gesture toward a particular inability to rightly frame the issue. Despite the subtitle of the text, it is not an issue that can be disciplined by the disciplinary dictates of history.[7] Nor does its historical framing provide the ultimate horizon for adjudicating the complex claims invoked and advanced in this contested discourse. The development and evolution of this discourse in our contemporary moment forces the question, “What is this slavery, race, and memory in the discourse on American political life and public culture?”

“The inability to supress the slave trade reveals not so much an inability rather than an unwillingness…”

The response of the Slavery, Race and Memory Project at Wake Forest University cannot rest on a mere cataloging of “the relationship between slavery and universities – a relationship hiding in plain sight for the better part of two centuries.” Nor should it merely consist of a formulaic maneuver of disclosure, commission, report, and memorial. Given the scale, scope, and significance of slavery – what Du Bois termed the “imperial width of the thing, the heaven-defying audacity” of this system – we are necessarily “implicated subjects” in a project that must resist “forms of psychic and social denial” and the safety of tradition.[8] The Slavery, Race, and Memory Project at Wake Forest University inaugurates a foundational challenge to the protocols of society and the university as well as the dictates of disciplinary knowledge. Indeed, what it announces is that what is at stake is nothing less than “the integrity of knowledge’s organization according to a profound commitment to the History of Thought and to culture” which brings into the open the “mostly latent and only occasionally exposed differences in the university between the attitude that holds ‘politics’ and ‘learning’ to be wholly separate, and that which knows them to be in an uneasy symbiosis.”

The Slavery, Race and Memory Project at Wake Forest University reminds us that the task of the university and the challenge of thinking must contend with the afterlife of an inaugural scene captured in Du Bois’s The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade. That is, the task of the university is wrestling with a history that is all to present while inaugurating new practices of critical intellectual work and institutional transformation. This opportunity may escape our moment of slavery, race, justice, and memory if we are insistent on erasing these critical moments as the opportunity to begin again.

An afterthinking inspired by Du Bois and responsive to the demands that mark this moment of potential for Wake Forest University can mean a continuation of the same or creating a space to host critical practices that are ethically responsive to the moment. In this manner, the Slavery, Race and Memory Project at Wake Forest University possesses the potential to awaken the critical consciousness of the university in fulfilling its ethical responsibility. To avoid this task is to continue the evasion of the history and reality of slavery and to leave unfulfilled the mission of the university.


[1] W.E.B. Du Bois, The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America 1638-1870 (1896; Louisiana State University Press, 1969), xii.

[2] W.E.B. Du Bois, The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade, 195.

[3] W.E.B. Du Bois, The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade, 199.

[4] As inspired by the work of Robert P. Scharlemann, who formulates afterthinking as a style of theological thinking in the “overturning of the ontological so as to think the thinking of being not as our thinking of being but as the being of God when God is not being God.” Robert P. Scharlemann, Inscriptions and Reflections: Essays in Philosophical Theology (University of Virginia Press, 1989),10.

[5] Michael Rothberg, The Implicated Subject: Beyond Victims and Perpetrators (Stanford University Press, 2019), 8.

[6] Leslie M. Harris, James T. Campbell, and Alfred L. Brophy, eds., Slavery and the University: Histories and Legacies (University of Georgia Press, 2019), 4.

[7] See Lewis R. Gordon, Disciplinary Decadence: Living Thought in Trying Times (New York: Routledge, 2007).

[8] W.E.B. Du Bois, “The Souls of White Folk” in Darkwater: The Twentieth Century Completion of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Harcourt, Brace, and Howe: 1920), 43 and Michael Rothberg, The Implicated Subject: Beyond Victims and Perpetrators (Stanford University Press, 2019), 8.