Reparations: Reflections on a Present Condition

Last semester, President Sands addressed a motley crowd on the grounds of Smithfield Plantation. Marketed as a talk that would address the necessity of owning our past if we are going to “Invent the Future,” the sparse, and now deleted, advertisements on Facebook drew members of the university community from various areas and disciplines. Thus framed, persons from the IEC, GIA, Philosophy, VT Engage, Inclusive VT, and other university affiliates gathered together in the pavilion to hear about plausible shifts in the conversations held about the plantation and its historical connection to the foundation, and upkeep, of the university proper. At the cession of the talk, many were still waiting to hear the talk which had been promised (or perhaps more charitably the talk which many expected to be furnished to a group which included people of color, students, faculty, staff, and the decedents of the Prestons who founded the plantation  240+ years ago).

That said, this blog post is not about the limited discussion of history found in the talk, the lacuna left by the passing mention of the native populations who had once occupied these lands, and the devolution into a discussion of making students employable. It is not about the ways in which the plantation was ultimately framed as not a historical resource which can be utilized to raise awareness about the history of both of this institution and the US in general but, rather, as a commercial enterprise capable of hosting weddings, parties, and other money heavy activities. It is not about the extended amount of time spent discussing the meaning of the new “VT-Shaped Student” initiative which, to be honest, a number of folks in the crowd were already intimately familiar with given the push to give students both the “breadth and depth” needed to excel post-college. Nor is it about the statement “micro-aggressions are kinda complementary” which sent a tangible wave of displeasure through the crowd during the talk.

No, this post is not about any of these things though I assume that plenty of folks have had conversations a plenty about all of them. Instead, this post is about the 13th amendment, the exception that we never speak about, and the tendency to proclaim to learn from the past when we are still deeply uncomfortable speaking, and fixing, the present. So, while this post uses the talk at Smithfield Plantation as a speaking point and example of a phenomenon of import, its scope is not limited to the talk nor is it intended to be a (robust) critique of Dr.Sands. Instead, this is intended to serve an alertive role. By this, I mean that it is intended to call attention to the consequences which accrue when we  fail to have conversations about the present under the false pretense that all we need do is start discussing the past in the process of innovating the future.

The 13th amendment, passed in 1865, is often framed as the amendment that abolished slavery in the United States. Indeed, when I asked my three classes on a Friday what the 13th amendment did I was met with a chorus of “it abolished slavery” given that that was what they had been taught in school. Imagine their surprise when I informed them that slavery was still legal in the United States and that the 13th amendment contains an exception clause–prisons.

Contrary to popular belief, slavery is still legal in the US. Forced labor as a  punishment for the “duly” convicted, also know as Penal Labor, is fair game under the law. In relation to Virginia Tech, prison labor is the source of our furniture, fabrics, and other material goods by law. By this, I mean that the state of Virginia requires its public institutions to utilize prison sourced goods whenever possible. The organization in charge of enslaving organizing the incarcerated is Virginia Correctional Enterprises (VCE). Their tag line: “Virginia Correctional Enterprises help offenders become producers”.

As such, when it comes to this institution, and others, being able to create a future that is inclusive, nurturing, and representative of its constituents it can’t ignore the present. It can’t ignore the unrecognized, undervalued, and sometimes uncompensated labor that is currently present. This is instantiated by prison labor in the case of Virginia Tech and how we don’t discuss this with students or with one another. It is also instantiated by the undervalued labor of the secretaries and custodial staff. It is instantiated by the unrecognized emotional and relational labor that falls on the shoulders of many folks with historically minoritized identities.

Institutions can’t create the future without owning the present. But owning the present is a hard thing to do and it requires folks to take risks that, institutionally, we are given incentives to never take.

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