More than just a “slavery symposium”

Adrian T. Parker, Jr., M.Ed. is a 2018 Xavier graduate from St. Louis. He is a Special Assistant to the Stained Glass Initiative run through the Xavier’s president’s office.

Xavier recently called a truce with our crosstown rival, University of Cincinnati (UC), to co-host the Universities Studying Slavery (USS) Fall 2019 Symposium. This event directly demonstrated Father Graham’s commitment to repairing, healing and reconciling Xavier’s historical connections to slavery. However, the symposium has been referred to as a slavery symposium. While it may only seem like semantics or an abbreviation to some, to call it a slavery symposium is to misrepresent the purpose of the experience.

Xavier and UC did not put enslaved Africans on display in Cintas Center and Tangeman University Center. Our attendees were not slave owners coming to examine the health of newly arrived Africans. Our panelists were not stripped of their religion, native language or their humanity. There were no overseers making sure individuals could not escape or take their own lives.

To shorten the “Universities Studying Slavery Symposium” to “Slavery Symposium” rather than “USS Symposium” is disrespectful to all those involved in the planning and successful execution of the event. We cultivated dialogue, relationships and action to undo the very harms done in the facilitation of actual slavery symposiums. I make this assertion not to condemn but to bring awareness to just how important it was for Xavier to co-host this gathering.

Xavier is one of three Jesuit universities that have membership in the Universities Studying Slavery Consortium, governed by the University of Virginia. The other two are Georgetown University and Saint Louis University. However, conversations on campus have not included the surrounding communities. Both Georgetown and Saint Louis University directly owned and sold slaves and both Georgetown and Saint Louis University have largely kept the conversation within their confines of campuses.

Father Graham stated on the local news, in campus videos and in letters that the most important part for him is encouraging this conversation. The conversation is not a simple, “Xavier University has historical connections to slavery.” Almost every institution in the United States can have that conversation. For Graham and Dr. Kyra Shahid, “the conversation” that Xavier is supposed to be having is much deeper.

Repair, healing and reconciliation are the next steps for the Stained Glass Initiative. Repair requires understanding that everyone, regardless of race, is broken. This includes all members of the Xavier community and the surrounding neighborhoods. The unwillingness, nervousness and heightened sensitivity when it comes to engaging the legacy of slavery and racism in the U.S. mean that there is a wound. Ignoring a wound does not heal it, and if a wound does not heal, the rest of the body can and often will be affected. And where there is no healing, reconciliation is not even an option, which explains why people have to ask, “What do you mean by reconciliation?”

Xavier’s historical connections to slavery are more indirect than those of our other Jesuit counterparts, yet our university’s response carries immense weight. We did not simply co-host a “slavery symposium.” We cultivated an international experience that explored the intricate effects and legacy of slavery in higher education. Our goal was to engage spirit more than mind.

Panels discussed topics like violent evangelism and race-related trauma.  The second Diasporic Soul Healing-Center Leadership Development Experience Cohort made the hairs stand up on backs of necks when all 11 students came together for the first time since traveling to Senegal, West Africa. They shed tears but also celebrated the tools of restoration and resistance they obtained from the experience. Our Artist-in-Residence, Angela Franklin, introduced herself to campus, and her intentionality, imagination, brilliance and skill were displayed through her previously completed works.

Moving forward, the gender and diversity studies/sociology departments are currently searching for a critical race studies professor who will be the first professor solely dedicated to the area. The first steps have been taken to repair so that we may heal and reconcile as a university.