Harvard Divinity School professor of African American Religious Studies Terrence L. Johnson discussed changing the conversation around reparations in a virtual lecture Monday evening.
The fourth installment of the Divinity School’s “Religion and Legacies of Slavery” series, the lecture focused on the malleability of historical memory, creativity in envisioning reparations, and the importance of collective accountability to redress the harms of slavery.
The lecture series builds on the University’s landmark 2022 Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery report and aims to engage HDS faculty and students in conversation about the lasting impacts of slavery in a religious context.
Divinity School administrators Diane L. Moore and Melissa Wood Bartholomew moderated the event. In her introduction, Moore — who serves as the HDS faculty director of Religion and Public Life — said she was “grateful” that hundreds of affiliates from 80 different countries tuned in to the lecture.
Johnson used Henry Ossawa Tanner’s 1929 painting, “Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah,” to introduce the themes of his lecture.
“Through his use of color and delicate streams of light that conceals the apparent destruction of Gomorrah, we’re left pondering questions of memory, accountability, and repair,” Johnson said.
Johnson drew a contrast between the role of historical memory in discussions on reparations for enslavement as compared to other movements to redress systemic harm throughout history.
“Reparation debates, for instance, for Holocaust survivors and those in Japanese internment camps often took a different tone,” Johnson said.
“Heartbreaking accounts from survivors of Japanese internment camps were taken at face value,” he said. “Whereas debates on Black suffering and death are stalled before they are developed. We are burdened by claims that enslavement was justified based on historical norms.”
Johnson stressed the importance of putting reparations “on the table” to create “structural change” in American society.
As an example of this thinking, Johnson played clips from outgoing Prairie View A&M University President Ruth J. Simmons’s 2021 commencement speech at Harvard. As Brown University’s former president, Simmons — who will be joining Harvard’s administration as a senior adviser to the president on engagement with HBCUs — launched Brown’s landmark Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice, which studied the university’s ties to the transatlantic slave trade.
“She masterfully linked moral inquiry to the political imaginary with one assertion: The university — and nation as a whole, I might add — had violated human rights,” Johnson said of Simmons’ work on reparations.
Johnson connected Simmons’ model of thinking about reparations to the broader mission of his lecture.
“We have to conceptually rethink what it means to have conversations about our deeply held commitments,” Johnson said.
In concluding the event, Bartholomew, the associate dean of the Divinity School’s Office of Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging, thanked Johnson and noted that “this is not easy work.”
“The resounding message that I’m taking away from your presentation is our need to hold on to our capacity to dream,” Bartholomew said.
The Divinity School will continue its lecture series on March 6, with its fifth lecture, titled “Slavers and Slavery: A Dialogue with Descendants.”