Chana Kai Lee, associate professor in the department of history, has been awarded a 2021-22 Warren Center Faculty Fellowship at Harvard University. The Charles Warren Center, Harvard’s research center for United States history, invited applications for a workshop on Slavery and the Universities. The workshop will bring together scholars to systematically reflect on how such research can be elevated by considering how it contributes to a rethinking of the nation’s history as a whole. Selected scholars will share work in progress and take stock of the moment in which it emerged.
Lee, who serves as director of the History of Slavery at UGA research project, will join other Fellows in presenting their work in a weekly seminar as she writes and organizes her research for a new book. Fellows enjoy library privileges and an office for the 9-month academic year.
“This fellowship is very structured around slavery and the university, and Harvard is going through its own challenges around that – trying to reckon with its own past,” Lee said. “Other Fellows are coming from institutions that are working on slavery at our own schools so, it will be interesting for us to really dialogue on the subject and our scholarship in a comparative way.”
Since 2003, U.S. universities have grappled with historical ties to slavery, starting with a report commissioned that year at Brown to study such connections and suggest engagements with this history. In 2007, Harvard’s Sven Beckert led an undergraduate seminar uncovering a rich set of historical connections between Harvard and slavery. Later, in 2016, this research resulted in a large conference and a plaque commemorating enslaved workers owned by Harvard Presidents. Others took up similar projects including Georgetown, Princeton and Columbia. An organization was formed, Universities Studying Slavery, which UGA joined in 2019.
“Public history is really taking off and one of the things I like about the fellowship is the emphasis on public history, and the engagement with communities, which is at the heart of public history – taking it beyond the academic walls,” Lee said.
Lee sees a vital need for universities to engage with their own history.
“It’s important to re-write the histories of these institutions and also to understand colleges and universities more deeply, as being more than places we go to improve and to build our lives in a certain way,” she said. “In many ways, higher education is at the forefront of reproducing these power differences that we see. And so, we think about education as a very kind of positive experience that’s going to result in something pretty useful for society, but it also is about how institutions can reproduce inequality and power differences among people. And I think it all starts with this legacy of slavery.”
She acknowledges that this self-reflection and engagement can be challenging but that it is also a crucial endeavor, especially at this particular moment of reckoning about race.
“It really is a frightening time, and a disappointing time, but I like that academics are getting involved in public history in precisely this way,” Lee said. “Often times, we have this clinical distance while studying the past and never connect it to what’s going on around us. But histories of slavery force us to see how our institutions have been at the heart of some of this ugliness and, though that can be hard to do, I’m hoping in some way we can make a contribution to the moment, and not just to the past.”
Since its founding in 1965, the Warren Center has annually hosted 6-12 visiting scholars, thus enriching Harvard’s Americanist community, and benefiting the fellows with access to Harvard’s resources at a critical point in their scholarship.