When confronting the past, the question becomes: which parts of the past will represent the truth?
There are five principal components to our university’s plan for racial reconciliation: 1) research, 2) report, 3) dissemination, 4) discussion, and 5) determination. I’ll write about these one at a time.
Starting with research may sound obvious, but it is not obvious unless it is noticed.
Consider this recent interaction with my students:
I enter the classroom. It is the first day of classes, and after a long break, many students are impatient, anxious to navigate the final major obstacle of the spring semester before summer break beckons.
Now, there is some pressure, as many of the students are here in this classroom solely
on the strength of word-of-mouth. Many have been told this is a class that they absolutely
do not want to miss; that this class will always deliver something unexpected and
Keep your eyes open, they’ve been told.
I absorb this pressure. I inhale it all in, then let it out slowly. Solemnly, I walk to the front of the classroom. I survey the multicolored faces looking at me with a mix of suspicion and anticipation. Pardon the cliché, but one could almost hear a pin drop. Once the silence reaches a crescendo, I measuredly place a hand into my pocket while keeping my eyes on the class. I allow the students to see that I have drawn out an ink pen. I extend my arm and hold the pen several feet off the ground.
I open my hand and let the pen drop.
After the pen hits the floor and rolls to a stop, I finally speak and say, "A pen just fell to the ground. Tell me the history of what happened."
What happens next is nothing short of amazing. I instruct the students to pair up and work together to write a brief history of what has just happened, preparing it to share with the class, and the buzz in the room becomes palpable. Perhaps it is the pressure to perform; as I walk around the room I hear exasperated chatter over how "we have to get the story right!"
As each pair of students takes turns standing before the class, several revelations become apparent. For starters, history can bond us. The level of interaction is quite high —perhaps because this exercise takes a group of perfectly good strangers and helps them see that they have shared something in common: a memory. The pen drop becomes the moment in time that bonds the students in memory and in sets in motion a future bond for a group that will come together twice a week at the same time each week.
I observed how my innocuous question appears to spark an innate sense of truth-seeking as each pair took hold of the recent past and described how it came to be in the present moment. Every group wanted to get it right. Accuracy was at the heart of their quest. I marveled at how history means something different to each of us.
In other words, we can see the same thing, but not see the same thing. What do I mean?
As you may have guessed, no two pairs presented the same story. In fact, everyone's history was different. There were different starting points of the historical recap, there were different points of emphasis and there were different versions of the facts offered.
We are required to research using more voices if we dare to tell the whole entire truth.
It was fascinating to see how the same historical moment the group experienced simultaneously was nonetheless experienced differently. Even though all were present, not all were looking at the same things at the same time. In other words, we shared a moment, but did not necessarily share the same specific memory.
This story encapsulates many of the challenging questions we must confront as we contemplate how to create a research plan for exploring our past as an institution.
We want to conduct as thorough a survey as possible, however, even in our research plan, we must consider the potential limitations of our attempts to approach the past accurately. Not everyone will remember shared historical moments in the same manner. This is why a multiplicity of voices will be helpful. For as with the pen drop, only one person's account — while not necessarily inaccurate — simply cannot accurately convey what the entire classroom experienced. The overlapping of all the various, distinct voices provide a more comprehensive picture.
Thus, we are required to research using more voices if we dare to tell the whole entire truth.
As part of Universities Studying Slavery, an international consortium of more than 60 schools coming to grips publicly with the darker chapters of their past, TCU is somewhat unique in that enslaved labor was not directly responsible for our school’s construction and therefore has a more attenuated connection to slavery.
But our school is no stranger to the fissures of racism. We are one of the few institutions among the consortium reconciling with contemporary history (student protests and demands as recent as January 2020) in our public report. Most other schools have not brought their most recent histories into view. Through virtual town hall meetings such as “Assessing Allyship & Whiteness” held in January 2021, TCU indicates not only its willingness to grapple with the past, but a preparedness for engaging multiple perspectives on what it will take to build a new future.
And so the task is before us. To discover where the truth lies.