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Students, faculty talk 'Race and the American Story'

Annual symposium has transitioned to 'Zoomposium' with events though April 28

hands of varying skin tones in front of the American flag

April 14, 2020

In the nearly 200 years since his death, Thomas Jefferson has been remembered in many ways by many people, and not without controversy.

Harvard Law School Professor Annette Gordon-Reed and University of Virginia Thomas Jefferson Foundation Professor Emeritus Peter Onuf — co-authors of the New York Times bestseller “Most Blessed of the Patriarchs: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination” — acknowledged as much in a discussion of the Founding Father earlier this month.

“Jefferson is such an interesting character. I think the working premise for both of us was that we weren’t satisfied with stereotypical understandings of him; loving him or hating him too much,” Onuf said of his and Gordon-Reed’s collaborative process while writing their book.

Gordon-Reed agreed, adding, “It was about trying to understand this human being, who we’re still talking about in 2020, on this new medium.”

The medium Gordon-Reed was referencing was Zoom, where their discussion kicked off the annual Race and the American Story symposium, which brings together students and scholars to talk about race and American culture.

Due to the unfolding COVID-19 crisis, the symposium — originally scheduled to be held March 18–21 at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee — was turned into a “Zoomposium” this year, hosted by Arizona State University’s Center for Political Thought and Leadership.

The Zoomposium features four of the originally planned major lectures in an online format and welcomes members of the community to participate, in addition to students and faculty.

The lectures run through April 28 and cover such topics as the famous James Baldwin-William F. Buckley Jr. debate of 1965, in which the civil rights activist and the conservative commentator, respectively, faced off on the subject of the country’s racial divides.

The next lecture, “Race and American Sports,” will take place at 1 p.m. MST, Friday, April 17, and will feature Aram Goudsouzian, professor of history at the University of Memphis and author of “King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution.”

Race and the American Story is a national educational project that involves faculty and students from universities across the country, including ASU, the University of Massachusetts Amherst (UMass) and the University of Missouri. It began in 2014 when Adam Seagrave, currently an associate professor at ASU’s School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership, and Stephanie Shonekan, currently a professor of Afro-American Studies at UMass, were colleagues at the University of Missouri.

As racial tensions on campus escalated following the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Seagrave and Shonekan felt compelled to act.

“I was teaching a course, an earlier version of Race and the American story, and an African American student of mine shared that a number of her white friends at the university were no longer her friends because of the tensions on campus that arose after the Michael Brown shooting,” Seagrave said. “That really brought home to me that we needed to do something to address this.”

Adam Seagrave

Associate Professor Adam Seagrave.

Shonekan had already been spearheading a campuswide program to orient students to the values of the university and address issues of racism, so he reached out to her and the two combined forces to create the Race and the American Story project. Since then, the project has spread to their new homes at ASU and UMass.

Over the course of a semester, students enrolled in the Race and the American Story course read about and discuss issues of race both historical and contemporary. This spring, Seagrave and ASU T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics Associate Professor Eleanor Seaton co-led a discussion with students on select articles from The New York Times 1619 Project, which aims to reexamine the legacy of slavery in the United States.

“Our ultimate hope for the project is to create community and build friendships across differences among students and faculty that otherwise wouldn’t have been likely to develop,” Seagrave said. “There’s something about the learning environment that is really conducive to developing really good relationships, and I think students experience that through the camaraderie that comes with reading the same things, discussing the same topics and then finally coming together for this symposium at the end of the semester.”

During Onuf and Gordon-Reed’s Zoom discussion of Thomas Jefferson, they covered everything from his relationship with Sally Hemings (Gordon-Reed is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book “The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family”) to how his understandings of race might have influenced his ideas about American citizenship.

Toward the end of the discussion, students had a chance to ask Onuf and Gordon-Reed some questions. ASU political science undergraduate Cormac Doebbeling wondered if they thought Jefferson considered how the Declaration of Independence might pertain to people of other races and genders in the future.

“I’d be skeptical that he could have ever seen the notion of a nonwhite majority America,” Onuf said.

“I think it would have been hard for him to come to the idea that people who had been enslaved in this country could come to love it,” Gordon-Reed said.

In any case, while Jefferson may not have been able to foresee what the future would bring, what matters to Seagrave is how we choose to deal with the realities of modern-day life now.

“I always try to ask my students to lead with love in all of their interactions with each other,” he said. "On another level, I think perspective is really difficult to obtain when you’re living in a particular historical moment, so I hope the deep historical reflection we take in the course gives students some valuable perspective on contemporary issues that allows them to embrace the idea of really respecting each other as human beings and having that as the basis for their interactions with each other.”

Top image courtesy of Pixabay.

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