Injustice in our midst

Since protests erupted in the days and weeks following the horrific murder of George Floyd, and amidst other ongoing episodes of systemic race-based violence against members of minority communities, the Library’s staff and extended community have been thinking about how institutions of historical memory like the JCB can and should respond.

As a steward of historical materials that are deeply illustrative of – and deeply imbedded within – the histories of race-based oppression in the Americas, the JCB has a special responsibility to take part in these conversations. Many groups have suffered historically at the hands of colonialism – the dispossession and genocide of Native communities throughout the hemisphere is another flagrant and ubiquitous example within our collection – but anti-black racism is an inextricable feature of all colonial American societies, and clearly linked to the kinds of oppression and cycles of violence we witness today, from Minneapolis to Louisville (and far beyond US borders as well).

Even more in moments like this one, the Library has a solemn duty to bring historical evidence into clear view, for all to see. That evidence includes episodes of race-based violence and subjugation as well as examples in which individuals, groups, and broader communities resisted and rebelled against racial injustice and institutionalized oppression, with or without allies, often against tremendous odds.

Informed by these entwined histories of oppression and battles waged against injustice in the colonial era, the JCB is committed to taking concrete steps today that will advance conversations and tangible actions around historical understanding within our own community of scholars, students, and engaged publics. 

These include: 

• the elaboration of an "African Americas Initiative" that focuses specifically on the place of Africans in the Americas and works to bring greater numbers of African and African-American scholars, students, staff, and public audiences into the Library;

• the acquisition and accelerated digitization of an “African Americana” collection that includes books authored by or describing Africans and African-descended peoples, as well as histories of slavery in and to the Americas (especially since materials related to the African slave trade were not always understood by past JCB librarians to be "Americana" in the traditional sense); 

• a Library action plan (currently underway) that focuses on the legacies of race-based ideologies at the JCB, including the Library’s own history vis-a-vis systemic institutional barriers to diversity, equity, and inclusion;

• and finally, through our in-person and online programming, exhibitions, and fellowships, opportunities to amplify the voices of African-descended peoples (and other underrepresented communities) from throughout the hemisphere, with special curatorial opportunities for scholars, artists, and library and museum professionals.

There is far more that still needs to be done. Each day that passes will reveal more profound institutional blind-spots. But we see in this moment a spur to further action. We stand united with the senior leadership of Brown University, museums, libraries, and historical archives, and government leaders and those protesting lawfully in the streets of the nation who are calling for justice and peace to prevail in our land. We grieve with those who have lost friends, family, and opportunities to ideologies of hatred and violence. And, true to the words inscribed on the Library’s exterior, we remain hopeful that the JCB’s admonition to learn from the past – “Speak to the past, and it shall teach thee” – can be an active motto, one that not only guides us in interpreting historical forms of systemic injustice but also in bringing our own resources to bear on urgent societal challenges in the present moment and beyond.

Thank you for your continued commitment to the John Carter Brown Library and its mission. Please stay tuned for more initiatives from the Library related to these pressing issues in the life of the United States and nations throughout the Americas.