If given the chance, would you change the course of history to undo racism in the United States? I posed this question to Professor Evelyn Alsultany's class "22 Ways to Think about Race" last week. Our discussion centered on the late Derrick Bell's Geneva Chronicle, "title." In that story, Bell explains what happened when, in an episode of time travel, his star law student Geneva Crenshaw took herself to the Constitutional convention of 1787. Geneva's hope to persuade the Constitution's framers to remove from that founding document all support for slavery. She urged them to vote down the "three-fifths clause," the fugitive slave clause, and the ban on interference with the slave trade. Geneva went so far to suggest that the framers should abolish slavery altogether.
In her short time on the convention floor, Geneva argued that the ideals of the American Revolution -- life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness -- required slavery's abolition. She also warned that slavery and racism would plague the nation's future, undermining its peace and prosperity well into the 20th century. Geneva did not get far. She was, after all, a black woman, and the framers listened only a few minutes before firing a cannon that brought her visit to an abrupt end. All memories of Geneva's presence were erased and the terms of the final Constitution helped ensure that slavery would continue in the United States for another nearly 80 years.
Was Geneva right when she said that the framers could have changed the course of racism in the United States history by abolishing slavery in 1787? We asked students if they would make a trip through time to change the course of history. Their answers told us a lot about how they think about the place of racism in our nation. Some students were eager to go, believing that they had a chance to undo slavery and racism in the United States. Not only would they meet some of history's most influential figures, they would use their 21st century hindsight to explain how slavery and racism had burdened the nation with civil war, profound inequality, and unrest. Others worried that as young people, especially young women and people of color, the framers would not listen. So they proposed sending a delegate and Bobby Kennedy, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton were all nominated. Students thought that these men could persuade the framers to undo slavery. A few nominated Barack Obama to make the journey, though there was disagreement about how his status as President would change the framer's thinking. Faced with a President of African descent, would they be convinced that slavery and racism were wrong? Or would they take President Obama as a sign that racism would eventually be undone even with slavery as part of the nation's founding compact?
Many students said they would not travel in time. They would not change the course of history. Some explained that it was impossible to change the minds of the framers. Slavery was too important and too entrenched in 1787 to be undone by arguments about the future. War, not good arguments, was the only route to slavery's demise. Other students argued that making the trip was futile: abolishing slavery had little to do with ending racism. Racism would continue even if slavery was ended with the Constitution. Finally, some could not imagine a United States without its history of slavery and racism. Hadn't struggles to end slavery and racism given us some of what today we treasure most. Slavery and racism gave us the Fourteenth Amendment's guarantees of birthright citizenship and equal protection. The modern Civil Rights movement's challenge to racism set the stage for other social movements, including those of women and LGBTQ people. Changing the course of history might have unintended and undesirable consequences.
Like many of our best teaching moments, there is no right answer to Derrick Bell's provocative story. It's not likely that I'll be offering the opportunity of time travel to any of our students at the University of Michigan any time soon. Still, Bell's Geneva chronicle provides all of us with the chance to discover our own assumptions about the place of racism in the United States. Is racism something we might have undone in 1787? Or is it a foundational set of ideas that can only be eradicated over time? And while we may not travel in time, how should we confront the racism in our own moment? These questions are no less relevant today than they were to the Constitution's framers.
Professor Bell's Geneva chronicle was first published in volume 88 of the Villanova Law Review, and then in his book, And We Are Not Saved: The Elusive Quest for Racial Justice (1999). Check it out for yourself!
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