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Kellie Carter Jackson Speaks at Olin During Black Heritage Month

On Wednesday, February 13th, a group of about twenty Olin students, faculty members, staff members, and outside guests (from the local area and neighboring colleges) gathered at Olin’s Norden Auditorium to hear Kellie Carter Jackson speak.

Jackson is a nineteenth century historian in the Department of Africana Studies at Wellesley College. Her talk at Olin was the first public presentation of her recently released book, Force and Freedom: Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence.

In Jackson’s presentation, she provided the audience with a historical overview of the abolitionist movement in the nineteenth century. In particular Jackson’s work focuses on those voices often neglected by historians. For example, she said that many white abolitionists who spoke out regarding the immorality of slavery through speeches and nonviolent demonstrations (despite any racist beliefs they might otherwise hold) are celebrated by historians, but those (mainly black abolitionists) who died in the resulting riots and struggles are often ignored. 

Kellie Carter Jackson addresses a group of Olin students, staff and faculty during her presentation titled Forcing Freedom

In 1850, following the passing of the Fugitive Slave Law; suddenly, free individuals in Northern states could be enslaved if they were suspected of having escaped from slavery in the past, and there was no support for those trying to resist using physical or legal means. Suddenly, violence and war became the most viable path towards freedom, and the Civil War broke out accordingly. 

Following the historical overview, Jackson shifted to reading passages from her book which featured stories of lesser-known black abolitionists such as William Parker, who operated an organization based not just on “self-defense, but collective defense” through violent acts. Jackson noted that violence, especially in the case of abolitionism, became “the new method of casting a ballot for progress.” Many of Jackson’s other examples illustrated a theme: because slavery, by definition, was upheld by violence, it was impossible to remove without violence.

After reading from her book, Jackson took questions from the Olin community. Students, faculty, staff and guests asked about other historical parallels to the violence in the abolitionist movement and asked about connections to contemporary politics.

When citing historical examples, both students and Jackson cited revolutions such as those in Haiti and India, where groups of individuals violently resisted and economically choked their colonizers, but historical accounts tend to de-emphasize the necessary struggle.

As for modern day examples, Jackson encouraged listens to be proactive in trying to improve their surroundings, asserting that “nothing is inevitable.” Even though the current political climate scrutinizes even benign nonviolent actions, Jackson said, citing Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the national anthem, individuals can still exert forceful action on their surroundings without being violent. Students have the economic and political power to change their institutions, and all individuals, by virtue of their own privilege, have the ability to improve their surroundings.

Notably, Jackson encouraged listeners to “lift and climb,” helping others along the way to change.  

This talk was among a variety of events organized by Olin’s Diversity and Inclusion Initiative as part of Black Heritage Month. Other events include webinars, film screenings, and discussions intended to encourage Olin students to recognize and interface with the role of race in historical and current contexts.

 

By Anusha Dutar