URI Humanities series explores historical memory, memorials and commemoration

Year-long series opens Sept. 29 with author Clint Smith III

KINGSTON, R.I. – Sept. 7, 2021 – Amid the struggle for racial justice last year in the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd, more than 90 monuments memorializing Confederate leaders of the Civil War were removed. In several cities, statues of Christopher Columbus were defaced.

The discussion of monuments and societal memory moves to the University of Rhode Island campus as the Center for the Humanities opens a year-long series exploring society’s collective decisions and dialogue about what to commemorate, a discussion deeply rooted in the social, cultural, and political experience of the nation.

Memorials and Commemoration in the U.S,” which will include virtual and in-person presentations, will focus on themes of race, ethnicity and sovereignty on the local and national levels. All events are free and open to the public. Registration is required.

“The question of historical memory has become so politicized. We’ve all become very conscious of that in the context of the controversies over statues of Columbus and Confederate memorials,” said Evelyn Sterne, director of the Center for the Humanities. “Our speaker series looks at the pressing question of how memory is constructed and revised.”

The series opens Wednesday, Sept. 29, at 5 p.m. with a virtual talk hosted by the Harrington School of Communication and Media. Clint Smith III, an author, poet and staff writer at The Atlantic, will discuss his No. 1 New York Times bestseller, How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning With the History of Slavery Across America, which explores how different sites in the nation reconcile their relationship to the history of slavery. Ammina Kothari, the new director of the Harrington School, will moderate a discussion following Smith’s lecture.

Smith is also the author of the poetry collection, “Counting Descent,” winner of the 2017 Literary Award for Best Poetry Book from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association, and was a finalist for an NAACP Image Award. His essays, poems, and scholarly writings have appeared in such publications as The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, The New Republic, and The Paris Review.

Kent Blansett

On Thursday, Sept. 30, at 7 p.m., the series continues with a virtual presentation by Kent Blansett, the Langston Hughes Associate Professor of Indigenous Studies and History at the University of Kansas, who will discuss “Think Indigenous: Richard Oakes and the Red Power Movement.” Oakes, an Akwesasne Mohawk student leader, was vital to Red Power activism of the 1960s and ’70s and was a key figure in the 1969 takeover of Alcatraz Island by the organization Indians of All Tribes seeking to reclaim the abandoned federal property.

Blansett, founder and executive director for the American Indian Digital History Project, spent 18 years researching and writing the first biography to explore the life of Oakes. Published in 2018, A Journey to Freedom: Richard Oakes, Alcatraz, and the Red Power Movement has garnered national attention with reviews in the Los Angeles Times, Indian Country Today, Washington Post, and NPR’s Latino USA.

A stone monolith outside the library pays tribute to the Kingston Campus’ history as an ancestral home of the Narragansett Indian Tribe.

On Saturday, Oct. 16, the series will present an in-person panel discussion and walking tour that looks at Native American history on the Kingston Campus, focusing on URI’s unique class, “The URI Campus: A Walk Through Time.” Anthropology professor Kristine Bovy, history professors Catherine DeCesare and Rod Mather and Tomaquag Museum Executive Director Lorén Spears will discuss the campus’ long, complicated history as an ancestral home of the Narragansett Indian Tribe, the effects of European colonization, and how that history is memorialized today.

“This talk is not only a great opportunity to teach people more about the history of the URI campus,” said Sterne, “but also to promote the Tomaquag Museum, which will be moving to URI.”

The in-person talk starts at 10 a.m. in Room 100 of the Beaupre Center for Chemical and Forensic Science with the 45-minute, optional walking tour beginning at 11 a.m. Participants must follow URI health guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19, including wearing masks inside Beaupre 100.

John Kwo Wei Tchen

On Thursday, Nov. 18, at 7 p.m., the series’ fall lineup closes with a presentation by John Kwo Wei (Jack) Tchen, chair of Public History & Humanities at Rutgers University and co-founder of the Museum of Chinese in America. Through his discussion, “Before 1776—Time to Break the Silence,” Tchen will bring together elements of his long career as a historian and public humanities scholar as he links the racial injustices of Black and Indigenous communities with those of people in the Asian community, which were prevalent during the pandemic.

“Memorials and Commemoration in the U.S.” will host more presentations during the spring semester. Plans for those events are underway. To register for the fall events or to learn of upcoming talks, please go to the series webpage.