The Racial Geography of Universities

Main Building, University of Texas-Austin, (Wikimedia Commons)

What does it mean to learn how to read a place? This question silently guides the Racial Geography Tour of the University of Texas at Austin (UT). The brainchild of Dr. Edmund T. Gordon, an anthropologist and Black studies professor, the tour started as a lecture performed while walking across the UT campus. Using inquiry and counter-narrative, Gordon invites participants to see the campus landscape through racial, gendered, historical, and social lenses. The tour educates about the troubled racial past of the University, while encouraging participants to come to their own understandings of the University’s geography, history, and their evolving meanings. Having worked on the virtual version of the tour—launched in April 2019—I have come to see both tours as a model of scholarship and intellectual production that is both timely and instructive.

The walking tour came about over fifteen years ago out of the requests of University staff of color to know more about the history of non-white people at the institution. Continuing scholarly and community interest led Gordon to sustain his research and reconstruct an institutional and spatial history from disparate sources. This ever-evolving historical narrative was not easily assembled. It required a commitment to excavate and interpret the events and happenings of the now almost 136 years of the institution’s history—a familiar task for historians, particularly of Black and other marginalized people. For anthropologists as well as historians, the process underscores why such institutional histories remain dormant, invisible, and not readily accessible.

Craig Wilder’s 2013 monograph on slavery and institutions of higher learning and the recently published edited volume on the same theme consider the embedded relationships between these institutions and their racial pasts. Such texts illustrate how for institutions of the geographic east and south, slavery and the enslaved are intimately connected to the money and labor that raised campus buildings, supported campus life, and broadly cultivated a hierarchical, racialized orientation into campuses. The inter-institutional collaboration Universities Studying Slavery delves into such institutional ties to slavery. Public and private institutions, large and small, make up the participants. Similarly, folks at Princeton, MIT, Brown, and the University of Mississippi, among others, have projects interrogating their institutional histories. The Campus History as Public History Working Group also represents a collaborative academic effort dedicated to exploring racial and gendered institutional histories.

UT’s founding in 1883, after the Civil War, locates its provenance in a post-Reconstruction Texas and focuses on a contiguous racial history in need of study. The profits of slavery, held in investments and in family wealth, undoubtedly helped erect the physical institution of UT; Gordon’s tour highlights the emergent historical turn from antebellum slave-holding ideology into the militaristic, patriarchal white nationalism of some of UT’s founders, such as George Littlefield, and their visions for the ethos of the University and the state of Texas.

This consideration of UT’s past bridges southern histories with those of the West. The tour connects to Dr. Rhondda Robinson Thomas’s research on Clemson University, an institution whose origins may not directly begin in bondage, but unveil a history of inequities of power, resources, and access. It also dialogues with Cynthia Prescott’s novel and new book (and walking tours) on race and gender in pioneer memorialization of the West by drawing attention to the literal and symbolic projects of an institution born of this geographical, political, and economic frontier.

That said, a racial analysis occupies the heart of Gordon’s tour. Like the work at other institutions, the Racial Geography Tour presents an alternative account of this flagship school’s past, rarely documented or spoken of in pamphlets, on-line materials, or in strategic or commemorative representations of the University. The Fisher case (2013)—the challenge to race-conscious admissions policies at UT—along with a host of racist events often involving fraternities, as well as the 2015 and 2017 removal of confederate statues, are but a few of the moments and symbols that have brought the racial past into present conversation at the University. The relative absence of the raw history and didactic narrative offered in the tour helps to explain the growing intrigue during this heightened racial moment, now years in the making, and the desire to know more about institutional histories and how to think about racial difference in the now.

In my own work on the digital tour, I’ve come to appreciate more subtle levels of intervention from these institutional endeavors—quieter than challenges to Lost Cause narratives. These tours ask us to see and to perceive differently. They are training in spatial literacy and impetuses to read into and relate more to our surroundings. Spatial literacy also asks that we cultivate and work with new language systems to speak to the interconnection and interrelation of our environments. Much like the work and recent popularity of the word intersectionality, which many in Black, ethnic, feminist, disability,and queer studies have used for decades, we need to generate non-patriarchal ways of speaking that continue to draw attention to processes and relationships. For Gordon, this has meant turning to the language of ecology to hone in on the campus as a set of dynamics and systems, in place of using static vocabularies to name buildings and events.

Also to Gordon, aesthetics matter. With a background in biology and as a long-term gardener, the landscaping of the campus, its preserved live oaks, along with its Spanish renaissance-style terracotta shingles make his longtime home institution beautiful and one whose troubled past needs constant critical engagement to improve it. The aim is to bring the University’s educational commitments, particularly to those who it has actively excluded over the years, into more actualized form. Having collaborated on the digital tour, I witnessed how much thought went into capturing campus life and bringing viewers into a visceral experience. This aesthetic call, Gordon shares, has been a consistent consideration in his work at the University. Nurturing aesthetic environs, whether in vegetation outside and inside our walls, or the imagery and sounds that line or echo through them, animates the building of community, the intellectual labor and sociality, and the envisioning of collective futures. This premise courses through some Black intellectual traditions and reverberates in the tour.

Above all, I heed Gordon’s standpoint that the tour is pedagogical. He purposely has folks walk familiar paths and look at familiar buildings to join visuals with sound, feeling, and story. The space comes to be seen as an ongoing political and social set of relations, rather than merely a polished assemblage of buildings and classrooms that make up a youth-focused, curated social world. The tour’s intellectual mission is much less an act of whistleblowing than a corrective proposal to participants to understand the past in service of holding an informed and active role in directing this public university’s future.

Dr. Gordon’s project, perhaps due to this stage in his career or institutional intellectual disposition, seems to follow a principal proposition proffered in the generative discussion incited by Robin D. G. Kelley several years back: to be in the University but not of it. That is, a proposition to have Black and other people for whom so many Universities historically were not intended to serve, create a relationship in and to institutions that mobilize the resources on behalf of a greater pedagogy and wider education. In Kelley’s response essay, he clarifies, “To be in the university and not of it is not to abandon it, but to generate new knowledge and take intellectual work seriously as we try to change what we can.” Kelley and his interlocutors name projects involved in new pedagogies and practices, modeling this stance vis-à-vis the university. I suggest those folks involved in these excavations of institutional histories are modeling other considerate ways of mirroring this standpoint, as well as summoning any and all interested to learn how to read power and places.

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Celeste Henery

Celeste Henery is a cultural anthropologist working at the intersections of race, gender, and health. Her work explores what it means to feel well in a world crosscut by inequality. She is a Research Associate in the Department of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.