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June 8, 2007

on Providence

(Providence, RI) I don't come here very often, but I'm developing a habit of ruminating about America whenever I walk around this city's historic core. Not only did Providence play an important role in our founding, but there is something classically American about the old houses near Brown University. They were built in the same style that was current in Britain at the time--"Federalist" is just the American version of "Regency"--but their white picket fences and front lawns belong only in this country. Their classical details evoke the ideals of a young commercial republic.

It's an ambiguous legacy. I have previously described John Brown, who built one of those fine houses and helped to found Brown University as well as the United States, and who could rightly be called "slave trader ... and patriot." It was one of his descendants, I believe, who built the John Carter Brown Library over whose ionic marble lintel is chiseled the word "Americana." As I walk, I think of two other Providence figures: Roger Williams, prophet of peace and religious toleration and founder of the city, and Ruth Simmons, the current President of Brown University. Dr. Simmons, 12th child of Texas sharecroppers, leads the institution that John Brown founded with slave money.

This time, I arrived in Providence on a Peter Pan bus that carried its share of lost souls. In the bus depot, people looked strung out. I had come from an intense conference in which many participants were alarmed and furious about the state of our democracy. Even before the conference, I had been thinking about urban America and the startling evidence of exclusion. People whose ancestors came to America as John Brown's property are now filling our state prisons literally by the million. No other country imprisons so many.

Yet Brown and its surroundings represent freedom and excellence. Those buildings are very fine; and quite diverse people walk among them, use their resources, and even find distinguished places within them. I feel more alienated than usual from "Americana," and that feeling is mixed with nostalgia, because once I had a less complicated relationship to the Republic and its early history. But I refuse to give up on the ideals of Roger Williams and Ruth Simmons or the beautiful communities that Americans have--sometimes--built.

June 8, 2007 7:56 AM | category: none


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