On Wednesday, July 21, 1773, two graduating Harvard seniors, Theodore Parsons and Eliphalet Pearson, were summoned before a public audience to debate whether slavery was compatible with “natural law.” In the 18th century, slavery was still legal in Massachusetts, and the university’s fortunes were inextricably linked through the slave trade to the plantation economies of the South and the Caribbean. Indeed, there were slaves at Harvard for more than 140 years, serving presidents, stewards, and professors. While student debates or disputations were regularly held at Harvard, this exchange is the only example for which a full verbatim record survives.
No More, America, a film by Peter Galison, reimagines this original debate to include the powerful voice of Phillis Wheatley, an acclaimed poet, then-enslaved, who lived just across the Charles River from the two Harvard students. All three were 21 years old at the time of the disputation. Though her book Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral appeared in London in 1773, Wheatley’s voice, contemporaneous with the disputation, would never have originally appeared alongside the debate. In this film, Wheatley’s presence serves as an intervention, rejecting the racist rhetoric employed by both sides through excerpts from her published works.
Presented in conjunction with The Philosophy Chamber: Art and Science in Harvard’s Teaching Cabinet, 1766–1820, this film—and the exhibition that inspired it—challenges us to consider what voices were missing from the original Philosophy Chamber and offers a powerful lens for thinking through the collection, now reassembled in the exhibition on view on Level 3. Performed by three current Harvard students, this work is especially jarring given the relevance of continued racial inequality on campus. These student actors are part of a larger movement to redress the university’s own history of slavery. As Harvard president Drew Faust has argued: “The past never dies or disappears. It continues to shape us in ways we should not try to erase or ignore. In more fully acknowledging our history, Harvard must do its part to undermine the legacies of race and slavery that continue to divide our nation.”
No More, America, 2017. A film by Peter Galison.
Written and produced by Peter Galison
Directed by Peter Galison and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Edited by Chyld King
HD video (14 min.)
No More, America was created for the Lightbox Gallery, an experimental space for the research and development of digital projects for the Harvard Art Museums. No More, America was organized for the Lightbox Gallery by Chris Molinski, Associate Research Curator for Digital Initiatives in the Division of Academic and Public Programs. Peter L. Galison is the Joseph Pellegrino University Professor and Director, Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments at Harvard University. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher, Jr. University Professor and Director, Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University.
Presented in conjunction with the exhibition The Philosophy Chamber: Art and Science in Harvard’s Teaching Cabinet, 1766–1820, organized by the Harvard Art Museums and curated by Ethan W. Lasser, the Theodore E. Stebbins Jr. Curator of American Art and Head of the Division of European and American Art at the Harvard Art Museums. The Philosophy Chamber exhibition is supported in part by major grants from the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Henry Luce Foundation.
Modern and contemporary art programs at the Harvard Art Museums are made possible in part by generous support from the Emily Rauh Pulitzer and Joseph Pulitzer, Jr., Fund for Modern and Contemporary Art.