The 2023 Clifford Symposium commemorated the bicentenary of Alexander Twilight’s graduation from Middlebury College by exploring constructions of racial identity and inequities facing higher education and American society today.
During the symposium, held Sept. 21-23 at Middlebury College, scholars, legislators, students, and community members gathered for lectures, panels, performances, and discussions on the topic: “Twilight at 200: Race and the Academy.” This included interrogations of broader histories of exclusion and marginalization; performances of race and racial ambiguity; race, slavery, colonization, and abolition and the academy; and race and the arts.
Considered the first documented person of African descent to earn a degree from an American college, Twilight’s story has become more complicated over time. Since 2020, the Twilight Project has brought students, faculty, and community partners together in a collaborative effort to develop projects that foster inclusion, chronicle histories of change, and uplift the voices of marginalized communities. The symposium was an extension of that work.
Daniel Silva, associate professor of Luso-Hispanic Studies and director of the Twilight Project, opened the symposium with a challenge for Middlebury College to focus on—and reckon with—its own histories of exclusion and marginalization. He urged discussion of the layered aspects of Twilight’s life and racialization, while also recognizing the complicated relationships and complicities between institutions of higher education and systems of oppression.
“These sorts of ambiguities and silences around Twilight’s life and how it is remembered have served as a roadmap and a symbol for the work and spirit of the Twilight Project as we have looked to critically engage the college’s past and present,” said Silva.
‘Who Was Alexander Twilight?’
The opening panel “Who Was Alexander Twilight?” analyzed the life and history of Twilight’s legacy in academia and as the first person of African descent to be elected popularly to a state legislature in 1836. William B. Hart, professor emeritus of history, said these accomplishments created a point of pride, but also complexity for Middlebury and Vermont, given that Twilight passed as white for most of his life.
“Alexander Twilight was a much beloved and charismatic member of the many communities he served,” said Hart. “He was also enigmatic, stubborn and sometimes arrogant, which challenged people as did his identity.”
Hart challenged the audience to consider some difficult questions about Twilight’s life as it related to his perceived racial identity.
“What did those students mean when they described him as swarthy and tawny? Did it matter to white Vermonters that he carried, as some whispered, ‘black blood?’ Did his performance of whiteness trump his racial identity?” He added, “I argue that we are not fully able to answer those questions. However, it does seem clear that his racial ambiguity allowed white Vermonters to view and accept him as ‘one of us.’”
From Exploration to Habits of Mind
Middlebury President Laurie L. Patton emphasized the importance of incorporating recommendations brought forth through the work of the Twilight Project and from the examination of Twilight’s existence in the everyday life of Middlebury and beyond.
“We’re not only celebrating Alexander Twilight’s life achievements and legacy, but also the ways in which our own perceptions classify people in tragic ways, in ways that reveal our blindness in the end, and critiquing and interrogating and problematizing themes that Alexander Twilight’s life and times raised for Middlebury, for us in American education, and for American society today,” Patton said. “These need to be parts of our habits of mind as we go through every day here at Middlebury.”
In her keynote address “Those Set Aside: The Stakes of Black Studies, History, and Methods of Care” Marisa Fuentes, associate professor of history at Rutgers University, criticized historians who attempt to separate the present from the past out of fear of seeming “presentist.”
Fuentes argued for historians to view the present as conditioned by the past, existing in the wake of history. Citing examples of Breonna Taylor’s murder in 2020 and the execution of a mid-18th-century enslaved woman in Barbados by governmental authorities, she drew historic links between present-day state killings with those of the past, and the silences around both.
The role of politics in shaping history as it happens, but also how it’s molded to fit the narrative of those in power, is inescapable, she said.
“My point here is the surprising and disconcerting idea that history has ever been devoid of politics,” she said. “From banning enslaved people from gaining literacy to segregated schools, and the continued use of the classical curriculum of Western canons, historical knowledge production emerges from politics, and political concerns and exercises of power.”
Also at the symposium:
- Other panel discussions focused on race and the academy; the visual arts and Twilight featuring guests who produced short films, graphic biographies and the portrait of Twilight in the Vermont Statehouse; and a panel with archivists and experts from special collections.
- On Friday, September 22, Hart led a dedication ceremony at Court Square Honoring Frederick Douglass’s visit to Middlebury in 1843 on Friday, September 22, as part of the symposium.
- Middlebury students presented research projects they undertook as Twilight Scholars including the following:
- Crystal Zhou ’23.5 presented on Black-owned farms in Vermont
- Mars Etgu ’26 and Kaveh Abu Khaleel ’26 explored the connection between the Middle East and Middlebury College
- Ellie Thompson ’22 reported on the histories of BIPOC athletes at Middlebury College.
Mikaela Taylor, special collections public services and outreach specialist and assistant director of the Twilight Project, noted that there have been 14 research projects completed by students in the past three years.
The annual Clifford Symposium is named after College Professor of History Emeritus Nicholas R. Clifford (1930–2019), who taught history at Middlebury College from 1966 to 1993 and who in his many years as a member of the faculty and administration cultivated critical inquiry.