Writings

writing

Alternet | January 27, 2017

How Slaves Reacted to Their Appraisals: Traumatic U.S. History of Slave Auctions

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Excerpted from Chapter 3 of The Price for Their Pound of Flesh

On the eve of the Civil War, an abolitionist attending the auction of 149 human souls in New Orleans, Louisiana, was intrigued by the bid caller’s excitement over a seventeen-year-old field hand named Joseph who was on the auction block. “Gentlemen,” the bid caller exclaimed, “there is a young blood, and a capital one! He is a great boy, a hand for almost every thing. Besides, he is the best dancer in the whole lot, and he knows also how to pray—oh! so beautifully, you would believe he was made to be a minister! How much will you bid for him?” The opening bid for Joseph was a thousand dollars, but according to the enthusiastic auctioneer, Joseph was worth more, considering his value over time. “One thousand dollars for a boy who will be worth in three years fully twenty-five hundred dollars cash down. Who is going to bid two thousand?” the caller asked his audience. As the price for Joseph increased to $1,400, each interested party eagerly made eye contact with the bid caller. Standing on the podium with a wand in hand, he tried to increase Joseph’s price by assuring the audience that $1,400 was “too small an amount for” him. “Seventeen years only,” he added, “a strong, healthy, fine-looking, intelligent boy. Fourteen hundred and fifty dollars!... One thousand, four hundred and fifty—going! going! going! And last—gone!” As the caller slapped his hand on the platform, just like that, in less than five minutes, Joseph was sold “to the highest bidder.” Read more on Alternet

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The New York Times | October 18, 2016

Nat Turner’s Skull and My Student’s Purse of Skin

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This month, Richard Hatcher, a former mayor of Gary, Ind., delivered what researchers suspect is the skull of Nat Turner, the rebel slave, to Turner’s descendants. The skull had been kept as a relic, sold and probably handed down through generations, for nearly 185 years. If DNA tests confirm that the skull is genuine, then Turner’s family will have the opportunity to lay their famous relative to rest.

Many were shocked when National Geographic reported the existence of the skull, the same day that “The Birth of a Nation,” a new movie about Nat Turner, was released. But the traffic and trade in human remains — from the fingers, toes and sexual organs of executed enslaved people, to the hair and nails of the victims of the Holocaust — are part of our history. Some Americans were not surprised at all by the news; they might even have some “family heirlooms” of their own hidden in their homes, waiting to be shared with their children.

Turner was hanged in southeast Virginia on Nov. 11, 1831, for leading a rebellion of slaves that left some 55 white people dead. Those who came to witness his death then decapitated and skinned him. They bragged about it for decades. One participant, William Mallory, also known as Buck, gloated so much about having skinned Turner that it was listed in his own obituary. Read more on The New York Times

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Slate | April 22, 2016

Harriet Tubman Isn’t the First Black Woman to Appear on Currency in the U.S.

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This week, the U.S. Treasury announced that Harriet Tubman will replace Andrew Jackson on the front of the $20 bill. For some, this is an act of revolutionary change. It is a momentous action for a nation that supported slavery for close to 300 years (including the colonial era) and freedom for half that. To recognize the life of a formally enslaved woman on federal currency is a significant statement.
However, for some, placing Tubman on American greenbacks is an extension of the commodification of enslaved people and a slap in the face to her legacy. Read more on Slate

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Process | April 13, 2016

Underground: The Modern Story of Enslaved Runaways

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Every Wednesday for the past month, Twitter has lit up with comments about the new television hit Underground on WGN America. Thousands of people live tweet, reacting to the drama of a slave escape plot. Viewers discuss the music, the interactions among a complex set of characters, and the history of American slavery. Historians, too, are part of these conversations. Read more on Process

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The American Prospect | December 5, 2014

Blacklivesmatter Till They Don't: Slavery's Lasting Legacy

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In less than a month, our nation will commemorate the 150th anniversary of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery. This should be a time of celebratory reflection, yet Wednesday night, after another grand jury failed to see the value of African-American life, protesters took to the streets chanting, “Black lives matter!”
As scholars of slavery writing books on the historical value(s) of black life, we are concerned with the long history of how black people are commodified by the state. Read more on The American Prospect

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The Conversation | October 21, 2014

Slavery in America: back in the headlines

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People think they know everything about slavery in the United States, but they don’t. They think the majority of African slaves came to the American colonies, but they didn’t. They talk about 400 hundred years of slavery, but it wasn’t. They claim all Southerners owned slaves, but they didn’t. Some argue it was a long time ago, but it wasn’t.
Slavery has been in the news a lot lately. Perhaps it’s because of the increase in human trafficking on American soil or the headlines about income inequality, the mass incarceration of African Americans or discussions about reparations to the descendants of slaves.Read more on The Conversation

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Slate | August 6, 2015

A “Fus’ Rate Bargain”

From The Chattel Principle: Internal Slave Trades in the Americas, edited by Walter Johnson, with a foreword by David Brion Davis. Published by Yale University Press.

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In 1859, while standing on the auction block, a slave named Elisha pleaded with potential buyers to purchase his family as one unit. Each time prospective buyers approached, he encouraged them to buy his wife Molly, son Israel, and 3-year-old daughter Sevanda (“Vardy”).

“Look at me, Mas’r,” he claimed, “am prime rice planter; sho’ you won’t find a better man den me; no better on de whole plantation.” Elisha continued promoting himself, assuring potential buyers that he was “not a bit old yet” and that he could “do carpenter work, too.”

Read more on Slate or here

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My San Antonio | November 8, 2014

In Texas, history of slavery unique — but not 'brief'

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When most Americans think about slavery, they imagine large cotton plantations filled with hundreds of slaves working from sunup to sundown. People talk about the Deep South and the enslaved being traded to large markets in places such as Georgia, Louisiana and South Carolina — with Texas often excluded. Read more on mySA

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Women's eNews | September 30, 2014

Postmortem Fame, Public Shame for Black Mothers

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As the process slowly grinds toward justice for Michael Brown, the unarmed 18-year-old slain by a Ferguson, Mo., police officer, his mother, like Trayvon Martin’s and others, must continually reckon with another horrifying fact of American life: The postmortem fame of black mothers in the aftermath of their son’s deaths.Read more on Women's eNews

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Humanities Texas E-Newsletter | February 2013

Daina Ramey Berry on the Life and Work of Frederick Douglass

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Earlier this month at our "American Writing on the Civil War" teacher workshop, Daina Ramey Berry, associate professor of history at The University of Texas at Austin, shared these insights on the life and work of Frederick Douglass. Read more on Humanities Texas

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Not Even Past | October 1, 2014

Slavery and Freedom in Savannah

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Slavery and Freedom in Savannah puts African Americans and slavery at the center of the history of a popular tourist destination. The Telfair Museum’s Owens-Thomas House is the most-visited house museum in Savannah. We worked with the museum staff to bring together the latest historical research on the role of African Americans in Savannah and the importance of slavery to the life of the city. Read more on Not Even Past

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Not Even Past | February 25, 2011

Let the Enslaved Testify

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For nearly 30 years, historians have debated about the use of former slave narratives as a “valid” historical source. Scholars question the authenticity of interviews collected in the 1930s, often by white Works Progress Administration (WPA) field workers. Were the interviews honest depictions of the past or blurred historical memories? Did the former slaves feel comfortable answering questions about enslavement? How old were they during slavery? How much were these stories edited? Any study of the recordings must begin by understanding the editors. Read more on Not Even Past

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Association of Black Women Historians | August 2011

An Open Statement to Fans of The Help

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When the film The Help (2011) was released, the Association of Black Women Historians released a statement charging historical inaccuracies, misrepresentations, and damaging portrayals of African-American life in the 1960s. Read the entire statement here.

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Not Even Past | October 31, 2011

Great Books on Enslaved Life and Labor in the US

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Classic studies, the newest works, and a few novels on labor and gender and the institutions of slavery in the United States. From foundational texts to game-changing methodologies and even historical fiction that grapples with the tensions inherent in chattel slavery systems, there is a book for everyone on this list.

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See the list here.

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Not Even Past | November 1, 2011

REVIEW: Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property (2002)

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This film tells the story of Nat Turner’s 1831 Virginia slave revolt. For years, historians have grappled with the details of the affair and debated about the ways Nat Turner should be remembered. For some, he was a revolutionary hero; for others, Turner was nothing more than a deranged, blood-hungry killer. After all, it was Turner’s rebellion that sent the South into a frenzy forcing southern legislatures and planters to harden their stances (and laws) on slavery. Read more on Not Even Past

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Not Even Past | November 1, 2011

REVIEW: Sankofa (1993)

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In this 1993 film by Ethiopian-born filmmaker Haile Gerima, a modern-day, fashion model is transported to the past to experience the traumas of American chattel slavery. It is only through her return to the past that she can move forward, hence the name of the film, Sankofa, an Akan word meaning “go back and take” or “go back to move forward.” Read more on Not Even Past

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Not Even Past | January 1, 2013

REVIEW: Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012)

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Today marks the 150-year anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. While I’m delighted that a national discussion on slavery is taking place, it appears that Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, Django Unchained, is overshadowing church "watch night" services all over the United States and events hosted by the National Archives, including a rare public viewing of the original Proclamation. To many, the connection between a contemporary spaghetti-western film and the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation is offensive, inappropriate, oxymoronic, and just down right wrong. Perhaps understanding the significance of this legislation in context can elevate the public dialogue and aid in our national healing. Read more on *Not Even Past*