News

Ancestry.com ad pulled, criticized for sugarcoating slavery

By Janell Ross | April 21, 2019

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The Ancestry.com ad begins with a couple - a young black woman and young white man - clad in mid 19th century clothing, running through what looks like an alley. The couple stops. The man holds up a ring.

“Abigail,” the man says, “We can escape...Will you leave with me.” The young woman gets out only a fraction of one word, “I...,” before the point of this ad becomes clear. Ancestry.com, which claims to have the world’s largest consumer DNA database, says stories like 'Abigail's' would be lost to history if people didn't trace their roots using their service.

In the days since it began to air in the United States, critics have described it as a sanitized and inaccurate depiction of American life designed to obscure the brutality of slavery. In doing so, historians and advertising industry insiders say, the ad campaign illuminates a set of very modern, ongoing American problems with race.

Late Thursday, Ancestry pulled the ad from its YouTube channel, scuttled a TV airing schedule and late Friday offered more information about the thought processes behind the ad. Read more...

Your Ancestors Were Slaves. Who Owns the Photos of Them?

By Jennifer Schuessler | March 22, 2019

The haunting daguerreotypes of seven enslaved men and women taken in South Carolina in 1850 have long been an awkward matter at Harvard.

Made in a portrait studio at the request of Louis Agassiz, a renowned Harvard biologist out to prove the inferiority of people of African descent, the images have been the subject of scholarly exposes and intellectual property skirmishes since they resurfaced in 1976 in the attic of the university’s anthropology museum. Now they are the subject of a lawsuit brought by a Connecticut woman who says she is a descendant of two of the enslaved people in the photographs, and wants what she sees as stolen family property back.

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The lawsuit involves charges of profiteering and exploitation, calling the images “spoils of theft” and Harvard’s “dominion” over them itself the equivalent of slavery.

But to scholars, it also raises broader moral questions. Who owns African-American history: the generally white-dominated institutions that house many of its traces, or the descendants of the enslaved? And who, if anyone, should control — and profit from — it? Read more...

What Are the Biggest Problems Women Face Today?

By Politico Magazine | March 8, 2019

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One of the greatest challenges women in the U.S. and women throughout the world face today are increasing rates of maternal mortality. According to the World Health Organization, 830 women die every day from “preventable causes related to pregnancy.” These statistics are even more staggering in developing countries and among women of color in the United States. Black women in particular are the most affected, dying at a ratio of 25.1 deaths per 100,000. According to the Journal of Perinatal Education, the rates for black women did not improve between 1980 and 1990, and these rates are not much better today. Some believe such disparities occur because of a racially divided society in which black women experience higher levels of stress and marginalization causing many of their health concerns to go unrecognized. This leads to untimely and preventable deaths. Read more...

UT Professor’s New Book Explores the Economic Value of Slaves In American History

By Cat Cardenas | March 1, 2019

UT history professor Daina Ramey Berry has dedicated her professional life to filling in the gaps of American history. Growing up in an African-American family just outside of Sacramento, California, she was quick to notice that her ancestors’ history was often absent from her schoolbooks. But she didn’t have to look far for an education on her roots: Her mother was an academic and activist who had participated in the 1963 March on Washington and her father was an engineering professor who became the second African-American to join UC Davis’ faculty. Since becoming a historian herself, Berry has taken matters into her own hands, writing dozens of articles and two books on gender and slavery in the 19th century.

Her latest book, The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation, explores the economic value of slaves during their lives and after death as they were sold to be studied in American medical schools. This comes at the end of a journey that led Berry to archives across the country to study the different ways slaves were valued at auction, in medical records, and in insurance policies. The book is the recipient of the 2018 Hamilton Book Award—UT’s highest literary honor. Berry spoke with the Alcalde about her book and her upcoming projects. Read more...

Engineering meets history with Daina Ramey Berry

By Alexandra George | February 18, 2019

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Engineering often involves interpretation of a problem, data, or methods to reach creative solutions. Similarly, history involves interpretation: understanding previous events that can teach us valuable lessons to help shape the future. Both engineers and historians are hard at work to solve some of the most challenging problems facing us today, though in different ways.

As part of Black History Month activities at Carnegie Mellon, the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) recently co-hosted the visit of distinguished historian and acclaimed author Professor Daina Ramey Berry. She is the Oliver H. Radkey Regents Professor of History at UT Austin, and speaks and writes about various dimensions of slavery, especially women and slavery. Her work seeks to humanize a group of people who are often treated as objects by bringing to light individuals and their personal stories. Read more...

'White privilege’ in America: The blissful ignorance of Ralph Northam

By Jonathan Capehart | February 12, 2019

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Seeing the picture on the medical school yearbook page of now-Gov. Ralph Northam (D) was a gut punch. A man in blackface standing next to someone else dressed as a member of the Ku Klux Klan. That same 1984 keepsake from Eastern Virginia Medical School also featured students in other racist and offensive images. Three years earlier, under his otherwise stately photograph in the 1981 yearbook of the Virginia Military Institute, Northam listed one of his nicknames as “Coonman,” a racial slur that evokes the worst caricature of African American men. One wonders if this was a sanitized version of a harsher moniker for someone having black friends.

When the stunning Northam story broke, countless political observers commented that Northam’s 2017 Republican challenger Ed Gillespie should get his money back from his opposition research team. How could they miss something so incendiary, so blatantly racist? How could they resist making something public something that would brand a hypocrite the Democrat roasting Gillespie’s rather Trumpian white nationalist campaign? For that matter, how could Northam and his own team not see this coming? Read more...

A Reading List for Ralph Northam

By Ibram X. Kendi | February 12, 2019

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In the years before he became Virginia’s governor, Ralph Northam apparently chose not to read books in which blackface was present. “I used just a little bit of shoe polish to put under my—or on my—cheeks,” he said about the day he impersonated Michael Jackson in blackface. “I look back now and regret that I did not understand the harmful legacy of an action like that.”

Now, as governor, Northam is choosing not to heed calls for his resignation. He is denying he’s pictured on his medical-school yearbook page in blackface or in a Ku Klux Klan outfit above the notation of his alma mater, his interests in pediatrics, and his quote advocating having “another beer.” Read more...

New Books in African American Studies

By Adam McNeil | January 24, 2019

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Scholarly interest in the institution of American slavery is enjoying a kind of resurgence. Researchers are examining heretofore rarely (or never) studied aspects of slavery. One such new frontier is the history of sexuality and slavery. Two scholars at the forefront movement are Drs. Daina Ramey Berry and Leslie Harris. Drs. Berry and Harris’s recent edited volume, Sexuality and Slavery: Reclaiming Intimate Histories in the Americas (University of Georgia Press, 2018), brings together a variety of scholars working on the ways in which slavery and sexuality interacted, and whose efforts combine to show that sexuality was in some ways more central to the history of slavery in the Americas than has been thought. Read more...

Eight UT Austin Faculty Members Named Recipients of the 2018-19 President’s Associates Teaching Excellence Award

By UT News | January 24, 2019

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AUSTIN, Texas — Eight University of Texas at Austin faculty members are being highlighted for their work and have been named recipients of the annual President’s Associates Teaching Excellence Award for the 2018-19 academic year. The award recognizes the university’s educational innovators who demonstrate exceptional undergraduate teaching in the core curriculum, including signature courses, and engage with curriculum reform and educational innovation.

“These eight faculty members have dedicated themselves to teaching and mentoring,” said Gregory L. Fenves, president of UT Austin. “They build connections with their students and strive to unlock their potential with knowledge and creativity.”

The awards are made possible by contributions from the President’s Associates — friends of the university who are committed to advancing education and research at UT Austin. Each recipient will receive a monetary award of $5,000 and will be honored at a dinner during the spring semester. Read more...

Not How I Learned It: Rediscovering and Redefining Slave Values in America

By Adrienne Dawson | December 14, 2018

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Historian and professor Daina Ramey Berry teaches in the History and African & African Diaspora Studies departments at The University of Texas at Austin and has received the Hamilton Book Award for her latest work, “The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation.”

Here, she tells us how 10 years of research led to discoveries that force us to relearn what we thought we knew about slavery in America — such as a slave cadaver trade that supplied America’s top medical schools and trained future surgeons. Read more...