Writings

editorial

History.com | May 18, 2018

'Why Did They Hate Us?': Explaining the New Lynching Memorial to My Son

Is there any good way to teach children about lynching? After attending the opening of a powerful new memorial and museum, which together explore some of the most painful aspects of American history, I wondered about the prospect of returning there with my 12-year-old son. My husband and I wanted him to learn everything about America’s past—not just the good parts—and we knew most of this material would not appear in his middle-school curriculum.

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By “this” material, I mean the impressive and moving research, exhibits and artwork gathered in the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and its companion Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration. Both are located in downtown, Montgomery, Alabama a short distance apart. And both are brainchildren of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a nonprofit organization founded by attorney Bryan Stevenson in 1989 that is dedicated to exploring the “history of racial inequality and economic justice in the United States.” Read more on History.com

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Washington Post | May 4, 2018

Kanye West’s teachable moment — for everyone

When McGraw-Hill Education published a textbook that described the transatlantic slave trade as a “pattern of immigration” that brought “millions of workers from Africa to the southern United States to work on agricultural plantations,” a Houston mother, Roni Dean-Burren, took to social media to express her outrage. A controversy ensued. While the company initially responded by calling the passage an “editorial mistake,” many saw it as serious — and dangerous — misinformation. Workers get paid; enslaved people rarely received financial compensation for their labor. Enslaved Africans did not come to the New World as immigrants who had the choice to move.

When Kanye West remarked at TMZ this week that “when you hear about slavery for 400 years — for 400 years? That sounds like a choice,” people were similarly outraged, taking to social media to excoriate the hip-hop artist. Read more on The Washington Post...

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History.com | March 27, 2018

Mountaintop Moments: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Final Speech

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It was a stormy night and the weather was bad but the turnout was not. People had gathered to hear Martin Luther King, Jr., who was back in Memphis to offer inspiration for an ongoing struggle that had celebrated recent victories. King knew that storms pass and that joy comes in the morning, for he had witnessed the pain of water cannons and police dogs; he remembered the Birmingham bombing and the bombing of his own home; but he also saw legislative gains and political successes. He came on the evening of April 3rd, 1968 to share his wisdom, encouragement and support, even though a huge storm was threatening to prevent him from speaking that night.

It wasn’t just the storm threatening. The city was on edge, and racial tensions and unrest were growing. Using the slogan “I AM A MAN,” 1,300 African-American male employees of the Memphis Department of Public Works had gone on strike to demand better working conditions, higher wages and recognition of their union. King knew firsthand that economic injustice was equally as damaging as racial injustice, which was the impetus behind his Poor People’s Campaign. Following the death of two workers, he had already visited Memphis twice in the last month, the first time to give a speech to between 15,000 and 25,000 people. Robert Walker and Echol Cole had been crushed to death by the garbage truck they worked on when they took shelter inside the compactor to escape severe weather. The city had rules on where workers could go to protect themselves and the compactor barrel was the only place they were allowed to take cover. Tragically, it was also the place that compressed them to their death. Read more on History.com

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Huffington Post | March 16, 2018

Package Bombings Reveal The Racist Underbelly Of Austin

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When people think about March in Austin, Texas, they probably think about tacos, brisket, listening to music in the park, South By Southwest and drinking craft beer from a local brewery. This March has been different.

News broke on Monday that two package bombs had exploded in our community. One killed Draylen Mason, 17, and critically injured his mother. The second struck 75-year-old Esperanza Herrera. Even more terrifying: It quickly became apparent that these bombings were connected to the package bombing that killed Anthony Stephan House, 39, in northeast Austin on March 2.

Amidst heated debates on gun control and terrorism on U.S. soil, the Austin package bombings feel like one more chapter of violence in the story of our increasingly dangerous country. They also invoke another aspect of our national history that too many Americans are hesitant to acknowledge: our history of racial terrorism. Read more on HuffPost

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History.com | March 13, 2018

How U.S. Westward Expansion Breathed New Life into Slavery

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Like most people uprooted by the Cherokee Trail of Tears, Eliza Whitmire experienced terrible trauma.

In 1830, the U.S. government passed the Indian Removal Act. Eliza was about five years old when more than 3,000 armed militia arrived in Cherokee country in 1838. The militia companies forced her, her family and her community to march more than 1,000 miles west—through Northern Georgia, across the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, to present-day Oklahoma.

Her mother described “the bitter memory” of “women and children…driven from their homes, sometimes with blows.” The sick, young and elderly sometimes rode in wagons, but the majority of the tens of thousands being displaced traversed the rugged territory on foot. Along the way, starvation posed a constant threat. It was a “time filled with horror and suffering for the unfortunate Cherokee and their slaves,” Eliza later recalled. Read more on History.com

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Biography.com | March 5, 2018

Honoring James Baldwin and the Enduring Power of His Words

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James Baldwin was one of the leading writers, intellectuals, and activists of the 20th century. Born in New York, Baldwin left the United States at age 24 to live and work in France. He sought to escape the physical and structural violence perpetuated against African Americans and to establish psychological distance to pursue his literary craft. Baldwin returned home periodically to engage in Civil Rights activism, meet with his publishers, visit family, and teach language and literature.

Most of Baldwin’s works explore the tensions of race, sexuality, and class in the United States. Precision, clarity, and honesty characterize these writings, many of which focus on his own experiences growing up poor, gay, and black in urban America. Baldwin’s prolific writings include essays, novels, plays, articles, poems, and sermons. The exhibition at the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), “Making a Way Out of No Way” offers a compelling multi-media display that underscores the themes of activism, creativity, and identity, which frame Baldwin’s life. Read more on Biography.com

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Biography.com | February 20, 2018

Black History Month: Photos of Booker T. Washington Symbolizing Black Empowerment

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As a leader, educator, philanthropist and former slave, Booker T. Washington advocated for racial uplift through industrial and domestic education. He was one of the most well known African-American public figures of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Washington rose to prominence as the head of Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute where he secured funding from white philanthropists including Andrew Carnegie and later Julius Rosenwald. His thrust into public notoriety occurred after he delivered “The Atlanta Compromise Speech” in 1895 and years later, he shared his life story in Up From Slavery (1901). Washington remained an important leader of the black community although some considered his philosophies controversial. Washington emphasized vocational training for African Americans and did not seek to disrupt the racial hierarchy. He also received support from major white philanthropists and was a champion of black industrial education and economic development. Two artifacts owned by the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) make Washington’s life, and more importantly, his influence, apparent. Read more on Biography.com

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Biography.com | February 13, 2018

Black History Month: Photos of Frederick Douglass & His 'North Star' on His 200th Birthday

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Frederick Douglass is arguably the most highly recognized African-American man of the 19th century. Although born enslaved, he learned to read and write, and after he escaped, went on to become a public speaker, editor, recruiter for the Union Army, bank president, minister and consul general to Haiti. Many consider Douglass an important literary figure as well because he published countless speeches and three autobiographies: The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845); My Bondage and My Freedom (1855); and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881 and 1882).

These accounts provide a clear sense of his growth, struggles, and some of his most intimate thoughts and feelings. Douglass was also the founder and editor of The North Star, an abolitionist newspaper, an 1848 edition of which is held in the collection of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) and is on display there in the exhibition, “Slavery and Freedom.” Additionally, Douglass has been recognized as the most photographed man of his day, and one of those original photographs is in the collection of NMAAHC. Read more on Biography.com

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Biography.com | February 8, 2018

Black History Month: A Rare Photo & Royal Shawl Honor Harriet Tubman's Strength & Bravery

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Harriet Tubman, called the “Moses” of her people, known for liberating herself and countless others from the yoke of slavery, is probably the most recognized African American woman of the 19th century. In addition to aiding runaways, she served as a scout, spy, cook and nurse for the Union Army during the Civil War. Sarah H. Bradford, an antebellum author, recorded the earliest biographies of Tubman’s life: Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman (1869) and Harriet, the Moses of Her People (1886), although Tubman insisted on a revision of the first to provide readers with a more authentic chronology. Tubman donated the proceeds from these books to raise funds for poor and elderly African Americans. Today, the National Museum of African American History and Culture includes in its collection several artifacts relating to Tubman’s life including her shawl, on display in the exhibit “Slavery and Freedom,” and a very rare photograph of a young Tubman. Read more on Biography.com

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Biography.com | February 5, 2018

Black History Month: How Early Photographs Reveal the Indomitable Spirit of Abolitionist Sojourner Truth

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Sojourner Truth was one of the most well-known abolitionists, preachers, and feminist public speakers of the 19th century. She first shared her remarkable life experiences with slavery and freedom in the Narrative of Sojourner Truth, recorded by Olive Gilbert, published in 1850 and reprinted countless times afterward. Written in third person, the narrative is frequently interrupted by Gilbert’s own opinions which often silenced Truth’s voice. But Sojourner Truth was not someone who would be silenced; she told her story to large and small audiences and made sure her message and images would be around for years to come. In addition to leaving a Narrative behind, she also produced a series of photographs, two of which are in the collection of the National Museum of African American History and Culture and one is on display in the exhibition, “Slavery and Freedom” at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Read more on Biography.com

editorial

New York Times | February 3, 2018

Beyond the Slave Trade, the Cadaver Trade

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The topic of slavery features prominently in each February’s reflections on African-American history. But when it comes to this darkest time in our country’s past, experts are still discovering horrors that have not yet made their way into history books.

One shocking fact that’s recently come to light: Major medical schools used slave corpses, acquired through an underground market in dead bodies, for education and research.

Yes, there was a robust body-snatching industry in which cadavers — mostly the bodies of black people, many of whom had been enslaved when they were alive — were used at Harvard, the Universities of Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia, and other institutions.

It is time to acknowledge this dark truth behind our understanding of human anatomy and modern medicine.

Over several years, I’ve studied what I call the domestic cadaver trade and its connection to 19th-century medical education. The body trade was as elaborate as the trans-Atlantic and domestic slave trade that transported Africans to the New World and resold African-Americans on our soil. But when enslaved people died, some were sold again and trafficked along the same roads and waterways they traveled while alive.

The domestic cadaver trade was active, functional and profitable for much of the 19th century. Fueled by demand from medical schools’ need for specimens for anatomy classes, it was a booming business. Typically, the supply of bodies consisted of executed criminals and unclaimed corpses from almshouses and prisons. Read more on The New York Times

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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

editorial

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

editorial

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

editorial

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*