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black history

Identity

LeVar Burton shares thoughtful reaction to finding out he has a Confederate ancestor

“There’s some conflict roiling inside of me right now, but also oddly enough I feel a pathway opening up…"

James Henry Dixon was a North Carolina farmer with a wife and children when he fathered Burton's great-grandmother.

The United States has long been seen as a "melting pot," a "nation of immigrants," and a country where people of diverse backgrounds mix and mingle together under the common banner of freedom and liberty.

It's a bit more complicated than that, though, especially for Black Americans whose ancestors came to the U.S. by force as part of the "peculiar institution" of human chattel slavery. Through the cruel system of buying, selling and breeding human beings for generations, many people's ancestral knowledge was stolen from them, a historical reality that prompted "Black" with a capital "B" as an ethnic and cultural identifier for people of the African diaspora.

Curiosity about the varied backgrounds of Americans is the basis of "Finding Your Roots," a PBS series hosted by Harvard professor Henry Gates, Jr. The show has revealed some surprises in some famous people's DNA, including the beloved "Reading Rainbow" host, LeVar Burton.

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Education

Ever heard of 'drapetomania'? Why every American needs to learn about this 'disease'

Dr. Cartwright's 1815 explanation of the "malady" and its "cure" sheds a disturbing light on the "kind" treatment some enslaved people received.

Public Domain

Dr. Samuel Cartwright invented an entire mental illness to explain why Black slaves repeatedly ran away.

If you've never heard of drapetomania, you're not alone. It's a disease that doesn't exist anymore. In fact, it didn't even exist when it was coined, but plenty of people in the Antebellum South believed that it did.

After all, a renowned, well-respected doctor defined "drapetomania"—combining the Greek words for "runaway" and "madness"—as "the disease causing Negroes to run away" in 1851.

Dr. Samuel Cartwright was the first president of the Mississippi State Medical Society and a leading expert on diseases and medicine in the Southern states in the mid-1800s. He was also an unapologetic white supremacist. In a short paper titled, "Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race," Cartwright managed to pathologize the normal human desire to not be enslaved and even prescribed a "remedy" for it.

To be frank, Cartwright's explanation of drapteomania, its causes and its cures is a nauseating read, but it's also an important one. Slavery minimizers often try to argue that "not all masters treated their slaves badly," insinuating that the enslaved person's experience wasn't always terrible (as if being enslaved in and of itself is not terrible). But reading a doctor explain how to cure the "disease" of wanting to escape slavery highlights how even "care" and "kindness" toward enslaved people were often deeply steeped in racism.

I'm sharing the four paragraphs that explain drapetomania in their entirety because reading primary documents is a big part of a full education. (If you want the TL;DR version, it's basically, "Holy blatant white supremacy, Batman.")

Again, this came from one of the most renowned doctors in the American South at the time:


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Democracy

Mississippi's 'Confederate Heritage Month' is wrong and needs to end now

Let's talk about why applying words like "honor" and "heritage" to the Confederacy is ridiculous.

Photo by Jen Theodore on Unsplash

April Confederate Heritage Month in Mississippi

Governor Tate Reeves of Mississippi has declared April as Confederate Heritage Month in the Magnolia State, marking the 30th year of this ridiculous and wrong "tradition."

If you're wondering how the state's leadership justifies something so backwards in 2023, here are the three reasons listed for recognizing Confederate Heritage Month in the official proclamation:

1) April is when the Civil War, "the costliest and deadliest" war ever fought on American soil, began. (Um, y'all know the Confederates were the ones who started this costly and deadly war, right?)

2) State law designates the last Monday in April as Confederate Memorial Day, "to honor those who served in the Confederacy." (To honor those who did what, now? Served in the Confederacy? So you're not merely memorializing those who tragically died fighting for a wrong-headed, racist cause, but you're "honoring" anyone who "served" that cause? Interesting.)

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Education

Sojourner Truth's real 'Ain't I a Woman?' speech was nothing like the famous one we all read

A prime example of how historical distortions can paint a totally inaccurate picture.

The famous Sojourner Truth speech most of us learned is a fabrication.

For generations, students have read the extemporaneous speech Sojourner Truth gave at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in 1851, known widely as "Ain't I a Woman?" As a formerly enslaved Black woman speaking out against slavery and for women's rights, Truth made some powerful points in her speech—except the speech most of us read is almost nothing like the one she delivered.

The way "Ain't I a Woman?" is written makes it sound as if Truth walked straight off a Southern plantation. But Truth was a Northerner her entire life. The Southern dialect that permeates the popular version of her speech is a total fabrication.

It wasn't Truth who altered her speech, though. A white abolitionist woman named Frances Dana Gage published the speech 12 years after it was given, and her version is the one that became popularized, in all its glorious inaccuracy.

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