November 19, 2010


Dialogue asks 'Does slavery still matter?'

One hundred and forty-five years after the 13th Amendment abolished slavery, the concept of un-free labor is still firmly entrenched in the American story, said Earl Lewis, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs and Asa Griggs Candler Professor of History and African American Studies.

Speaking at a Nov. 18 Unity Month event, Lewis explored the question, “Does Slavery Still Matter?” The interactive Dialogue on Diversity and Race was one of several programs coordinated this month by the Office of Multicultural Programs and Services and the Unity Planning Committee to foster greater understanding and appreciation among Emory’s diverse groups. 

The question of slavery is far from settled, said Lewis. From the Reconstruction Amendments adopted between 1865 and 1870, to the glamorization of plantation life in Hollywood, slavery continues to inform structural and cultural constructs, as well as a sense of personal and shared history, he explained.    

“The systems of accountability were not accountable,” he said. “This is really a story about labor exploitation and the ways in which labor and capital came together to find the cheapest labor possible.”

After the Civil War, former slaves reconnected with their families and built churches, schools, banks and colleges to shore up the framework of their community. Leaders emerged to secure a place for African Americans on the national stage.

What followed was a form of “neo-slavery,” said Lewis, through political reprisal and new modes of violence and coercion, which were packaged in a system of sharecropping and Jim Crow laws. Films like “The Birth of a Nation” offered a “cultural lesson plan,” he added, suggesting a savage, malicious quality to African Americans to perpetuate segregation.

“Historical memory sometimes links up to a past that we may not frame as our own,” said Lewis, whose grandparents were the children of slaves.

“This has not merely been an abstraction, but it is one person removed in American history,” he continues. “We either run from it or run toward it, but it is there in our relationships with others.”

Unity Month events conclude on Nov. 23. Visit for the schedule of events.

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