Constitutional Liberties and Race: Terms and Conditions Apply

A couple of weeks before the holiday, a robust debate emerged on the AAIHS blog about the Thirteenth Amendment, in particular the effects of its notorious “loophole” as described in the recent documentary 13th. Patrick Rael’s “Demystifying the Thirteenth Amendment and its Impact on Mass Incarceration” got the conversation started, and Dennis Childs’s “Slavery, the Thirteenth Amendment, and Mass Incarceration” was a scathing rejoinder to Rael’s post. For those who haven’t seen 13th, or are unfamiliar with the loophole, the Thirteenth Amendment, which “ended” slavery, reads as follows:

SECTION 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction. SECTION 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Continue reading “Constitutional Liberties and Race: Terms and Conditions Apply”

Some Thoughts on the Electoral College

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The American Revolution embodied, despite the misgivings of many of its leaders, some profoundly radical ideas. Rebelling against the world’s most powerful monarchy and replacing its authority with a clutch of homegrown republican governments (of varying effectiveness) was as fundamental a political change as one could imagine in the 1770s and early 1780s. It’s hard to see that from our contemporary vantage point, however; looking backwards through the French and–especially–the Haitian Revolutions, the revolution that created the United States looks tentative, even skittish, by comparison. Yet it’s also evident that the American Revolution and its early republican aftermath fell far short of fulfilling the truly radical potential inherent within the process of declaring independence from Britain and establishing a republic in place of an imperial sovereignty. Most glaringly, the revolutionary rhetoric of liberty and equality was notable more for who it excluded in practice–women, indigenous Americans, people of color both enslaved and free–than anything else.

And yet. Continue reading “Some Thoughts on the Electoral College”

What Is To Be Done

A little over a week ago, I had the honor of attending the New York Film Festival premiere of 13th, a documentary directed by Ava DuVernay that confronts the issues of race, incarceration, and justice in the United States. As one of the talking heads (a historian’s life goal, to be honest) in the film, I was intellectually aware of the phenomena, statistics, mindsets, and events the film addresses. But it wasn’t until I viewed the film–a relentless, unflinching, prophetic indictment of the structures of racism and inequality upon which our entire society rests–that I truly felt what I had before only known. In the activities that accompanied the premiere–including this historian setting a new standard for awkward walks on the red carpet–a sense of urgency seemed to pervade the proceedings. Yes, there was celebration; 13th is the first documentary to open the NYFF, Ava DuVernay is also the first woman filmmaker of color to earn that distinction, and the film is a Netflix production and will thus have a huge platform for its vitally important story. So celebration was certainly in order. I was proud to participate in those celebrations, and deeply humbled to have been asked to participate in such an urgently powerful work of art. But there was urgency, too. Now that this story is out there, in all of its raw, agonizing, poignant glory, what next? Continue reading “What Is To Be Done”

In Which I Find Myself in a Movie

About a year ago, I was asked if I wanted to be interviewed for a documentary project. Since being a talking head on a documentary is a total Historian Win, I eagerly accepted the invitation. That led to me spending an October afternoon in a Bronx studio, being interviewed by the noted director Ava DuVernay. I’m honored to be a part of DuVernay’s urgent and important documentary, The 13th, which is a powerful, compelling examination of how race, incarceration, and injustice are woven within the very  fabric of this country’s history. The 13th will premier this Friday at the New York Film Festival, the first documentary to ever lead that festival. There are a lot of prominent scholars and public figures appearing in the film, and then there’s….me? I’m beyond stoked that I’ll be there this weekend to see the premier and meet others involved in the film (many of whom whose work I admire greatly). I’ll be excited to engage with people in a variety of venues, both this weekend and beyond, and be a part of the crucially important conversations that this film will undoubtedly spark. The 13th will be available on Netflix on October 7. It challenges us to be honest and unblinking in confronting the injustices that have been part and parcel of this country’s history, and I hope its challenge will be accepted by all of us.

I’ll have another post next week that recaps the weekend’s events and reflects on this experience (preview: I am still kind of stunned that I’m a part of all of this. Holy crap.)

I Will Not Argue About the Confederate Flag.

The murder of nine Americans by a terrorist in Charleston Wednesday night, besides being a monumental tragedy, also gave us the absurd spectacle of South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley (a woman of color) telling us “that we’ll never understand what motivates anyone to enter one of our places of worship and take the life of another” as pictures emerged of the killer wearing flags of apartheid regimes on his jacket, sitting on his car with a Confederate States faux license plate, all in a state where the only flag not lowered to half-mast was the Confederate Battle Flag that sits astride the front approach to South Carolina’s capitol. The mental gymnastics it took for Haley to blithely claim we’ll never know the motives of a killer who actually told victims what his motives were as well as literally wearing those motives on his sleeve defy imagination. She has since added more nuance to her public statements on the tragedy (for which the bar was set remarkably low), but still ignores one area in which much of the state–and nation–has focused on: the continuing official presence of the Confederate flag on the State House grounds in Columbia. How can one try to explain away the racist motives of Dylann Roof in a state where the flag of an actual racist regime occupies such pride of place? The short answer is that one cannot do so without extraordinary exertions of willful ignorance. But we also know that this hasn’t stopped racists before. Continue reading “I Will Not Argue About the Confederate Flag.”