(pictured above: “Ebony and Ivy” book author and MIT history professor, Craig Steven Wilder)
Seven score and 10 years ago, in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln returned to Washington from Gettysburg, Penn. after giving a speech to his war-torn nation. In what is recognized as one of the best-known speeches in American history, Mr. Lincoln offered his vision about America as it was being torn apart after a century during which white superiority and the enslavement of blacks stood perilously side-by-side on a foundation based on the sacred principle of human equality and justice for all.
In 1963, exactly a century later, in his equally famous “I Have a Dream” speech, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, speaking in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial, recapped and modernized the narrative of many of the themes from the Gettysburg Address.
Today, hope is still alive, but there are those who remind us of how far we have yet to go if we are to understand slavery and free ourselves of the mental chains that still bind us from the vision and reality of equality.
A national dialogue about slavery was sparked this year by the widely-popular films “Django Unchained” and “12 Years a Slave.” In addition, political figures Sarah Palin and Jim Wheeler (a Nevada Assembly member) were widely criticized for evoking slavery to criticize President Obama and the current state politics. And, never to be outdone, Kanye West is marketing the flag of the Old Confederacy as part of his new rap rhyme “New Slaves,” saying he is doing so in the manner that the gay community co-opted the word “queer” and African-Americans did with the n-word.
Now to the mix comes an exhaustively researched, richly-detailed and forcefully-written book “Ebony and Ivy” by Craig Steven Wilder, a professor of history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. No beach read, Wilder’s book is a gracefully and dispassionately written and desanitizes the genocide of Native American and African populations. If you’ve ever thought or said, “This country was built on the labor of slaves,” then this thought-provoking book is just for you, because it uncovers and identifies bones long lost in the closets of American history. He profiles past founders, trustees, top scholars and presidents of Ivy League schools – Brown, Cornell, Columbia, Dartmouth, Harvard, Yale, Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania – who were involved in the slave trade and dependent on the removal of Native Americans. Wilder points out that non-Ivies were also central to slavery, including President Thomas Jefferson’s University of Virginia and the nation’s oldest public university – the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Many would say that we burden ourselves too much when we dredge up such dread and terror, but without memory, a collective memory, we are less human and more likely to be less humane to each other. George Santayana put it best: “those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Dr. William Turner is a Texas-based educator and writer.