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Thinking About Equality, 150 Years After Emancipation.

January 1, 2013
Not actually 10 in any of these photos, but you get the idea...

Not actually 10 in any of these photos, but you get the idea…

When I was a kid, 10 or so maybe, I was reading I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, and Mom asked me if I was liking it.

“No, I hate it.”

“It’s a classic, Michelle! Why do you hate it?”

“Because people shouldn’t be treated that way, and I just wish I coulda been there to do something about it!”

That’s my first memory of sensing a real passion against racial injustice. Here’s the deal: Racial injustice isn’t confined to the past, it happens now, and I am here, and I can do something about it.

10-year-old Michelle Palmer demands it of me.

I’ve been thinking for a while now about what I can do. Can’t do much all on my own, to be honest. But this is where I’d like to start. I want to start, using this tiny little platform of mine, an exploration of why things are the way they are. I want to explore “the idea that some lives matter less” (phrase stolen directly from Fée de Hoog). I want to explore it because it’s a horrible idea, and yet it seems to be pretty prevalent in the world, ya know?

They say every American thinks of Abe Lincoln once a day.

They say every American thinks of Abe Lincoln once a day.

So, for starters, I have this notion that we, as American students, cover Lincoln & emancipation, coast through Reconstruction, take a pit stop at Jim Crow en route to the Civil Rights Movement, and completely ignore the broader context of racism, both psychological and systematic, that has enveloped American society for its entire history. Because then we think that everything should be okay by now and act surprised that it isn’t.

It’s all very fitting, because today marks the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation that freed four million slaves in the American South. The first time I heard it referred to as the “Botched Emancipation of 1863” was last April. Kevin Bales used the term, and it stung a bit. I like Abe Lincoln! He shares a name with my favorite relative! He ended slavery! You can’t just defame what he did, Kev! But that’s not what he was doing. He was simply explaining what Frederick Douglass understood, that ending slavery isn’t just a matter of freeing people.

You say you have emancipated us. You have; and I thank you for it. But what is your emancipation?

When the Israelites were emancipated they were told to go and borrow of their neighbors—borrow their coin, borrow their jewels, load themselves down with the means of subsistence; after, they should go free in the land which the Lord God gave them. When the Russian serfs had their chains broken and given their liberty, the government of Russia—aye, the despotic government of Russia—gave to those poor emancipated serfs a few acres of land on which they could live and earn their bread.

But when you turned us loose, you gave us no acres. You turned us loose to the sky, to the storm, to the whirlwind, and, worst of all, you turned us loose to the wrath of our infuriated masters.

Frederick Douglass, 1876

Clearly, emancipation’s an important step, but it’s the not the only step. Slavery is like poison. And if I’m drinking poison, the first step is to stop drinking, but that’s not enough, is it?

So, there you have it. That’s my starting point. I don’t know where all this will take me, but I do hope some all of you will join me. I don’t want this to be a soapbox but a dialogue. I want it to be broader than America. And most of all, I want to change the way we think about equality.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 1, 2013 5:57 pm

    Very nice, Michelle!

    Chad Brand

  2. CSP permalink
    January 2, 2013 3:36 pm

    This is great. Looking forward to the next installment EmPea!

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