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Photo by David Lewinski.

My grandmother used to tell me stories about her father, a man born into slavery who claimed African American as well as Native American forebears. His name was Price. He lived in Mississippi as a boy and felt the immediate, transformative effects of the U.S. Civil War. He came of age as a free man, but faced the brutal limitations of unrelenting racial prejudice. He had children; they had children; those children had children, and here I am. My grandmother never finished grade school. She picked cotton as a girl down South, then cleaned homes for white families to make a living for her own twelve children in the North. She is the most brilliant person I have ever known. When I was admitted to Harvard College, my grandmother told me that one of her employers had a son who was a professor there. She couldn’t believe that her granddaughter would be at the same school, not as his maid, but as a student. The memory of my grandmother’s beaming pride at my graduation, after all of her years spent stooping down in cotton fields and kitchens, still brings tears to my eyes. She passed away at the age of 90, just before my twin daughters reached their first birthday. She had a lovely funeral. As my grandmother would say, we sent her home in “high cotton.”

The Metaphysics of History

When I travel to give presentations on my work, I most often hear feedback on an interview with Krista Tippett, titled “On Living Memory,” where I talked about the metaphysics of history. Here it is:
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The magic of history may be this: with time comes change. So how can we channel that magic? How can we shape that inevitable change for the betterment of our planet Earth and all of her motley residents – the animate and the inanimate, the weak as well as the strong? How can we play our parts in history for the greater good? How can we make history together, aligning in our minds the reality of change and the righteousness of justice?

The Call of the Ancestors

A quotation from my mother, upon learning that I had just won a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship:

Go make your ancestors proud.

The Call of History

A quotation from historian Walter Johnson’s article, “On Agency” (Journal of Social History, 2003):

If we are to acknowledge the claims of the past upon the present and to frame our scholarship as acts of redress, it seems to me important that we do so in ways that engage the exigencies of the present – the globalization of racialized and feminized structures of exploitation, rates of black incarceration in the United states that are unprecedented in world history, the resurgence of slavery – plain and simple slavery – as a mode of production, and, importantly, the emergence of new forms of (global) political solidarity and collective action – with terms other than those produced by an earlier struggle. It requires, that is, that we re-immerse ourselves in the nightmare of History rather than resting easy while dreaming that it is dawn and we have awakened.