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2013: In the Shadow of Slavery

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Seven score and ten years ago President Abraham Lincoln returned to Washington from Pennsylvania after communicating to his war-torn nation the inconsistencies between the American ideal of human equality and the practice of slavery. The 16th President's two-minute long discourse is considered one of the best speeches of all time.

In 1963, exactly a century later, in his equally famous I Have a Dream speech, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. - speaking in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial - recapped the narratives of many themes from the Gettysburg Address.

2013 is the sesquicentennial anniversary of Mr. Lincoln's challenge to stop the Civil War and the Golden anniversary of Dr. King's March on Washington Speech. Our hallowed hopes and dreams as One Nation Under God are still vibrant and dynamic, a beacon light to the world, but slavery is still grossly misunderstood and misconstrued by most Americans.

The many shadowy impacts and outcomes of America's original sin got new leases on life in 2013, both on the popular cultural war battlegrounds as well as in elite, polite circles. Two widely-popular films -- Django and 12 Years a Slave -- presented new images about human bondage in America, its agents and sufferers roles recast from age-old stereotypes. In addition to the silver screen, two silver-tongued political figures -- Sarah Palin and Jim Wheeler -- invoked slavery as metaphor to dramatize their anti-President Barack Obama speech-making.

In her latest gaffe-filled denunciations of the president, Ms. Palin said last month that the national debt "will be like slavery when the note comes due." Assemblyman Wheeler told an Arizona GOP audience in November that he would "vote to bring back slavery, if that's what the constituency wants." And, never to be outdone, provocateur/rapper Kanye West rolled out the flag of the Old Confederacy as part of his new rap rhyme, "New Slaves," saying he did so in the manner that the gay community co-opted the word "queer" and African-Americans the n-word.

Now to the mix comes the thoroughly researched, richly-detailed and forcefully-written book, Ebony and Ivy, by Craig Steven Wilder, professor of history at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Professor Wilder takes the cover off "The North," so to speak. No beach read, Wilder's is a gracefully and dispassionately-written academic book which de-sanitizes the genocide of Native American and African populations who were at the centerpiece of the economy between the American Revolution and the Civil War. If you are one who ever thought or said, "this country was built on the labor of slaves," then this thought-provoking book is just for you because it unearths and identifies bones long buried in American history books.

To the well-known list of slave masters who inhabited the Southern stately plantation mansions depicted in Gone with the Wind -- in places like Atlanta, Savannah and Augusta -- Professor Wilder adds the ivy-shrouded halls in Cambridge, New Haven, and New York City. He names and profiles the founders, trustees, prestigious scholars and presidents of such colleges as Brown, Columbia, Dartmouth, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Penn - the Ivy League; and shows how all were deeply involved in -- and much dependent financially on -- the removal of Native Americans and the slave trade.

Also among this crème de la crème of America's earliest colleges that were as central to slavery then as MIT is to nanotechnology today stood President Thomas Jefferson's University of Virginia and the oldest public university in the USA - 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 we are 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." Making things right involves recognizing the wrongs, not distorting, simplifying, and certainly not ignoring them. We will be better off should in 2014 we say and do things that will bring even more sunlight to roll back the shadows of our past.