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Photographs of lynching "parties" reveal that members of the mob

or audience often posed with the corpses of their victims  



Recent Books on Lynching in America

 Sherrilyn A. Hill,  On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the Twentieth-First Century  (Review)

Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America (2000) / 100 Years of Lynching (1996) /

Southern Horrors and Other Writings; The Anti-Lynching Campaign of Ida B. Wells, 1892-1900 (1996)

Lynching in the New South: Georgia and Virginia, 1880-1930 (Blacks in the New World) (1993)

Imagery of Lynching: Black Men, White Women, and the Mob (2004)  / At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America (2003)

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Lynching And Racial Violence: Histories & Legacies

 Report From A Conference  

By Peter Rachleff


Between the end of Reconstruction (mid-1870s) and World War II, there were some 3,500 documented incidents of lynching and mob violence against African Americans, most of them in the South.  The victims, mostly men, were not only hung, but often also tortured, their bodies displayed publicly and/or dismembered for grisly souvenirs. Sometimes these men had been convicted of a crime, sometimes only accused, and sometimes even acquitted, but the real point was to terrorize the communities in which African Americans lived. 

Although the participants in the mob rarely hid their identities, few were ever arrested, let alone punished for their crimes; in fact, according to police reports, grand jury investigations, and newspaper accounts, the African American victims met their fates "at the hands of parties unknown." 

Starting in the 1890s, African Americans in the North and South, and their white allies, built an anti- lynching movement which used diverse strategies to confront these outrages.  They used not only petitions, letter-writing, marches, and rallies, but also plays, songs, visual art, films, and cartoons to assert the humanity of the victims, educate the public about the scope of the problem, and pressure politicians to pass a federal anti-lynching law.  

While this movement ebbed and flowed and never did achieve its legislative goal, it became an important current within the "river," as historian Vincent Harding has called it of the freedom struggle. The anti-lynching movement confronted not only the violent acts that became known as "lynching," but also images of those acts which sought to lionize the mob and dehumanize their victims.  

Often, an enterprising photographer or, as time went on and technology allowed, an amateur in possession of a Kodak or a Brownie camera, documented the events. Photographs of lynching "parties" reveal that members of the mob or audience often posed with the corpses of their victims, in a sort of trophy shot akin to those of successful hunters and fishermen.   In some cases, these macabre photographs were hawked from home to home and town to town, a way for the photographers to make money and for whites who could not be present to participate vicariously in the expression of power the pictures represented.  

On occasion, the photos were turned into postcards which could be mailed to friends and relatives in distant locations.  In these ways, these lynching photographs themselves served as an important element in the maintenance of a racial hierarchy that asserted that all whites deserved to stand above all blacks.  After viewing one such photograph in 1935, composer and civil rights activist James Weldon Johnson remarked that lynching was a "problem of saving black America's body and white America's soul." 

In the 1980s, James Allen, a white southerner sympathetic to the struggle against racism, began to collect these photographs and postcards while making his rounds of antique and junk shops, flea markets, and private dealers across the South.   The images captured the horrible history of lynchings in trees, bridges, and towers, and atop bonfires.  

He also purchased posed shots of the mobs, their members staring unabashedly into the camera's lens.  As Allen's collection grew, the idea of exhibiting the images publicly occurred to him, and, in 1999, they made their first appearance in a small museum in New York City--thirty-odd worn snapshots and postcards, collectively titled "Without Sanctuary." 

Viewers had to get close to see the images, and they had to stand close to each other.  Waiting lines circled the block, even in cold, wintry weather. The exhibit eventually transferred to the New York Historical Society, where a collection of anti-lynching movement tracts, posters, and materials from the 1890s through the 1930s were added, with notebooks provided for viewers to record their thoughts and emotions. 

With supplementary essays by Allen, Congressman John Lewis, cultural critic Hilton Als, and historian Leon Litwack, a book -- WITHOUT SANCTUARY: LYNCHING PHOTOGRAPHY IN AMERICA -- was published using Allen's collection. The photographs have been every bit as controversial as the exhibit has been popular. Some critics warned of the risk of victimizing the victims once again, this time by showing their painful images, and of the danger of creating a new pornography of violence and torture. 

Other critics suggested that the photographs encouraged viewers to adopt the gaze of mob participants, to identify with the evil-doers.  There was also the possibility that white supremacist groups would themselves celebrate the lynchings and appropriate the images to post on their websites (they have done so). And then there were people who argued that the images were just too horrific to be viewed or that their display might generate racial hostilities where "progress" had been made.  

On the other hand, there were also scholars, activists, and curators who were interested in displaying the exhibit, and they called for it to tour museums and universities. Mr. Allen, scholars at Emory University in Atlanta, staff at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Historic Site in Atlanta, the U.S. National Park Service (which manages the King site), and Atlanta community leaders explored bringing the exhibit to that city, thereby displaying it in the South for the first time.  

Under the direction of an African American curator, Joseph F. Jordan, the planning group engaged the local community in a series of forums that led to a well-rounded program based at the King Historic Site, itself in the heart of Atlanta's black community.  A respectful -- one might even say sacred -- space was prepared for the display.  Mr. Jordan installed a soundscape featuring versions of Billie Holliday's "Strange Fruit," various 1930s blues songs, and the sound of  crickets. He posted names and details about the lives of the victims and limited the number of photos on display, so that viewers might remember the deaths and lives of individuals who had been murdered in this way. 

Jordan also chose to include additional materials from the anti-lynching movement in order to emphasize that African Americans had resisted white terror and to include images and stories of Jewish and Italian victims, and northern as well as southern incidents. Notebooks were provided, as in New York, for viewers to express their thoughts and feelings.  

Of course, the core of the exhibit remained those damned, damning, and damnable little black and white pictures.  They're still there, their power undiminished; 130,000 people have viewed them at the King Center. The exhibit planners opened the exhibit's run in May 2002 with a religious ceremony, consecrating the memory of the victims and honoring their descendants. They organized a film and lecture series to bring additional information to the community and serve as the bases for more discussions.  

The planners held events in Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Dr. King and his father had preached.  They reached out to community groups in other cities where there had been lynchings and incidents of racial violence--Rosewood, Florida; Moore's Ford, Georgia; Wilmington, North Carolina; Tulsa, Oklahoma; and, yes, even Duluth, Minnesota--in order to support efforts to identify and mark graves, establish public memorials, and influence school curricula in those locations.   

The planners also collaborated with the Emory University Theater Department and Professor Yvonne Singh to create a performance piece, "LynchP*n," which highlighted the mixed, complex, and even contradictory emotions that swept viewers of the exhibit.  This production provided yet another opportunity for reflection and discussion. 

In early October 2002, Emory University hosted a conference entitled "Lynching and Racial Violence: Histories and Legacies," which attracted more than 200 scholars  (including me), from undergraduate and graduate students, to young professors and senior scholars from every imaginable academic field-- history, sociology, political science, law, English, art, theater, music, religious studies, and philosophy --and 121 institutions--community colleges, private liberal arts colleges, and public research universities.  

There were also many community activists, not only from Atlanta but also from communities around the country, who have made their top priority the memorialization of places of racial violence.  The keynote speaker was Professor David Levering Lewis of Rutgers University, the author of nine books and the recipient of two Pulitzer prizes (for each volume of his biography of W.E.B. DuBois) and a MacArthur "genius" award. 

Other prominent participants included: the former counsel to Anita Hill, Emma Coleman Jordan, who is now Professor of Law at Georgetown University; former associate editor of the NEGRO DIGEST, Dr. Richard Long, a highly respected member of the Emory faculty; former Black Panther Kathleen Cleaver, now a law professor at Emory, and former Black Panther Elaine Brown, now a community organizer and writer in California.  

The lynch mobs could never have anticipated that someday such brainpower and passion would be loosed in response to the pain they had inflicted. The conference organizers clustered the presenters into twenty-five panels, which met three or four at a time. The ground they covered was breathtaking.  

Papers offered detailed accounts of more than twenty specific incidents, analysis of the role of the legal system and government authorities in tolerating if not facilitating lynchings, critical evaluations of the efforts of Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, Ida B. Wells- Barnett, Adam Clayton Powell, and other African American leaders to confront lynching, consideration of the roles played by music, drama, film, poetry, fiction, and painting in efforts to educate and influence public opinion, assessments of forms of African American resistance, including armed self- defense, civil disobedience, electoral politics, law suits, and migration out of the South, and complex interpretations of the photographs themselves as historical documents. 

Each session not only provided well-conceived presentations but also provoked lively exchanges with the audiences.  Conversations begun in question-and-answer sessions carried over to the lunch and dinner tables, while the information and insights revealed in any one session were also linked to those which emerged in other sessions. There was enough intellectual energy and heartfelt passion being generated to raise the roof of the conference center. Some ideas divided conference participants, while others were expressed as critiques of long-standing historical assumptions.

Yet others broke new ground altogether, calling attention to areas of analysis which had long been in the shadows.  Enough soil was plowed to give participants new ideas about how to make use of those difficult photographs in classrooms, new questions to bring into research, and new inspiration to bring into community work.

There were sharp differences of opinion about what is meant by the term "lynching."  Some, including Professor Levering Lewis, argued that a lynching must involve a mob taking the law into their own hands, killing one or more victims, and often following a ritualized procedure. 

Proponents of this definition also contend that most lynchings occurred between the 1870s and the 1930s.  Other conference participants countered that this definition and time frame were too narrow. 

They preferred to use the categories "racial violence" and "domestic terrorism," and they argued that such practices began during slavery (the uses of violence, whipping, maiming, torture, rape, punitive sales, and the like), took on the forms of community- based violence called "lynchings" in the years of Jim Crow (1870s through the 1940s), and then were assumed by the government itself as police brutality and capital punishment.  

These critics question the formal distinctions between legal and extra-legal violence, pointing to the presence of police officials in the lynching photos, taking note of the failure of local authorities to prosecute participants in lynchings and the unwillingness, time and again, of all three branches of the federal government (executive, legislative, and judicial) to intervene to outlaw lynching, and citing statistics that reveal the disproportionate punishment of all people of color. Few participants contested the notion that violence has been central to the construction and maintenance of racial hierarchies in the United States. 

This reflected quite a change in dominant historical interpretations, which had long emphasized economic and cultural factors.  Professor Fitzhugh Brundage of the University of North Carolina told a plenary session that most historians had so downplayed violence that it would have been impossible to hold a conference like this even a decade ago.  Not one scholarly book on lynching had been published between 1945 and 1975.  

But recent years have seen dissertations, books, and articles which probed lynchings, racial pogroms (attacks on black communities), and state-sanctioned violence, making possible a new narrative of the course of U.S. history. This narrative was always there in the "hidden memory among blacks," insisted Emma Coleman Jordan, but it was denied or ignored in published history, public representations, and the imaginations of whites.  

Here was a source of the "persistent divide" in the attitudes of blacks and whites towards the criminal justice system. Jordan cited a soon-to-be-released study by Harvard sociologist Lawrence Bobo which documents that 75% of blacks distrust the criminal justice system compared to only 8% of whites.   

Oral folklore kept the reports of murder and torture alive within African American families and communities, and today these latent memories are activated by the beating of Rodney King, the trial of O.J. Simpson, the police brutalization of Abner Louima and the shootings of Amadou Diallo in New York City and African Americans and African immigrants on the streets of Minneapolis. Presenters insisted that if our society could come to grips with the history that lies at the heart of issues like the differences between white and black attitudes towards the police, Americans could change the ways that we understand ourselves and are perceived in the world.  

Emma Jordan noted that American legal scholarship has revolved around a concept that the law marks a boundary between public and private reality; the history of lynching suggests that, much to the contrary, there are deep connections between public and private life.  An earnest investigation into the causes not only of racial violence but also into its erasure from history offers us an opportunity to rethink the sources and consequences of our deepest fears.  9/11 and the events since make such a process all the more necessary, said several speakers.  

One quoted Vernon Jordan's remarks at the opening of the "Without Sanctuary" exhibit in May 2002 that "Black people know terror.  We experience terror in America." Many presenters offered a wide range of stories about how African Americans and their white allies resisted this terror.  A variety of organizations--the NAACP, the Urban League, the Communist Party and its International Labor Defense, labor, church, and community organizations, African American newspapers-- all played important roles in particular struggles in particular communities. 

Protests, rallies, petitions, letters, pressure on politicians, marches, and even armed self-defense were employed from time to time and from place to place, and conference papers told these stories with the passion and compelling details these efforts deserved.  Many nails were driven into the coffin of the old shibboleth that African Americans had passively "accommodated" to racism. 

Among the great revelations of the conference was the information provided about the ways that black and white activists had used the arts--drama, music, painting, sculpture, poetry, fiction, cartoons -- to rally opposition to racial violence.  African American women played particularly prominent roles in this work.  In 1916, Angelina Weld-Grimke's play "Rachel" not only exposed the impact of lynching on black families but also became the first black-written non-musical play professionally performed by black actors.  Its success inspired W.E.B. DuBois to organize a Drama Committee within the NAACP and the CRISIS and OPPORTUNITY magazines to offer annual playwriting contests.  

Three years later in Boston, Meta Fuller sculpted a statue of lynching victim Mary Turner as a compelling "silent protest."  Other women wrote plays, poems, and novels over the next decades, and they were joined by such men as Claude MacKay and Langston Hughes. In the mid-1930s, two art shows in New York City brought together a wide range of paintings to call public attention to efforts to pass a federal anti-lynching law.  

A couple of papers examined anti-lynching themes in recent African American art.  Many of the presentations were accompanied by slides of photographs, paintings, fabrics, sculptures, and collages. Some presenters also offered new skills for looking at visual materials.  This was particularly the case in the viewing and interpretation of the lynching photographs themselves.  Viewers should not take them at face value as "documents," several young scholars argued, but attempt to understand them as "constructions," composed by photographers and mob participants to create certain perceptions.  

One of the most important of these was white racial solidarity, performed and expressed across class lines (reflected in the clothing of the members of the mobs) as well as gender and generational lines.  These constructions often mirrored other forms of photographs--middle- class portraiture (again, the mob), criminal mug shots (the victims), and medical students (usually white) with cadavers (usually black) in dissecting rooms. 

Furthermore, the lynching photographs were often circulated along with photographs of the white victims of the black alleged criminals, constructing and reinforcing a narrative of white innocence and black guilt. Some presenters argued for the presence of black agency in the construction of visual images as alternatives to the lynching photographs.  

There were African American photographers who provided pictures of the victims' lives and families for their funerals, or of their funerals for their families afterwards, so that they might be remembered as they lived and were loved, and not just as they died.  These photographs offered images of resurrection to replace the dominant ones of murder and dishonor.  

Presenters reported on African American newspapers' preference for hand-drawn illustrations and cartoons rather than photographs, because drawings seemed less disrespectful than photographs and hand-drawn images could offer interpretations which directed viewers' seeing.  One presenter showed several cartoons that suggested that lynching was an expression of white insecurities about their own masculinity.  

Less graphic than photographs, drawings also defended against the danger of a voyeurism of victimized bodies.  African American photographers and illustrators helped provide responses to the images of subjection conveyed in the lynching photographs. Although the very scholarship that informed the conference had valuable political implications and can be understood as political work, the conference ended on a particularly activist note.  

A conference presenter from St. Joseph, Missouri, informed a break out session that the very day before the conference opened, a young Kenyan man had been found hanging from a radio tower in her city.  This tower was located only three blocks from the scene of a multiple lynching in 1906 from a tower which had since been torn down. While it was hard enough to believe our ears, we were suddenly confronted with the visual evidence of digital pictures of the young man's body.  The very air seemed to be sucked out of the room.  

The presenter explained that the local authorities had left his body hanging for more than twelve hours, and that they had already ruled his death a suicide, over the objection of his mother.  It was his mother who had encouraged the presenter to bring the pictures to us.  The analytical coup-de-grace was delivered when the presenter explained that St. Joseph, Missouri, is Attorney General John Ashcroft's hometown--the very man now in charge of "homeland security." 

Participants in that break out session, led by Emory faculty members and Elaine Brown, decided to draft a letter to Attorney General Ashcroft, calling for a federal investigation into this case of "domestic terrorism."  By 5:00 PM that afternoon, an eloquent letter had been drafted for the entire conference assembly to discuss and possibly sign.  After a constructive discussion, conference participants lined up to affix their names to the letter.  

There were also plans laid to release the letter to the media around the country.  After all, we had come from every corner of the country, and we had experience dealing with the media in our home communities.  These tragic events in Missouri had provided us with an opportunity to take what we had been learning and put it to immediate use. This conference about such a difficult and painful history had contributed to scholarly and activist efforts to shape a more hopeful future.

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The photographs collected and exhibited as "Without Sanctuary" can be viewed on the internet at  Potential viewers should be aware that the images are very disturbing.  The website explains how to purchase the book and offers an opportunity to participate in discussions about the exhibit. Additional information can be accessed at and . Conference organizers, led by Professor Rudolph Byrd of the African American Studies Department at Emory University, have also announced their intent to publish a collection of the conference papers and presentations.  Additional websites with information about lynching in America can be found at

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Walter Francis White (July 1, 1893, Atlanta, Georgia – March 21, 1955, New York, New York) was an African American who became a spokesman for his community in the United States for almost a quarter of a century, and served as executive secretary (1931–1955) of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He graduated from Atlanta University in 1916 (now Clark Atlanta University). In 1918 he joined the small national staff of the NAACP in New York at the invitation of James Weldon Johnson. White acted as Johnson's assistant national secretary. In 1931 he succeeded him at the helm of the NAACP.

White oversaw the plans and organizational structure of the fight against public segregation. Under his leadership, the NAACP set up the Legal Defense Fund, which raised numerous legal challenges to segregation and disfranchisement, and achieved many successes. Among these was the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, which determined that segregated education was inherently unequal. He was the virtual author of President Truman's presidential order desegregating the armed forces after the Second World War. White also quintupled NAACP membership to nearly 500,000.In addition to his NAACP work, White was a journalist, novelist, and essayist, and influential in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s.  Wikipedia.

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Peter Rachleff is a professor of history and a member of the African American Studies Program at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.  He has taught there since 1982, offering courses in U.S. labor history, African American history, and immigration and ethnic history.  He is the director of the Mellon Minority Undergraduate Fellowship Program at Macalester. With Beth Cleary, Rachleff is currently researching the work of the "Jubilee Singers" of the Buffalo Historical Marionettes, a troupe of eight African American puppeteers/singers who were employed by the Federal Theater Project in Buffalo, NY, during the 1930s.  

They performed historically-oriented plays with "black" and "white" puppets for audiences of school children, nursing home residents, CCC campers, hospital patients, and the general public. This research has led to presentations at conferences in New York City, Chicago, Detroit, and Paris, and will result in a book tentatively entitled Refiguring and Representing Race: The Jubilee Singers, The Buffalo Historical Marionettes, and Race in the Great Depression. 

List of Publications

Black Labor in Richmond, Virginia, 1865-1890 (University of Illinois Press, 1989). 

Hard-Pressed in the Heartland: The Hormel Strike and the Future of the Labor Movement (South End Press, 1993).

"Black Richmond and the Knights of Labor," in Jerry Lembcke, ed., Race, Class and Urban Change  (JAI Press, 1989).

"'Members in Good Standing': Richmond's Community of Former Slaves," in VIRGINIA CAVALCADE (Winter and Spring 1990).

"The Future in the Present: The Work of C.L.R. James," MONTHLY REVIEW (March 1994).

"Richmond," in Jack Salzman, David Lionel Smith, and Cornel West, eds., Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History - 5 Vol Set  (Simon & Schuster MacMillan, 1996).

"Richmond: Civic, Literary, and Mutual Aid Associations" and "Readjusters" in Nina Mjagkij, ed., Organizing Black America: An Encyclopedia of African American Associations  (Garland Press, 2001),.

"On the Ground with the South African Labor Movement," SAFUNDI: THE JOURNAL OF SOUTH AFRICAN AND AMERICAN COMPARATIVE STUDIES (Oct. 2000), (   Without Sanctuary (The Book)


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#16 - The Future Has a Past: Stories by J. California Cooper

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#18 - Purple Panties: An Anthology by Sidney Molare

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#20 - Children of the Street: An Inspector Darko Dawson Mystery by Kwei Quartey

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#8 - The Isis Papers: The Keys to the Colors by Frances Cress Welsing
#9 - The Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter Godwin Woodson

#10 - John Henrik Clarke and the Power of Africana History  by Ahati N. N. Toure

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#12 -The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

#13 - The Black Male Handbook: A Blueprint for Life by Kevin Powell

#14 - The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore

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Hopes and Prospects

By Noam Chomsky

In this urgent new book, Noam Chomsky surveys the dangers and prospects of our early twenty-first century. Exploring challenges such as the growing gap between North and South, American exceptionalism (including under President Barack Obama), the fiascos of Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S.-Israeli assault on Gaza, and the recent financial bailouts, he also sees hope for the future and a way to move forward—in the democratic wave in Latin America and in the global solidarity movements that suggest "real progress toward freedom and justice." Hopes and Prospects is essential reading for anyone who is concerned about the primary challenges still facing the human race. "This is a classic Chomsky work: a bonfire of myths and lies, sophistries and delusions. Noam Chomsky is an enduring inspiration all over the world—to millions, I suspect—for the simple reason that he is a truth-teller on an epic scale. I salute him." —John Pilger

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The Shameful Life of Salvador Dali

By Ian Gibson

In his detailed and excellent book on Dali, Ian Gibson has documented Dali’s identification with fascism in Spain from the very beginning. During the civil war, Dali never came out in support of the Republic.  He did not collaborate, for example, in the Paris Fair in 1937, where Picasso presented his Guernica, aimed at raising funds for the Republican cause.  And he soon made explicit his sympathies for the fascist coup of 1936 and for the dictatorship that it established in a letter to Buñuel, a well-known filmmaker in Spain.  He made explicit and known his admiration for the figure and writing of the founder of the Spanish fascist party (La Falange), José Antonio Primo de Rivera, and used in his speeches and writings the fascist narrative and expressions (such as the fascist call “Arriba España”), referring to the special role Spain had in promoting the imperial dreams over other nations.  He sympathized with the anti-Semitic views of Hitler and celebrated Franco’s alliance with Hitler and Mussolini against France, Great Britain and the United States.  He also welcomed the “solution to the national problem” in vogue in Nazi and fascist circles at that time. Dali became the major defender of the Franco dictatorship in the artistic world. 

He was also, as Spanish fascism was, very close to the Church and to the Vatican of Pope Pius XII, indicating that modern art needed to be based on Christianity.  His loyalty to the fascist dictatorship continued to the very end, defending the state terrorist policies that included political assassinations, even in the last moments of that dictatorship.—counterpunch

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Debt: The First 5,000 Years

By David Graeber

Before there was money, there was debt. Every economics textbook says the same thing: Money was invented to replace onerous and complicated barter systems—to relieve ancient people from having to haul their goods to market. The problem with this version of history? There’s not a shred of evidence to support it. Here anthropologist David Graeber presents a stunning reversal of conventional wisdom. He shows that for more than 5,000 years, since the beginnings of the first agrarian empires, humans have used elaborate credit systems to buy and sell goods—that is, long before the invention of coins or cash. It is in this era, Graeber argues, that we also first encounter a society divided into debtors and creditors.  Graeber shows that arguments about debt and debt forgiveness have been at the center of political debates from Italy to China, as well as sparking innumerable insurrections. He also brilliantly demonstrates that the language of the ancient works of law and religion (words like “guilt,” “sin,” and “redemption”) derive in large part from ancient debates about debt, and shape even our most basic ideas of right and wrong.  

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

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