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The character Tea Cake looks at his woman, Janie, and says, ďJanie, youíre

the kind of woman who would make a man forget to grow old and forget to die.Ē

I always thought it was so great. Imagine being told that youíre so extraordinary that

you can stop time and biology. My husband [Konrad] never delivered that line to me,

but I decided to marry him anyway.

 

 

Maya Soetoro-Ng on Family and Brother Barack

Interview with  Kam Williams

 

Born in Jakarta, Indonesia on August 15, 1970, Dr. Maya Soetoro-Ng is a lecturer at the University of Hawaiiís College of Education but is perhaps better known as the sister of Barack Obama. Named after the poet Maya Angelou, Maya has just published Ladder to the Moon, a picture book inspired by her young daughter Suhailaís questions about the grandmother she never knew, Grandma Annie.

Here, the First Sister talks about both her best-seller and about her family, including what it was like growing up with a big brother who would one day become the 44th President of the United States.

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Kam Williams: Hi Maya, Iím honored to have this opportunity to speak with you.

Maya Soetoro-Ng: Aloha, Kam. Thank you! Howíre you doing?

Kam Williams: Very well, thanks. Howís the weather in Hawaii?

Maya Soetoro-Ng: It pretty much is always good, other than the occasional hurricane. The baseline here is really pretty terrific. It is very sane. It allows you to spend time outside and to devote a minimal amount of attention to getting dressed in the morning. The sun kisses your face everyday. Itís very healthy!

Kam Williams: First of all, I wanted to share with you how much I was moved by your book. It actually left me in tears.

Maya Soetoro-Ng: Thank you so much for saying that.

Kam Williams: Have you been getting a lot of feedback like that?

Maya Soetoro-Ng: Yes, particularly from people who have lost loved ones, elders. The book seems to conjure up memories and a certain melancholy, the bittersweet recognition of the gift that we might have once had and donít necessarily want to lose but that we canít access anymore. So, the personal themes seem to resonate very powerfully with readers.

Kam Williams: I lost my mother a couple of years ago. I told my readers Iíd be interviewing you, so I have more questions for you than we could ever get to. Yale grad Tommy Russell asks: What do you think the chances are that the Obama administration will cut off financial assistance to Palestine now that Hamas and Fatah officially reconciled their differences? Do you think we'll see a Palestinian State in our lifetime?"

Maya Soetoro-Ng: Since Iím not a part of the administration, I try to avoid questions  about policy. Generally, speaking, those are the only questions that I wonít answer. But I donít mind talking about my brother in terms of our childhood and our mother.

Kam Williams: No problem, Iíll skip those. Thatíll save us a lot of time. Mirah Riben was wondering how you feel about the birth certificate nonsense.

Maya Soetoro-Ng: My brother has said it all, and I really donít have anything to add to it. Itís a non-issue and a distraction.

Kam Williams: Harriet Pakula Teweles says that for the purposes of this interview, President Obama will be the brother of Maya Soetoro-Ng who has a rather remarkable trifecta of accomplishments as a researcher, writer and educator. If you could be teaching a class right this minute what would that class be and what would be the topic?

Maya Soetoro-Ng: Well, I teach a course I really enjoy on Multi-Cultural Education which is actually quite fun. But if weíre talking about a fantasy skill, Iíd like to teach capoeira, the Brazilian martial arts form. Have you ever seen it? Itís so amazingly beautiful. I wish I could do it, but it requires tremendous amounts of strength and grace which I fear itís too late for me to develop. I would also love to teach Argentinean tango dancing, but I canít do that either. [Laughs]

Kam Williams: Reverend Florine Thompson asks: How did you come up with the title for your book?

Maya Soetoro-Ng: I came up with the title after being jostled into a memory of a  postcard my mom had given me that I used to have tacked onto my bedroom wall of a painting by Georgia OíKeefe entitled Ladder to the Moon. It had a golden ladder suspended in a sea of blue with cliffs silhouetted in the distance. It emphasized the journey, the climb, and was both mysterious and also rather comforting. So I thought it was very fitting to describe the journey that Grandma Annie would take with Suhaila.

Kam Williams: Editor/Legist Patricia Turnier asks: What message do you want kids to take away from the book?

Maya Soetoro-Ng: Namely, that they are strong and that they are powerful not only because they will shape the future but because they can already do much to heal today. And that the best things that grownups do, we do for the children, and that they inspire great good in us. I also want them to remember that the world is intertwined and that we therefore have to be gentle in the way that we treat one another and the Earth, so that our impact on others is benevolent and good.  


Kam Williams: Patricia says: Your next book project is about peace education and conflict resolution in high schools. As a professor, do you believe that if world history were taught everywhere on a national and international level, it would be a great tool to encourage the bonding of people?

Maya Soetoro-Ng: I absolutely do believe that we need to not be so myopic. We ought to throw open widely the windows on the world in order to learn more about it. I think we could benefit from world history that is specifically taught in a multi-faceted fashion that allows for an understanding that perspectives on truth can be very different. Iím an advocate of an approach that endeavors to foster empathy and which tries to find a common humanity across the divide. And there are lots of ways to achieve that.

One of the things that I have my students do is to take a look at English-language newspapers from all around the world in order to see the different ways in which the same story might be told. To illustrate that point, the front cover of Ladder to the Moon has the Moon from our perspective while the back cover has the Earth from the Moonís point-of-view. That sort of perspective shifting is really valuable and should be used in teaching history.

Kam Williams: Marcia Evans says: I had a chance to read the recent New York Times article about your mother. The in-depth profile really helped me appreciate her and how she raised such accomplished children. And it gave me more insight into why our President has the patience and mannerisms that he does. My question is: What did you think of the article and what mothering skills are you raising your children with that you learned from your mother, Ann? 

Maya Soetoro-Ng: I thought the article did a nice job of capturing momís complexity. Of course, my childrenís book necessarily paints a much more idealized portrait, the best of her, momís kindness, her mandate that we treat each other well, her empathy and her broadmindedness. These are the qualities that I try to impart to my daughters [Suhaila and Savita]. Meanness is the one thing I do get upset about on those rare occasions when I see it.

Another thing was that mom was tremendously curious. And thankfully, my daughters and my brotherís daughters share her love of exploration. I think those traits were among my momís best. She was better at loving than she was at disciplining. She always allowed us to be precisely who we were. She never asked us to change anything fundamental at the core. Thatís a powerful way to love, when you accept your children, however they emerge, with all their peculiarities. Itís interesting how different my children are from one another, and the same can be said for Malia and Sasha. You do find that children come into the world with a lot of personality already imbedded in them. 

Kam Williams: How often do you get to speak to your brother and to visit the Obamas in the White House since heís been elected?

Maya Soetoro-Ng: I speak to him on a fairly regular basis, and Iíve been to the White House quite a few times. He is concerned about making sure that his daughters and all of us are able to have as much normalcy as possible. He doesnít want his job to be stressful for them. So he still does many of the same things he did before becoming president. For instance, he spends every Christmas in Hawaii and we engage in much of the same routines as before. And we spend summers together, and Iíve been fortunate enough to see him a few times in between.


Kam Williams: Marcia also says that she loves Indonesian/Malaysian cuisine. She wants to know whether you prepare Indonesian dishes for your family.

Maya Soetoro-Ng: I wish I did. Itís very complex food, and Iím not a very good cook. I only make simple dishes. But I have the soul of a chef, in the same way that I have the soul of a jazz singer, but I just wasnít blessed with any of the talent.

Kam Williams: Reverend Florine Thompson asks: How does it feel to be named after Maya Angelou and have you ever met her?

Maya Soetoro-Ng: I did meet her many years ago when I went to see her speak on three separate occasions. She knows that I was named after her, but I havenít seen her in recent years, although my brother has. I have always enjoyed the great rhythm in her voice. And there have been ideas sheís shared that were very influential to me, like the notion that words are tactile and enduring and swirling around us. Thatís stuck with me and perhaps guided my choices as a teacher

Kam Williams: Reverend Thompson also asks: What message would you give to young students who aspire to the lofty heights of your brother, President Obama?

Maya Soetoro-Ng: Go for it! My brother didnít run for student government, he didnít get straight Aís, and he wasnít perfect as a child. And he was much more interested in basketball than in student government. The key was that he never made any mistakes from which he couldnít recover. They were all mistakes which allowed him to grow and develop. We came from exceedingly humble beginnings.

So, as clichťd as it might sound to some adults, I think that his life should remind children that they really can achieve anything with the right support. You need support to develop both the skills and the confidence. I think young people should be emboldened by the fact that he managed to craft this extraordinary life by thinking about how to make his mark, and how to make his footprints matter once he decided that his life should serve some meaningful purpose.   

Kam Williams: The Judyth Piazza question: What key quality do you believe all successful people share?

Maya Soetoro-Ng: I honestly think that itís love. You really need to love something or someone in order to work hard enough to be very successful. You have to believe in something and have a certain optimism. Faith and optimism come from love. So, I really do think thatís the starting point.

Kam Williams: Is there any question no one ever asks you, that you wish someone would?

Maya Soetoro-Ng: [Chuckles] Huh? Thatís a good question. I wish someone would ask me what my favorite pickup line is.

Kam Williams: Okay, what is your favorite pickup line?

Maya Soetoro-Ng: Itís from Zora Neale Hurstonís novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. The character Tea Cake looks at his woman, Janie, and says, ďJanie, youíre the kind of woman who would make a man forget to grow old and forget to die.Ē I always thought it was so great. Imagine being told that youíre so extraordinary that you can stop time and biology. My husband [Konrad] never delivered that line to me, but I decided to marry him anyway. [LOL]

Kam Williams: The Tasha Smith question: Are you ever afraid?

Maya Soetoro-Ng: Yeah, definitely. I worry whenever I falter in my conviction about the message that I deliver about the importance of optimism and continued dialogue. That sort of thing scares me. And anger and malice scare me. But Iím not often afraid and I try to not let any fear impact the way that I live my life or to touch my children. They certainly deserve to be fearless. Werenít we also fearless at one time? [Chuckles]

Kam Williams: The Columbus Short question: Are you happy?

Maya Soetoro-Ng: Yes! Iím happy because I have a healthy family and a life that allows me enough variety in my days. And I have interesting work as a professor where I get to impact others while learning from young people. Thatís pretty good stuff.

Kam Williams: The Teri Emerson question: When was the last time you had a good laugh?

Maya Soetoro-Ng: Oh, I laugh every day because I have the gift of these kids. Theyíre hilarious! [Laughs] I canít help but feel joyful watching my sassy two year-old who just loves to walk around in my high heels while wearing sunglasses and a feathered boa. [LOL] And I could recount lots of stories about Suhaila who is so full of feeling that she not only makes me proud of her but also makes me laugh. For instance, she recently brought home a slug and a worm and adopted them until I made her release them back into the wild after a couple of weeks, at which point she wept dramatically, announcing, ďFarewell! To Wiggles and Lemon Drop!Ē [Laughs some more]

Kam Williams: What is your guiltiest pleasure?

Maya Soetoro-Ng: Good strong coffee with a really good novel, which I unfortunately havenít had a chance to enjoy for a while because you donít get the time when your kids are young. I used to love just sitting in a comfy spot on a couch, under a tree or on a porch and getting lost in a good book. I could do so all day.

Kam Williams: The bookworm Troy Johnson question: What was the last book you read?

Maya Soetoro-Ng: Oh! Imagining Ourselves: Global Voices from a New Generation of Women which takes an interesting look at women worldwide.  

I also recently reread parts of Life of Pi a novel about a teenager who ends up adrift on the ocean in a lifeboat with a hyena, a zebra, an orangutan and a Bengal tiger after the Japanese cargo ship heís aboard sinks.

Kam Williams: The music maven Heather Covington question: What music do you like to listen to? 

Maya Soetoro-Ng: Because Iím not teaching high school anymore, I donít get to keep up with whatís the latest and greatest from the teenage perspective. But what I have in my car is mostly older stuff like Willie Colon and Earth Wind & Fire. I like to sing along, but with the windows rolled up. [LOL] Good stuff!

Kam Williams: What is your favorite dish to cook?

Maya Soetoro-Ng: I like brunch. Itís the only thing Iím really good at. Eggs, omelets with fine herbs and little bits of lovely cheeses, and salads with nuts and fruits. Iím not a cook. Isnít that terrible? But I can do a good brunch which is fun because it fortifies you for the rest of the day and itís a nice way to get together with friends. 

Kam Williams: The Uduak Oduok question: Who is your favorite clothes designer?

Maya Soetoro-Ng: [Laughs] I have to confess that I donít care very much about clothes. I have the good fortune to be living in Hawaii where people donít pay too much attention to fashion. In truth, I merely endeavor to look respectable. I admire how Michelleís a fashion icon but I have no parallel skill or eye. I just try to not look silly.

Kam Williams: When you look in the mirror, what do you see?

Maya Soetoro-Ng: These are great questions. Fun! Iím sometimes surprised by how middle-aged I look to myself, but I am working now to embrace that. [Giggles] I definitely see a woman who has journeyed and made mistakes but who has an interesting map engraved into her face. A richly-layered woman who has been alternately brave and weak but who is full of love for enough people and things and places and ideas to give her face character and to give her life meaning.

Kam Williams: The Ling-Ju Yen question: What is your earliest childhood memory?

Maya Soetoro-Ng: My earliest memories are of me and my brother and mother in the house on Poki Street in Hawaii where we lived from when I was three until I was six. I have a clear mental snapshot of me rocking in a big chair trying to tip it over. And I have another memory of myself standing in front of the TV while my brother was trying to watch a basketball game, compelling him to yell, ďMom! Sheís doing it again.Ē

A third memory is of putting all my books and dolls on a big blanket in the middle of the hallway and forbidding Barack and my mom to step on the blanket. [Laughs] Those are three of my most vivid and earliest memories. I actually found those very same dolls, including a big Raggedy Ann, when I was pregnant with Suhaila because mom left all of those dolls in a box for my children at my grandmotherís. She put them there the year before she passed away.

Kam Williams: How thoughtful! If you could have one wish instantly granted, what would that be for?

Maya Soetoro-Ng: World peace, of course! And on a personal level, that I manage to live a good bit longer than either of my parents, so that I might see all of the extraordinary things that my children and my grandchildren will do.

Kam Williams: The Rudy Lewis question: Whoís at the top of your hero list?

Maya Soetoro-Ng: Iíd say Gandhi and Martin Luther King, because it was so extraordinary for them to be able to see the ways in which taking an approach which at first glance seemed to be soft could actually be so much more powerful and enduring than taking one which at first glance appears sharp. I think that it required extraordinary imagination and faith to persevere and not surrender until real change was achieved.

Kam Williams: The Tavis Smiley question: How do you want to be remembered?

Maya Soetoro-Ng: I would love to be remembered as a fine educator and parent. Being a parent has become incredibly important to me. I never knew how much I would be altered by my children. I would like to be remembered by them in much the way I remember my mom: as loving and kind.

Kam Williams: Thanks again, Maya, for being so much fun and so forthcoming.

Maya Soetoro-Ng: Itís been a delight, Kam! What an interesting format youíve got. Itís refreshing. I wonít forget you and I would love to meet you someday.

Kam Williams: Same here! And best of luck with the book.

Maya Soetoro-Ng: Itís been a pleasure. Aloha!

posted 4 May 2011

The 'Singular Woman' Who Raised Barack Obama

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Ladder to the Moon

By Maya Soetoro-Ng


Little Suhaila wishes she could have known her grandma, who would wrap her arms around the whole world if she could, Mama says. And one night, Suhaila gets her wish when a golden ladder appears at her window, and Grandma Annie invites the girl to come along with her on a magical journey. In a rich and deeply personal narrative, Maya Soetoro-Ng draws inspiration from her motherís love for family, her empathy for others, and her ethic of service to imagine this remarkable meeting. Evoking fantasy and folklore, the story touches on events that have affected people across the world in our time and reaffirms our common humanity. Yuyi Moralesís breathtaking artwork illuminates the dreamlike tale, reminding us that loved ones lost are always with us, and that sometimes we need only look at the moon and remember.

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A Singular Woman

The Untold Story of Barack Obamaís Mother

By Janny Scott

Award-winning reporter Janny Scott interviewed nearly two hundred of Dunham's friends, colleagues, and relatives (including both her children), and combed through boxes of personal and professional papers, letters to friends, and photo albums, to uncover the full breadth of this woman's inspiring and untraditional life, and to show the remarkable extent to which she shaped the man Obama is today. Dunham's story moves from Kansas and Washington state to Hawaii and Indonesia. It begins in a time when interracial marriage was still a felony in much of the United States, and culminates in the present, with her son as our president- something she never got to see. It is a poignant look at how character is passed from parent to child, and offers insight into how Obama's destiny was created early, by his mother's extraordinary faith in his gifts, and by her unconventional mothering.

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First Family of Writers Grows by One

Excerpts by Sheryl Gay Stolger

 

In the fall of 2007, while helping her ambitious older half-brother, Barack Obama, campaign for president, Maya Soetoro-Ng holed up in the basement of the Obamasí Chicago home to pursue a long-held ambition of her own: writing a childrenís book.

Mr. Obama was by then a best-selling author. But when he offered to introduce his little sister to his agent, Ms. Soetoro-Ng said, she refused. And she did not show him her bookóa fictional paean to their mother, the free-spirited anthropologist Stanley Ann Dunhamóuntil it sold to a publisher. ďThatís probably the stubbornness of a younger sister,Ē she said. ďWe all want to find our own path.Ē

But the path she has chosen, in her family at least, is crowded. When Ms. Soetoro-Ngís book, Ladder to the Moon, hit bookshelves on Tuesday, it added to a growing Obama family literary canon. President Obama, whose first two books earned millions, recently published a childrenís book. His wife, Michelle, just signed a contract with Crown Publishing for a book on the White House garden, due in April 2012.

The first ladyís brother, the college basketball coach Craig Robinson, published a memoir last year. The presidentís half-brother Mark Obama Ndesandjo, who lives in China, published a semi-autobiographical novel in 2009; another half-brother, George Obama of Kenya, last year published Homeland, an autobiography that chronicles his attempt to transform himself from drug-using gangster to advocate for Nairobiís poor.

Even the presidentís mother has become a published author. In 2009, 14 years after her death, Duke University Press published her 1992 doctoral thesis, Surviving Against the Odds: Village Industry in Indonesia. Ms. Soetoro-Ng wrote the foreword.óNYTimes.com

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AALBC.com's 25 Best Selling Books


 

Fiction

#1 - Justify My Thug by Wahida Clark
#2 - Flyy Girl by Omar Tyree
#3 - Head Bangers: An APF Sexcapade by Zane
#4 - Life Is Short But Wide by J. California Cooper
#5 - Stackin' Paper 2 Genesis' Payback by Joy King
#6 - Thug Lovin' (Thug 4) by Wahida Clark
#7 - When I Get Where I'm Going by Cheryl Robinson
#8 - Casting the First Stone by Kimberla Lawson Roby
#9 - The Sex Chronicles: Shattering the Myth by Zane

#10 - Covenant: A Thriller  by Brandon Massey

#11 - Diary Of A Street Diva  by Ashley and JaQuavis

#12 - Don't Ever Tell  by Brandon Massey

#13 - For colored girls who have considered suicide  by Ntozake Shange

#14 - For the Love of Money : A Novel by Omar Tyree

#15 - Homemade Loves  by J. California Cooper

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

#17 - Player Haters by Carl Weber

#18 - Purple Panties: An Eroticanoir.com Anthology by Sidney Molare

#19 - Stackin' Paper by Joy King

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

#21 - The Upper Room by Mary Monroe

#22 Ė Thug Matrimony  by Wahida Clark

#23 - Thugs And The Women Who Love Them by Wahida Clark

#24 - Married Men by Carl Weber

#25 - I Dreamt I Was in Heaven - The Rampage of the Rufus Buck Gang by Leonce Gaiter

Non-fiction

#1 - Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable
#2 - Confessions of a Video Vixen by Karrine Steffans
#3 - Dear G-Spot: Straight Talk About Sex and Love by Zane
#4 - Letters to a Young Brother: MANifest Your Destiny by Hill Harper
#5 - Peace from Broken Pieces: How to Get Through What You're Going Through by Iyanla Vanzant
#6 - Selected Writings and Speeches of Marcus Garvey by Marcus Garvey
#7 - The Ebony Cookbook: A Date with a Dish by Freda DeKnight
#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

#11 - Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success from Failure by Tavis Smiley

#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

#15 - Why Men Fear Marriage: The Surprising Truth Behind Why So Many Men Can't Commit  by RM Johnson

#16 - Black Titan: A.G. Gaston and the Making of a Black American Millionaire by Carol Jenkins

#17 - Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority by Tom Burrell

#18 - A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose by Eckhart Tolle

#19 - John Oliver Killens: A Life of Black Literary Activism by Keith Gilyard

#20 - Alain L. Locke: The Biography of a Philosopher by Leonard Harris

#21 - Age Ain't Nothing but a Number: Black Women Explore Midlife by Carleen Brice

#22 - 2012 Guide to Literary Agents by Chuck Sambuchino
#23 - Chicken Soup for the Prisoner's Soul by Tom Lagana
#24 - 101 Things Every Boy/Young Man of Color Should Know by LaMarr Darnell Shields

#25 - Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class  by Lisa B. Thompson

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The Gardens of Democracy: A New American Story

of Citizenship, the Economy, and the Role of Government

By Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer

American democracy is informed by the 18th centuryís most cutting edge thinking on society, economics, and government. Weíve learned some things in the intervening 230 years about self interest, social behaviors, and how the world works. Now, authors Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer argue that some fundamental assumptions about citizenship, society, economics, and government need updating. For many years the dominant metaphor for understanding markets and government has been the machine. Liu and Hanauer view democracy not as a machine, but as a garden. A successful garden functions according to the inexorable tendencies of nature, but it also requires goals, regular tending, and an understanding of connected ecosystems. The latest ideas from science, social science, and economicsóthe cutting-edge ideas of todayógenerate these simple but revolutionary ideas: (The economy is not an efficient machine. Itís an effective garden that need tending. Freedom is responsibility. Government should be about the big what and the little how. True self interest is mutual interest.

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A Game of Character

By Craig Robinson

In A Game of Character, Robinson takes readers behind the scenes to meet his most important influences in his understanding of the winning traits that are part of his playbook for success. Central to his story are his parents, Marian and Fraser, two indefatigable individuals who showed their children how to believe in themselves and live their lives with conviction through love, discipline and respect.

With insights into this exemplary family, we relive memories of how Marian sacrificed a career to be a full-time mom, how Fraser got up and went to work every day while confronting the challenges of multiple sclerosis, how Craig and Michelle strengthened their bond as they journeyed out of the Southside to Princeton University and eventually, the national stage. óPublisher, Gotham

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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 Boisí 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

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery

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update 13 May 2012

 

 

 

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