Home > Events > From Racism to Race and Back: The Strange Career of a Historical Crime


From Racism to Race and Back: The Strange Career of a Historical Crime

This Breaking the Silence Lecture is co-sponsored by the Department of History presented by Barbara J. Fields, Professor of History, Columbia University.
by admin Jan 21, 2015
When Mar 20, 2003
from 10:00 AM to 11:00 AM
Contact Name
Contact Phone (814) 863-5911
Add event to calendar vCal

Barbara J. Fields     Barbara J. Fields

Professor of History, Columbia University, Department of Philosophy, University of Oregon

Barbara J. Fields is a Professor of History at Columbia University, specializing in the history of the American South. She was born in Charleston, South Carolina, and raised in Washington D.C., where she attended Morgan Elementary School, Banneker Junior High School, and Western High School. She earned her bachelors degree from Harvard University, and her M. Phil. and Ph.D. from Yale University, where she studied under C. Vann Woodward. Before joining the faculty at Columbia University she taught at the University of Michigan. She was visiting editor at the Freedmen and Southern Society Project at the University of Maryland, College Park, during the year 1981-82. During the fall of 1988 she was visiting Ford Professor of Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi. Her publications includeSlavery and Freedom on the Middle Ground: Maryland during the Nineteenth Century(Yale University Press), which won the John H. Dunning Prize of the American Historical Association, and co-authored with members on the Freedmen and Southern Society Project,The Destruction of Slavery (Cambridge University Press, 1985), which won the Founders Prize of the Confederate Memorial Literary Society and the Thomas Jefferson Prize of the Society for the History of the Federal Government; Slaves No More: Three Essays on the Emancipation and the Civil War (Cambridge University Press, 1992); and Free At Last: A Documentary History of Slavery, Emancipation, and the Civil War (The New Press, 1992), to which the Lincoln and Soldiers Institute at Gettysburg College was awarded its Lincoln Prize in 1994. Among her other awards and fellowships are a Michael Clark Rockefeller Fellowship at Harvard University, the George Washington Egleston Prize at Yale University, and Woodrow Wilson Fellowship. She was a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur fellow from 1992-1997. She was a featured commentator in the PBS documentary, “The Civil War” and delivered the annual W.E.B. DuBois lecture series at Harvard University in 1995. She has lectured widely in the United States, as well as Canada, Paraguay, Brazil, Australia, and Japan. She is currently at work on a book tentatively entitled Humane Letters: Writing in English about Human Affairs, as well as a study of slavery and emancipation in the Americas.

From Racism to Race and Back: The Strange Career of a Historical Crime

Since Thomas Jefferson advanced his “suspicion” that persons of African decent were inferior to Europeans in the faculties of body and mind, Euro-Americans have resorted to race as both euphemism and excuse. Conduct that Europeans would have deemed uncivilized, unlawful, or unjust if directed at themselves – enslavement, for example – acquired an aura of respectability once transformed into a trait of the victim, rave rather than an act of the aggressor, racism. But Jefferson could see through the ideological maneuver, even if he was incapable of acting on his knowledge politically. In the famous Query 19 of his Notes on the State of Virginia, he declared as eloquently as any American had ever done that slavery was not just a source of danger and corruption to white Americans but an injustice to the slave. But, as surely as he knew that slavery was vital to the project of the nation building that he and other founders had undertaken. Race was the veil he threw up to protect himself from the clarity his own knowledge. Less honest and clear-sighted than Thomas Jefferson, our own contemporaries have adopted his maneuver without the insight that simultaneously contradicted it. Having virtually banished racism from respectable public discourse, scholars and the news media have adopted race as an all-purpose evasion, attributing every act of injustice toward person of African decent to their race, rather than to their persecutors’ racism.

March 20, 2003