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Connecting past to present, revealing the ripple effect of discriminatory systems — and the fixes.

THROUGHLINE

The Emancipator reimagines

Selections from abolitionist papers on their first day of publishing

Clockwise from top left: Bina Venkataraman, Sewell Chan, S. Mitra Kalita, Peniel Joseph, and Ibram X. Kendi.Teju Abiola/The Emancipator

The power of commentary to move movements and change minds has led the new Emancipator to this moment of reimagining narrative to achieve racial justice for a new day. A few of our advisory board members revisit Day One writings of several of the abolitionist newspapers that have inspired our foray into commentary-forward journalism that is scholarly driven and focused on community. Co-founder Ibram X. Kendi annotates a selection from the original The Emancipator. Co-founder Bina Venkataraman, with board members Peniel Joseph, Sewell Chan, and S. Mitra Kalita offer reflections that explore the throughline from the abolitionist writings to today.

By An Anonymous Writer and Ibram X. Kendi

On April 30, 1820, Quaker Elihu Embree edited and published the first issue of The Emancipator in Jonesborough, Tennessee. “This paper is especially designed by the editor to advocate the abolition of slavery, and to be a repository of tracts on that interesting and important subject,” he wrote in his opening editorial. By the 1830s, backlashing enslavers had driven antislavery societies and their newspapers underground or out of the South. But in 1820, antislavery activity societies may have been more active in Southern states (just as many of the proslavery thinkers at the time were Northern-born).

After Embree’s opening editorial, he reprinted on the second page an anonymous piece from the Tennessee Manumission Society’s new sheet, the East Tennessee Patriot. It ended up being the first piece in The Emancipator. It was likely written by a White small farmer from East Tennessee. Two centuries later, this abridged, edited, and updated version of the pioneering piece replaces “slavery” with “racism,” and “antislavery” with “antiracist,” all the while referencing current events. With these replacements, this resurrected piece is as relevant today as it was in April 1820.

I have been listening with some attention to the different observations which have been made, and are still making on the subject of racism, and on what is to be done in the critical circumstance of having it in the bosom of our country. From what I can discover, it appears to be the general opinion of the citizens of the United States, from Maine to Georgia, that racism is wrong—that it is a national evil; and that something is necessary to be done.

If racism is wrong, and it is generally acknowledged to be the case, then it is certainly impolitic to continue it on any consideration whatever. What sort of a policy is it, that after having settled these lands by violence, after having brought an unoffending people here by violence, after having drove immigrants here by our violence abroad; can America plead the right of holding people in a state of perpetual bondage to racism.

The pretext for this is, for many, the fear of losing the benefits and privileges and power of Whiteness. For my part, I fear losing my livelihood more, losing my freedom more, losing all semblance of democracy more—if racism continues than if it ends. Because what benefit is Whiteness if indoctrination replaces education, and propaganda replaces history on the pretext that education and history are “CRT”? What benefit is Whiteness if I elect people who enrich the already rich and tell me I’m struggling because of those people of color who, on average, are struggling worse than me? What benefit is Whiteness if this mythology is the string and I’m the puppet?

With respect to the dreaded racial equality of peoples, I have but little to say. I have never been able to discover that the author of nature intended that one complexion of the human skin, should stand higher in the scale of being, than another; nor do I feel any disposition to contradict the declaration of rights, established by the sages of our American revolution; nor yet to call in question the wisdom of deity in fixing . . . . diverse skin tones.

You inform me that some people don’t see racial equality. You inform me that some people today are stepping away or refusing to enter this antiracist cause of humanity. That this, and its like, should grow out of the criminal normality of racial inequity and injustice, might be expected. For, its natural tendency is to render the heart callous, even to a state of putrefaction, so that by being accustomed to the sight of human woe, in all its forms, the hearts of some become so hardened that they can walk on by. Wherever this is the case, it betrays an unrivaled depravity.

When I ruminate upon the subject, I see so many living on the gains of oppression, contrary to their better judgment—I see so much disinformation and misinformation that excuses the misery of the oppressed—I see so many who are unwilling to lend a hand to the antiracist struggle, who ought to be foremost in it. When I hear of the police violence that is defended in some places; when I see those scandalous racist policymakers, peddling manufactured lies without remorse, when I see them suppressing the freedom to vote as ruthlessly as they suppress the freedom to choose, my hopes are threatened.

But, on the other hand, when I discover the rapid increase of antiracist thought spreading itself in every direction, and the general convincement of the evils of racism, which has so extensively taken place through the nation in recent years, my hopes are almost elevated to Mount Pisgah in Tennessee.

As to what you say of the necessity of publishing a new magazine against the practice of racism, containing the most convincing, and the best authenticated arguments that the nature of the case will possibly admit, in order to convince the people that racism exists and is spreading, I do not conceive that type of mission to be necessary; for, self-evident propositions need no logical disquisitions to support them. To ransack the regions of nature, Theology and Philosophy, to prove a thing wrong, which every rational being on earth feels and knows to be so, would be insulting to human understanding!

Citizens in general, though sitting on the sidelines, are convinced that racism is a crime of no small magnitude; and that the nature of publications on the subject, like the resurrected Emancipator, should deliver research, should inform, should exercise and awaken the intellect; and call forth the dormant energies, to do something about what their judgment is already convinced. That is the mission.

From The Liberator, January 1, 1831

Assenting to the “self-evident truth” maintained in the American Declaration of Independence, “that all men are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights — among which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” I shall strenuously contend for the immediate enfranchisement of our slave population. In Park-street Church on the Fourth of July, 1829, in an address on slavery, I unreflectingly assented to the popular but pernicious doctrine of gradual abolition. I seize this opportunity to make a full and unequivocal recantation, and thus, publicly to ask pardon of my God, of my country, and of my brethren the poor slaves, of having uttered a sentiment so full of timidity, injustice and absurdity. A similar recantation, from my pen, was published in the Genius of Universal Emancipation at Baltimore, in September, 1829. My conscience is now satisfied. — William Lloyd Garrison, Editor

***

When journalists discover errors of fact in our articles or commentary, we and our publications have an obligation to run a correction for the record. But how often do public figures — whether opinion journalists, pundits, or politicians — determine that their past points of view were wrong? And how often do they make a public recantation of a position, as William Lloyd Garrison did in 1831 in the inaugural editorial of his highly influential abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator? Far more frequently, it seems, we witness people who have made dubious declarations double down and defend them via tweetstorms or diatribes on the floor of U.S. Congress.

Nearly two centuries ago, Garrison did what so few of us, whether in our public or private lives, are eager to do these days: He changed his mind. And beyond that, he had the courage to publicly condemn his past self for having had a limited moral imagination.

Bina VenkataramanTeju Abiola/The Emancipator

In defending a gradual approach to ending slavery, he had defended not only a reprehensible and inhumane practice, but America’s biggest lie to itself about its founding ideals of freedom. A year and a half later, he not only publicly apologized, he acted on his newfound conviction in launching The Liberator, which would publish antislavery tracts and create a powerful megaphone that persisted for decades until abolition became reality.

Garrison’s example is a clarion call for a new generation of thinkers to be flexible of mind instead of ossified in our views. To be willing to re-evaluate our beliefs continually based on conversation, evidence, and education, and ready to admit with humility when we get it wrong. The Emancipator as reimagined today has the potential to provoke the kind of self-reflection and evolution that Garrison modeled long ago, and you, its readers, to be the kind of people that history calls on us to be: willing to expand our minds to both take in the full realities of human suffering — and to imagine a society with far less of it. — By Bina Venkataraman

Liberator.Excerpt

From Freedom’s Journal, March 16, 1827

We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us. Too long has the publick been deceived by misrepresentations, in things which concern us dearly, though in the estimation of some mere trifles; for though there are many in society who exercise towards us benevolent feelings; still (with sorrow we confess it) there are others who make it their business to enlarge upon the least trifle, which tends to the discredit of any person of colour; and pronounce anathemas and denounce our whole body for the misconduct of this guilty one.

***

This is a perfect time for Black people to “plead our own cause,” which, of course, has always been in service of a larger emancipatory vision of American democracy. The struggle for Black dignity and citizenship, in fact, predates the republic’s founding and remains the North Star of contemporary human rights projects emanating from those whom Derrick Bell characterized as the “faces at the bottom of the well.” The American democratic project concerns Black people today, as dearly as it did in 1827, perhaps more so now, since we remain so intimately aware of that project’s shortcomings, flaws, and fatal detours.

Barely two years after a racial and political reckoning that witnessed the largest demonstrations, protests, and upheavals for Black citizenship in American history, White supremacist tales representing the narrative spine of a “lost cause” history embedded in our national DNA. This fallacious history continues to flourish in both popular culture and, with increasing mendacity, in legislative policy that seeks to ban a critical interrogation of the structures of anti-Blackness that remain entrenched in the nation’s social fabric, political institutions, cultural mind, and economic arrangements.

Peniel JosephTeju Abiola/The Emancipator

But we remain unbowed. Aware of the “benevolent feelings” that parts of American society continue to exhibit. Most of all, certain that, collectively, this moment requires a new story of America — how we come together after falling apart — that can only be written by Black folk whose sacred memories of earlier periods of Reconstruction fill the contemporary moral void that, once again, seeks to scapegoat, criminalize, and dehumanize the descendants of the very group of people who have been, and remain, this nation’s best and only chance at achieving freedom beyond limits. — By Peniel Joseph

Excerpt

From The North Star, December 3, 1847

It has long been our anxious wish to see, in this slave-holding, slave-trading, and negro-hating land, a printing-press and paper, permanently established, under the complete control and direction of the immediate victims of slavery and oppression … that the man who has suffered the wrong is the man to demand redress — that the man STRUCK is the man to CRY OUT — and that he who has endured the cruel pangs of Slavery is the man to advocate Liberty.

***

“He who has endured the cruel pangs of Slavery is the man to advocate Liberty.” These words are as fresh and striking as when they appeared in the first issue of The North Star, Frederick Douglass’ abolitionist newspaper, nearly 175 years ago.

Douglass’ condemnation of “this slave-holding, slave-trading, and negro-hating land” echoed, intentionally or not, the bill of indictments against the British contained in the Declaration of Independence. That Declaration proclaimed that “all men are created equal,” yet it denied the inherent dignity, worth, and humanity of Black people. As the United States prepares to celebrate its 250th birthday in 2026, twin legacies — the slaughter of Native Americans, the enslavement of African Americans — continue to haunt us.

Sewell ChanTeju Abiola/The Emancipator

As a journalist, I avoid the term “giving voice to the voiceless” because, as Katherine Boo has written: “Even people who can’t speak have their own voices, and they have them whether or not we reporters pull near. The problem (then, now) was not a lack of voices but of listeners.” To tell true stories, first we must listen — from a place of curiosity, empathy, and humility. We must empower, as Douglass did, those whose voices have not been heard. And we must produce work that summons Americans to see our history clearly, so that we might some day transcend our tragic past and realize our nation’s noble ideals. — By Sewell Chan

From The National Era, January 7, 1817

While due attention will be paid to Current Events, Congressional Proceedings, General Politics and Literature, the great aim of the paper will be a complete discussion of the Question of Slavery, and an exhibition of the Duties of the Citizen in relation to it; especially will it explain and advocate the leading Principles and Measures of the Liberty Party, seeking to do this, not in the spirit of Party, but in the love of Truth — not for the triumph of Party, but for the establishment of Truth.

***

To quote a tortured meme, there’s how it started and how it’s going.

That’s why it’s so hard for Facebook, launched to judge the attractiveness of Harvard students, to be the connective tissue that holds us, our families, even democracy together, as much as we really want it to better manage (or just manage) truth and discourse. And that’s why it’s so hard for mainstream newsrooms, built on inverted pyramids and two-sided articles and the objectivity of White men, to embrace nuance, diversity and a multitude of perspectives.

I think about this as I read the first front page of the National Era and a publisher’s pledge to cover slavery “not in the spirit of Party, but in the love of Truth.”

It was 1817.

S. Mitra KalitaTeju Abiola/The Emancipator

The promise of news outlets to search for truth is centuries old, older than America itself. What the debut of media for us, by us gets right is the perspective from which it approaches discussion. At its center is community and a desire to serve its members. The handwringing over fairness in media coverage and a lack of trust in institutions will be endless until we solve for who is telling our stories, who is paying for our stories, and for whom our stories are being told. — By S. Mitra Kalita