Harry ReidSenate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has been taking heat since yesterday for his remarks on the Senate floor comparing the opponents of health care reform to those who opposed ending slavery.

As I’ll explain below, I believe the criticism over Reid’s remarks is misplaced at best, and political gamesmanship at worst. However, I also think his comment was not merely impolitic, but an unfortunate contribution to our overheated political climate and, more importantly, mischaracterizes our nation’s history on slavery and race.

I am saddened at Reid’s perpetration of a damaging historical myth about our nation’s involvement in slavery, and as the sesquicentennial of the Civil War approaches, I believe it is imperative that we combat such false narratives about our nation’s past.

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Earlier this year, we saw the launch of Voyages, an innovative new web site designed to make available to the public the latest incarnation of the invaluable Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database.

On December 5 and 6, Emory University will host an international group of scholars for a conference to celebrate the launch of Voyages, to commemorate the bicentennial of the abolition of the trade, and to present research on the slave trade.

Those of us who have worked on the history of the DeWolf family and the slave trade in Rhode Island for the documentary Traces of the Trade, and the book Inheriting the Trade, found earlier versions of the trans-Atlantic slave trade database, including the original 1999 database as well as the more recently updated database and the beta version of the Voyages web site, to be invaluable as research tools.

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The U.N. General Assembly, on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, has approved a resolution calling for the erection of a permanent memorial in New York to commemorate the slave trade and its legacy.

The resolution stresses the importance of raising awareness of the history and “lasting consequences” of the slave trade, and calls on all member nations to develop school curricula and other educational programs to teach “the lessons, history and consequences of slavery and the slave trade.”

Representatives at the debate on the resolution also raised the issue of an apology, called for reparations for slavery and the slave trade, and stated explicitly that the foundation of much of the world’s wealth and poverty lies in the history of slavery.

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I’ve delayed posting about this morning’s press coverage of Traces of the Trade, as we prepare for the start of national broadcast this evening on PBS.

However, several members of the Traces family have asked me for the latest update, so I hope everyone else will bear with me—or simply move along—as I review what the press is saying about the documentary this morning.

I’ll start with an article in this morning’s Boston Globe by Vanessa Jones, about the bicentennial of the abolition of the slave trade. Vanessa and I had spoken a couple of weeks ago, about the reasons for the nation’s lack of awareness about the bicentennial, and she has done an excellent job of reporting on those who have been involved in commemorating the occasion, as well as interviewing scholars who can address the reasons for this historical amnesia.

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Few in the United States have taken the opportunity to acknowledge, much less to commemorate, the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the U.S. slave trade in 1808.

For this reason, I was pleased to see that Senator John McCain gave a campaign speech on Wednesday in Michigan, in which he took the importance of the British and U.S. abolition of the trade as the jumping-off point for a focus on modern sex trafficking, child pornography, and other contemporary evils:

… the achievement of both countries in terminating the international slave trade and setting into motion the titanic and bloody struggle to close a shameful chapter in the history of our country [i.e., slavery itself] should be remembered as a turning point in mankind’s long and fitful progress toward a more just world.

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Since last year, there has been a series of legislative developments, at the state and national levels, related to the legacy of slavery and the slave trade. I’ve blogged about each of these efforts separately in the past, but in this entry, I want to offer a quick overview of the various legislative proposals and their current status.

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The Nation has just posted an article, “Tracing Slavery’s Past,” which is centered around Traces of the Trade.

The story (web-only) is by Te-Ping Chen, who, as I’ve noted before, has previously written about Traces in the Providence Phoenix.

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H.R. 3432, “A bill to establish the Commission on the Abolition of the Transatlantic Slave Trade,” has now become law.

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Inheriting the TradeWednesday marked the publication of my cousin Tom’s book, Inheriting the Trade: A Northern Family Confronts Its Legacy as the Largest Slave-Trading Dynasty in U.S. History

The launch event was at the Olsson’s Books and Records in Penn Quarter in Washington, D.C. The event, which included an author reading and book signing, drew an overflow crowd of 75 people.

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As I’ve noted previously, this year marks the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the U.S. slave trade. Thomas Jefferson’s ban on the slave trade on U.S. ships, and to U.S. ports, took effect on January 1, 1808. And Britain’s own ban, which was enacted mere weeks after Jefferson signed the U.S. prohibition into law, took effect a few months earlier.

Despite the significance of the abolition of the trade—encouraging the movement to abolish slavery itself, restricting the growth of slavery in old and new territories in the U.S., affecting the balance of the U.S. Civil War, and promoting the development of international human rights norms—this historical milestone has been widely celebrated in the U.K., while receiving far less attention here in the U.S.

I’ll be attending one event next week which commemorates the bicentennial: a symposium on “Abolition and the Road to Freedom: the 200th Anniversary of the Slave Trade Act of 1808.” This conference will be held on January 10 at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. (The publication of Tom DeWolf’s book, Inheriting the Trade, has been timed to coincide with the bicentennial and the launch event will take place the evening before.)

There are other events, including workshops for teachers, planned this month. And there will occasionally be other conferences and assorted events throughout the year.

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