Manisha Sinha’s history lessons tell the truth about slavery in the United States.Historians in the News
tags: slavery, Manisha Sinha
When Draper Chair of American History Manisha Sinha was a child, growing up in India between Patna, one of the oldest inhabited places in the world, and Delhi, one of today’s most populous cities, dinnertime was a lot like it is for most families. Or so she insists.
“Every family has its disagreements, and we were no different,” she says. “We would argue about history over the table.”
Sinha’s father, Lt.-Gen. Srinivas Kumar Sinha of the Indian Army, and her mother, a Gandhian nationalist, often recalled stories from India’s declaration of independence in 1947. She and her two sisters, one of whom also is an endowed professor of history and the other a high school history teacher, and her brother, India’s current ambassador to the United Kingdom, were thoughtful children. Drilled into them at an early age was a passion for debate, grounded in the idea that no successful future is possible without understanding the past.
Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that this summer, when Kanye West called the 400-year legacy of slavery in the U.S. “a choice,” Sinha wasn’t having it.
Drawing on her decorated 2016 book, The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition, she told Time magazine that West would do well to read the history, including the slave spirituals, that his own music stems from. “He ought to know that even when blacks were enslaved, their minds were not enslaved,” she said. “When they did not have the right to vote, they voted with their feet.”
The Slave’s Cause, which was long-listed for the National Book Award for nonfiction among a half-dozen other awards, illustrates the many and often overlooked ways that slaves fought for their own freedom. Sinha’s work teaches students, politicians — and yes, the odd celebrity — that history matters.
“These historical legacies — we still live with them today — and we must learn from them,” she says.
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