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Dr. Dew wants to talk with you

South Boston News
Dr. Charles Dew / July 24, 2017
Equipped with a lifetime of research and study, Dr. Charles Dew of Williams College will be discussing his memoir The Making of a Racist at The Prizery Thursday. His visit is part of the One Community Conversation initiative, an attempt to bridge divides in Halifax County. In his own words, he wants to “start a conversation on the local level.”

He admits, however, “I don’t have any grand illusions or designs.”

Born in St. Petersburg, Fla., in 1937, Dew grew up in the Jim Crow South. His books describe his childhood as an idyllic one, but one tainted by the institutional and universal grip of racism and Confederate revisionism. His pro-racist worldview was gradually dismantled when he entered college at Williams — he now teaches at his alma mater. He earned his Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins University working under a premier historian of the South, C. Vann Woodward.

His Ph.D. dissertation on the industrial slave-holding Richmond Tredegar Iron Works directly led to his books, Bond of Iron: Master and Slave at Buffalo Forge and Ironmaker to the Confederacy: Joseph R. Anderson and the Tredegar Iron Works.

The Making of a Racist, Dew’s critically acclaimed 2016 memoir, has been praised for its even-handed approach to the subject of racism, with Dew recounting his own coming to terms with the prejudices that he carried around early in life. Walter Johnson, a Harvard historian, praised The Making of Racist as “a searching and brave account of the honeyed pathway to race hatred, the bracing disorientation of learning better, and the haunting, guilty sense of having been there, and knowing that so many have stayed behind.”

His writings, teaching and visit to South Boston are all part of his goal to start a larger discussion and attempt to heal the divisions between people of different skin colors.

“Notions of white supremacy survived the war and exist today,” he says.

For a nation and world that is still divided by racial gerrymandering, ethnic profiling and prominent episodes of perceived police brutality, particularly against people of color, Dew’s talk comes at an apt moment.

As a historian of race in America, particularly the South, Dew admits that he was surprised by the setbacks of race relations in recent years. “I thought we had turned a corner,” he said, referencing the historic election of Barack Obama in 2008.

Nowadays, the “Alt-Right” movement abounds in American political discourse, an ideology that Dew argues is based on “thinly veiled racism.”

Dew is impressed by the arguments that black intellectuals W.E.B. Du Bois, James Baldwin and more recently Ta Nehisi Coates make about the pervasiveness of racism in American life, and notes that “there haven’t been as many white voices” in discussing how to reconcile people with different skin colors.

In this event, Dew hopes to make his own small contribution for the better.

Particularly striking in his book and for his own life was his discovery of a flyer from the Richmond slave market in 1860. “What is powerful about that document is that it represents the essence of the slave system,” Dew says, describing the brutal monetary classification of human beings.

Legal chattel slavery may be extinct in the United States, but the same beliefs that perpetuated the system still survive in weakened form. Specifically, Dew says subtle modifications of common stereotypes still abound: for example, the “Sambo,” the lazy, dull black man, the “Nat,” a violent and dangerous black male, and the “Buck,” the black sexual aggressor, and the “Jezebel,” the promiscuous black woman.

The free-admission event offers a light dinner. However, seating is limited and The Prizery requests that one claims a seat by Monday. Reservations can be made by calling 434-572-8339. The event will run from 5:30-7 p.m.

Dew will be also speaking at the South Boston Public Library on Thursday at 2 p.m. He will be discussing the process of writing his books, a combination of his research and personal life. But, he does not want to just lecture and hopes it will be more of a question and answer session. “It’s going to be very open-ended and I hope people bring some questions,” he said.

Dew is a professor of American History at Williams College and the winner of the Fletcher Pratt Award for his Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War and Ironmaker to the Confederacy. His work Bond of Iron was also designated as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year.

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