Interview with TIME:
You recently wrote about the complex feelings Abraham Lincoln held toward black people. Could you expand on that? Bill Bre, BREMEN, GERMANY
A fundamental part of Lincoln’s moral compass was his opposition to slavery. But it took him a long time to embrace black people. We were raised with a fairy-tale representation that because he hated slavery, he loved the slaves. He didn’t. He was a recovering racist. He used to use the N word. He told darky jokes. He resisted abolition as long as he could. But in the end, he was on an upward arc, one that was quite noble.
Can you define the word race? Treva Gholston STONE MOUNTAIN, GA.
People use the words ethnicity and race interchangeably. But race is not a biological concept. It’s socially constructed. We are [influenced by] the environment in which we live, but our physical features are inherited from our biology. If we all traced our family trees 50,000 years back, we’re all in Ethiopia. There’s no question about that.
What were you doing the night Barack Obama was elected? Rick Klein, LA CROSSE, WIS.
I was at my friend’s house in Cambridge, Mass. Everyone kept saying, “He’s winning, he’s winning,” but I wouldn’t let myself celebrate until Wolf Blitzer said he was President. Then I cheered, and we all cried and drank about another gallon of champagne.
After devoting your life to African-American studies, what are you most proud of? Vern Nicholson, DOVER, N.H.
My most cherished accomplishment is helping to edit the Encyclopaedia Africana. Every people in the world had an encyclopedia but black people. There’s an Encyclopaedia Judaica, Encyclopaedia Britannica and finally, at the turn of the 21st century, we have one as well.
Is African-American history taught enough in our schools? David Veigel, VIRGINIA BEACH
No. African-American history is generally taught only in Black History Month, which is February, the coldest, darkest, shortest month. It’s like the month that was left over, they gave to black people. I’m a big advocate of teaching history in our public schools on a multicultural level.
Will there ever be a time when race ceases to matter? Loren Anthony PRETORIA, SOUTH AFRICA
I would hope one day. But I can’t imagine such a reality when I think about South Africa, when I think of the U.S. and when I think about France, where race is not even an official category but black people and North Africans are suffering under great implicit discrimination. Race will remain a primary signifier for a long, long time.
Is it right for African Americans to use the N word? Pitufo Geiger BAGUIO CITY, PHILIPPINES
I was raised hearing black people using the N word, and I don’t find it offensive at all. I do find it offensive when a nonblack person uses it.
Have you learned anything new while exploring your ancestry? Jackie Lantry REHOBOTH, MASS.
Yes. We can now trace my family back to the 18th century. An Irishman fathered the children of Jane Gates, my great-great-grandmother, who was born a slave in 1819. It’s a miracle of DNA technology.
How expensive is it to trace one’s genetic roots? Sheron Mitchell BRUNDIDGE, ALA.
It’s cheaper than a pair of sneakers. You’re not confined to the foibles of your ancestors, but it helps to understand your place in the world if you can look at your family tree.
People refer to President Obama as black, even though he is of mixed race. What language should we use? John Malick, LONDON
We can’t reinvent language each day or even each generation. Obama is an African American–literally. His father was African, his mother was American. It took us all these years to get a black man into the White House. We’re not giving that brother up anytime soon.