It is with great trepidation that we re-open this topic. But more needs to be said.
Percy L. Julian was one of the great chemists of the 20th Century.
His work included discoveries in the synthesis of cortisone (an anti inflammatory still in wide spread use) and the synthesis of physostigmine, a glaucoma drug. In 1999 the American Chemical Society recognized his work on physostigmine as one of the top 25 achievements in the history of American chemistry. He was the first African-American chemist ever elected to the National Academy of Sciences.
From the NY Times article on the NOVA- PBS show on Julian:
On the day that Percy L. Julian graduated at the top of his class at DePauw University, his great-grandmother bared her shoulders and, for the first time, showed him the deep scars that remained from a beating she had received as a slave during the last days of the Civil War. She then clutched his Phi Beta Kappa key in her hand and said, “This is worth all the scars.”
Careful and long time readers of the blog know that we have never hesitated in celebrating the glorious achievements of Americans. From the Apollo program to the beaches of Normandy, we have a lot to be proud of.
But part of being American is the freedom to criticize our government, and the intellectual honesty to acknowledge our mistakes. By learning from our mistakes, we become stronger, which in turn gives rise to great events like landing on the Moon.
America is the land of freedom; but it was the land of slavery. Americans like Percy Julian’s great-grandmother were owned, and their bodies bore the scars of their master’s whips. It was a shameful time in our history, and we are all the more stronger for examining it, mourning those whose lives were taken or ruined, and learning from our collective mistakes.
That is why certain words are odious. That is why certain words strike deep into the scars of our collective memory. That is why certain words, while not banned, are hurtful. Words can invoke a time when a person’s ancestors were owned by others. Words can invoke a time when one American couldn't eat in a restaurant, or use a bathroom that other Americans could. We are not so far removed from a time when the older among us can remember signs on Miami Beach that said “No Jews Or Negros”.
The context of a word is important. To use a word to remember a time and place, and all that was wrong with our country, is perfectly proper. To use a word to cause pain, ignorant of the history and suffering associated with the word is distasteful at best, and the height of ignorance at worst.
And that is why we prefer certain words not be used on our blog.
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