Gene Dattel

Photo by Courtesy Gene Dattel

A Mississippi Delta native, Gene Dattel was the only Mississippian to attend Yale in 1962. When the media began to pay attention to racial tensions, questions about his state's attitude towards race blindsided Patel. The tale of James Meredith's admission to the University of Mississippi and his subsequent struggles there as the school's first black student prompted inquiries from his fellow students, and caused Dattel to reconsider his place and purpose in the world.

"I was really put on the defensive," Dattel told the Huffington Post.

Dattel's struggles to answer those questions drove him to spend his life studying southern and racial history. After receiving a bachelor's degree in history from Yale and his law degree from Vanderbilt Law School, he entered into the world of international finance. He maintained his passion by co-authoring and headlining a play called "Parallel Lives: Growing Up Black and Jewish in the 1950s." The play compares Dattel's childhood growing up white to author Clifton Taulbert's experiences growing up black during the same time.

Currently residing in New York, Dattel used his economic and historical knowledge to write "Cotton and Race in the Making of America" (Ivan R. Dee, 2009, $28.95), a book that has since made massive waves in the social-justice and history communities. Lee A. Daniels, communications director for the New York-based NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc., called the book "epic," and Morgan Freeman said, "Gene Dattel's book masterfully captures America's history and its painful legacy."

"Cotton and Race in the Making of America" examines the importance of slavery to the cotton industry.

"Karl Marx ... did fully appreciate the connection between cotton, slavery and the industrial revolution when he wrote in 1848 that 'without cotton you have no modern industry, without slavery you have no cotton,'" Dattel said. He compares cotton to oil in the book, since both are a vital resource in the American economy and both place enormous importance on one region of the world.

"Both could and did create wars and political strife," Dattel said.

The book argues that for cotton to be profitable, America needed a cheap form of labor. And because cotton was so important to the American economy, American's allowed slavery to continue. "The rationalization that slavery was a 'positive good' rather than 'a necessary evil' gained acceptance in the 1830s in the midst of a cotton boom." Dattel said.

Dattel will be at Millsaps College for The Millsaps Arts & Lecture Series at 7 p.m. Tuesday, March 5, in the Gertrude C. Ford Academic Complex Recital Hall (1701 N. State St., 601-974-1000). Tickets are $5 for students, $10 for adults. For more information, visit the series website.


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