Friday, December 5, 2008

E. Benjamin Skinner, Interview #57

Name: E. Benjamin Skinner
Where you live: Brooklyn, NY, Madison, WI and, starting in January, Cambridge, MA
What you do as a vocation or avocation?I'm a writer, an antislavery activist, and a fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government
Your two favorite books:
Samuel Butler's The Way of All Flesh and Voltaire's Candide
Your two favorite songs:
Lorraine Ellison, Stay With Me and Radiohead, All I Need. Respect to Radiohead for putting together this very moving antislavery video for the song with MTV Exit:
Why you are interested in spirituality?I was raised Quaker, and I try to live my life and conduct my work according to certain Quaker precepts--though I actually believe those are universal principles, not specific to any one sect. The faith that there is that of God in everyone has been at the core of Quaker activism from the earliest abolitionists to today's antiwar activists. That belief goes a long way towards explaining why it's worth the daunting task of fighting to eradicate slavery forever.
Your favorite quote:
"As long as you know of it, you are particeps criminis. What business have you, if you are "an angel of light," to be pondering over the deeds of darkness?" --Henry David Thoreau, April 10, 1861, two days before the first shots of the Civil War. Thoreau, torn between his deeply held beliefs in pacifism and abolitionism, was cautioning his friend about looking too closely at evils such as slavery, and the rumbling disunion. He meant it as an admonition. As someone who has spent the last five years pondering over the deeds of darkness, I take it as an exhortation, a call-to-arms.
Your favorite web sites:, which also links to the two best abolitionist organizations doing work worldwide to eradicate slavery.
Your hero?I've met a number of quiet heroes over the last few years, many of whom work for little recognition on the frontlines of the fight against slavery. Some of these are partners of Free The Slaves ( and Anti-Slavery International (, the American and British wings of the world's oldest human rights organization. But, for now, I'll just highlight Bill Nathan, a drummer and an abolitionist who runs a home for boys called St. Joseph's in Port-au-Prince Haiti ( He's my hero not only because he transcended his own slavery as a child to rise up, get an education, and free others. From a deeply personal standpoint, he's also my hero because when I was sick with malaria, he nursed me back to health, fed me, and prayed for me.
A spiritual lesson you hope to learn?I would love to learn how to unlock the potential for healing across cultures. The work of Desmond Tutu with the Truth and Reconciliation Commision in South Africa, the Anabaptist tradition of forgiveness embedded in Amish community--these models inspire me.
A place in the world where you feel spiritually "connected?"Quaker meeting--although I too rarely have time to go! But also the Lincoln Memorial, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cinncinati. Really any place that marks the tremendous sacrifice for freedom made by our ancestors who were slaves and abolitionists.

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