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Professor & Author of Historical Nonfiction
Lifelong Kentuckian
Travels from: Louisville, KY

“A powerful story of how, exactly, we fool ourselves into thinking the past is past.” – The Washington Post

Born in Louisville, Kentucky into a journalism family, Emily early on decided she wanted to write. Among her grade-school efforts was a poem inspired by the typewriter her father gave her as a child, and on which he typed bedtime stories as he told them. Her poem, “Typewriter,” weighed the options—poet, novelist, journalist. The opportunity to dig deep into the past to tell true stories that shine a light on how we got here came later when she caught the bug for archival research and enrolled in Chapel Hill’s US history doctoral program.

Emily is currently Visiting Honors Faculty Fellow at Bellarmine University. Her essays, articles, and reviews have appeared in Vogue, Ohio Valley History, The Journal of Southern History, Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and New England Review. Her books are Irrepressible: The Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham (2015), Mordecai: An Early American Family (2003), and, as editor with Thomas A. Underwood, The Southern Agrarians and the New Deal: Essays After I’ll Take My Stand (2001).

In her newest book, My Old Kentucky Home (2022), Bingham offers a deeply researched as well as a personal and incisive biography of one of America’s most iconic melodies. In this resonant history, we see the enduring ability to forget and deny the realities of slavery, and Bingham, by casting an unflinching eye on our cultural inheritance, leads us to the promise of a reckoning.

Emily 's Featured Titles

My Old Kentucky Home

Knopf |
Historical Nonfiction

The long journey of an American song, passed down from generation to generation, bridging a nation’s fraught disconnect between history and warped illusion, revealing the country’s ever evolving self.

MY OLD KENTUCKY HOME, from its enormous success in the early 1850s, written by a white man, considered the father of American music, about a Black man being sold downriver, performed for decades by white men in blackface, and the song, an anthem of longing and pain, turned upside down and, over time, becoming a celebration of happy plantation life.

It is the state song of Kentucky, a song that has inhabited hearts and memories, and in perpetual reprise, stands outside time; sung each May, before every Kentucky Derby, since 1930.

Written by Stephen Foster nine years before the Civil War, “My Old Kentucky Home” made its way through the wartime years to its decades-long run as a national minstrel sensation for which it was written; from its reference in the pages of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind to being sung on The Simpsons and Mad Men.

Originally called “Poor Uncle Tom, Good-Night!” and inspired by America’s most famous abolitionist novel, it was a lament by an enslaved man, sold by his “master,” who must say goodbye to his beloved family and birthplace, with hints of the brutality to come: “The head must bow and the back will have to bend / Wherever the darky may go / A few more days, and the trouble all will end / In the field where the sugar-canes grow . . .”

In My Old Kentucky Home, Emily Bingham explores the long, strange journey of what has come to be seen by some as an American anthem, an integral part of our folklore, culture, customs, foundation, a living symbol of a “happy past.” But “My Old Kentucky Home” was never just a song. It was always a song about slavery with the real Kentucky home inhabited by the enslaved and shot through with violence, despair, and degradation.

Bingham explores the song’s history and permutations from its decades of performances across the continent, entering into the bloodstream of American life, through its twenty-first-century reassessment. It is a song that has been repeated and taught for almost two hundred years, a resonant changing emblem of America’s original sin whose blood-drenched shadow hovers and haunts us still.


Farrar, Straus and Giroux |
Historical Nonfiction

Raised like a princess in one of the most powerful families in the American South, Henrietta Bingham was offered the helm of a publishing empire. Instead, she ripped through the Jazz Age like an F. Scott Fitzgerald character: intoxicating and intoxicated, selfish and shameless, seductive and brilliant, endearing and often terribly troubled. In New York, Louisville, and London, she drove both men and women wild with desire, and her youth blazed with sex. But her love affairs with women made her the subject of derision and caused a doctor to try to cure her queerness. After the speed and pleasure of her early decades, the toxicity of judgment from others, coupled with her own anxieties, resulted in years of addiction and breakdowns. And perhaps most painfully, she became a source of embarrassment for her family–she was labeled “a three-dollar bill.” But forebears can become fairy-tale figures, especially when they defy tradition and are spoken of only in whispers. For the biographer and historian Emily Bingham, the secret of who her great-aunt was, and just why her story was concealed for so long, led to Irrepressible: The Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham.

Henrietta rode the cultural cusp as a muse to the Bloomsbury Group, the daughter of the ambassador to the United Kingdom during the rise of Nazism, the seductress of royalty and athletic champions, and a pre-Stonewall figure who never buckled to convention. Henrietta’s audacious physicality made her unforgettable in her own time, and her ecstatic and harrowing life serves as an astonishing reminder of the stories that lie buried in our own families.


Hill and Wang |
Historical Nonfiction

An Intimate Portrait of a Jewish American Family in America’s First Century

Mordecai is a brilliant multigenerational history at the forefront of a new way of exploring our past, one that follows the course of national events through the relationships that speak most immediately to us-between parent and child, sibling and sibling, husband and wife. In Emily Bingham’s sure hands, this family of southern Jews becomes a remarkable window on the struggles all Americans were engaged in during the early years of the republic.

Following Washington’s victory at Yorktown, Jacob and Judy Mordecai settled in North Carolina. Here began a three generational effort to match ambitions to accomplishments. Against the national backdrop of the Great Awakenings, Nat Turner’s revolt, the free-love experiments of the 1840s, and the devastation of the Civil War, we witness the efforts of each generation’s members to define themselves as Jews, patriots, southerners, and most fundamentally, middle-class Americans. As with the nation’s, their successes are often partial and painfully realized, cause for forging and rending the ties that bind child to parent, sister to brother, husband to wife. And through it all, the Mordecais wrote-letters, diaries, newspaper articles, books. Out of these rich archives, Bingham re-creates one family’s first century in the United States and gives this nation’s early history a uniquely personal face.


The Silences We Keep (based on My Old Kentucky Home)

Nobody denies that slavery or Jim Crow segregation happened in this country. But what happens if in our families we never talk about how it intersects with our legacies and the legacies we pass down to our children? What happens when, whether arising from guilt or fear or pain, silence falls between us as people about the systems by which some groups have hurt others? A descendent of slaveholders, author Emily Bingham addresses such questions in her acclaimed book about a beloved American anthem. How did so many not know that “My Old Kentucky Home” (Kentucky’s state song and a cherished element of Kentucky Derby tradition) was about slavery? For a nation hungry for healing, Bingham offers a path for reconciling with a past that was no less complicated and challenging than our present.  A liberal white Kentuckian’s entanglements with slavery and racism puncture the proud legacy of progressivism she and a nation prefer to embrace.


Pruning the Family Tree, or We Don’t Talk About Bruno (based on Irrepressible)

Her father called Aunt Henrietta a “two-dollar bill” and was appalled when the author named a baby girl after the seductive and magnetic Jazz Age phenomenon she happened to trip over under the family rug. What happens when our relatives don’t live up to family standards? What if they commit crimes, break social codes about sexuality and marriage, become addicted to substances, go bankrupt, or fall into mental illness? When they are pruned from the family tree—reduced to a joke, as Henrietta Bingham was, or spoken of only in whispers if at all—we teach lessons that drive individuals to desperate acts and leave the pruned family with a fantasy of strength that risks repeating the cycle of denial.


Stephen Foster—Great American Songwriter (based on My Old Kentucky Home)

We want heroes. We like pedestals. Decades after his death (alcoholic and destitute) during the Civil War, Stephen Collins Foster, a composer of popular melodies like “Oh! Susanna” and “My Old Kentucky Home” became “The Father of American Music.” How does a hero happen? And why, a century later, was a bronze monument to the songwriter taken down in his native Pittsburgh? This lecture illuminates Foster as a figure both foundational and flawed, embedded in the cultural DNA of the United States, and heard echoing through Bugs Bunny and Mad Men, Gone with the Wind and college hoops, James Taylor and the Kentucky Derby.


The Hoopla over the Hoop Skirts (based on My Old Kentucky Home)

For a century, Americans have journeyed below the Mason-Dixon line for sunny skies, tasty foods, and plantation tours. What have we learned over generations of visiting places of enslavement, places that dominated the way the South has been presented to the public as a place to experience? What does it mean that plantation tourism got its first official start in a state, Kentucky, that never joined the Confederacy? Bingham delves into why this staple of economic development in southern states has grown controversial and considers whether exploitation is inherent in the practice of tourism as we know it. Can honesty and heritage travel go together?


“They’re Off!” The Kentucky Derby: America’s Longest-Running Sporting Event

What makes the first Saturday in May so special and how much longer can the Kentucky Derby survive?


“Weep No More My Lady: Gender, Grief, and MOKH”

This talk focuses directly on the way white women’s tears are centered in the public experience of this song and how that contrasts with the culture’s approach to Black pain and grieving.

My Old Kentucky Home Mix: A selection of recordings throughout the decades

Edits and Adaptations: Over the years, Foster’s lyrics have been edited, rewritten, and riffed on

Emily’s Music Box

Honors, Awards & Recognition

Lambda Literary Award
Louisville Historic League

Media Kit

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where you can download author photos and cover images.

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