Grappling with the Founding Fathers

June 16, 2017

 

A few months ago, I was talking to an old friend of mine about his daughter’s experience in Kindergarten. Nick told me about his daughter confronting her teacher about George Washington. The teacher told the class that Washington was a great man. My friend’s daughter piped up, “but he owned slaves!” The teacher responded, “he was still a great man!” and expected the conversation to be over. As we stood in line waiting for sandwiches, Nick, who is Black, proceeded to express his frustration and anger at this (White) teacher’s response to his kid.

 

He was angry. Really angry.

 

Nick forced me to really examine my own views on our first president and the “Founding Fathers” more generally. I realized as I listened to the anger and hurt in his experience, that “but he was still a great man,” was pretty much how I had been taught to think about Washington (and Jefferson and Franklin, etc.). And I was a good student of that lesson. I was surprised by the depth of his reaction, but I didn’t argue with him. I know Nick to be a thoughtful person who has spent a lot of time thinking about race and racism. I chose to listen, and decided I needed to spend some time thinking about it—and particularly thinking about how that teacher could have responded to her student in a more sensitive and nuanced way. 

 

Seemingly serendipitously, within days of this sandwich-line conversation I saw a social media post from race commentator and activist Shaun King. President Trump's public honoring of Andrew Jackson in March led King to explore the same question, in his column in the NY Daily News. To do so, he used an analogy that seemed penned specifically for me, the Jewish reader. 

 

Hitler was a great statesman, King begins his column. He had one of the most successful anti-smoking campaigns in modern history. Under his leadership, German engineers made extraordinary progress in the development of the jet engine. And King goes on to state the obvious: “those facts don’t mean a damn thing. He was a monster of a human being…Next year, he’ll still be a monster. In 2050, he’ll still be a monster. Hundreds of years from now, he’ll still be a monster.” 

 

King begins his article with Hitler to make the point that enslaving another human being—claiming ownership of their body, breaking up their family, torturing, raping, dehumanizing them—is monstrous. Period. There’s no “good kind” of slavery or enslaving. “Adolph Hitler is a monster who should never be honored. Just as this is true for Hitler, it is true for any American President who ever owned human beings and forced them into a life of slavery. The Holocaust and slavery are each an unjust disgrace.”

 

King goes on to assert that we also can’t excuse the behavior as being acceptable in its own time, since there were presidents among the first 18 (including John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, and Abraham Lincoln) who did NOT own other human beings. And, lest I, his Jewish reader not quite follow, after enumerating many of the monstrous practices of enslavers, King restates his analogy in no uncertain terms, “The Trans-Atlantic slave trade to African Americans is the Holocaust to Jews. No justification will ever be acceptable.

 

(I think it is important to note, though King did not, Andrew Jackson is even more problematic a figure than Washington, since he not only enslaved as many as 300 people during his lifetime, as president, he was also responsible for the Indian Removal Act which led to the suffering and/or death of thousands of Native American people.)

 

As I worked to digest King’s message, and Nick’s anger, I was reminded of an experience I had in middle school. Our seventh-grade social studies class was studying the Enlightenment. Our teacher had us stage a salon, with each of us taking on the character of a famous intellectual of the eighteenth century. I was assigned to be Thomas Jefferson. I proudly studied for the day, and when it came, I wore my tri-cornered hat from Colonial Williamsburg. When it was my turn to hold court as Jefferson, the one black student in the class turned to me and asked, “Mr. Jefferson, how can you justify owning slaves given your views on the equality of man?” A deer in the headlights, I stammered at her until my (White, male) teacher intervened: “don’t ask her about that—it’s too complicated. Let’s just talk about the other stuff.” In the vindication of that moment, I was given “he was still a great man!” in a deeply visceral way. 

 

It is a moment that makes plain the way White Fragility works. Both I and the teacher were guilty of it that day. I remember clearly feeling a little betrayed that my friend had asked me about slavery and feeling fully validated by the teacher’s shutting it down. Looking back on it now, I am sad and angry for my classmate, a good friend at the time. How must that have felt to my classmate (and her parents if they knew)? How was she able to go on being my friend all those years after?

 

As all of these ideas and memories churned in my brain, I started to re-examine all that I “know” about the Founding Fathers.

 

I was able to attend the new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, which helped me to think deeply about Thomas Jefferson. As I confronted the bronze statue of the familiar figure, the NMAAHC also forced me to confront an artifact—shackles—and they pointed out that Jefferson was so committed to slavery that he would have used shackles on his own children. It took me down the path of re-thinking Jefferson’s relationship with the mother of those children, Sally Hemmings. His “mistress” I’d always heard her called—with a prurient wink and a smile. Mistress, as if she were fully consenting, and just didn’t have the imprimatur of marriage. I recently learned that she was 14 when the 44-year-old Jefferson—who legally owned her—forced her into a sexual relationship with him. Mistress?! 

 

The NMAAHC helped to fill in narratives of the monstrous nature of slavery and what followed. And it even further problematized the narrative of the country’s founding that I had dutifully committed to heart and memory. 

 

I’m still working out how we, as a nation, can tell the story of our founding without ignoring the ugliness—the monstrousness—that was a part of it. I’m still working out how I will talk to my own child about the reality of the history of this country. But I am convinced that in order for America to live up to the “one nation, indivisible,” that we all recite that it should be, we have to stop ignoring the history of (and ongoing!) state-sanctioned suffering and death of Black Americans and other people of color. We have to face up to the unpleasant truths, acknowledge them and the real and justified hurt and anger they continue to cause. 

 

I haven’t spoken to Nick again about what happened with his daughter’s teacher. I haven’t asked him how he would have wanted the teacher to respond to his 5-year-old. In writing this post, I’m realizing I need to.

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