Monday, March 30, 2009

Jefferson's Pillow; The Founding Fathers and the Dilemma of Black Patriotism by Roger Wilkins


I loved my history classes so much in high school that I minored in European History in college. I think I actually took just as many credits of American history courses as European history courses. American history, especially the Revolutionary period, is fraught with contradictions. Mr. Wilkins' book explores one of the most painful ones: how could men who worked so hard for the cause of "freedom", not extend that privilege to the people who made their fortunes and leisure time possible - black slaves.

Wilkins, a history professor, wrestles with admiration for four of the founders of the fledgling American republic (George Mason, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison) and the cold facts that they held onto their slaves and did nothing to eradicate slavery as an institution in that new republic. Wilkins outlines the development of slavery in America, the English culture that the founders were heirs too, and the prevailing idea that those who were black were somehow not quite human.

I remember the stories I heard in elementary school. George Washington was a hero. No flaws whatsoever. High school history courses showed me he actually owned slaves, but he emancipated them in his will. College history courses showed me he had a decidedly snobbish opinion of "lower class" people, though his work earned him the respect of those very people. Mr. Wilkins' book showed me a letter he wrote to a man in another state when one of Washington's slaves escaped. He was ticked off that the man wouldn't retrieve the slave for him. Washington felt that the slave owed him gratitude for his better treatment of his slaves and she should show that gratitude by serving him until HE felt the time was right to emancipate her. George Washington no longer exudes the same aura of greatness that I once perceived him to have when I was child.

Mr. Wilkins doesn't villify the founders by any means. He cringes at their unwillingness to address slavery other than to keep the very word out of the Constitution, but I think he is grateful that the Bill of Rights opened a tiny crack in the doorway to eventual freedom for slaves. Mr. Wilkins describes his own efforts to protest against South African apartheid in front of the South African embassy. The freedom to assemble and apply to the government for redress of grievances made such protest possible, and Mr. Wilkins had the will to use those rights. He emphasizes the need for all to get involved in the process of using and protecting the rights spelled out in our Constitution or else we may lose those rights.

Mr. Wilkins does not put a pretty face on slavery. He shows it to the reader in all of its ugliness, destructiveness, and depravity. He draws the reader through his journey of his family history - as far as it can be discovered - and personalizes the horror of what can only be described as hell on earth. I don't think Mr. Wilkins is trying to place all blame for the slavery atrocities on all white people in modern times. I just think he wants white people to stop ignoring the fact that it happened, and that the repercussions of that time still linger. Despite the abuse, despite the psychological devastation, despite the centuries of struggle his ancestors went through, Wilkins does not deny feeling like an American. He proclaims his love for an imperfect country and the idea of decency while decrying those policies that hold the country back from progress in the fight against racism.

I want to put one excerpt of his book here that I thought appropriate to share:

I often tell my students that the opportunity to engage in active citizenship is the greatest gift of their country. I tell my black students that they are far more than the sum of their pain and their grievances, my white students that they are more than the sum of their privileges and their resentments. And finally, I tell them all that it is a lie that "there's nothing certain but death and taxes." Nothing is certain but death, taxes, and change. We can either effect the change that is sure to come or stand immobile and be swept away by the change that others have shaped. Consequently, I try to pound into my students' minds the idea that democracy is precious and fragile and that its survival can be guaranteed down through the generations only by a citizenry that is well informed, alert, and active.


I think his appreciation of the opportunity to make changes in this country forms the basis of Wilkins' admiration for the work of four flawed founders, and the drive to make his home a better country to live in. I think Mr. Wilkins has a fundamental hope in the future. It is that hope that will help us change.

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