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Roger Wilkins: A Deeply American Experience: Excerpt from Jefferson’s Pillow

July 8, 2010

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By **Roger Wilkins**

We Americans have a wonderful political legacy that is, in part, the work of people who owned people very much like me. It is possible that some of those they owned were among my ancestors. The lives of these founders and their characters were indelibly stained by that fact, though the heinousness of the crime may be relieved a bit by the fact that they were born into an existence anchored in slavery.

It might reasonably be asked why I keep returning to the point that these four men were inheritors of a slave society and were shaped from birth by its culture. The answer is that I, like many others who share my views, feel that culture should be a major factor in informing contemporary public policies regarding poor Americans. That is, I deeply believe that we need to take into account the damage done by the deprivations and humiliations we have inflicted over the generations on poor people, limiting their capacity to cope with our society. And I believe that we need to craft compensatory programs to open paths of opportunity for them. But surely I cannot on the one hand argue that cultural forces can injure people from whom I have ethnic empathy, and on the other refuse to recognize and make allowances for just such cultural injuries in the lives of the founders. To paraphrase the wonderful truism that Walt Kelly put into Pogo’s mouth: I have met the founders, and they are us.

I say us as a deeply committed American. One famous African American has been quoted recently as saying, “At no time have I ever felt like an American.” Well, I have—all my life. When I was a child rooting for Jesse Owens and Joe Louis, I was an American kid rooting for genuine American heroes. When I was twelve and dreamed of flying a P-51 Mustang against the Luftwaffe, I was a fantasy American warrior. And when the white adolescents in Grand Rapids spat on my bike

seat and threw stones and apple cores at me, I was having a deeply American experience.

Those kids were attempting to define me as something other than and smaller than American: a Nigger. That was not their privilege. Nor was it the privilege of the odd white teacher or two who suggested that my mind was limited and my aspirations should be as well. Down through the decades, there were others who tried to make my blackness constricting. But they didn’t have the privilege, either.

One famous African American has been quoted recently as saying, “At no time have I ever felt like an American.” Well, I have—all my life.

The privilege of defining me rests with my African ancestors, who had the fortitude to survive the Middle Passage and the “seasoning” meted out by their new American jailers. It rests with those Enlightenment philosophers who inserted the idea of human equality into the ideology of the West—and that would surely include the founders of America, notably including Thomas Jefferson, that quintessential man of ambiguity. It rests with Abraham Lincoln, who redefined the meaning of the founding, and with the Radical Republicans who put those ideas into the Constitution in the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments. It rests with Crispus Attucks and all the other blacks who fought in the Revolution and in every American war after that. It rests with the slaves whose stolen lives built so much of the strength and wealth of this country. It rests with the abolitionists both white and black who would not let their idea die. It rests with every American of whatever color or political persuasion who carried the fight down to my generation so that my mentors, colleagues, and friends could carry it on. And of course, it rests with my grandparents and my parents.

Copyright 2010 Roger Wilkins

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This excerpt originally appeared at Beacon Broadside.

Roger Wilkins is a professor of history at George Mason University. He was cited in the 1972 Pulitzer Prize award to the Washington Post for his coverage of Watergate. The following is a short excerpt from his book Jefferson’s Pillow: The Founding Fathers and the DIlemma of Black Patriotism. His book examines the founding fathers and their contradictory notions of independence and slavery in the newly-formed United States.

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