“I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.” Thomas Jefferson
A friend of mine recently asked me (during the Black Lives Matter protests) whether a painting on her wall appeared “racist.” It depicted several Black women on a dusty road, women who she now realizes were slaves. She discovered the painting in a thrift shop and was instantly drawn to the swirl of color and the hauntingly beautiful but sad-looking faces of the women. Something about it felt familiar. She could relate to it, even though she was a “privileged” white woman — and an artist. She felt embarrassed by it now. There’s nothing beautiful about oppression, she said.
I asked if there was some way in which she, too, felt oppressed. She nodded. “Of course, but it’s not the same. I feel oppressed psychologically just by virtue of being a woman, but it’s mostly internal. Black people have endured physical and psychological oppression for hundreds of years.”
She was clearly feeling the weight of it. I asked if she felt personally responsible. She looked up at me and said, as if revealing a very dark secret that would explain the weight she carried, “My ancestors were slave owners.”
I nodded knowingly.
I knew what she meant. I confessed that I, too, was linked to slavery, that I was an indirect descendant of perhaps the most infamous slave owner in America, Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States (this factoid confirmed by my aunt’s meticulous research on ancestry — long before the boom of ancestry.com).
As a child, my parents took pride in being related (no matter how indirectly) to a founding father of this country and the chief architect of the Declaration of Independence. They were avid readers of American history. To be descended from such a prominent figure not only instilled pride, but perhaps assuaged some of the white shame they also inherited — shame that was passed on to me, especially as an adolescent watching the Watts Riots and the March from Selma to Montgomery, as well as the march on Washington and the murder of Martin Luther King when I was nineteen. I was attending a “liberal” college in San Francisco at the time when the slogan of the day was “Black is Beautiful” and the mantra was “Black Power.” The song was “We shall overcome — some day.”
As a white liberal and armchair activist, I felt I was on the right side of history. But in reality all I really knew about being Black I had learned from books and the nightly news. The holes in my history lessons were large and vast. I was not taught Black history. I was taught white history. I knew about Selma and Montgomery from TV, but I didn’t know about Tulsa or the myriad of other atrocities leveled against Black people, not to mention the more subtle indignities they endured on a daily basis, and no, I had no Black friends until college.
My fiancé was drafted in the late 1960s and was stationed in the South before embarking on a tour of duty in Vietnam. On a rare night out on the town he was arrested for entering a bar with a Black man and then charged for it in “kangaroo court,” where the charges were dropped. He was told he could enter the bar, but not his (black) friend. He ignored them and told his friend to come on in. In a sense he was arrested for having a Black friend. That’s how things were handled in the 1960s — in the deep South, a part of the country I knew to be a hotbed of racism. I knew it from the news and from what my parents told me. But racism didn’t bleed into the more liberal and enlightened North, or so I also believed.
Fast forward to the present, when Black and white people alike are clamoring to tear down the old confederate statues that reek of racism. I, of course, applaud them. Yet, when threats of attacks extended to my childhood icons, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, my reaction was less jubilant, In fact, when I learned that they, too, were targeted, I was confused. “But these were the ‘good’ guys!” I thought. They weren’t confederate soldiers, fighting to keep Blacks enslaved.
Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner, don’t forget.
I actually didn’t know this as a kid. I was only aware of his “grand” achievements. Just as I never knew about the Tulsa Massacre, I didn’t know my own ancestry was soiled by the greatest sin perpetrated by this country.
What was I to do with this knowledge now? Clearly, my reverence for my heritage was no longer politically correct. I could not say with pride that I descended from greatness. I’d grimmaced a few years ago when watching a show on the remodeling and re-opening of Monticello, especially when the cameras panned to the barracks inhabited by slaves, including Sally Hemings, Jefferson’s slave lover with whom he fathered six children. It might be noted that Jefferson’s wife, Martha Wayles Skelton, had several Black step siblings sired by her own father, John Wayles with Sally’s Black slave mother, Elizabeth Hemings. Martha died 10 years into her marriage to Thomas Jefferson, who it’s been said eventually freed all the Hemings slaves.
As I considered the two disparate sides of this man, I wondered, how could I now reconcile them? Did one side cancel out the other? Did one side make the other okay? Did I, too, carry the same prejudices and potential for good and evil? Don’t we all? Aren’t there, in fact, two sides to everyone, one side containing what Swiss psychologist Carl Jung famously called our “shadow” side — The side comprised of our unconscious prejudices and hatreds, our hypocritical acts and ways of thinking, in fact, all of those dark forces within us that we don’t want to know about?
Some say, “Well, Jefferson lived in a different time, different values and all that.” Does that make a difference? Maybe.
I can’t change my past — not my personal past nor my ancestral past, but I do feel a need to atone for what my ancestors did (and their descendants still do). I may not be any more responsible than my friend for what my slave owning ancestors perpetrated on an entire race of people, but maybe I have more responsibility than most for looking at myself, looking at what may unconsciously be handed down to me. Maybe that’s a starting point. As Jefferson, himself, said: “Do you want to know who you are? Don’t ask. Act! Action will delineate and define you.”
That’s mostly true. It’s also true that I never felt privileged. I grew up lower middle class, put myself through college and was the first in my family to get a degree. I couldn’t afford a home until I was middle-aged. Life was not easy. I’m not Black, but I am a woman! I know the oppression of that. I am also part Irish, and I could claim, as white nationalists do, that many of my Irish ancestors were slaves. But they were indentured slaves. That’s very different. I’m also Swedish on my father’s side, and while serving in the U.S. Navy during WWII he was often called a “dumb Swede.” But that’s a far cry from “Nigger!”
White people have numerous ways of justifying racism and distancing themselves from it, or claiming that they can relate to being Black. They can’t. We can’t. That’s the reality. So what are WE going to do about it?
I don’t have the final answer yet, but like my friend, my clients, and perhaps you, I’m trying desperately to sort it all out because I believe we owe it to history, and we owe it to all oppressed people. That part IS our responsibility — all of us — whether we are a descendent of slave owners or not. That’s what we can do today, in this time in history.