America's Black History

Reconciling patriotism with slavery's legacy.


Jefferson's Pillow: The Founding Fathers and the Dilemma of Black Patriotism, by Roger Wilkins, Boston: Beacon Press, 163 pages, $23

When President Clinton called for a national dialogue on race in 1997, he probably imagined a conversation much like the one Roger Wilkins conducts with himself in his new book, Jefferson's Pillow: The Founding Fathers and the Dilemma of Black Patriotism. Wilkins, a black journalist, activist, and professor of history at George Mason University, sums up the dilemma of his subtitle thus: "Can I embrace founders who may have 'owned' some of my ancestors?" The Founders with whom he principally concerns himself are George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Mason.

Wilkins' focus on these four Virginians might seem idiosyncratic—why not, say, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, or Alexander Hamilton? But the choice turns out to be highly personal, given Wilkins' family history: "We know from family lore and from the appearance of a number of my ancestors that white eighteenth-century slave owners—probably Englishmen—had, at some time in the past, injected themselves into the bloodstreams of the Virginia people I can identify as my great-grandparents."

Casting himself as a black Everyman, Wilkins recounts his struggle to reconcile his admiration for the achievements of the Founding Fathers and his revulsion at their moral failings with regard to slaveholding. More generally, his memoir asks whether African Americans can maintain that admiration in the face of the revulsion. Given the history of slavery, is black patriotism possible?

The most compelling sections of Wilkins' book are those in which his own grievances against the colonial leaders breathe life into what amounts to a textbook history of the Revolutionary Era. The portraits he constructs of the four principals are fair-minded and surprisingly thorough for such a brief work. But the portraits are also, invariably, indictments.

Wilkins makes clear, with excerpts from their personal correspondence and formal declarations, that the Founding Fathers recognized full well that slavery was a moral abomination. Indeed, he notes, "They fought off the mightiest military power then on earth with the cry 'We will not be slaves!'" This is as bitter as irony gets. And the challenge that throbs beneath every page of Wilkins' book is both desperate and ultimately unanswerable: How could you?

To be sure, slave owners were accustomed to lives literally "cushioned by slavery." (The book's title, Jefferson's Pillow, refers to Jefferson's earliest memory of being carried around on a pillow by a slave.) More insidiously, however, the possession of slaves furnished the generation of Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Mason with a twisted justification for their peerage with the English ruling class—a justification rooted in the philosophy of John Locke.

It was Locke who had argued that the equality of men derived from their natural endowments of life, liberty, and property. "[Locke's] linkage of property with full citizenship," Wilkins writes, "was enormously useful to the slave-owning founders, in that it provided a powerful theoretical rationale for the distinction between masters and slaves." Since slaves were an especially visible form of property, the possession of which testified to a certain level of wealth and prestige, slave owners in America were able to insist upon their parity with the landed gentry of England. "Feeling slighted by their English 'equals,'" Wilkins argues, the Americans "depended on their 'bond-men and bond-women' both to enable them to live in style and to validate their social status."

The paradox, and for Wilkins it's a ghastly one, is that the egalitarian sentiment among the colonial leaders seems to have been genuine. He cites an address by Washington to a Jewish congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1790: "For happily the government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support."

Wilkins rightly refers to the speech as "one of the most remarkable statements about human decency ever uttered by an American president." But how can a black man acknowledge the generosity and compassion of Washington's words without that acknowledgment being undercut by the knowledge that the man who spoke them was a lifelong slaveholder? Renouncing the greatness of Washington, for Wilkins, amounts to denying the mandates of his own intellect.

But celebrating the greatness of Washington amounts to denying the mandates of his own conscience. Black patriotism, therefore, is less a welling up of feelings than an ebb and flow, less King Henry V lifting up a bloody sword than Hamlet lifting up Yorick's skull.

The closest Wilkins comes to solving the "dilemma" of black patriotism is his acknowledgment that the Founding Fathers were, in the end, bound by the moral and intellectual conventions of the age in which they lived: "However great their gifts and however hard they worked, it was not possible for them to lift themselves out of their time and culture, and it is in that context that they must be judged."

Judged by their time, they were no worse than many and better than most. But this is an unsatisfactory measure because these were great men—which returns us to Wilkins' initial outrage. Predictably, there is a problem with repetition in Jefferson's Pillow. Even as Wilkins lauds the aspirations embodied in the words and deeds of Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Mason, he's setting them up: Achievement is followed by indictment, followed by achievement, followed by indictment, on and on.

His rationale for this exercise is to correct the mythologizing that colors our notions of the past. "The founding slave owners were more than good men; they were great men," he writes. "But when myth presents them as secular saints, and when an attempt is made to whitewash their ownership of slaves and the deep legacy of racism that they helped to institutionalize, the impulse to pull them and the works of their whole generation off their pedestals becomes exceedingly strong."

But the "myth" against which Wilkins directs his efforts is a straw man, and has been for decades, if not centuries. It's fair to say that on some level each generation of Americans recognized the limits of the Founders as men. Even as they have been mythologized by the many, they have been demythologized by at least a few. In a contemporary context, the heroic gloss of the Founding Fathers began to wear away in the late 1960s, and it has been further eroded by the curricula of victimology now rampant on campuses across the United States. Consider the case of Jefferson's sexual liaison with his slave Sally Hemings—a charge that dogged the third president even in his own lifetime. DNA evidence gathered from Jefferson's and Hemings' descendants has established, in Wilkins' words, a "strong circumstantial probability" that Jefferson fathered at least one of Hemings' children.

Yet the conceptual leap from that probability to absolute certitude has been made—with negligible resistance—by an overwhelming majority of mainstream historians, educated laymen, and students. Jefferson has been called, in the pages of this very magazine, "a moral failure of the first rank"—not only for denying his paternity of Hemings' children but also for failing to free his slaves even on his deathbed. (See "The Slave and the Intern," January 1999.) The "pedestals" Wilkins describes are long gone.

Which returns us to Wilkins' original dilemma: "Can I embrace founders who may have 'owned' some of my ancestors?" In fact, a different question needs to be asked first: Why is such an "embrace" necessary? Absent their pedestals, the Founders are still who they are. If you cannot honor the greatness of their accomplishments, their accomplishments are not diminished. Likewise, if you cannot recognize their personal failings, their failings are not erased. The idea that it's necessary to "embrace" a chunk of history is, at bottom, nothing more than psychobabble. It's like "owning" an experience. Or "coming to terms" with a loss. Whether you do or you don't, life goes on.

More annoying than the psychobabble, however, is Wilkins' habit of using gross generalizations to support his notion of an America that still betrays blacks at every turn. "There are 'decent' Americans," he writes, "who not only are unmoved by the fact that 40 percent of black children are living in poverty, but use that fact to buttress their own convictions about black inferiority." Who exactly is Wilkins thinking of? Who attributes black poverty to black inferiority? Wilkins cites no source.

For that matter, what does Wilkins mean by "living in poverty"? The comedian Chris Rock jokes that America is the only country in the world where the poor people are fat. To much of the rest of the world, "living in poverty" connotes starving babies lying dazed and motionless on their mothers' laps with flies circling their cheeks. By contrast, I suspect Wilkins' "40 percent of black children…living in poverty" includes many with extensive CD collections—and more than a few with Nintendo sets and pagers.

Nevertheless, Wilkins continues, "There are Americans who think it reasonable that blacks should constitute 49 percent of America's bulging prison population and 35 percent of those who have been executed since that punishment was revived fourteen years ago. And there are those who ignore persistent disparities between black and white health, wealth, educational attainment, and employment. These same people regularly exert enormous efforts to destroy the fragile programs put into place in the sixties and seventies to compensate for the deep injuries done to blacks over the three and a half centuries of their legally sanctioned subordination."

Wilkins' political opponents would argue that the "fragile programs put into place in the sixties and seventies" are at least partially responsible for the inequities he cites. In the case of the swollen black prison population, for example, they would argue that cash benefit plans such as Aid to Families with Dependent Children precipitated the dramatic rise of single-parent households in the black community, which in turn led to a rise in criminal behavior among undersupervised black children. This is an oversimplification, to be sure, but the sophomoric sarcasm of Wilkins' phrase "decent" Americans fails to acknowledge that those who disagree with him might also be motivated by good will.

As for disparities between blacks and whites in "health, wealth, educational attainment, and employment," again, it's quite possible to regret these, to argue that the government must ensure equal opportunity and provide a minimal safety net for all its citizens, and still deny that the government should be in the business of redistributing goods and services or leveling individual attainment. Wilkins may be struggling to embrace history, but he is wholeheartedly embracing the cliché that the desire for less government is inherently racist.

The most troubling aspect of Jefferson's Pillow, however, is Wilkins' insistence that the sins of the Founding Fathers—and of the generations that followed—are still being felt today, that the past continuously and completely works itself into the present, shaping the lives lived by black people like a palm heel bearing down on wet clay. "For blacks," he writes, "there is the pain of slavery and the continual loss of dignity that accompanies our treatment as nonstandard citizens."

This is a serious issue—and a difficult one to debate. If someone tells you he's in pain, how do you tell him he shouldn't be? Yet the assertion that African Americans in the 21st century feel the "pain of slavery" is patently absurd; rhetorically, moreover, it diminishes the suffering of actual slaves. The second half of Wilkins' statement raises the question: If blacks are "nonstandard citizens," who, in Wilkins' mind, are standard citizens? Does that group include Asians? Jews? Tunisians? If not, do they, like blacks, suffer a "continual loss of dignity"—a conveniently subjective deprivation?

Wilkins has inadvertently struck upon a deeper problem than straw men and psychobabble. For surely many blacks do perceive in their daily lives the "continual loss of dignity" he describes. What's more, those who do not perceive it—as Clarence Thomas or Ward Connerly or John McWhorter can testify—tend to be written off by those who do as not authentically black.

A significantly more interesting book than the one Wilkins has written—and one I've no doubt he's capable of writing—would address the question of whether that feeling of persecution, that "continual loss of dignity," has entered into the very definition of being black. And if it has, what are the chances for an honest, rather than Clintonian, dialogue on race when telling black people that they are no longer being persecuted amounts to telling them that they are no longer black?