By Dr. Andrew Thomas Kania
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The author of these famous words was of course, Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States. Legend has it that Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence in a burst of inspiration. Be that as it may, Jefferson was a polymath, a man of many talents, and broad interests. He was also a slave-owner. Thus when Jefferson wrote about ‘men’ being created equal, evidently the great Virginian limited his definition of humanity to those of his colour, and as a plantation owner, to those of his caste.
But there is also another side to Jefferson that needs to be reflected upon. Not only was Jefferson a slave-owner, but his ideals about humanity and the parameters as to how this was to be applied to the various peoples who inhabited the planet, were to say the least, fluid. In his last Will and Testament, Jefferson chose not to free one particular slave, a woman named Sally Hemmings. Why Jefferson who freed other slaves chose not to free his loyal Sally has intrigued scholars for decades. The Hemmings family have asserted that Sally was more than just a slave to Jefferson; that she was in fact Jefferson’s lover. Jefferson’s family are just as adamant that the President would never have been part of such a liaison; Jefferson, to them, was a man of principle. Caught between the arguments raised by descendants of a slave and those of a political legend, where does the truth lie? Science may now have provided us with an answer. Joseph J. Ellis in his biography American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson (1998), notes that his opinion as to the truth or not of the conjugal relationship between Hemmings and Jefferson has changed considerably from the first printing of his text to his most recent. Ellis writes: “In the original edition I went on to speculate that the likelihood of a Jefferson-Hemmings liaison was remote, offering several plausible readings of the indirect evidence (i.e., Jefferson’s voice in his letters to women; the reasons his enemies doubted the charges) to support my conjecture. No matter how plausible my interpretation, it turns out to be dead wrong. In the November 5, 1998, issue of Nature, the results of a DNA comparison between Jefferson’s Y chromosome and the Y chromosome of several Hemmings descendants demonstrated a match between Jefferson and Eston Hemmings … Sally gave birth to seven children between 1790 and 1808. Whether Jefferson fathered all of them will probably never be known. But the match with Eston shifts the burden of proof toward the presumption that Jefferson was the father of each. The likelihood of a long-standing sexual relationship between Jefferson and Hemmings can never be proven absolutely, but it is now proven beyond a reasonable doubt.” (Ellis, 1998, pp. 366 – 367).
A man of his times, Thomas Jefferson would have never thought about DNA testing to establish once and for all, the paternity of a child. For Jefferson the only burden of proof as to the paternity of Hemmings’ children would have simply been a lighter skin colour or other physical similarities; but then, who would believe a stuttering, uneducated slave woman’s testimony over Thomas Jefferson. The ruling class of the time would have called this – lies, lies and more lies; such people exist who simply want to bring down the virtue and grand memory of a tall-poppy.
Well, science has told us now of the hypocrisy of Jefferson. The black woman was beneath liberty; the black woman did not deserve a vote, the black woman did not deserve an education; this being the case why did she deserve being such a man’s lover? For no other reason than that Jefferson lusted after her. Publicly, the African-American was a different species; but privately, one wonders what Jefferson thought after his numerous passionate dalliances and the subsequent child-births thereof. George Orwell’s parody of Jefferson’s famous lines, echo now with a profound double irony – “All men are created equal, but some are more equal than others.”
So let us now move forward in United States history.
When Theodore Roosevelt invited Booker T. Washington to the White House for dinner at the dawn of the twentieth century, he could not have foreseen the impact of what he had done. To Roosevelt, Booker T. Washington was “a genius such as does not arise in a generation.” (Morris, 2001, p. 49). Washington’s influence was such that Morris writes that through “his secret fraternity of academics, businessmen, preachers, politicians and journalists – he controlled most of the nation’s Negro newspapers and political platforms. Washington was the most powerful black man in America.” (Morris, 2001, p. 49). Powerful or not Roosevelt’s invitation to Washington had special poignance. In the hundred years of the White House being in existence – never – never, had their ever been at a Presidential table an African-American, except of course, waiting at the table. Roosevelt was unabashed, he invited Washington. From the South came vibrations of anger. Roosevelt’s family had been at the dinner with Washington, including Roosevelt’s wife Edith and his beautiful teenage daughter, Alice. What outrage! One newspaper raised this question: perhaps Washington’s black knee had rubbed against Alice’s pearly white knee under the dining table. What was President Roosevelt thinking? The sheer volume of criticism made it evident to both Roosevelt and Washington that in future, if any progress was to be made with regard the rights of the African-American, discretion was vital. During Roosevelt’s time in the White House lynchings of African-Americans were not an irregular occurrence. In fact the youngest person charged for hanging an African-American child, was a twelve year old white boy. Both Roosevelt and Washington had to act in a manner that did not fuel such racist acts of violence.
Even though the United States has today a black President, one cannot forget that it was only half a century ago that Martin Luther King Jr. was inspired by the events of his time to lead a protest march to the steps of the Lincoln memorial in Washington DC.
Such events of racism are not only found in textbooks.
I am married to a woman of South African/Zimbabwean extraction. On both sides of her family have been political leaders of the respective nations: the Louws and the Aurets. Early in our marriage I can recall going to a school rugby match and speaking to a parent on the sidelines. Picking up a strong accent from him I queried the father as to whether he was South African or Zimbabwean; with strange reluctance he eventually answered that he was both. Out of politeness and wishing to break ice, I mentioned that my wife’s uncle, Michael Auret, had been a Senator in Zimbabwe. The response I received in reply shocked me, the father stared into space, folded his arms, raised his head a little, and said nothing else but: “Hoat lover”. For those unaware of what the phrase means – the word ‘Hoat’ is a derogatory term for a non-white Zimbabwean. To say I was astonished at this father’s reaction, would be a gross understatement. I was insulted many times over. First, he had abused my wife’s family. Second, he had attempted to abuse the good name of a very good and honest man. Third, he, a parent, was standing in a Catholic school, a school that he had enrolled his son in, and yet his views on humanity were wholly contrary to all that the Church stands for with regard the equality of peoples. Fourth, he had abused people because of the colour of their skin. I felt pity for him. To have got to the age of forty and to have had the gall to make such a comment was beyond belief. He smiled smugly. Interestingly enough when I spoke to my wife’s family – they brushed off the remark, without even a second thought. Senator Michael Auret had been criticized so often, they did not bother to react.
The problem we have in all the vignettes I have outlined, is that too often we are slaves of time and place – slaves because of an unfounded prejudice that has been given to us – by family, by culture, by events. We have one life to live – why spend it trapped in a prison of narrow-mindedness, or blinded by a lie that others promulgate in order to blur the truth. The fact that all of us are made in the image of likeness of God – denounces racism; for having one parent, we are in fact, brothers and sisters. That we cannot see this fact, says more about the myopia of man, than it does of the Divine mystery and plan of Creation of God.
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