In 1956, I shall not go to the polls. I have not registered.
I believe that democracy has so far disappeared
in the United States that no “two evils” exist.
There is but one evil party with two names, and it
will be elected despite all I can do or say.
— W. E. B. Du Bois, 1956
Once upon a time there were millions of people living on a continent.
They were invaded by people from a distant part of the
world. These newcomers killed them via military attacks, infectious
diseases, and outright theft of their lands. The invaders also
kidnapped other human beings from yet another part of the world
and enslaved them on the stolen land. More than two hundred
years after the invaders appeared there was a war that ended slavery
but accelerated the extermination of the indigenous residents.
More invaders came until they had claimed the entire continent.
The political and economic system of this land was built on these
These are undeniable truths of American history that can be
asserted and summed up briefly, but the devil is always in the
details. Americans like to think of themselves as an exceptional
people bound together by noble ideals. This belief is challenged,
however, when history is taught more honestly and fully, without
omitting facts or telling outright lies. Presidents are outsized characters
in America’s narrative about itself. Children attend schools
named after them; there are monuments dedicated to them in
every state. They have their own national holiday, Presidents’
Day, which presents an opportunity for the country’s virtues to
be celebrated. We are conditioned to feel a deep connection to
these men hundreds of years after some of them have died.
The language used to create and protect presidential images is
telling. The first several presidents are known as the Founding
Fathers, a term that affirms patriarchy and white supremacy.
George Washington is more than just the first president; he is the
“Father of Our Country.” Regardless of our group affiliations and
histories, we are taught to see these people as benevolent figures no
matter what actions they took in while in office.
Most Americans are taught from childhood, for instance, that
George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were brave and brilliant
men in any number of ways, but that both men owned human
beings as slaves is rarely mentioned in telling their stories or assessing
their character. Americans are not taught that the British offered
freedom to the enslaved people who fought on their side in the
Revolutionary War. Abraham Lincoln, widely regarded as the great
liberator, initially sought to limit the spread of slavery rather than
to end it, and actively considered the option of deporting or segregating
black people in order to make America a whites-only society.
Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy are considered to have
been “good for black people,” even though they constantly feared
antagonizing southern segregationists and failed their constituents.
It is particularly difficult to write about America’s history without
giving in to the notion of patriotism, which includes suppressing
certain narratives. Even those who think of themselves as
progressives base their arguments for systemic change in terms
of obedience to the cherished myths of great men. Despite claims
to the contrary, Americans are highly indoctrinated to the belief
in American superiority. Though the democratic progress usually
amounts to a series of compromises and incremental steps, emphasizing
only those facts of history that make our “great men” look
good undermines the creation of the sense of inclusion and understanding
necessary for the lives of all citizens to improve.
This book is an effort to shed light on the truth. George
Washington didn’t have wooden teeth, as is commonly believed,
but he did take teeth out of his slaves’ mouths. He may not have
chopped down a cherry tree, but when Philadelphia became the
capital of the United States, he deliberately rotated his slaves out of
Pennsylvania in order to avoid their becoming emancipated, as the
law would have required.
The very foundation of this country, the celebrated Declaration
of Independence from Great Britain, was tainted by the fact that
some delegates to the Second Continental Congress were keenly
focused on the continuation of slavery. The case in which James
Somerset, who was brought to London by his Bostonian slaveholder,
was freed in 1772 threatened the future of slaveholding in
the thirteen colonies. He won his freedom based on the argument
that the law of England did not support slavery. Many feared that
the precedent might “cheat an honest American of his slave.”
All of the men who became president were able to reach that high
office in part because they swore allegiance to American ideals that
were built on tenets of conquest and enslavement. These truths
are self-evident: The founding of the United States continued the
conquest and genocide of the continent’s indigenous population
and protected the practice of slavery. The legacies of predatory
capitalism and anti-black racism are a huge part of our collective
story. None of this is ancient history that can be dismissed in the
twenty-first century. These themes run deeply in our culture, and
they should be acknowledged and understood. Aristotle said: “If
liberty and equality, as thought by some, are chiefly to be found
in democracy, they will be attained when all persons alike share
in government to the utmost.” More than twenty-three hundred
years later, we’re still not there. Americans need to recognize the
malignancies that have threatened the healthier aspects of our
shared history and continue to do so. If we are ever to have the
opportunity to be fully realized as human beings, capable of living
in peace among ourselves and the rest of the world, we need to
be honest with ourselves. To the extent that our leaders embody
aspects of who we are as a people, studying how each president has
participated in our nation’s complicated and often shameful treatment
of black people is as good a place as any to start.
Copyright © 2020 by Margaret Kimberley. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.