Columnist Don Robinson: Richness of Black History Month

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Published: 2/21/2018 8:06:41 PM

February is Black History Month. Its precursor was launched by historian Carter G. Woodson, founding editor of The Journal of Negro History.

In 1926, Woodson suggested that the second week of February would be a good time to observe “Negro History Week.” It coincided with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln (Feb. 12) and Frederick Douglass (Feb. 14).

Woodson contended that the teaching of black history was essential. “If a race has no history, … no worthwhile tradition, it … stands in danger of being exterminated.” American Indians, he wrote, left no written record of their history, and their legacy has been largely effaced. Hebrews by contrast keenly “appreciated the value of tradition, as is attested by the Bible itself.” In spite of worldwide persecution, Jews had become a “great factor in our civilization.”

President Gerald Ford proclaimed February as Black History Month in conjunction with the celebration of the 200th anniversary of American independence.

Two years ago, a 106-year-old Washington, D.C., resident and school volunteer, Virginia McLaurin, visited the White House as part of Black History Month. When asked by then-President Barack Obama why she was there, McLaurin replied, “A black president. A black wife. I’m here to celebrate black history. That’s why I’m here.”

Two recent books have greatly enriched my understanding of the role of race relations in our nation’s founding. One is a new biography of Thomas Jefferson by John Boles, professor of history at Rice University. It is balanced account, powerfully appreciative of Jefferson’s genius in many fields of endeavor, from statecraft and diplomacy, to agriculture and archeology, architecture and music. And as a writer of inspired, unforgettable prose, Jefferson helped to establish equality and liberty as standards of just, democratic government.

Boles ends his book with an account of Jefferson pitifully attempting, from his death bed at Monticello, to persuade a reluctant Virginia Legislature to authorize a lottery to help pay off his mountain of debts. His estate would eventually have to meet at least part of this indebtedness by selling most of his slaves.

In the 1780s, while serving as ambassador to France, Jefferson wrote a book titled “Notes on the State of Virginia.” In it, he rebuts French naturalist Count Buffon’s contention that Indians were cowardly and had “no activity of mind,” lacked “ardor for their females” and had never produced a good orator. Citing numerous examples to the contrary, Jefferson insisted that their “vivacity and activity of mind is equal to ours in the same situation.”

In a section about Virginia’s “Laws,” Jefferson displayed an aspect of his character from which his reputation, among modern Americans at least, would never recover. It begins with a discussion of the likely origins of Americans of Indian and African descent. Indians, Jefferson thought, originated in Asia, from which they had, in the distant past, gradually migrated.

Blacks came from Africa, which had an entirely different climate, making them distinct from people of European background. This produced real distinctions “which nature has made… which are physical and moral.” To ignore these material distinctions and attempt to blend the two races into one society was to invite murderous, genocidal conflict.

Such notions led not only Jefferson, but James Monroe, James Madison, Henry Clay and Abraham Lincoln to espouse colonization (whether to a Caribbean island or “back” to Africa) as a necessary part of the solution to the problem of slavery.

Jefferson did not limit the discussion of race relations in his “Notes” to these political reflections. He also commented extensively and more personally on blacks as persons. They were, he wrote, less physically attractive than whites, a fact proven by “their own judgment in favor of the whites.” Blacks give off “a very strong and disagreeable odor ... Love seems with them more an eager desire than a tender delicate mixture of sentiment and sensation.”

He concluded with characteristic diffidence. “Whether a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, (blacks) are inferior to whites in the endowments both of body and mind.”

The other book, “The Hemingses of Monticello,” was written in 2008 by Annette Gordon-Reed, now a professor of history and law at Harvard. She won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for her profoundly moving account of an extraordinary family.

Jefferson served from 1785 until 1789 as the American ambassador to France. While in Paris, he entrusted the care of  his children largely to Sally Hemings, then an adolescent black girl. She was his recently diseased wife’s half-sister. He knew what an extraordinary person Sally was. She was his intimate companion from their time together in Paris until his death 38 years later. While in Paris with him, she conceived the first of seven children they bore together.

Jefferson also saw to it that Sally’s older brother, James, who also accompanied him to Paris, was trained in one of the finest culinary institutes in France. James also returned to Virginia with Jefferson — voluntarily, though not without profound misgivings, passing up the opportunity to remain in France as a free and highly accomplished man. Back at Monticello, James prepared the meals that helped to establish Jefferson’s reputation as the best host in America.

What do blacks owe to white Americans? To borrow a phrase, they owe much of “the content of their characters.” They have survived our best efforts to reduce them to a sub-human status: to infantilize them; to ridicule their culture and their appearance; to restrict their habitation to the worst, most dangerous neighborhoods and localities; to disrupt their families; to limit their opportunities.

Even after such relentless, brutal treatment, there was strength in what remained. By the strange alchemy of American history, again and again race hate has generated its opposite in them: forgiveness and steadfast love.

After the tragic, murderous rampage in a Charleston, South Carolina, church, who can forget the magnanimity of those parishioners, or President Obama singing “Amazing Grace”?

It is no accident that a disproportionate number of the great moral leaders of recent times are people of color, descendants of Africa: Martin Luther King and his mentor, Mahatma Gandhi; Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela; Malcolm X and Jesse Jackson; Sylvester Turner, mayor of Houston; Danielle Allen, interpreter of the Declaration of Independence; Annette Gordon-Reed and Henry Louis Gates.

Black History Month, indeed. What a blessing, what an enrichment!

Don Robinson, a retired professor of government and American studies at Smith College, is the author of “Slavery in the Structure of American Politics,” which won the Annisfield-Wolf Award in 1972. His column appears on the fourth Thursday of each month, and he can be reached at drobinso@smith.edu.


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