When I heard those words on a news program, I felt a deep chill. “It’s contaminating our nation’s blood.” Blood. Blood does not give life; it carries pain, weakness, disease, and death.
This sentence, these words, came from the mouth of a man who wanted to become President of the United States for the second time. Speaking to an interviewer with the right-wing website National Pulse, he spoke of the blood of immigrants, people of color, men, women and children seeking a better life in this country.
How did this happen? I asked myself this question, and as I think back to the moment I heard this report, I believe I asked myself this question out loud. But I knew the answer. I’m a historian. I have spent most of my life studying American history, especially the history of the American South. I knew how we got here. That’s what sent a chill down my spine.
Thomas Jefferson used the word in a remarkable passage in his 1785 Notes on the State of Virginia. Thomas Jefferson was the great author of the Declaration of Independence, the third president of the United States, and the Sage of Monticello. Thomas Jefferson, a former enemy of slavery in the South, and Thomas Jefferson, a racist.
“Unfortunately, differences in skin color, and perhaps differences in ability, are powerful obstacles to the liberation of these people,” he wrote. And there were real dangers inherent in abolition. “The deep-rooted prejudices of white people. Ten thousand reminiscences by black people of the injuries they have received. New provocations. Real distinctions created by nature. And many other circumstances that divide us into factions. , causing chaos and perhaps ending only in the extinction of one race or another.” In other words, Jefferson was predicting a race war.
How can I prevent such “convulsions”? Former slaves had to be deported from Virginia — to the backwaters of the West, or to Africa, or anywhere, but the land that the vast majority of slaves called home. , Virginia was liberated by slavery. Born in the late 18th century.
“Among the Romans,” continued Jefferson, “emancipation required a single effort. When a slave is set free, he can associate with his master without staining his blood. right.”
There was such a word.
“But unknown to history, we need a second time,” he continued. “Once released, he will be removed from the reach of the mixture.”
These words were written by a man who bedded his late wife’s half-sister, slave girl Sally Hemings, and had a child with her. And this situation is indisputable. Her DNA evidence of Jefferson and Hemings ancestry is completely beyond doubt. The Monticello guides are now openly discussing their relationship. The same Thomas Jefferson who wrote the document that united 13 different British colonies in North America and ushered in a tide of revolution and war, the same one who wrote, “…all men are created equal.” . Thomas Jefferson is without a doubt one of the most brilliant men to ever hold a high office in America.
And now Donald J. Trump.
They both go there. why?
Every generation of Americans has faced the scourge of racial prejudice. I thought we had “moved forward” with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. When we elected and re-elected an African-American president in 2008, we thought we had stepped into the promised land of racial equality. We could start saying “racism existed” instead of “racism exists.” But I should have known better.
And we Americans still face the curse of racial prejudice. Look at what’s happening in our state right now. And look who’s doing it.
State officials said there is no Advanced Placement course in African American Studies for high school students.
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State officials said black history courses at public universities cannot be taught in a way that makes white students uncomfortable.
State officials are asking police to remove books about black lives from school libraries that may upset white students.
Our government officials claim that enslaved people benefited from their bondage by learning profitable skills.
State officials are gerrymandering congressional districts to disperse African American voters and prevent the election of black members of Congress.
So where does this history, this rhetoric, these policies leave us?
It’s easy to despair, but there are solutions. The solution is knowledge and the determination to act on that knowledge at the voting booth. We need to mobilize every sensible voice in the country, especially young people, to vote.
If we don’t, there is a real danger that the racists will win again, this time destroying our democracy as well as our national self-respect.
Charles B. Dew is Ephraim Williams Professor Emeritus of American History at Williams College. He is the author of “How to Be a Racist: A Southerner Reflects on Family, History, and the Slave Trade.”