Seen from the outside, we are often tempted to believe that there are no longer racial tensions in the United States. I arrived in the United States as an international graduate student twenty years ago with that preconceived notion, and for the longest time I was unable to see the issues that were, after all, quite evident in daily life. Nevertheless, the reality is that a significant portion of what is today the United States has been built with the labor of human beings from the African continent kidnapped from their homelands, brought by force to North, Central and South American European colonies, and sold to be owned like any other piece of property. Their labor under inhumane conditions, under physical and psychological torture, has never been acknowledged to have been both foundational and instrumental to making the United States into the economic superpower it became in the 20th century.

Citește versiunea în limba română aici.

What we learn from mainstream accounts of history is that once the United States declared their independence from the England on July 4th, 1776, the new country was more or less torn between ideologies justifying slavery and opposing it. This tension shaped the Constitution on which the entire society rests, that revolutionary document establishing the coordinates of a modern nation state based on the principles of democracy. As usual, the reality seems to be a bit more nuanced than what history textbooks tell us, and we now know that many of the key “founding fathers” of the new country—iconic figures in the mythology of the United States as staunch defenders of liberty and justice for all—were, in fact, not only rich business and landowners, but also slaveowners. Of the twelve historical figures typically identified as founding fathers, five were slave owners: George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Patrick Henry. Others, such as Alexander Hamilton, had close family ties with slaveowners. In other words, the liberty and justice principles did not extend in their minds to the human beings that they owned very much the same way they owned any other chattel work animals purchased at a fair. This argument is usually countered with the justification that all rich, highly positioned people of the time owned slaves. But that, again, is not the case, as the historic record demonstrates. Indeed, many were abolitionists and abhorred the institution of slavery. Moreover, 41 of the 56 signatories of the Declaration of Independence were slaveowners, while some opposed slavery vehemently and suffered political consequences for their position. Finally, twelve US presidents of the early republic are identified as slaveowners, chief among them, George Washington. In a frightening exercise from the hot summer of 2020, documentarian Arlen Parsa added red dots on the faces of the slaveowners as represented in the famous 1818 John Trumbull painting “Declaration of Independence,” depicting the historical moment. The effect is startling, as 34 of the 47 men represented in the painting were in fact slaveowners, and the painting turned into a sea of red.

In and of itself, that might mean very little, if there were not such a discrepancy between the ideals espoused by these men and the reality in practice for millions of people. As self-declared exponents of the Enlightenment ideals, the idea of owning other human beings should have been repugnant to all these luminaries at the beginnings of the American nation-state experiment. That was not the case. Slavery was part and parcel of the British model of economic success, and the Americans were, if nothing else, good British businessmen, at least for as long as their status as British subjects made sense. When King George became a nuisance and his taxation system and demands were deemed unreasonable and untenable—no taxation without representation!—the colonial leaders chose the ideological path that made the most sense: separate from the Empire in the name of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” and create a new country. A bold move to be sure, but with the financial and material resources on their side and within a context of a weakening grip on the imperial center in the American colonies, the timing proved right. The new ideology adopted by the colonists also proved infallible, a beacon of light, a city on a hill, for who could not be animated by the ideas of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all?

The devil is, how else, in the details. To whom did the founding fathers refer when Jefferson wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness”? Who were the “all” in the name of whom the founding fathers determined to secede from England and declare their independence? This is a question without a straightforward answer, and it is one that reverberates to this day in this country. Over the past two centuries, many attempted to explain the meaning of that famous “all.” And over generations the generously all-encompassing “all” turned out to be “all but women”, “all but slaves”, “all but non-Whites”, “all but non-property owners”, “all but non-Christians”, “all but non-Europeans”, “all but the Catholics”, and even, more recently—as the “all” continues to be defined and re-defined to this day—”all but non-heterosexuals” and “all but the immigrants.” Defining “all” started almost immediately after the famous phrase above was put on paper.

To be continued

Photo: Twitter/Arlen Parsa


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