‘Jefferson’s Pillow’

Yet I am always acutely aware that however noble their accomplishments, Jefferson and his fellow Virginians George Washington, George Mason, and James Madison — great patriots and founders all — lived lives cushioned by slavery. They were also the conveyors of the culture that has done and continues to do hideous damage to millions of black human beings and to many more millions of white Americans as well. They created a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that whites were and should be supreme. They celebrated freedom while stealing the substance of life from the people they “owned.” They fought off the mightiest military power then on earth with the cry “We will not be slaves!” And they created the country that gives me, the descendant of slaves and slave owners, much of the context for my existence, the freedom that I cherish and the democratic citizenship that I have used relentlessly for the past half century.

.. For many Southern whites, the outcome of the Civil War brought a loss of prestige, power, and privilege, and some of the resulting resentment was felt in the North as well. Black people and white people became for each other color-coded symbols of the things they had lost or never achieved, and of the things they continued to resent and fear.

.. And yet I feel and look American, and I have labored over the years to make the Constitution work for everyone. Does that make me a patriot? Can I embrace founders who may have “owned” some of my ancestors? Can I try to see them in their complexity and understand them — even identify with them? Can I see myself and my ancestors as active participants in a history from which we are too often absent?