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Jefferson's Pillow

General Assembly 2001 Event 3015

Sponsor: Faith in Action Department, Unitarian Universalist Association

Speaker: Roger Wilkins

Roger Wilkins, noted journalist, educator, and activist, is a descendant of American slaves. He is also a scholar of the slave-owning founding fathers of the United States. But Roger Wilkins is a self-proclaimed American patriot. How can this be? Insight came as he shared vignettes from his personal life and from his book Jefferson's Pillow in a lecture that was sponsored by Faith in Action and introduced by Mel Hoover.

Despite its provocative title, Jefferson's Pillow is not about Sally Hemings, about whom Wilkins offered neither comment nor speculation. It is about the journey to freedom for all people, starting with Jefferson's earliest memory of being carried on a pillow by a slave. Slaves carried not only the young Jefferson, but also the Revolutionary War itself. The war was financed by slave labor in tobacco fields. The war was fought when twenty percent of the population was black, forty percent in Virginia. Slaves served in every role (except officer) in every battle from the Boston massacre to Yorktown. Slaves were in the battles of Lexington, Concord, Bunker Hill and Cambridge. Without them, the Revolutionary War would not have been fought, could not have been won, and the journey to freedom would not have started.

Jefferson's Pillow is also about the hopes for opportunity that were dashed after the Revolutionary War. Hopes that were also dashed after the Civil War, Reconstruction, and most recently by a president who usurped Marion Wright Edelman's slogan to "leave no child behind" but who also promotes a tax bill that threatens further repair of the legacy of slavery. A legacy that includes not only lack of opportunity, but broken homes, broken communities, broken schools and a residue of disdain for the poorest of black people. The ghosts of slavery are most clearly seen the faces of the homeless black men who wander the streets of American cities.

In 1601, there were no white or black people, just natives who called themselves simply "the people." Jefferson, the poet of freedom, was also the president who established the Native American policy, which simply stated was "move or die." Ironically, when Wilkins protested apartheid in South Africa, he was reminded that this policy was a lesson from American history.

Wilkins notes the schizophrenia of the founding fathers' on the subject of slavery. He concludes that despite their noble aspirations they were men with flaws. He paraphrases Pogo: "I have found the founders and they are us." Most of the founders were deeply lacerated by the evils of slavery yet unable to fathom a society without slaves. Within their cultural constrains, they could see only a vague direction but not a clear path for equality for all people.

Wilkins draws a parallel between George Washington and Nelson Mandela. Both men came to see themselves as wedges for a cause much greater than they as individuals. Ironically, the young George Washington did not seem destined for greatness. Born as the third son by his father's second wife, young George at the age of five or six was "breech," that is, dressed as an adult and given a slave of his own. He eventually sought his fortune by marrying into wealth. He bought and sold slaves as a dandy landowner. He was known for his horsemanship, not only in fox hunting, but also in the Revolutionary War. Less well known is that always by his side in that war was Billy Lee, a slave every bit as accomplished an equestrian as Washington.

By 1779, life transformed Washington so that he no longer sold slaves, despite the hardships of the times, and decreed in his will the freedom of as many slaves as he could without impoverishing his wife. The record of the other founders with large land holdings and many slaves is more ambiguous. Wilkins praised Jefferson for his inspirational words of equality for all men, eloquently restated by Lincoln on the blood soaked fields of Gettysburg. But while Wilkins has come to admire George Washington the man, he cannot bring himself to even like Thomas Jefferson the man, despite Jefferson's eloquent words in the cause of liberty and his amendments offered to free slaves in Virginia. Sadly, some of the most racist writings of the times also came from Jefferson's pen.

When asked about reparations, Wilkins noted the irony of giving a large sum of money to his highly successful daughter, Amy Wilkins, an accomplished reporter on the News Hour. He expressed concern that such reparations would be used as an excuse to abandon the unfinished work of repairing the legacy of slavery for the most unfortunate.

The immediate impact of Wilkins' lecture was a crowded room and long lines for book signings. But he hopes that his long-term impact will be the celebration of privilege for each generation of black descendents of slaves to remake democracy anew in a nation with a structure for protest and change. He celebrates the progress during the 69 years since his birth, including the dismantling of institutional segregation, a drop in black poverty rates from sixty to twenty-five percent, and opportunities undreamt by his father or even himself as a child. But he understands deeply the need for perseverance in a nation with a tragic and recurring history of hopes dashed and opportunities denied.

Reported by John Melski.

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Last updated on Thursday, September 8, 2011.

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