About a week ago, I posted in a Facebook group of which I am a moderator. The post, in the group #TeamPeteButtigieg2020 , was laudatory of the words of our first President, George Washington, who once proclaimed, “…for happily, the government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution, no assistance.” My post began, “The writings, words and pleadings of Pete mightily reflect the words expressing the national vision of our first President, George Washington.”
The first comment a group member made about what I posted was this (in part:) “…the words of any president prior to the Emancipation Proclamation are irrelevant to African Americans because these words did not apply to us all. [They were written by] slaveholding presidents…”
He was 100% correct. I looked at the words of the president that glared at me on the screen. It wasn’t that I did not know that George Washington and his family had been slaveholders. I did. Yet, when I quoted the words of Washington for my post — words which were a full-on rejection of bigotry and persecution as American tenets — I did not think for even a second about how he had been a slaveholder. Only that he had expressed one of the most powerful and enduring of America’s founding principles (until recently). That he himself failed to apply those same principles to slaves reeks of the bigotry he professed would not be tolerated in America.
I felt the blood rush to my head and turned to Google. At the time of George Washington’s death, the enslaved population at Mount Vernon consisted of 317 people. It matters little that George Washington left instructions in his will to emancipate the people enslaved by him; and that it was a subject that conflicted him through this life. His biography still includes the designation of “slaveowner.”
Now, one might argue that in the earliest decades of American life, slavery was deeply institutionalized as an American cultural, sociological norm. So, Washington was a slaveholder just as were thousands of other privileged white masters. It was simply what was done — even expected — of those with sufficient treasure and aspirations of greater prosperity and ease of daily life.
But why did slavery — at its very first inkling — fail to rile the masses to sustained protests and action? It’s partly because slavery was not widely viewed as persecutional enslavement, because slaves were not spoken of nor were they regarded as humans. They were considered sub-humans to whom equal rights and justice did not apply; a “species” whose lives were of little more importance then the horses that accompanied them to work the fields and the land.
Liberty and justice for all? No. No. No.
I have come to understand something more profoundly than ever — from the brief but powerful comment written on my post, and from reading Pete’s passionate narrative in his Douglass Plan. Though slavery formally ended with the Civil War, its venomous entrails still keep America’s black community today from experiencing and enjoying full freedoms.
As Pete writes, “This history of Black people in the United States did not start with slavery, and it did not end with the Civil Rights Movement. Black people in America are still disproportionately excluded from systems of social protection, economic uplift, and representative democracy while facing shorter lifespans, lower educational attainment, and dramatic overcriminalization and incarceration compared to their white counterparts.
“It remains morally and economically incumbent upon America to fix what our policies consciously and deliberately wrought over centuries.”
I am so extremely heartened about all that Pete has proposed in his Douglass Plan; a plan so comprehensive that it is of the scope and scale of the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after WWII. Pete for the people — ALL people.
“I love Pete.” Those were the first three words the commenter made on my post. He sees in Pete what thousands already see as a man who has conceived of a mighty way forward towards total freedom in America — for all people of color. #20PETE20