Friday, October 02, 2009


Obama, Jefferson, Hemings, racism, the usual...

Thomas Jefferson was a brilliant and flawed man, as all men—and all women—are. I just read Annette Gordon-Reed's Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, An American Controversy, and that's how he comes across. Human, above all. It doesn't surprise or shock me that Jefferson was a slave owner or that he slept with slave women. Seems kind of normal, given the crazy power equation.

Sally Hemings seems, for what little we know of her, pretty normal, too. She made the best of a very bad situation for herself and her children. No blame.

Blame for the system, though. Lots of it there. And blame for people accepting it. And blame for those who now apologize for the barbarism of slavery and unequal power relationships. Either one, and both.

What struck me after reading the book was the casualness people had about owning slaves as light-skinned as they themselves. Sally Hemings and several of her children later were considered "white," even in the South. Obviously the system went beyond skin color. It boiled down to being able to see people as possessions. That, as the saying goes, is cold. It's a mark against Jefferson's character.

That owners slept with slave women was a given. It was rather common, as far as we know. But it wasn't talked about. Because it was so common? I don't think so: I think it was because Africans had been so philosophically trashed and white people so philosophically elevated, that it was a sign of some sort of depravity—like drinking too much. Maybe due to Original Sin. But, it just was. What was utterly not acceptable was the idea that white women might sleep with black men. There is some sort of bizarre insecurity involved in this, of course. Black men were portrayed as animals, jungle creatures, easily overcome with lust and lustful enough to utterly ravish white women. White women, of course, were such weak and flawed creatures that they it. Black men were lynched by the thousands, over the years, because of these twisted psychological beliefs and fears. That's really what the KKK was all about, and what so much of the South is still obsessed with today. And a lot of the rest of the country, too.

That, I have a hunch, is part of the rage and fear and shit-slinging at Obama is all about. I mean there's clearly a lot of outrage that a black man could become president, the ultimate high-status Alpha gig in America. But he's half-white. And the reason he's half-white is his mother, who we know was white, chose to marry a black man. Chose! What kind of a woman was she? We know she was a good mother, bright, all that, a good woman. But because of the almost indigenous racism in this country, a woman who marries a black man can't be good. There's got to be something wrong with her. And if there's something wrong with her, well, then, there's got to be something wrong with her child...and so it goes. The racists would be pissed if Obama's father was white and his mother black, but I bet they wouldn't be quite so pissed. Obama's heritage is a slap in the face to the racists...

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