My New Book!

My New Book!
My New Book!

Monday, February 19, 2024

February 19, 2024: Prejudicial Non-Favorites: Jefferson and Banneker

[For this year’s annual non-favorites series, I wanted to highlight moments when important and in many ways impressive Americans gave in to white supremacist prejudices, modeling the worst of our national community in the process. Got grievances of your own to air, about anything and everything? Share ‘em for a therapeutic crowd-sourced post, please!]

On three frustrating layers to a founding American exchange.

Back in August 2022, I dedicated one of my Saturday Evening Post Considering History columns to the great Benjamin Banneker, and included there not only his inspiring letter to Thomas Jefferson but Jefferson’s deeply frustrating responses. Check out that column if you would, and then come on back for a couple more layers to this frustrating founding moment.

Welcome back! Besides the fact that Jefferson was given and dropped the ball on such a clear opportunity to transcend the racism “of his times” (which as I argue in that column was never the only option “in his times” in any case), there are a couple other deeply frustrating things about how my hometown icon responded to Banneker in this moment. For one thing, I’d contrast Jefferson here with what I wrote about Ben Franklin’s evolution on the issue of immigration in this long-ago post. We all hold prejudices at times in our lives, and perhaps especially when we’re younger, and one of our most important life goals thus has to be to continue learning and growing in those ways (among many others of course). Yet when Jefferson was presented with a pitch-perfect opportunity to do so, he instead (after a somewhat encouraging initial response) retreated into and even deepened his prejudices toward African Americans. For such an intelligent man, that’s a strikingly ignorant thing to do.

And speaking of intelligence: as I wrote in this other Saturday Evening Post column, one of Jefferson’s truly inspiring achievements was the founding of the nation’s first non-sectarian public university, a space dedicated the freedom of thought as well as religion (both far from a given in the early 19th century). It’s true (and important) that that educational and civic community also featured, and indeed depended upon, enslaved people in ways that contrasted quite clearly with its ideals. But just as we can’t let the presence of slavery in every part of America’s founding keep us from fighting for the nation’s ideals (as enslaved people themselves did time and time again), neither should the University of Virginia’s frustrating flaws elide the importance of what an “academical village” (as Jefferson dubbed the institution) could mean for individual and collective thought. That Jefferson himself failed to live up to those thoughtful ideals in his exchange with Benjamin Banneker is one more reason this moment is a decided non-favorite for me.

Next non-favorite tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other non-favorites (of any and all types) you’d share?

No comments:

Post a Comment