I heard the word in a newscast, and it sent a profound chill through me. “It’s poisoning the blood of our country.” Blood. Blood, not the giver of life, but the carrier of pain, debility, disease, death.
This sentence, this word, came out of the mouth of a man who wants to be president of the United States for a second time. He was speaking to an interviewer on The National Pulse, a right-wing website, and he was talking about the blood of immigrants, people of color, men, women and children seeking a better life in this country.
How have we come to this? I asked myself this question, and thinking back on the moment when I heard this news report, I think I asked myself this question out loud. But I knew the answer. I’m a historian. I have spent the better part of my life studying American history, and particularly the history of the American South. I knew how we have gotten here. And that’s what sent that chill up my spine.
Thomas Jefferson had used the word in a startling passage in his “Notes on the State of Virginia,” published in 1785. Thomas Jefferson, the brilliant author of the Declaration of Independence, the third president of the United States, the sage of Monticello, Thomas Jefferson, the sometime foe of the South’s slave system, and Thomas Jefferson the racist.
“The unfortunate difference of color, and perhaps of faculty, is a powerful obstacle to the emancipation of these people,” he wrote. And there were real dangers inherent in the wake of abolition. “Deep-rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; 10,000 recollections, by the Blacks, of the injuries they have sustained; new provocations; the real distinctions which nature has made; and many other circumstances, will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions, which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race.” Jefferson, in short, was predicting a race war.
How could such a “convulsion” be prevented? The former slaves had to be transported out of Virginia — to a remote part of the West, back to Africa, somewhere, anywhere, but the land the vast majority of the enslaved called home, Virginia, the place where most of them, by the late 18th century, had been born.
“Among the Romans,” Jefferson went on to say, “emancipation required but one effort. The slave, when made free, might mix with, without staining the blood of his master.”
There was that word.
“But with us a second is necessary, unknown to history,” he continued. “When freed, he is to be removed beyond the reach of mixture.”
These words were written by a man who took his deceased wife’s half-sister, a slave girl, Sally Hemmings, to his bed, and sired children with her. And this circumstance is beyond dispute. DNA evidence in both the Jefferson and Hemmings family lines leaves absolutely no doubt. Guides at Monticello now discuss their relationship openly. The same Thomas Jefferson who was the crafter of the document that united 13 disparate British colonies in North America and launched them on the flood tides of revolution and war, the man who wrote “… all men are created equal.” Thomas Jefferson, without question, one of the most brilliant men ever to serve in high public office in America.
And now Donald J. Trump.
They both go there. Why?
Every generation of Americans has faced the scourge of racial bigotry. I thought we had “moved on” with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. I thought we had crossed over into a promised land of racial equity when we elected an African American president in 2008 and reelected him in 2012. We could start saying “racism was” instead of “racism is.” But I should have known better.
And we Americans are still dealing with the curse of racial prejudice. Just look at what is going on in our state right now. And look at who is doing it.
Our state officials have said there will be no Advanced Placement course in African American Studies for our high school students.
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Our state officials have said Black History courses in our public colleges and universities can’t be taught in any way that might make white students uncomfortable.
Our state officials insist that school libraries be policed to remove books about Black life that might upset white students.
Our state officials insist that enslaved human beings benefited from their bondage by learning skills that they could profit from.
Our state officials gerrymander congressional districts to disperse African American voters and prevent them from electing a Black member of the House of Representatives.
So where does all this leave us, this history, this rhetoric, these policies?
It would be easy to despair, but there is a remedy. The remedy is knowledge and the determination to act on that knowledge at the ballot box. We need to mobilize every sane voice in our country, particularly the young, and get to the polls.
If we don’t, the racists win, again, and there is a genuine risk this time that our democracy will be destroyed as well, along with our national self-respect.
Charles B. Dew is Ephraim Williams Professor of American History, emeritus, at Williams College. He is the author of “The Making of a Racist: A Southerner Reflects on Family, History, and the Slave Trade.”