George Floyd gasping for breath and Reverend Al Sharpton’s elegiac refrain, “Get your knee off our necks,” are painful historical metaphors of black life and black death under racism’s enabling socio-economic structures. Floyd’s murder is uniquely an American tragedy. Whether enslaved or free, Black contributions to America have been legion in every way. Yet African Americans are being picked off like pigeons in increasingly bizarre ways. At Floyd’s Houston homegoing, when his broken-hearted, articulate young niece said, “America has never been great,.” I thought of Langston Hughes’ poem: “Who said free? Not me. Equality is the air we breathe. There’s never been equality for me. America never was America to me.”
We historians cut our molars on America as exceptional — the home of enlightened principles of equality, freedom, humanity, and of open doors. Not me. We did not land on Plymouth Rock, Malcolm X said. Plymouth Rock landed on us. Abraham Lincoln began his Gettysburg Address in 1863 by invoking the Declaration of Independence’s “created equal” preamble. However, Lincoln claimed an American vision far beyond what the Founding Fathers intended. Lincoln had recruited nearly 200,00 African American men to help save the Union. Their valor made Lincoln a believer. Nonetheless, a racist wrote the Declaration of Independence. In Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), Thomas Jefferson proclaimed Blacks physically, biologically and intellectually inferior. He dismissed Black scientist Benjamin Banneker and said young Phillis Wheatley’s poetry was “below the dignity of criticism.”
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Margaret Washington is a professor of American History at Cornell University. Comments can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. Guest Room runs periodically this semester.