Thomas Jefferson is known for many things. From being the author of the Declaration of Independence to starting the University of Virginia to making the Louisiana Purchase, which doubled the size of the U.S. at the time, Jefferson is often seen as one of the greatest men of his time. He was, however, a man of his time. One thing I believe he doesn’t get enough credit for is embodying the very fears that White folks still hold on to today about losing their supremacy. He did not believe that free Black and White folks could coexist without one killing the other. What he said specifically on the matter in Notes on the State of Virginia is:
“Why not retain and incorporate the blacks into the state?… Deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand 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.”
Arguably, Thomas Jefferson is perhaps the originator of the fear that White supremacists everywhere hold: White genocide. For those unfamiliar, White genocide is a phrase coined by Neo-Nazis, Klansmen, and other groups of disgruntled White folks who’ve rebranded themselves as the alternative-right which expresses their fear of White people dying out in America due to a growing diverse population and the communist evil that is “race-mixing.” If interested, read more here.
Thomas Jefferson was at least more honest than these people in his assessment of why he thought the races could not coexist. He was scared that Black folks would one day do to Whites what had been done to them, spurred by our “ten thousand recollections”. Clearly, this was and is a fear that’s unfounded by the example of our gracious existence in this country. Despite having ample reason, Black folks have not yet turned up to the point of wanting to physically destroy White folks writ large. While Black radicalism exists and has a rich tradition in this country, its focus has been more on Black self-determination than having anything to do with White folks. That said, many of us just want to assimilate into mainstream American society and have, ya know, basic human rights and shit. And despite suffering the worst conditions, we have fought to make this country adhere to its ideals more faithfully. Most of us have no interest nor have we created systems to make peaceful living more difficult for any other race of people.
Alas, the same cannot be spake for our White brethren. Centuries of slavery, segregation, sub-standard education, housing discrimination, sexual terrorism, and other forms of oppression have worked to haunt the existence of non-White people in this country, with the blueprints for White supremacy usually starting in Black communities. As much as many of our ancestors and contemporaries have tried loving them, they have never loved us in policy or practice. And at times, they have actively sought our destruction. Look at the Tulsa bombing in 1921, the Tuskegee Experiment, , the response to the AIDS epidemic, the gutting of welfare programs, forced sterilization and the impact of mass incarceration. These instances and many more lead me to take a different view of the Jefferson quote. Indeed, his thoughts were steeped in ideals of White supremacy and Black inferiority, which no one should waste energy continuing to disprove. But it begs a question that has been asked in some shape or form at least since the days of Frederick Douglass and Henry Highland Garnet: Can we live full, abundant lives in a nation that has made sport of our destruction?
Up to this point, we have found ways to thrive despite America’s best efforts to destroy us. We took our pain and turned it into every single genre White Americans sing and dance to today. Even if they don’t credit us for it. We’ve created culture which everyone mimics and profits from without cutting the proper checks or even saying thank you. We’ve kept the oral tradition and verbal habits of our ancestors and blended them with American English to create a whole damn vernacular. And our stories of resistance have been the basis for countless dystopian novel and films (few of which feature any of our Black asses by the way). We have birthed and built social movements that have changed policies, hearts, and minds and made being a Black person a little less dangerous on a day-to-day basis (i.e. Anti-Lynching movement, Civil Rights Movement, Reproductive Justice Movement – whether you knew it or not , LGBTQIA+ Movement, and the present fight for our lives, the Black Lives Matter Movement).
Yet every single one of these valiant efforts has been met with White backlash whether it be convict leasing, Jim Crow laws, the rollback of busing and affirmative action, White flight, the defunding of reproductive health care centers, employment discrimination, and mass incarceration. Our thriving comes in glorious spurts, but as comedian Paul Mooney articulated, Black joy cannot and will not be tolerated for long in America. Even the largely symbolic election of the nation’s first Black president who loved and trusted White folks like he had a family of them was met with unprecedented obstruction and vitriol unlike anything ever experienced by a person holding that position. This disdain partially helped to bolster the rise of the embodiment of the worst of Reddit chat rooms, Donald Trump.
Black people have yet to be exterminated, but there is little evidence that this cycle of small progress and big backlash will end. Political officials, even those on the Left, have not found the courage to deal honestly with the question of race in this country. And they are too often seduced to support racially destructive policies in pursuit of the mythical creature of our political imagination: the White working class. The myth is not that these people exist, but that their existence and anxiety justifies making life harder for literally every other minority group in this country. But I’m yelling into a vacuum.
It’s clear that we (Black people) aren’t going anywhere. We built this country and continue to build. If Black folks decided to cash in on this running tab for all this physical and emotional labor we’ve been doing pro-bono, the U.S. would need another mortgage on the national debt and an older relative to co-sign. Alas, we keep holding this shit down mostly for the free. And each day we keep living here as second class citizens, it gets harder to ignore the voice in my head that wonders why. It’s possible that we believe the ideals articulated in the Declaration of Independence are worth fighting for. Even if the person who wrote it didn’t have us in mind. Or some may feel the legacy of our ancestors behooves us to never waver in the struggle. Maybe, and this is as unfortunate as it is possibly true, most of us just don’t know another way.
I don’t have any big answers or revelations. Only questions. I’m not interested in false propheteering about the hope we should have and the imagination we should embrace. Conversely, I’m not leaving the fight for Black lives anytime soon. But my arms are tired, my feet are sore, and my heart is heavy. I don’t know if Thomas Jefferson was right. What I do know is like so many people running our country today, he was a scared White man. And until we stop alleviating White fears with lost Black lives, the prospects for our survival as a nation look bleak.