A message to my fellow non-Black Americans:
I am roughly one-fifth of the way into Professor Ibram X Kendi’s brilliant book, Stamped From the Beginning. Dr Kendi does a brilliant job comprehensively covering the history of American anti-Blackness, exploring both its origins and the many ways – insidious and overt – in which it manifests.
The part I’m currently on discusses Thomas Jefferson, someone I’ve written about before: a man who is often lauded as an American hero, but who in practice was a hero only to wealthy white Americans. He was a heap of contradictions rolled into one lanky hypocritical package. Dr Kendi describes how Jefferson, who in his Notes on the State of Virginia described Black women as “inferior” to white women in physical attractiveness, simultaneously assaulted a teenage girl enslaved on his plantation. Jefferson wrote about how Black people could never withstand freedom. Yet when the aforementioned enslaved girl, Sally Hemings, threatened to stay in Paris and be free instead of returning home to slavery under him when his diplomatic mission there ended in 1789, Jefferson swayed her by promising freedom for her children. Clearly he did not believe in his own declarations of Black inferiority, and he understood the true value of freedom for enslaved Black people. He did not waver when penning racist lies about Black people – but at the same time, he fancied himself an antiracist.
Thomas Jefferson was a master of preaching nothing he practiced when it came to abolitionism and antislavery. When Benjamin Banneker, a free Black farmer, wrote to Jefferson about antiracism and begged him to wield his considerable political influence in order to bring about an end to slavery, Jefferson responded thusly:
No body wishes more than I do to see such proofs as you exhibit, that nature has given to our black brethren, talents equal to those of the other colours of men, and that the appearance of a want of them is owing merely to the degraded condition of their existence both in Africa and America. I can add with truth that no body wishes more ardently to see a good system commenced for raising the condition both of their body and mind to what it ought to be, as fast as the imbecillity of their present existence, and other circumstances which cannot be neglected, will admit.
Here he talks as if “the degraded condition” of Black existence in the 1790s was something he himself had no hand in. His expression of supposed desire to see proof of Black accomplishments neatly ignores the sheer amount of enslaved Black talent which was necessary to make his plantation run. In fact, it ignores his own biracial children: Eston Hemings, for one, was a master violinist.
In his reply, Thomas Jefferson wrote what he figured Black people like Benjamin Banneker wanted to hear, but sidestepped providing any concrete solutions or commitments to the problem Banneker set forth: the problem of slavery. In one fell swoop, he slapped a label of abolitionism on himself while continuing to perpetrate violence through slaveholding.
It is imperative for us, as non-Black Americans, to not follow Thomas Jefferson’s example. Merely saying that we are allies, or calling ourselves antiracists while doing nothing more than putting #BLM stickers on our laptops, is hypocrisy. Instead let us look to examples like Enuga Reddy, a Telugu American activist who fought against apartheid in South Africa before joining the Civil Rights movement here in the United States. Reddy saw injustice and waged a battle against it, rather than simply saying he opposed it without taking any further action.
True, not all of us have the capacity to participate in physical activism, but there are so many small ways in which we can help uproot anti-Blackness from around us:
- Donate! If you are able to, donating money – to individuals in need as well as to organisations – is a good way to do something concrete. The Equal Justice Initiative is a wonderful organisation which aims to help formerly incarcerated people find stable jobs without stigma.
- Start at home: if the people around you make racist comments, take the time to stop and educate them on why those views are ignorant. Find resources such as online articles and videos which you can present them with and go through together. Perhaps it may seem arduous, but the smallest successes in challenging racist beliefs at home can translate to massive successes when those people change the ways they interact with the larger community, as well as the policies for which they vote.
- Write letters to federal and state representatives regarding unjust laws (this is a bill on the table in Louisiana, which aims to prohibit teachers from calling the United States systemically racist. The wording of it could be applied to stop lessons on anything relating to historical racism in America).
- Challenge the racist status quo by writing petitions to rename campus buildings which were named after slaveholders and other white supremacists (the link is to one on Change.org which deals with a slew of buildings at the University of North Carolina). This, too, may seem paltry in comparison to the work of Reddy and other famous activists, but it is activism nonetheless. Every Confederate statue which toppled – every white supremacist’s name which is scrubbed off a college building – chips away at the ease with which systemic racism thrives in this country.
It is important, in this fight, not to centre ourselves and use allyship like a badge. Being an ally is not something to parade around. Saying that we are allies is not activism – it effects no real change, and some people, like Jefferson, may use it as a superficial shield to hide their core anti-Blackness. Instead, do things – even small things – which can effect true, measurable change.