For many of you, the holiday that informs this three-day weekend is just as good a reason as any to stay up late on Sunday, have Monday off of work, or take a break from classes and homework. And you’re not alone. Perhaps I am not alone in recognizing the irony of Presidents’ Day and Black History Month being celebrated concurrently in February. It does not escape me that these two events should – in a society where racial and social justice are becoming ever more pro-activated – be mutually exclusive. Celebration of the Presidents whom we so lovingly (and perhaps misguidedly) call our “Founding Fathers” – at the same time as we celebrate the Black experience throughout history – seems incongruous. For starters, thirteen of our first eighteen Presidents owned slaves, and George Washington alone had over 300 (317 to be exact). What an asshole. I for one, am not celebrating that.
Although Washington certainly wins the award for most Presidential slaves owned, several other Presidents had large numbers of slaves. Thomas Jefferson had 237, Andrew Jackson had 200, Zachary Taylor 145, and James Madison 118. In fact, according to UnderstandingPrejudice.org, the men who held the office of President also held slaves for 69 out of the first 88 years. In point of fact, the White House was itself built by slave labor.
Although slavery ended in 1845, the oppression of and discrimination against Blacks has not, and African Americans are still not free to this day. Rather than chaining them to a plow or whipping them into submission– which are both by today’s standards unacceptable cruelties – we instead put them behind bars, and otherwise make social equity and resources less accessible to them. The 13th amendment is still the bane and undoing of Black men and women everywhere and serves as sanctioned permission for “the new slavery” known as the prison pipeline. Our current President has not, as far as I can recall, done a goddamned thing for people of color, in this nation or abroad, since he “took” office. Black history in this country is still very much one of subjugation and suffering at the hands of the White man. Some of you may think me unpatriotic for my views, and to you I say, “your version of patriotism was built on the broken backs of people of color, White devil”. The uncomfortable and unpleasant truth is that most of American history was built on slavery and oppression, not only of Blacks, but also of Native, Asian, Latinx, and even some European peoples.
For most of the people of color I know (and people in general, really), other than Obama, the only Presidents they celebrate are the dead ones in their pockets. Money equals freedom in many ways for Blacks in this country: it evens the socioeconomic playing field and closes the gap between the starting lines of the privileged and the other. Sadly, that money has the faces of the Presidents who enslaved Black people all over it; including Jefferson on the nickel and the $2 bill, Washington on the quarter and the dollar, Jackson on the $20 bill, Grant on the $50 bill (he had five slaves), and everyone’s favorite Benjamin Franklin on the $100 bill (yes, he owned at least two slaves). I hope that P. Diddy was wrong, and it is NOT all about the Benjamins, baby; because if so, then it is also all about racism. If you’ll recall, Washington, Jefferson and Jackson were the three largest slave-holding Presidents, and their inhumane misdeeds have been immortalized and glorified on our nation’s currency for all to admire and covet. It’s kind of messed up that Lincoln, who emancipated the slaves, was given the low honor of gracing the penny and the five.
12 of the 13 U.S. coins and bills circulated as active currency feature White men. It has been suggested by some that we replace Andrew Jackson with Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill. Since Tubman freed over 300 slaves and Jackson owned 2/3rds as many, it seems somehow fitting and just. Besides, Jackson has been on the $20 bill since 1929, and it’s time he took a nap. Personally, I say why stop there? Let’s cull Washington’s face from the mighty dollar and replace it with Obama’s angelic mug. I’m pretty sick of looking at White men on my money anyway, although it IS nice that I get to sit on their faces whenever I have cash in my wallet. Hey, don’t judge me, I’ll take my reparations anyway I can get them.
It’s time we embrace the true nature of American history and accept the fact that this supposedly great nation was not built on democracy so much as on the labor and mistreatment of people of color. If we want to celebrate the real history of both America and the Black men and women who helped build it, perhaps it makes more sense to honor them both by looking for ways in which we can improve equity for the people of color in our communities. Fight against the continuation of institutional racism and discriminatory practices that still haunt our society and keep people of color from rising up. Welcome Black people into our neighborhoods and institutions of higher learning. Pay them a fair wage, stop subjecting them to environmental racism, and give them greater access to education, healthcare and housing. Oh, and stop putting White slave owners on our goddamned money.