Updated: Feb 28, 2021
By Dr. Ann Brown
What a Difference a Week Made: Or, A Fuller Truth
Another African American History Month comes to a close. Given the current social and political climate, one must ask, "Is the nation any closer to embracing a fuller, more truthful version of its past or a clearer vision for its future?"
Designed to fill the empty spaces left by the erasure of contributions of slaves and their descendants from American history, African American History Month generally excavates the achievements of often forgotten citizens, who, against almost impossible odds, made their world a better place.
African American History month represents a step in the right direction in the slow shuffle toward America’s acknowledging, embracing, rewarding, and celebrating the innovations and sacrifices of its melanin-rich citizens. The nation, however, must take even larger steps to bring the Founders’ ideals of an exemplary, just, and fair society into reality.
How much further along would the Founders' quest to establish "A City on a Hill" be if the Continental Congress had been "manly" enough to adopt Thomas Jefferson’s June 28, 1776, fair copy draft of the Declaration of Independence?
Laying out the case for independence, Jefferson made a bold and radical claim that governments are established for the benefit of and at the will of the people. He further asserted that if a government failed to act for the people's good, the people had a right to create a new government, but only after presenting a list of reasons for succession.
“Taxation without representation!” Most Americans easily identify this as one of the justifications in the colonists' bid for freedom. However, high school and university students are generally surprised to learn that the last charge--and longest in a list of eighteen grievances--levied against King George III of England was his support for enslavement in the colonies.
[H]e has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. this piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, & murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.
We can never know if leaving this paragraph in the final draft would have freed slaves who were--like the colonists--under British jurisdiction or guaranteed Africans full rights of citizenship in the new democratic republic.
However, Jefferson admitted that the Founders understood several crucial truths: that Africans were “MEN”; that enslavement was “against human nature itself,” that depriving Africans of their freedom violated the “most sacred rights of life & liberty”; that the slave “Market” provided economic benefits that sustained the colonies; and that slavery was anti-Christian.
The decision to omit this grievance and its promise of liberty for all sat into motion a systematic policy of deletions and erasures that would create the need for an African American History Month.
If schools taught a more complete history of America to all citizens, could the nation eliminate African American History Month?
The truth is the Founders failed during that fateful week in the summer of 1776, and in so doing, inoculated their brainchild with an insidious virus that mutated the very DNA of their experimental democratic republic.
Rather than birthing a healthy, sound-minded child, the Founders’ delay, duality, and duplicity concerning Africans brought forth a double-minded nation. From the same mouth, one claims the right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" as an inalienable right for all humans and that Africans are either not humans or are lesser humans.
We cannot go back to Philadelphia and rewrite history. Time travel is impossible, and the Founders are dead. However, we can fill in more of the gaps in the nation's narrative. Those of us who are alive right now are the only ones who can choose to work together to heal our nation’s congenital disability. For, no one can re-parent America’s broken inner child but those of us who are currently alive.
Why address these issues now?
This Age of Information and Technology has made the world a much smaller place. Anyone anywhere in the world can, with a few strokes on the keyboard, access the same National Archives and Library of Congress documents I accessed for the article--and they do.
Every day, in classrooms worldwide, students study the foundational U.S. documents that, sadly, few American students ever read in-depth. A former international student asked, “Looking at this history, how can you be a black person and still say you love America?” "I learned more about black history and American history on TikTok than I've ever learned in school," another student stated just last week.
It is not only the school's responsibility to educate the American populous on America's full history. The Internet puts libraries at each of our fingertips. From the privacy of our homes, we can gain access to anything from a cookie recipe to a full degree. So, few today can be exempt from knowing a fuller truth.
What we do not know and what we won't talk about leaves us vulnerable in a time when anyone--including our enemies--can easily access foundational documents.
According to the National Archives site, Jefferson resented the changes the 2nd Continental Congress made to his draft; however, he consented because he knew the time to deal with the Africans' disenfranchisement had not yet come.
What then of the manly, moral high ground and integrity Jefferson claimed in the Declaration of Independence? The time to be the "manly" men, Jefferson claimed the Founders to be--and to tell and teach a fuller, integrated truth--is now.
“Declaring Independence: Drafting the Documents Jefferson's "original Rough draught" of the Declaration of Independence. Library of Congress https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/declara/ruffdrft.html
Declaration of Independence: A Transcription. America's Founding Documents. National Archives of the United States of America. https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/declaration-transcript