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Why we shouldn’t forget that U.S. presidents owned slaves

"When you sing that this country was founded on freedom, don’t forget the duet of shackles dragging against the ground my entire life." This how poet Clint Smith begins his letter to past presidents who owned slaves. In honor of Black History Month, Smith offers his Brief But Spectacular take on the history of racial inequality in the U.S.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now to another in our Brief But Spectacular series.

    In honor of Black History Month, we turn to poet Clint Smith, a doctoral student at Harvard University. He studies racial inequality in the U.S. And his first full-length collection of poems, “Counting Descent,” was published in 2016.

  • Clint Smith, Harvard University:

    A letter to five of the presidents who owned slaves while they were in office.

    George Washington, when you won the revolution, how many of your soldiers did you send from a battlefield to the cotton field? How many had to trade in their rifles for plows? Can you blame the slaves who ran away to fight for the British, because at least the Redcoats were honest about their oppression?

    Thomas Jefferson, when you told Sally Hemings that you would free her children if she remained your mistress, did you think there was honor in your ultimatum? Did you think we wouldn’t be able to recognize the assault in your signature? Does raping your slave, when you disguise it as bribery, make it less of a crime?

    When you wrote the Declaration of Independence, did you ever intend for black people to have freedom over their bodies, James Madison? When you wrote to Congress that black people should count as three-fifths of a person, how long did you have to look at your slaves to figure out the math? Was it easy to chop them up? Did you think they would be happy being more than just half-human?

    James Monroe, when you proposed sending slaves back to Africa, did black bodies feel like rented tools? When you branded them, did the scar on their chest include an expiration date? When you named the country Liberia, were you trying to be ironic? Does this really count as liberation?

    Andrew Jackson, was the Trail of Tears not enough for you? Was killing Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Seminoles not enough to quench your imperialism?

    How many brown bodies do you have to bulldoze before you can call it progress, Mr. Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Jackson? When you put your hand on the Bible and swore to protect this country, let’s be honest in who you were talking about.

    When the first Independence Day fireworks set the sky aflame, don’t forget where we were watching from.

    So, when you remember Jefferson’s genius, don’t forget the slaves who built the bookshelves in his library.

    When you remember Jackson’s victories in war, don’t forget what he was fighting to preserve. When you sing that this country was founded on freedom, don’t forget the duet of shackles dragging against the ground my entire life.

    I have been taught how perfect this country was, but no one ever told me about the pages torn out of my textbooks, how black and brown bodies have been bludgeoned for three centuries and find no place in the curriculum.

    Oppression doesn’t disappear just because you decided not to teach us that chapter.

    If you only hear one side of the story, at some point, you have to question who the writer is.

    I’m a third-year graduate student at Harvard University. And I study broadly the history of racial inequality in the United States.

    I taught high school English for several years in Prince George’s County, Maryland. And part of what I always think about is how important it is to complicate history.

    The presidents and the founding fathers and all of the people we sort of raise up as false idols, we don’t wrestle with the fact that many of these were brilliant men, but they were also men with deep prejudices against people of color, against indigenous people, against women.

    The Jefferson I learned about was the intellectual founding father of this country, responsible for the conception of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. And we never talked about the fact that he owned slaves.

    Only after we understand where we have come from can we understand how we need to move forward.

    My name is Clint Smith. And this is my Brief But Spectacular take on complicating the history of the United States.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you can find additional Brief But Spectacular episodes on our Web site, 

    pbs.org/newshour/brief

    .

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