When I agreed to participate in the latest commercial by Ancestory.com entitled “Declaration Descendants,” which used descendants of the original signers of the Declaration of Independence, my greatest fear was possibly being asked to put on a white, powdered, eighteenth century wig. I didn’t want to participate in anything remotely racist or uplifting of a time in America in which African Americans were held as property and not seen as people. What the producers had in mind however was much more creative and a considerable reach. They put the descendants of the signers—who are people of every color, race and ethnicity—in the same room at the same table.
I found out how much of a problem this was for other African Americans, as I was criticized on Twitter. Some decided to hand me the “white wig” to wear as they were clearly offended and confused about my pride in my ancestry DNA. I was accused of celebrating the private misfortunes of Thomas Jefferson’s slave, Sally Hemings – of which I am a result - and not understanding the deeper nuances of the race problem in America. Some characterized me as not understanding the empty emotion of hope, and not understanding all the other peculiar and sundry narratives that spring from people who feel victimized by America’s twisted obsession with skin color.
I exist today as a culmination of the conflict that makes America both strong and weak at the same time.
I exist today as a culmination of the conflict that makes America both strong and weak at the same time. The DNA of both slave and slave master, bound and free, white and black exists in me with all its glory and its shame; and I’m proud to acknowledge that. I thank God for life and being alive today, as do we all, and I believe that no one should think less of one’s self because of the actions of fore-parents, actions they had nothing to do with. Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner who wrote the document of freedom for our country. This document did not intend or include independence for Africans held as slaves; yet, it is the very document that articulates the political and personal freedom all human beings desire. That one man could be so brilliant and so bemixed with personal flaws is the contradiction and inheritance of all humanity no matter how famous or infamous our ancestors may be.
In defiance of this contradiction, we can and have a responsibility to make the best of our ancestry. I do not celebrate Thomas Jefferson or Sally Hemings as much as I celebrate a God that seems to continue presenting opportunities where we can overcome the flaws in our family trees and embrace the greatness of our inheritance. Even Jesus’s lineage is replete with contradictions and the DNA of prostitutes, murderers, and those who committed acts we would consider to be less than consistent with his mission. The good news is that our future, though influenced by our past does not have to be defined by it.
In this post-Obama America, the issues of racism and classism have experienced resurgence when many thought and proclaimed them as part of a less informed, less civilized past. Intolerance and hatred have festered and indeed continue to be expressed with new found fervor. What was Ronald Reagan’s “dog-whistle” has become Donald Trumps’ bullhorn as the ability to spew fiery statements of racial hate is now speciously seen as simply preferring the welfare of one’s own group and interests. A fracture has occurred that is resulting in the deepening of old racial divides as well as new efforts to erase the richness and strength of diversity that emerges from the convergence of the best of humanity from around the globe seeking the benefit for the hope of democracy.
Even amid the fracturing, this commercial serves as a moment of clarity for the nation during a time when reconciliation is sorely needed. There is always an element of uncertainty in the future. Faith and optimism will lead us to a reality that embraces all humanity if we have the fortitude to cling to the hope they bring. We must answer the call to make the celebration of our independence less traditional and more transformative. There is transformative power for good in a proclamation of freedom, even if the proclaimers are flawed vessels. Recognition of this reality will further our efforts to avoid the mistakes of the past, embrace the potential of the present, and seize the opportunities of the future.
There must be the admission of wrong for all of us to move forward.
This reconciliation does not mean the dismissal of reality. There must be the admission of wrong for all of us to move forward. I think much of the battle today has to do with the unambiguous effort to keep the issues, needs, and the dignity - the very humanity - of diverse American people as a lessor or nonexistent priority. Those in the room at the original signing of the Declaration of Independence missed the potential of their present by not seeing the great opportunity to expand democracy in the future. Whether we give them a pass by saying they were bound by the society norms of their era or use the lens of hindsight to condemn their supremacist practices the commercial clearly shows that the composition of the room has drastically changed. The white male, land-owner filled room has evolved into an amalgamative portrait of all humanity. The overwhelming reality of today is that they are no longer the only ones in the room. The demands of the document have become a de facto reality. There is a diverse set of interests in today’s room and the hand of providence has revealed the value of inclusiveness.
The challenges that work to destroy our republic and our families though very real, are fixable. Any time we believe that we are completely and solely a part of only one group and that the survival of our group requires the annihilation of others, we become our own enemy. That means change must begin with us. Instead of polarizing ourselves into only one group or another, we must join in participating the opportunities God continues provide to bring good out of bad. This will allow us to overcome the failings of our past and discover that in truth we really are in this together. In this extension of grace, may God continue to bless America and help us continue to strive for better.
Whatever ethnic group we claim, none of us are of noble birth. As we realize how impure we are as members of any one group, may we continue to realize that, regardless of the source of all of America’s racial discontent and that there is still a need for everyone to be equally acknowledged and accounted for...we are all in the room.