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Black Patriotism Enlarges the American Tradition

WASHINGTON -- As the country celebrates Independence Day, it is still difficult for many to accept that our wonderful political legacy is, in part, the work of people who owned people very much like me. It is possible that some of those they owned were among my ancestors. The lives and characters of these founders were indelibly marked by that fact.

Why do I stress that the founding fathers were inheritors of a slave society and shaped from birth by its culture? Because culture, as we inherit it, should be a major factor in informing public policies regarding poor Americans. I deeply believe that we need to take into account the damage done by the deprivations and humiliations we have inflicted over the generations on poor people who were ill-equipped to cope with our society. And I believe that we need to craft compensatory programs to open paths of opportunity for them.

The effects of an American culture based in, and then derived from, racial slavery did not touch only the poor. To paraphrase the wonderful truism that Walt Kelly put into Pogo's mouth: I have met the founders, and they are us.

I say us as a deeply committed American. One famous African-American has been quoted recently as saying, "At no time have I ever felt like an American." Well, I have -- all my life. When I was a child rooting for Jesse Owens and Joe Louis, I was an American kid rooting for American heroes. When I was 12 and dreaming of flying a P-51 Mustang against the Luftwaffe, I was a fantasy American warrior. And when white kids in Grand Rapids, Mich., spat on my bike seat and threw stones and apple cores at me, I was having a deeply American experience.

Those kids were attempting to define me as something other than, and smaller than, an American. That was not their privilege. Nor was it the privilege of the odd white teacher or two who suggested that my mind was limited and my aspirations should be as well. Down through the decades, there were others who tried to make my blackness constricting. But they didn't have that privilege, either.

The privilege of defining me rests with my African ancestors, who had the fortitude to survive the Middle Passage and the "seasoning" meted out by their American jailers. It rests with those enlightened philosophers who inserted the idea of human equality into the ideology of the West -- including the founders of America, notably Thomas Jefferson, the quintessential man of ambiguity. It rests with the slaves who in their stolen lives built so much of this country. It rests with the abolitionists, white and black, who would not let their idea die. It rests with Abraham Lincoln, who redefined the meaning of the founding, and with the Radical Republicans who put Enlightenment ideas into the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution. It rests with every American of whatever color or political persuasion who carried the fight down to my generation so that my mentors, colleagues and friends could carry it on. And of course, it rests with my grandparents and my parents.

But, most of all, the privilege of defining me rests with my slave ancestors, most prominently, Mound and __ Jeffries (I do not know my great-great grandmother's name) and Emma and Asberry Wilkins.

My understanding of America may be skewed by the extraordinary advances made in my lifetime, which is, after all, only a snippet in the sweep of almost 400 years from Jamestown to our cyberspace era. I have seen and participated in a remarkable enlargement of American opportunity and justice. From the one-room segregated schoolhouse in Missouri where I started school through a lifelong friendship with Thurgood Marshall and a rich variety of struggles for justice, I have had the fortune to participate in an astonishing American effort to adjust life, as it is lived, to the ideals proclaimed by the founders. While the transformation is far from complete, the change has nevertheless been so dramatic that my belief in American possibilities remains profound.

It may be that I have lived through an aberrant period in American history and my modest optimism is misplaced. But I still believe in the power of citizen action harnessed to our founding ideas to improve American life and even to transform some American hearts. I have seen the process work.

Roger Wilkins is the author of "Jefferson's Pillow: The Founding Fathers and the Dilemma of Black Patriotism."

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