JEFFERSON'S PILLOW: The Founding Fathers and the Dilemma of Black Patriotism

Roger Wilkins, Author . Beacon $23 (272p) ISBN 978-0-8070-0956-7

This astonishing book by the 1980s antiapartheid leader Wilkins (a professor of history at George Mason University and Pulitzer Prize–winner) provides a brief, but tremendously incisive demythologizing of four Virginian founders—Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Mason (whose stature Wilkins justly elevates)—and their conflicted attitudes toward race, in the process humanizing them and deepening our appreciation of the internal struggles involved in achieving their greatness, however flawed or incomplete. (There's nothing forced in this evaluation, as Wilkins acknowledges their enormous contribution to activists such as himself today.) Where others routinely excuse past figures or judge them by present standards, Wilkins exemplifies a subtler, sounder approach. Reaching back to England and Virginia in the 1600s, he briskly illuminates the historical, ideological and socioeconomic contexts that made a burning concern for freedom not just compatible with slavery, but materially and psychologically dependent on it. Surprising connections prove particularly revealing, as when Wilkins describes two English-educated second-generation Virginia aristocrats as suffering "something akin to the problems encountered by the bright barrio or ghetto youngster who is selected and groomed and sent to Harvard and then tries to return to his or her roots." He gets inside the "addictive" naturalness of privilege that slaveowners enjoyed via his own draft-deferred student experience during the Korean War, but without forgetting his ancestors' suffering as slaves. Indeed, reflections on his family history ground Wilkinsand allow him to develop enormous sympathy for and insight into his subjects without losing balance or excusing the inexcusable. His insight recalls James Baldwin, arguably the best we've ever had for appreciating the humanity of even the most flawed among us without yielding an inch of moral principle. (June 29)

Reviewed on: 05/28/2001
Release date: 07/01/2001
Paperback - 163 pages - 978-0-8070-0957-4
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