Black Lives Matter!: Dreaming for America to Practice What Jefferson Preached

PART I
I had a dream, no not the dream of Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King, Jr. I am the legacy of their dream. I dreamed that it was the late 1700s and I was talking to Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and John Jay.

In this dream, I was the voice of conscience materialized as a wealthy, property owning White man, because in the days of Thomas Jefferson the elites did not listen to poor, non-property owning White men or to wealthy White women. At that time the voices and realities of Native Americans and Enslaved Africans told inconvenient truths that the founding fathers of the U.S. conveniently and blatantly ignored.

Thomas Jefferson exalted: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal…”

I interrupted: “But Thomas you acquired over 600 slaves during your lifetime!”

James Madison and John Jay joined in—-you know, James Madison the slaveholding 4th president and John Jay, the slaveholding first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court—-well Madison spoke as John Jay nodded in agreement: “It was I who fashioned the preamble to the constitution, ‘We the people of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare…’”

Once again, I interrupted! Remember, in this dream I was cloaked in the privileged identity of a wealthy, property owning White man. I reminisced: “But James, you also believe that the primary goal of government is ‘to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.’ And by ‘minority’ you mean the 1% instead of People of Color like the original inhabitants of the Americas or Enslaved Blacks; poor Europeans are not part of that 1%.” I then turned to John Jay and asked: “And how did you put it John?: ‘The people who own the country ought to govern it.’

This conversation with Jefferson, Madison, and Jay continued.

PART II
Then in my dream, time shifted from the late 1700s to the mid-to-late 1800s. Suddenly I am sitting among a group of prominent liberals, progressives, and radicals. Folk like William Lloyd Garrison the renowned abolitionist and social justice advocate, and John Dewey, famous for his views about Education and Democracy. The vast majority of the people in the room are still wealthy White men. But this time, they have been joined by prominent White women like sociologist Jane Addams, known as the mother of social work. Black men like Frederick Douglas, a freed slave, abolitionist, orator, Statesman and defender of rights for Blacks, and Black Women like Sojourner Truth, a freed slave, abolitionist, and advocate for women’s rights as well as Anna Julia Cooper who was born to an enslaved mother but became an author, educator, and distinguished scholar. There were two other faces that stood out: Southern Cheyenne Peace negotiator Black Kettle sat along side Sojourner Truth. And Christal Quintasket was also present; she sat beside Anna Julia Cooper. Quintasket, an Okanogan Native woman also known by the pen name Mourning Dove, was the first Native American woman to publish a novel. Though progressives and liberals, the vast majority in this part of my dream were still wealthy White men but Newton Knight was also present. Newton Knight was the White Mississippi farmer who opposed Confederacy. Yes! I said “White” & “Mississippi” & “farmer” who opposed the Confederacy.

The wealthy, progressive White men, argued from the principled space of how things should be. John Dewey asserted: “Like Horace Mann, I believe public Schools to be Great Equalizers!”

Frederick Douglas countered: “But Blacks, and many Whites, still don’t have the right to an education!”

Jane Addams exclaimed: “And women don’t have the right to vote!”

As Sojourner Truth nodded in support, Anna Cooper explained: “Black women neither have the right to vote nor the right to an education! We support our Black brothers yet point out that we deal with the oppressions of racism and sexism!”

Newton Knight, William Garrison, and Jane Addams chimed in: “Speak sisters!

Knight added: And poor Whites have far more in common with Black men and women than with Wealthy whites!”

Black Kettle, speaking directly to the White progressives in the room, asserted: “You speak of equality as you covet lands that are ours. You are dazzled by ideals, while in the mid-to-late1800s, Native nations do not have the right to vote in their own country!”

Christal Quintasket augmented Black Kettle’s reprimand: “White men have too often been infatuated with turning Native Americans in to symbols and ideals instead treating us as equals who are real. Native nations will not have citizenship and the right to vote in their own country until 1924!

Forgetting that I was cloaked in the privilege of Whiteness & Maleness & Wealth, I emphasized: “And White liberals and progressives like you!, ahem [clears throat], I mean like us! must venture down from the loft of ideals and actively listen to and reverently collaborate with those whose causes we claim to support!”

Among the Whites in the room only Addams, Garrison, and Knight saw thru my cloak of White-privileged-maleness as they smiled, nodded, and winked directly at me in support of my statement.

PART III
Now, I am no longer dreaming. I have arrived to this panel discussion as a working-class origins Black woman, with the status of professor. When I say “Black Lives Matter!” I am saying that Thomas Jefferson never practiced what he preached. Like too many open-minded Whites today, I am saying that many White liberals and progressives from mid-1800s to mid-1900s were more infatuated with ideals than realities. I am suggesting that if Part II of my dream had been reality, most White liberals and progressives would have treated me with racist, sexist, and elitist disregard. I am saying that the achievements of the Women’s Movement in the early 1900s as well as the accomplishments of Black, Chicano, Asian, Native American, Poor Peoples’ social and civil rights movements from the 1960s and 70s are ongoing, uphill struggles.

In agreement with Jesse Jackson, I am saying: “The system has a class bias as well as a race bias…. [I]n the first five months [of 2015], 95 percent of police killings occurred in neighborhoods with median family incomes under $100,000. There were no killings in neighborhoods with median family incomes of $200,000 or above.” I am saying that according to UN Trends and Statistics, women, and especially women of color, are the most vulnerable group worldwide, I am saying that the highest rates of police killings are for Native, Black, and Latino Americans.

In highlighting the intersections of race and class, I am reminding you that if Dylan Roof—the mass murderer and white supremacist who killed nine African Americans in Charleston, South Carolina—had been Steve Bannon, if he had been White and wealthy, his lawyers would have likely used some kind of “Affluenza” defense, like the one used to exonerate Ethan Couch after he killed four people while driving DUI. Or despite his heinous crime, Roof might have received a relatively light sentence, as was the case with Brock Turner, the White and wealthy rapist who was found guilty of three felonies yet only sentenced to six months. On the other hand, although Roof lacked class privilege, he still experienced race privilege as police bought him a hamburger because he seemed hungry and placed Roof in a bullet-proof-vest just in case someone tried to attack him. Though the light sentences of Couch and Turner were extremely inadequate, I am saying that, “We, All The People!” should be treated with the same complex human dignity afforded those who are White AND Wealthy. I agree with sociologist Z.W. Rochefort who argues:

The question is not how privilege can be eliminated but how it can be democratized.

So when I say “BLACK LIVES MATTER!”, I ask you not to insult the struggles of Black Americans and other marginalized groups with the shallow universalism of “ALL Lives Matter!”. But I invite you to join in solidarity and bolster the common struggles of “We the People” who have been left out of the American Dream. When I call “BLACK LIVES MATTER!”, I invite you to transcend oppositional posturing, and join in solidarity by responding: “Black Lives Matter!”, “Native and Latino Lives Matter!”, “Poor White Lives Matter!”, “Poor Women’s and Children’s Lives Matter!” I especially ask White liberals and progressives to move beyond ideals and take a close and complex look at historical and empirical realities. As perceptively observed by Remi Salisbury:

To engage meaningfully in the kind of feminist, anti-racist, anti-capitalist work needed to bring about change is a task infinitely more difficult [than criticizing Donald Trump]. This kind of engagement would reveal Trump to be more symptom than cause. It would encourage us to look at the wider factors that would give rise to such a demagogic figure. To abhor one man may be comforting, but, unless it is supplemented by a critique of structural white supremacy, it will always miss the mark.

So, when I say “Black Lives Matter!” if you still feel the need to counter with “ALL Lives Matter!” then I answer you by going back to my dream. I indicated that the conversation with Jefferson, Madison, and Jay continued. Well, at least in Part I of my dream, Thomas Jefferson turned to James Madison and John Jay and said

Gentlemen, if there is a hell, if there are levels of purgatory, then we are headed to the sections designated for overconfident braggarts and self-righteous hypocrites!

In closing, I end my speech by revising German anti-Nazi Martin Niemöller’s famous poem:

First the Trump Administration came for the First Nations of America, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Native American from the First Nations.
Then they came for the Women, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Woman. (Or I was a woman who thought my abusive president could change).
Then they came for the African Americans, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not an African American.
Then they came for the Mexicans, other Latinos, and Asians, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Mexican in particular, Latino in general, or Asian.
Then they came for the Muslims, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Muslim.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for those with disabilities, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not disabled.
Then they came for persons who were LGBTQ, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not Queer.
Then they came for the Immigrants and Refugees, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a recent Immigrant or Refugee.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

L. Janelle Dance is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Ethnic Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. This presentation was one of five short speeches given for the panel discussion “We The People: A Roundtable on Black Lives and American Politics,” held at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln on February 9, 2017. (Given time limitations, the speech given at the panel discussion was a seven-minute-excerpt of this longer version.)