This essay was first published and printed by the Washington Post on February 14, 2016
Today is President’s Day. Through ceremony and remembrance, we celebrate our commanders in chief with a particular emphasis on the first, George Washington. Most Americans refer to him as the father of our country, but not me. The father of my country was a slave. I may not know his name, but I feel him. I do not know the plantation on which he labored beyond reason, hope and dignity, but I am with him there. His contributions are substantial but they are buried. But I have a shovel, and I dig.
The earth I turn is rich, moist from tears. It easily gives way, as if weary from covering up the innumerable stories of the unheard.
After the father of my country made cotton king, he was promised 40 acres and a mule. After all, his drudgery accounted for more than half of his nation’s exports and built the northern textile industry, U.S. banking and an extraordinary portion of the British economy. Who has his land? Where are his mules?
Eight U.S. presidents went to Harvard. Five went to Yale. The schools educated 21 Supreme Court justices. The father of my country helped make that all possible. Profits off my father’s life of unyielding toil funded Harvard Law School’s first endowed chair. Profits from the trading of his and other precious human lives helped found Yale University and provided for the first scholarship there and the construction of the university’s library. A continued sizable portion of our nation’s brain trust is groomed for leadership at the expense of the father of my country.
I live in our nation’s capital. So did the father of my country. He worked without any choice in the quarries near the city, digging stone and hauling it, carrying the lumber that would be fashioned into the great symbols of our nation. The father of my country represented half of the workforce that built the Capitol and the White House. He was not paid, but his owner was. I look up at the statue atop the Capitol’s grand dome, and I think about Philip Reid, the slave who helped to create it. The figure is called Freedom. Such ironies are never lost on the father of my country.
The father of my country is man and woman, field hand and mammy. The father of my country has many names. Most of these names we will never know. But I am proud of the ones — Sojourner Truth, Nat Turner, Harriet Jacobs and others — that we do. Turner and the Sons of Liberty fought for the same thing, did they not? Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Freedom.
The father of my country was not a slave owner. He did not name someone else’s child, or rape or maim without conscience. He did not sell lives. He built a nation.
I love my country and, like my father before me, I would put on a uniform and defend her if necessary. Still, like the father of my country, I am not blind.