The Father of My Country was a Slave

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.

The First of His Kind

Several years ago, I stood before a group of high school juniors and seniors, all of whom were African-American. I watched as their school counselor introduced me, reading from a bio which I had provided. And although this was a professional visit, I’d handed in a very personal bio which included mini bios of my parents and my two older brothers. I felt that if I told them my whole story, it would convince them that humble beginnings did not have to derail dreams of success. I was there as a black professional with the goal of impressing upon my young audience the idea that success was a tangible achievement and that, in my opinion, it all began with an education which had the potential to open the doors to many satisfying careers.

The counselor finished his introduction and the kids looked in my direction, immediately sizing me up, merging me the person with the boy and man in my biography. I stepped forward smiling, my first bullet point to hit rattling around in my head. However, I was beaten to the punch. A young woman spoke up. She said angrily, That story can’t be true. I, frankly, was stunned and it showed in my sudden inability to move or speak. When I didn’t respond in due time, she continued to make her point crystal clear by saying, You lie!

But I didn’t lie.

As a family, my branch of the Blount tree, came of age late in the spring of 1978, crossing the Rubicon into a world of respect we never imagined. I was eighteen and sitting in an elegant and historic room at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. As a young black male, I was in awe of the situation and nervous about being with all of these highly educated white people in this incredible room at the second oldest college in the United States. We were the only black people in attendance. I felt small and ashamed of feeling that way all at the same time, turning constantly toward my parents and my oldest brother for moral support.

From the row in front of us, a white woman kept half turning, quickly stealing disbelieving and even angry glances at us, which didn’t help to ease my discomfort. Maybe she thought I was the help and that I’d brought along my family to celebrate the child I took care of, my mother later considered. What we did know for sure, based upon our many combined years of professional blackness, was that she was highly offended at our presence. How could these _____ (you fill in the blank), show up and stain this day in my life?

My father, R. Edward Blount, was a small farmer, born and raised in Smithfield, Virginia. He was the oldest of eleven children, growing up in the heat of Jim Crow, surviving in the American south. He was smart and eventually entered historically black, Virginia State University with dreams of becoming a dentist. However, a farming accident involving his father required that he leave after a year to come home and help work the family farm. His dreams of advanced education were dashed, quickly becoming a distant longing.

Although my mother’s family’s roots were also in Smithfield, Doris Delk Blount, was a city girl, having grown up in Philadelphia. She too was an excellent student, but college was not in her future either. She went directly to work, helping to take care of herself and her mother who worked as the help for several different wealthy families.

In the great migration, much of the Blount family and Delk family moved to Philadelphia. My father would often drive his mother north to see her sisters. On one such trip he met 19 year old Doris Delk. Two years later, they would marry and she would leave the city to move to the very rural farmland of Smithfield where they would have three boys and make a promise to each other. Their children would have the education that had eluded them; the education they knew in their hearts was the key to the promise of many unaccustomed accomplishments.

My father worked the land. My mother worked our minds. She took a job as a teacher in a church run kindergarten where she and her friend, Mary Ford, felt it was their duty to prepare African-American children for a changing world. They taught with patience, love and a firm belief in the extraordinary capabilities of their students. They demanded that their students believe the same and we did. Even at that young age. We worked. We wrote; we did math; we had history lessons and most of us left there already knowing how to read when we walked into our first grade classrooms. Teachers at the segregated, public, elementary schools coveted the graduates of The Martha James Memorial Kindergarten.

At home, my brothers and I went to school as well. My parents went over our lessons of the day. They made sure we did our homework and stepped in to guide us when necessary. What they felt the curriculum lacked, they made up for at home. They also made sure we helped each other, though I was mostly the recipient as I was the youngest. This shared work ethic became a part of who we were as a family and my parents consistently led the way, at every turn letting us know that they were in this game with us. They worked at our elementary school whenever they could; my father eventually becoming president of the PTA. They went to every parent-teacher conference; they raised money and their hands whenever something needed to be done. They lived this dream of education and my brothers and I fed off of it, becoming excellent students and unfaltering advocates for each other. On the eve of the final exam in my physics class, my brother Richard came home from college just to help drill me and my best friends in the subject that he had come to love. And when our mother decided to go back to school, we rallied around her and when it looked like this whole education thing might be too expensive, my father went to work at one of the meat packing plants to supplement the family income. How could we not believe? When Richard was a senior in high school a fellow classmate asked him if he were going to college. Richard, who had never pondered such a question, responded almost innocently, You mean there’s another choice?

Not in our home.

The Phi Beta Kappa Society is the oldest and most venerated academic honor society in the United States. It dates back to 1776, its first chapter created on the campus of The College of William and Mary, which is where my mother, father, oldest brother and I sat on that day in the spring of 1978. This particular gathering was to celebrate the new members from that year’s class. When the doors opened and the honor graduates walked through them, my middle brother, Brian, led the way. I tried but I could not see the look on the face of the woman who sat in front of us. She was no longer stealing glances. To this day, I still wish I could have seen what the vision of my brother, at the head of all the white students, did to her.

Brian was the only black William & Mary student in the room that day. It was an extraordinary moment when we stood with two of the Society’s officers and one smiled as he said the words, We want you to know that Brian is the first of his kind in the history of the college to receive this honor. Even though he didn’t seem to know how to refer to us, which created a little awkwardness, they chatted amiably, shook all of our hands and at that moment, at least in that room, we were looked upon as a family of intellectual equals. None of us ever looked back. Brian’s achievement instantly provided me with a determined confidence to continue my dreams of success in college and beyond.

Richard, an exceptional student, had graduated the year before from Old Dominion University with a degree in Physics. He would become a nuclear engineer and eventually Site Vice President of the Surry Nuclear Power Plant. At one point in time, he was the only African-American in charge of and running a nuclear power plant in the United States.

Brian became a world-renowned religious scholar with 15 published books to his name. His title, Revelation: A Commentary, was named by The Academy of Parish Clergy as the best reference book of 2009. His most recent, Invasion of the Dead, was included in the Academy of Parish Clergy’s Top 10 Books for 2014. He is now presiding as the first African-American President of the Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, VA. Years later, when my daughter visited William and Mary as a prospective student, she would find his name and its historical significance on a brochure and swell with pride.

And then there is me. On that day back in 1978, I was a journalism student at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, boosted by an academic scholarship from one of Smithfield’s meat packing companies. I would go on to become an Emmy award-winning television director and like my brother, an award-winning author. At one time I was the only African-American director at all of NBC News. I am happy to say that is no longer the case.

Many years after that remarkable day, just after helping my daughter, Julia, get settled in her freshman dorm, I took a walk. I found a quiet place where I could call home. My mother answered the phone. I said, Mama, you know where I am right now? I am standing on the grounds of Princeton University. After all the years of hard work you two put in. After staying the course. After fighting so hard for that dream, you have made it to the Ivy League. You both did this. She would not be here were it not for you.

She cried. And so did I.

I did finally respond to the young woman who questioned our story. I was saddened by the fact that she believed it impossible for one African-American family to produce three successful children. I offered her proof. Luckily, they’d put me in a classroom with a computer so that I could have them Google my brother Brian, because in my heart of hearts, on that fateful day in that splendid room at William and Mary, he made my parents’ dream real for me, he gave me hope, and he brought to life something my parents had always said. No one is better than you. No one is smarter than you, no matter what their color might be. Go out there and prove it.

It is the truth that we did, I told the students. It is also the truth that you can.

Jonathan Odell’s Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League – My Review


In the film version of The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy’s dog, Toto, pulls back the curtain and reveals to us all the true, great and powerful Oz. He turns out to be not so great and not so powerful, yet he still tries to pull the wool over their eyes by closing the curtain and yelling, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!” As strange as it may seem, as a son of the American south, this scene always struck me as a metaphor for old Dixie. They kept telling us to pay no attention to what was going on behind that dark and heavy curtain of history even though, as recently as the 1960’s, we had seen the deceit and broken promises right there on the evening news.

So I have strict and particular requirements for my southern literature. It must pull back the curtain and leave no doubt about the inglorious truth. In a land of legendary chicanery and camouflaged tragedy, I want words that pierce this devious mythology with an honesty that is revelatory, stark and painful. There are precious few authors who can bring this level of literary authenticity to my book nook. Jonathan Odell is one of them.

In his latest novel, Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League, Odell wastes no time in revealing the heart of the matter. The prologue is only one page. After I read it, I had to put the book down and contemplate.

Vida is a young black woman on the run. With her is her young son, Nate. Two white men are after them, intent on taking Nate’s life. Vida is afraid for her son and knows she has very few avenues for assistance, which is why she’s running through a field with seemingly no real idea of where she’s going. She has no control over her life and readers can sense that they can victimize her without any punishment. Yet the white men are afraid too; afraid of the potential in this boy. A potential they feel might bring down their world. That’s what it’s all about. In one page. Blacks without power constantly afraid for their lives. Whites with power, constantly afraid of losing whatever power they have to the coloreds. A shotgun blast made me put down the book. Odell sets the stage brilliantly.

Then he introduces the reader to Miss Hazel as a child. A fragile personality already, she makes a personal discovery with the aid of a photographer that tugs at your heart strings and tells you everything you need to know about the kind of needy personality that is Hazel. And Vida returns, no longer a mother, bitter and maddened. Put needy next to angry and you have a recipe for a complex, fiery and thoroughly compelling story. So, I read slowly because, like a good Sunday supper, you need to take your time and absorb the smells, the texture and the tastes of a meal this good.

Hazel and Vida both lose children and they both begin a lifetime of longing. That should be enough for a mother, but circumstances place the two of them in the same house. Vida, the colored maid, put in charge of the medical well-being of the white lady of the house by the lady’s husband. Medicated to a fare thee well, Hazel spends much of her time in a stupor, without direction, angry at her husband and the woman cooking in and cleaning her house who is not exactly happy to be there.

When Hazel’s remaining son, who despises the help, tells her that Vida is holding colored maid summits in the kitchen, Hazel listens from the staircase and learns more about the white families that the maids work for. She learns more about her own family, her lack of status in the white community and eventually she learns enough that she rights herself and takes her life back. Then in a fit of humanity, she joins this group of black maids to help avert an impending tragedy, rights some serious wrongs and turns the town of Delphi, Mississippi upside down.

Jonathan Odell is a beautiful, lyrical writer and he has written a southern masterpiece. Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League, like his earlier novel The Healing, is a sweet, anthropological song. His dialogue is proper and true. His characters are perfectly real and credible. He sets scenes that appear like vivid little movies in your head and stir your soul. And as an African-American, I find his portrayal of black society to be spot on, right down to the nitty gritty. It means that while growing up a white male in Mississippi, he took time to notice that there was another world on the other side of the tracks that was worth observing and absorbing.
Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League is a full meal. If you hunger for an emotional and riveting story about real life in the hands of genuine people and a solid, evocative look at an inflamed part of American history, then prepare yourself to be satiated.
– JB