Completed August 2002
Wilkins presents an interesting mix of personal memoir with history (e.g., lots of footnotes), but this seems to be mostly the author’s attempt to reconcile his dual identity as African and American. How, he asks, can an African-American look at the country’s founding and ignore that for the men who wrote the Declaration of Independence and led the country in its revolution, “all men are created equal” did not mean that blacks and whites were equal. Wilkins explores the contradictory facts – Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, George Mason and James Madison were all patriots who fought for freedom and equality, but all were slave owners. For Jefferson in particular, the contradiction has to effect our view of him: despite his writings and the fact that with his slave Sally Hemings he fathered at least one child, he did not see slavery as an affront to man’s independence in the same way as British taxes.
In general, I found the book interesting, but moreso for the topic than for either the writing or the scholarship. Wilkins’ mixing of personal memoir with historical fact does personalize the struggle of an African American to reconcile his or her own patriotism, but I felt it detracted from a deeper and more universal exploration of the topic.