Don't shy from U.S. racial history, author says

Professor addresses City College students

March 07, 2002|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

The twisted history of race in America is nothing to hide from, but something to face, author and historian Roger Wilkins told a select group of City College sophomores yesterday during a seminar and discussion.

The Founding Fathers, he reminded them, included men who created flowering language of equality -- even if some were slaveholders who did not practice it.

"Don't confuse greatness with perfection," said Wilkins, 69, a professor of history at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., and nephew of civil rights leader Roy Wilkins. "They were products of their culture."

Even now, he said, "America is not a perfect country, but compared to most, it's stupendous."

Wilkins addressed students, faculty and alumni, including former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, at an event that also included the historian's remarks at a schoolwide assembly.

In preparing for Wilkins' visit, students in a government Advanced Placement class read excerpts from his book, Jefferson's Pillow: The Founding Fathers and the Dilemma of Black Patriotism.

The title derives from Thomas Jefferson's memory of being carried on a pillow as a small child by a slave. That image reinforces Wilkins' message that slaves were present at the scenes of American history, but left out of the story.

Andrew Brown, 15, questioned Wilkins about the author's assertion that slavery exacted an enormous toll on whites as well as blacks held in bondage.

Whites also were "captives of this hideous system which, at some level, polluted the culture of the entire society," Wilkins said. "They knew it was wrong; they were flesh and blood."

The teen said afterward, "The shackles and moral anguish of whites, that opened my eyes."

Ava Hassinger, 16, inquired whether the dreams of the civil rights movement -- equality in law and in life opportunities -- had been achieved in Wilkins' lifetime.

Wilkins' answer was a resounding, "No."

"It's a much better country today than it was when I was born," he said. "But poverty, racism and cultural inertia still diminish life outcomes" for blacks more than for whites. "That's why you must spend your lifetime struggling."

At the assembly, Wilkins returned to his theme of slavery hanging over American history and suggested that students should be prepared to answer an imaginary question from a slave: "What did you do with your freedom?"

And Wilkins, whose father was a comrade of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., warned them against an airbrushed view of the slain civil rights leader.

"There's a lot of people who will tell you now that they loved him then," Wilkins said. "Don't believe them. They are lying to you."

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