I am a second cousin, seven times removed, of President George Washington. And I am African-American.
While traveling to Charlottesville on July 26, 2017, I saw a portrait of General Washington kneeling in prayer at Valley Forge. The image stayed with me as an expression of faith in the Valley of the Shadow of Death. I made a mental note to purchase the portrait for Christmas.
When I returned home to San Diego, I shared my idea with my family in passing. I thought nothing of it.
My fourteen-year-old erupted in outrage. “Did he own slaves?” she demanded to know. I answered, yes, and he won the American Revolution. “He can’t be on our walls,” she declared with the perspective of a teenager.
My daughter is very intelligent and attends one of the best private schools in the country. Surely, she would see nuance and complexity. I said Washington was the greatest United States president ever.
“Why honor him with a portrait?” she replied.
Increasingly saddened with her rigid thinking, I said Washington was one of the greatest political leaders in world history. Plus, I liked how the portrait inspired me.
“I’m related to Washington because he raped someone,” she said.
I sharply replied there was no evidence whatsoever that Washington ever laid a finger on any of our slave ancestors. This whole encounter with unthinking hostility to Washington left me in despair. I slept on the couch for the next two days.
What was really going on with my daughter?
My daughter learned from the black community that she couldn’t have white ancestors. Even if white ancestors were unavoidable, you could never acknowledge them or honor them. You could never take pride in them. Slaveholder, abolitionist — it made no difference.
This mindset is a disturbing sign of self-hate. Most African-Americans are around 25% European in ancestry. And yet there is this willful ignorance to accepting our mixed past. Note the vitriol on Twitter aimed at Rev. W. Douglas Banks. All Rev. Banks did was embrace, and accept, his descent from Thomas Jefferson in an Ancestry.com advertisement. One would think the Rev. had murdered a baby! It is nobody’s business whether or not Rev. Banks claims Thomas Jefferson. It is a private family matter. But I guess race bullies have to bully. The criticism from other African-Americans was all out of proportion to what should have been a simple matter of ancestral pride, pietas.
It needs to stop. And it needs to stop now. An ancestor can be the greatest figure in political history and also a slaveholder. One doesn’t negate the other.
An inability to see beyond slave holding is the greatest threat today to a healthy black culture and consciousness. Don’t pretend to be 100% West African in ancestry. You’re not. Move on and accept one’s full genetic past.
W. F. Twyman, Jr. is a 1986 graduate of Harvard Law School.