Is it possible to reconcile America’s past of slavery with the Founding Fathers’ vision of liberty and equality?
For William Allen, who has spent much of his career serving as a professor of political philosophy, the question is both academic and personal.
Growing up in the segregated south, Allen witnessed firsthand changes in American law and culture that directly affected how blacks were treated.
Born in 1944 on Amelia Island in Florida, Allen says it can be hard for people to understand what it’s like “to be, as it were, the object of contempt, derision or hatred, or even random verbal violence, which could easily happen as you walk through the streets.”
Allen was born the middle of 12 children and recalls spending much of his time reading as a young person. His father was the founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People chapter in his hometown. While he and his family were aware of the issue of race and racism, Allen says his family never sat around to “ponder the great question of race.”
“If there was one thing my mother always said to me more frequently than anything else, it was, ‘Boy, hold your head up, hold your head up,’” Allen recalled during an interview with The Daily Signal. “And of course, you remember this is the segregated south, and there are elements of terror and reason to look around and be doubtful as you hold your head down, perhaps. But no, ‘hold your head up.’” Even in the face of the discrimination he, and so many others, faced “people were not so overcome with the spirit of oppression that they lacked agency,” Allen said, adding he is not sure the same can be said today.
The time we’re living through, where agency seems to have been called into question, has more to do with what happened since the era of Jim Crow. More to do with what happened with welfare dependency. More to do with assuming that to be poor means to be black. More to do with this most recent tendency to racialize all of life, which is a far more poisonous thing than existed when I was a boy. We knew better. We knew who we were. We knew what we were worth. We didn’t need to be told by anyone and we didn’t need to be rescued. We only needed to defend ourselves.
Change in the south, and across the country, came slowly. After the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, which prohibited discrimination in public accommodations among other things, Allen was on a road trip across the county and intentionally “presenting myself in all the places where I was barred legally previously as a kind of personal celebration of the change,” he said.
Allen, who currently serves as the chief operating officer at the Center for Urban Renewal and Education, a nonprofit aimed at fighting poverty through the principles of scholarship, freedom, and faith, spent much of his career teaching and writing.
His love of reading and information led Allen into the field of academia, where he taught political philosophy at Michigan State University, served as a senior visiting scholar at Villanova University, and as dean of James Madison College. At a time in history when many are struggling to reconcile America’s past of slavery and segregation with the Founding Fathers’ vision, Allen says Americans need to consider how they are thinking about America’s past.
“It is perhaps too facile when people say the country’s history is a history of slavery,” Allen said, and went on to explain why:
Slavery is one of the things that was part of the country’s history. So has freedom been part of the country’s history. So has been two greater awakenings, religious revival. So have been processes of gradual expansion of the suffrage. So have been processes of industrial and economic development.
There are many parts of our history. Slavery is one of them. And therefore, not necessarily distinguished as the most important of them, though it was certainly the most perilous of them.
Allen says the Founders planted a seed of self-government for all mankind in the Declaration of Independence when they wrote “all men are created equal.” America’s leaders, such as President Abraham Lincoln, began to talk more about freedom and equality because it was central in the country’s founding documents, and that “led them therefore to address in the most meaningful manner the question of slavery,” Allen said.
“So, I would not take slavery as a touchstone or lodestone for American history,” he said. “American history is far more transcendent than that.”
Allen is quick to say that he is proud to call himself an American, but is concerned about those in the black community who don’t feel they can say the same.
When it comes to the question of America’s future and racial controversy, Allen says there is now a dire need to address the importance of black patriotism.
Without a “surge in black patriotism, we probably stand to lose this great gift of God before very much longer,” Allen said.
His hope is that soon, the African American community will say “I embrace the United States for all it’s worth, for all it’s meant to me, for all it means for humankind.”
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