Passing for Black: Sermon

Passing for Black: Sermon

Unitarian Church of Norfolk
Norfolk, Virginia

Dr. Walter Skip Earl


Forty-seven years ago yesterday, on August 28, 1963, before a huge crowd of African and other Americans gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said:

In a sense, we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”

But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice…


Our reading this morning comes from the jacket (show) previews of Clarence E. Walker’s 2009 University of Virginia press, MONGREL NATION, The America Begotten by Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. The term “mongrel” is usually used as a derogatory term for “Mixed Race” .

The first quote is from Annette Gordon-Reed, New York Law School and author of THE HEMINGSES OF MONTICELLO: An American Family.

America has indeed been a mongrel nation, not just in terms of blood, but in terms of culture and politics, from the very beginning. Walker very rightly challenges the assumption that the Jefferson-Hemings liaison was either unusual or exceptional.

Secondly, from the author himself, Clarence E. Walker, Professor of History at the University of California, Davis and also the author of WE CAN’T GO HOME AGAIN: An Argument about Afrocentrism.

The debate over the affair between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings rarely rises above the question, “Did they or didn’t they?” But lost in the argument over the existence of such a relationship are equally urgent questions about a history that is more complex, both sexually and culturally, than most of us realize.

(T)he relationship between Jefferson and Hemings must be seen not in isolation but in the broader context of interracial affairs within the plantation complex. Viewed from this perspective, the relationship ..was fairly typical. For many, this is a disturbing realization because it forces us to abandon the idea of American exceptionalism and reexamine slavery in America as part of a long, global history of slaveholders frequently crossing the color line.

More than many other societies—and despite our obvious mixed-race population—our nation has displayed particular reluctance to acknowledge this dynamic….From Jefferson’s time to our own, the general public denied—or remained oblivious to—the possibility of the affair. Historians, too, dismissed the idea, even when confronted with compelling arguments by fellow scholars. It took the DNA finds of 1998 to persuade many (although to this day, doubters remain).

The president’s apologists, both before and after the DNA findings, have constructed an iconic Jefferson that tells us more about their own beliefs—than it does about the interaction between slave owners and slaves. Much more than a search for the facts about two individuals , the debate over Jefferson and Hemings is emblematic of tensions in our society between competing conceptions both of race and of our nation. (underlining is mine)

This sermon is not meant to be a history lesson. Nor is it meant to be a summary of the contents of MONGREL NATION.

Rather, it is my RESPONSE to having read the book. It is my attempt to react to the thesis of Clarence Walker’s latest book within the time frame of these next 15 to 20 minutes. And I appreciate your sharing this with me by listening…

Read the entire sermon here.

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