by Ernest Young


This article is a comparative view of social justice of Benjamin Banneker’s (1731-1806) “Letter to Thomas Jefferson” 19 August 1791, the reply “Letter to Benjamin Banneker”, 30 August 1791, the “Declaration of Independence” 1776 by Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826); “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” 1852 by Frederick Douglass (1817-1895) and” Ain’t I a Woman?” 1851 by Sojourner Truth (1797/-1883).

LaGarrett J King’s article, “More Than Slaves…” argues that “Throughout the mid-18th to mid-19th Centuries, Black Founders helped establish Black institutions, served in the military, developed Maroons settlements, and used media to openly challenge and critique the practical ideas of democracy” (p.88)

Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum. Photo by F Delventhal

Benjamin Banneker, the African American Astronomer, Almanac writer, Mathematician and Surveyor, wrote on Thomas Jefferson expressing his views on slavery. He uses moral suasion to reason with Jefferson on the issue of equality. He writes:

“Now sir, if this is founded in truth, I apprehend you will embrace every opportunity, to             eradicate that train of absurd and false ideas and opinions, which so generally prevails with respect to us… (p 1)

He cites biblical references; paragraph eight (8) “put your soul in their souls’ stead;” Job 16:34, and James 1:17 “every good and perfect gift is from above”, challenging Jefferson to see the injustice of slavery, and the justice/rightness of freedom for all. He reminds Jefferson in paragraph seven (7) of the words from the “Declaration of Independence” written by Jefferson; “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”  

Charles Cerami’s book, Benjamin Banneker: Surveyor, Astronomer, Publisher, Patriot (2002), asserts that Banneker is a courageous free African American intellectual who dares to challenge Secretary of State Jefferson regarding slavery. If Jefferson is persuaded by Banneker to denounce slavery, then Jefferson would become a strong proponent in support of Banneker’s cause against slavery.  

Scholar, Angela G. Ray’s article “In My Own Handwriting” notes, “By sending the letter and manuscript copy of the almanac together, Banneker constructed himself rhetorically as a free man, as one capable of bestowing gifts” (p. 400) 

Jefferson’s reply to Banneker:

“Nobody wishes more than I do, to see such proofs as you exhibit, that nature has given to our black brethren talents equal to those of the other colors of men… (p 1)

Jefferson’s reply to Banneker is a polite platitude. He dodges the issue because Banneker is proof.

Additionally, Thomas Jefferson became a United States Diplomat, Secretary of State, author of the Declaration of Independence and the third President of United States.

Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence:

“Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed… (p. 1)

According to Jefferson, the government’s role is to protect individual rights and promote the general welfare of those for which it is charged to govern. 

Next, Frederick Douglass, an African American Abolitionists, Diplomat, Orator and Newspaper publisher/writer was born a slave but fought and won his freedom. Therefore, he is very adamant about the cause of freedom and liberation for all slaves. 

Douglass delivered “What to the American Slave is the 4th of July?” as part of an 1852 Independence Day Celebration at Corinthian Hall in Rochester, New York.

“What to the American slave is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. (p. 9)

Douglass, a former slave, knew the slave’s feelings and thoughts about this 4th of July commemoration. How can slaves celebrate freedom and liberation when, in fact, they are yet slaves and have never experienced freedom and liberation?  

Duffy and Besel’s article “Recollection, Regret, and Foreboding in Douglass’s 4 of July oration of 1852 and 1875”, argues that. 

“Douglass maintains that the Fugitive Slave Law essentially nationalized slavery. The  law made it possible for an African American man living in the North to be consigned to  slavery in the South… “(p. 10)

Douglass biblical references states: 

“This to you is what the Passover was to the emancipated people of God.” (p,2) 

The Biblical Passover reference chronicles the Israelite’s deliverance form Egyptian bondage (slavery).

“And the blood shall be to you for a token upon the houses where ye are and when I see the blood, I will pass over you…” Exodus 12: 13

In another Biblical text he compares the British government’s tenacious hold on the colonies to Pharaoh’s dominant oppression of the Egyptians. 

He writes: “But, with that blindness which seems to be the unvarying characteristic of tyrants, since Pharaoh and his host were drowned in the Red Sea, the British Government persisted in the exactions complained of.” (p. 3)

“And the waters returned, and covered the chariots, and the horsemen, and all the host of Pharaoh that came into the sea after them; there remained not so much as one of them.” Exodus 14: 28

The use of Biblical quotes by Douglass demonstrates his awareness of the United States religious heritage since its inception.  

Finally, Sojourner Truth, an African American female Abolitionists, Missionary and Orator was bilingual and spoke the Dutch language. She was born a slave but fought and won her freedom.  In her speech “Ain’t I a Woman”, delivered in Akron, Ohio, on May 28-29, 1851, Truth makes the case that women are oppressed as slaves are oppressed. She was relentless in challenging white women regarding all women’s rights. Scholar, Meredith Minister’s article: “Religion and (Dis)Ability in Early Feminism” posits: 

“In this speech, Truth’s references to her black, female body challenged religious discourses that regarded women as weak and susceptible to temptation and cultural discourses on “true womanhood… (15-16).

Truth states:

 “Den dat little man in black dar, he say women can.t have as much rights as men, cause Christ wan’t a woman! Whar did your Christ come from?”  From God and a woman! Man had nothin’ to do wid Him.

If de fust woman God ever made was strong enough to turn de world upside down all alone, dese women togedder ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! And now dey is asking to de it, de men better let ‘em.”

These statements by Truth are so profound as they resonate in many circles of liberation today.

She also used Biblical references in her speech. 

“Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost.” Matthew 1: 18, 21

“If de fust woman God ever made was strong enough to turn de world upside down all alone…”                           

“And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.”  Genesis 3:6.

Frederick Douglass said it best about Truth when he eulogized her in Washington in November 1883. He said:

“Venerable for age, distinguished for insight into human nature, remarkable for independence and courageous self-assertion… (Russell, 1998, p. 419).


Benjamin Banneker, Frederick Douglass, and Sojourner Truth are the embodiment for social justice against oppression. Thomas Jefferson wrestled with, and it was not clearly settled as to his views on slavery. They challenged the world with their lives and their words for justice and truth.

LaGarrett King argues that attention to “Black Founders” illuminates the “intellectual agency” that African Americans exercised throughout the history of the United States”. King writes:

“Such agency explores the philosophical and practical approaches to how Black Americans responded to racialization and the limited citizenship opportunities in the United States… (89).

Also, they left a powerful legacy of commitment to justice. May their contributions challenge us to continue this commitment? 

Works Cited

Banneker, Benjamin, “Letter to Thomas Jefferson” 19 August. 1781 Direct Link

Charles Cerami, Benjamin Banneker: Surveyor, Astronomer, Publisher, Patriot (2002)

Douglass, Frederick, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” 1852.  My Bondage and My 

     Freedom, New York: Druer, 1969 441-5 1852

Duffy, Bernard K. and Richard D’ Besel, “Recollection, Regret, and Foreboding in Douglass’s 

    Fourth of July Orations of 1852 and 1875”. Making Interdisciplinary Approaches to Cultural 

    Diversity 12.1 (2010): 4 -15.

Jefferson, Thomas.  “Letter to Benjamin Banneker 30 August 1791 Direct Link

   “Declaration of Independence” 1776.:  Direct Link                                                    

King, LaGarrett J. “More Than Slaves: Black Founders, Benjamin Banneker, and Critical 

     Intellectual Agency”. Social Studies Research & Practice 9.3 (2014): 88-105.

Minister, Meredith, “Religion and (Dis)ability in Early Feminism”. Journal of Feminist Studies 

     in Religion, Vol. 29, No. 2, 2013. p. 5-24.

Ray, Angela G.  “In My Own Handwriting: Benjamin Banneker Addresses the Slaveholder 

     of Monticello”. Rhetoric & Public Affairs, 1.3 (1998): 387-405.

Russell, Dick. Black Genius and the American Experience. Carrol & Graf. New York, 1998.  

Truth, Sojourner, “Ain’t I a Woman” (1851) Direct Link

About the Author

Ernest Young earned a BA degree, U. of California, Santa Cruz, an M Div., Iliff School of Theology, a D. Min., Claremont School of Theology. Currently. he is a Ph.D. candidate, Union Institute & University. Also, he is a Humanities Instructor with the Los Angeles Community College District.


by Terry Barr

In William Faulkner’s 1932 novel Light in August, a man named Joe Christmas, whose racial identity sits at the center of the work, asks the following question of the middle-aged woman who has become his lover and whom he will later kill: 

“Just when do men who have different blood in them stop hating one another…” (249). 

That we still don’t have an answer to his question in 2021 is profoundly troubling. In the course I will discuss momentarily, we will almost certainly fail to provide any comforting or enlightening answers. Nevertheless, we’ll keep trying.

I have been a Professor of English for the last thirty-four years at Presbyterian College in upstate South Carolina, a private, liberal arts college, drawing students mainly form the deep southeast. My Senior Capstone seminar focuses on American Literature and Racial Identity, using three texts: Faulkner’s Light in August, Danzy Senna’s Caucasia, and Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half. Each of these novels explores a character or characters who are caught in a racial limbo. Some know their parentage and its mixed racial makeup; others have no clear idea of their racial background but have heard rumors. All are caught in a society where racial identity is a life or death matter.

Our class meets twice a week for the first six weeks of the term, and in those weeks, we talk about the theme as it applies to these novels, slowly building in research from critical sources. The students will write 500-word responses to two of the novels as part of their requirement, and they will also select a critical essay on one of the novels and make a presentation on that essay as it pertains to racial identity.

In consultation with me, each student will then come up with a central research question that he or she will pursue independently for the next several weeks, eventually turning that question into a thesis. The students are free to select one or more of the novels we’ve discussed in class, though they are not strictly bound to these texts, or to literature per se. They are free to pursue film and music, too. I can see the recent comic books-turned-films like Black Panther and The Watchmen bearing bittersweet and strange fruit for this topic. With their research, the students will write a MLA documented essay roughly fifteen pages long, and then present their research on Honors Day to the rest of the English Department and to anyone else in the college community who chooses to attend.

Our college, like many in these times, has had intense and ongoing discussions about racial diversity and what that looks like and means today. We are a very “white” college, and so as I considered the theme for this year’s seminar, Racial Identity seemed a timely choice, especially given the history of the American South and its reluctance, recalcitrance, in seeking racial equality.

As we discuss these works, I have asked the students to consider the following questions:

  1. Who in our culture gets to determine Racial Identity, and how has this group/person been allowed to make such determinations?
  2. What do we know about our own racial identity, our family’s genetic and historical background?
  3. As a child, were you given sets of social evils or taboos? If so, what were they?
  4. Has a racial hierarchy ever been suggested or imposed on you?
  5. Do you believe that you have benefitted from racial privilege? If so, how?
  6. How would you rank the social acts that most horrify you, or the ones that bestow on you the most honor or gratification?
  7. How would your family members react if you decided to date or marry someone of a different race?

I have six students in the seminar, and all are Caucasian. Because of the above questions, our discussions have been open, I believe, and frank. How would such discussions differ if one or more of the students were African American? While there is no way to know how we might alter or filter our views were we to have African American students in the class, we have at least addressed this issue, noting the problems of white people alone, trying to determine the factors that contribute to our racial misunderstanding of each other.

In our last class, we discussed the problematic scene in Light in August in which Joe Christmas, as an orphaned child, follows an African American yard man across the orphanage grounds. Joe has already been called “nigger” by both children and adults, though they do so only because Joe is different, a new boy alien to them; a loner who often finds himself in places he shouldn’t be, and who seems to harbor secrets. They are trying to put him in his place by using the most dehumanizing word anyone in that era who is white could call anyone else who is white, or black. And so, in his racial confusion, Joe follows the only black man he knows:

“‘What you watching me for boy?’ And he said ‘How come you are a nigger?’ And the nigger said ‘Who told you I am a nigger, you little white trash bastard?’ And he says ‘I aint a nigger’ and the nigger says ‘You are worse than that. You don’t know what you are. And more than that, you won’t never know. You’ll live and you’ll die and you won’t never know’ and he says ‘God aint no nigger’ and the nigger says ‘I reckon you ought to know what God is, because don’t nobody but God know what you is…’” (383-4).

The yard man is more prescient than he knows. For most of the novel, Joe wonders about his racial identity, believing and telling many that he might have some Negro blood in him. He will ultimately be lynched when the town discovers that he’s both been a lover to and killed a white woman. The lynching occurs because Joe’s colleague, “Joe Brown,” has told the sheriff that Christmas is “ a nigger.” From that moment, the TOWN decries that “that nigger Christmas” can’t be allowed to get away with his crime, even though the TOWN has never accepted the woman in question because she’s a northern transplant—a Yankee and an Abolitionist. 

Still, it’s Christmas who most confuses them:

“He never acted like either a nigger or a white man. That was it. That was what made the folks so mad” (350).

But what if he’s neither?

Ultimately, we learn that no one really knows whether the man who impregnated Joe’s mother was Black, or a Mexican, or fully White. Joe himself dies without ever knowing, but to the town and everyone else who knows him, he has forever been deemed Black.

For my students, one of the other central questions this novel raises is the role of religion in determining or interpreting racial identity. Joe is adopted by a strict Calvinist family, the father attempting to beat the fear of God into Joe. Not only doesn’t he succeed, but we know that the orphanage that places Joe in this family does so with the belief that Joe is a racially Black child. They “lie” to Joe’s new father in order to keep Joe from being sent to the Black orphanage. They claim to be trying to save the little boy.

So they lie, and the Calvinist father never knows the lie. At this point, we ask about Christianity’s role in southern racial relations. How did/have so many Southern Protestants made peace with segregation, racial superiority and hierarchy? The novel also includes a defrocked Presbyterian minister who helps us consider this and many other religious and moral questions about the inadequacy and the impotency of religion’s response in considering those outside of the racial norm. And in some cases, religion’s clear persecution of and urging crucifixion on people like Joe Christmas who outrage the religious folk by refusing to accommodate them and stay within the boundaries of boldly-marked racial identities. That Christmas might also be a Christ-figure causes us to consider Christ’s skin color and wonder about the racial category he would have been consigned to in the American South

Christmas has tried to pass as white and even as black. So, too, do two of the central characters in Senna’s Caucasia: the white mother, Sandy Lee, daughter of well-respected WASPish Cambridge socialites, and her paler daughter, Birdie. Sandy and Birdie go on the run, hiding in “caucasia” due to Sandy’s indiscretions with radical, post-1960’s revolutionaries. Because Birdie’s skin color is a bit off-white, Sandy tells everyone in white America that Birdie’s father is Jewish. Meanwhile, Sandy’s African American husband, Deck, and their older darker daughter, Cole, fade into the novel’s background, perhaps passing as the saner, if not more law-abiding pair. The burden is on Birdie, however, to come to terms with all that she is, all that society deems she should be, and what she in fact wants to be.

As a student put it in class today, regarding Birdie and her sister Cole: “How do we blend in to society when we already stand out?”

Caucasia is a novel of inversion, of viewing the negative of a photograph instead of the positive, the “norm.” And in this metaphor, we can understand negative and positive as exactly the value judgments historically deemed on those of mixed racial identity by our society.

The Vanishing Half affords comparisons to Caucasia and allows students to pair the two more closely to analyze the ways sisters, in this case twin sisters, confront or flee their racial identity. How does America force us to define ourselves because of, or despite, whom America would rather we be?

So far, my students have been up to the task of engaging in this theme. I can’t know all they’re thinking and maybe will never know. But I see their faces; I see how deeply they are thinking, and I look forward to their research and the studies they’ll present. I hope the course will change us and help us think even more deeply about who we are and how we can continue to engage with the racial identities imposed on all of us.

Works Cited

Bennett, Brit. The Vanishing Half. New York: Riverhead Books, 2020.

Faulkner, William. Light In August. New York: Vintage International, 1990.

Senna, Danzy. Caucasia. New York: Riverhead Books, 1998.

About the Author

Terry Barr is a Professor of English at Presbyterian College, specializing in Modern Literature, Creative Writing, and Southern Studies. His three essay collections, published by Red Hawk Press, are available from Amazon, and he writes regularly at about music and food culture. He lives in Greenville, Sc, with his family.


By Biko Agozino

How do you pronounce the name that Massachusetts Patriots gave to themselves and that is now retained as the Mascot for the University of Massachusetts, Amherst football team? Is it Minutemen as in men who were ready at a minute’s notice to answer the call to defend their independence or is it ‘Mainutemen’, or little guys who were taking on the mighty British empire?

American students and colleagues always giggle and roll their eyes when I pronounce it as mainute or  and occasionally they offer to correct my strange foreign accent. I smile and use it as a teaching moment to explain my different understanding of the name. To this they often throw up their hands and say that I might be right. Now I want to throw the challenge open to UM Amherst community to see if they have been pronouncing their historic name wrong all these years.

Lexington Minuteman Monument

In his book, The African American People: A Global History, Molefi Kete Asante of Temple University adopted the temporal definition that the Minutemen were men who were ready at a minute’s notice. However, Mark Kulansky, Nonviolence: The History of a Dangerous Idea, gives a clue that supports my Little Guys interpretation of the iconic name.

The story goes that the first skirmish of the revolutionary war took place when little children saw the Red Coats marching past and started pelting them with snowballs. The British troops retaliated and started chasing after the children like bullies.

The parents heard the screams of the kids and came out to defend the little guys. From that day, they adopted the name—Minutemen (perhaps) because they were not highly educated and could not tell the difference between the pronunciation of minute as in little and minute as in time. And being chauvinist, they did not care to mention the women who may have been the first to rush out at the cry of their children. In those days, the word ‘men’ embraced women and so the women who fought in the revolutionary war had to cross-dress like men to be accepted and respected as equal members of the militia.

Asante also highlighted the story of free Black men, like Mr. Salem, who joined the Minutemen from the start to fight against the British colonizers. This may be an indication that there were children of African descent among those children that waged war with snow balls against the British empire.

Free or enslaved, people of African descent were generally known as ‘inferior and subordinate beings’ under the law and it was normal for even grown men to be called boys and treated as little guys in those days and long after.

Crispus Attucks was the first casualty of the war of independence but there must have been more like him given that an estimated 500,000 people of African descent lived in the colonies at that time, according to Asante.

If you agree with me, next time the Minutemen play a game, remind the television and radio announcers that the correct pronunciation is Mainute Men. Also, what do you call your female teams or female members of the revolutionary militia? Minutewomen as in Little Women?

About the Autor

Dr. Agozino is a Professor of Sociology and Africana Studies at Virginia Tech, 562 McBryde Hall, 225 Stanger Street, Blacksburg, VA 24061, 540-231-7699,