In yesterday’s post, we learned more about Banneker’s Almanac. Even more exciting is the fact that he used his notoriety as the publisher of an Almanac to advocate for American slaves!
In 1791, Thomas, who was then Secretary of State, a white supremacist, and a slave owner, pronounced Blacks mathematically inferior. On August 19, 1791, in response to Jefferson’s declaration of mathematical inferiority, Banneker sent Jefferson a copy of his almanac, along with a twelve-page letter requesting aid in improving the lot of American Blacks. In his letter, Banneker proclaimed that, by sending him the Almanac, he was “unexpectedly and unavoidably led” to develop a discourse on race and rights.
Banneker made it a point to “freely and cheerfully acknowledge, that I am of the African race.” Though not himself a slave, Banneker encouraged Jefferson to accept “the indispensable duty of those who maintain for themselves the rights of human nature,” by ending the “state of tyrannical thraldom, and inhuman captivity, to which too many of my brethren are doomed.” (In case you need to look this word up like I did, “thraldom” means a state of control or bondage to an owner or master.)
Appealing to Jefferson’s “measurably friendly and well-disposed” attitude toward blacks, Banneker presumed that he would “readily embrace every opportunity to eradicate that train of absurd and false ideas and opinions which so generally prevail with respect to us.”
After acknowledging that by writing to Jefferson he was taking “a liberty which seemed to me scarcely allowable,” considering “the almost general prejudice and prepossession which is so prevalent in the world against those of my complexion,” Banneker launched into a critical response to Jefferson’s published ideas about the inferiority of blacks.
With restrained passion, Banneker chided Jefferson and other framers of the Declaration of Independence for the hypocrisy “in detaining by fraud and violence so numerous a part of my brethren under groaning captivity and cruel oppression, that you should at the Same time be found guilty of that most criminal act, which you professedly detested in others, with respect to yourselves.” Citing Jefferson’s own words from the Declaration — the “self-evident” truth “that all men are created equal” — Banneker challenged Jefferson and his fellows “to wean yourselves from those narrow prejudices which you have imbibed with respect to” African Americans.
Click here to read the full text of his historic letter of resistance!