Of course, we could run down Professor Blair L.M. Kelley’s academic bona fides: she graduated from University of Virginia with a bachelor’s degree in History and African and African American Studies, obtained her master’s degree and Ph.D. from Duke University, and currently serves on the North Carolina State University.
But those things trained her for what she does best: taking that history and giving to us and those after as a form of a love, of helping to put back together what racism pulls apart. Her post on the Dred Scott and his case and the Birthers demanding POTUS Obama’s proof of US birth shreds me almost a year later. She does an impeccable job explaining the history of Scott’s case itself. Then she, as old Black church folks, brings it to today:
Dred Scott decision meant that to be black in America in the late 1850s was to live in a land that said you did not have a future. You were living in a country where, whether free or slave, you would never be a real American. The Dred Scott decision was devastating to black America. On what terms could they appeal to the Supreme Court when the history of black citizenship, and even the black presence in America had so thoroughly been washed away? How could the fight to end slavery and to win black rights be won in such a bleak context? It is this despair of black America of the 1850s that reminds me of the disappointment of the past few days.
The hardened historian in me wasn’t surprised, but I was struck by the sick theatre of a sitting president making special appeal to the state of Hawaii in the effort to prove not only that his election was legitimate, but that his citizenship is valid. I was struck by the tearful vlog response of Baratunde Thurston and by the rage of my friend Elon James White on his podcast Blacking It Up. I was struck by the profound disappointment of the Obama generation at the state of black citizenship. I was thinking about horror of the president having to show his papers, echoing with the millions of migrant workers, documented and undocumented who have to show papers everyday and are never pre-supposed citizens.But I know that African Americans, Indigenous Americans, Latino, Asian Americans, we are formative of this American nation. I know that citizenship was only positively and affirmatively defined in the US Constitution for the first time when black people were freed and citizenship was granted in the 14th Amendment. I know that the labor of those black and brown people built the infrastructure and institutions of this nation. I know that our labor fed and still feeds the nation and cares for her children. We carry her mail, run her banks, and write her history. And I know that only through a coalition of black and brown and white folk did we achieve the amazing feat of electing the first African American president. I know that the 2008 election proves that those who would argue even today that “it is too clear for dispute, that the…African race were not intended to be included, and formed no part of the people who framed and adopted this declaration… .” are wrong. I know that we made them, through the simple practice of democracy, feel small, frightened, and vulnerable. But I want them to know, it’s okay, they are still welcome in our America. It has always been all of ours, all along.
To paraphrase Toni Morrison, Professor Kelley is a friend of mind, the kind that looks at the wreckage of living in this racist system, assures you that it’s gonna be all right, and helps you put it aright. That’s why—among other reasons—we crush on her so hard.