President’s Day? No Thanks.
Updated: Feb 16, 2021
Originally conceived to honor George Washington, President’s Day has evolved into a federal holiday to celebrate all of our nation’s presidents, lumping tr*mp into the mix with the rest. The idea of honoring the settler colonial nature of America’s history by celebrating all our presidents would be nauseating enough under normal circumstances but doing so two days after tr*mp was acquitted at his second impeachment trial for inciting a deadly insurrection is more than we can stand. We’ll pass. Like Thanksgiving or Columbus Day, President’s Day has become a constant reminder of the settler colonialism underpinning this country’s endemic white supremacy, an ideology strengthened and perpetuated by our political system and its policies. It is high time we stop celebrating a political system that has been so harmful to its citizens, especially those it has neglected to serve and to reconsider a holiday that masks the atrocities committed by our government throughout its history.
In order to frame my case, I am going to give what my comrade Lucor Jordan would refer to as the “quick and dirty” of the cornerstones of our settler colonial infrastructure: the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. Before we delve into them, we need to establish some context to understand how our founding fathers were being influenced at the time. Signed in 1776 and 1787, respectively, both the documents and their authors were highly influenced by the Enlightenment Period. The philosophical movement was defined by the notion that reason within positions of power lent to legitimacy and argued for the ideals of individualism, separation of church and state, constitutional government, and science. Frustrated by Great Britain’s changes to trade agreements, increased taxation, and restrictive legislation on the colonies, our founding fathers took the ideals of Enlightenment presented by thinkers like John Locke to establish their own constitutional government. These ideals, and their influence to establish a new and forward thinking government, are not necessarily negative things. When these ideals collide with religion, it becomes a different story.
Christianity has been, and continues to be, used as a basis for determining who is eligible to benefit from the rights bestowed upon humankind from God, “at first, religion, not race as we now know it, defined the status of people in the colonies. Christianity, as a proxy for Europeans, generally exempted European workers from lifetime enslavement” (Wilkerson 2020, 41). Christianity defined who was a good, pure, and civilized human being; in turn defining who deserved to be punished for pagan, non-Christian beliefs. Curse theory, born in the medieval ages, was conceptualized from a line in Genesis 9:18-29 reading, “that Negroes were the children of Ham, the son of Noah’s curse, which produced Ham’s colour and the slavery God inflicted upon his descendants” (Kendi 2016, 21). Ham is the son of Noah who once found Noah drunk and naked in his tent. Angry that his son had seen him in such a state, Noah cursed Ham’s son Canaan stating that he would be “a servant of servants.” Curse theory, Ibram X. Kendi argues, proceeded to lay “the foundation for segregationist ideas and for racist notions of Black genetic inferiority” that would heavily influence the colonists in the New World (Kendi 2016, 21).
Using this context let’s start with the Declaration of Independence, which officially declared our intention to establish our independence from Great Britain. All men, as Thomas Jefferson would famously assert, were created equal when it came to the “inalienable rights” that are “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (US 1776). A progressive notion for the time, yet Jefferson and his fellow politicians were constricted in the actual practice of equality due to their positions of power:
for these rich men, freedom was not the power to make choices, freedom was the power to create choices. England created the choices, the policies American elites had to abide by [...] only power gave Jefferson and other wealthy White colonists freedom from England. For Jefferson, power came before freedom. Indeed, power creates freedom, not the other way around-as the powerless are taught (Kendi 2016, 105).
Jefferson, as well as the other 41 signers of the Declaration who viewed African Americans as property, was unwilling to give up the profit he made from enslaving them-even if he knew it was wrong. It was their labor that fueled his economic capital, in turn promoting his political capital, putting him in a position of power to decide who would be free to pursue those inalienable rights and profit from the enslavement of those understood to be genetically inferior to himself. Fredrick Douglass would come to assert that the entire argument for the continuation of slavery in the United States was based “upon a denial of the Negro’s manhood” (Douglass 1854, 290). To allow all men to be free would relinquish their power and require their own labor to be the sole source of their wealth; labor their skin color and religion exempt them from.
Jefferson was pointedly less coy in his remarks regarding Native American peoples in the Declaration. The colonists were having difficulties enslaving Indigenous peoples on their own lands, and “believed themselves to have solved the labor problem with the Africans they imported” (Wilkerson 2020, 43). There was no use for Indigenous labor to fuel White economic capital, so they began to systematically commit genocide against them. In a final note of disdain for King George III, Jefferson remarks on the “merciless Indian savages whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions” (US 1776). Jefferson was under the impression that King George was organizing domestic attacks using Indigenous labor, unwilling to accept blame for the colonists role in escalating violence through the continuous invasion and theft of Indigenous lands (Ostler 2020). Placing African American peoples under the illusion of “free and equal,” while inciting violence through racist rhetoric on Native American peoples for their land to maintain a steady flow of income to the wealthy: truly the American way.
The United States Constitution shapes the form, purpose, and structure of our United States government. The document was inspired by the Haudenosaunee’s political making body known as the Iroquois Confederacy who operate under a democratic Longhouse government (Simpson 2014). The first ten amendments to the Constitution, known as the Bill of Rights, affords constitutional protection to citizens while imposing federal interference with certain individual rights. When it comes to seeing those rights and protections in action, however, it is clear that who is allowed the privileges granted in the Bill of Rights is restricted to those (myself included) who were born White. Ideas like the freedom to bear arms, the right to a free press, freedom of religion, and the right to a trial by jury are all ideas our modern society lives and dies for. Yet, we see how systemic racism, sexism, and discrimination continues to deny these liberties to our BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ peoples on a daily basis.
George Floyd was denied both his right to live and to a trial by jury after being murdered by Minneapolis police officers Derek Chauvin, Thomas Lane, J. Alexander Kueng, and Tou Thoa on May 25, 2020. Yet those four men are being given the full due process of law, including their right to a trial by a jury of their peers. Floyd’s death sparked peaceful protests in all 50 states that were met with unprovoked police brutality and military oversight; things we certainly did not see January 6th when self-proclaimed “patriots” and proud boys committed acts of treason during the deadly insurrection incited by our former POTUS. LGBTQIA+ communities are threatened with violence fueled by the patriarchal and heteronormative ideals of sexuality promoted within Christianity, having to continually fight to protect their basic human rights from conservative Supreme Court Justices. Native American peoples did not even have the freedom to practice their religions freely until 1978-43 years ago. Alabama did not do away with its last laws enforcing racial segregation in marriage until the 2000’s (Wilkerson 2020, 111). The exploitation of enslaved peoples in generating national wealth lasted for 246 years in the United States, meaning that the year 2022 will mark the first year our country has been an independent nation for as long as slavery lasted (Wilkerson 2020, 47). For African Americans as a group to have been free for as long as they were enslaved? We won’t see that until 2111 (Wilkerson 2020, 48).
We have all just bore witness to an impeachment trial that has failed our democracy and failed to provide any sort of the unity through accountability that Joe Biden’s campaign ran on. We saw 45 Republican senators question the constitutionality of the proceedings with 147 of them voting to overturn the election results, and another 43 voting against his conviction. I recognize, and am incredibly relieved, to see our new administration enacting progressive and critical legislation within its first month in office. Yet like every Presidential office that has come before them, the Biden administration is still one that supports and upholds the ideals of a settler colonial government. We will discuss many times on this website the fact that settler colonialism is a structure and not an event; settlers are not going anywhere and we will certainly never be able to decolonize our political system. For a more informed perspective that is just as critical of the left as they are the right, I highly recommend The Red Nation Podcast’s January 25 episode, “Settlers Gone Wild: Inauguration Hangover.” It is hilarious, it is raw, and it articulates an Indigenous perspective of their weariness of a system that has routinely disenfranchised them.
It is time to reconsider our commemoration of this day, for “to achieve a truly egalitarian world requires looking deeper than what we think we see” (Wilkerson 2020, 70). Our system has failed to unite us as a country, and it is imperative that we begin to understand how we could possibly have ended up here before we are able to move forward in any meaningful way. We need to hold our elected leaders accountable and stop using settler colonial holidays to hide the actions of a political system that has caused, and continues to cause, trauma to millions of United States citizens. The annual celebration of President’s Day (as well as Thanksgiving and Columbus Day) are just salt in the never healed wounds of those who have provided their labor as the foundation and entire basis of White economic, social, and political capital (Wilkerson 2020, 43). So, let’s restructure today’s holiday. Use the day to have teachable moments within our schools, ourselves, and our communities as to why we don’t celebrate the structures or ideologies of white supremacy marked as a day off from work. Inspire unity through accountability by being transparent in our education and real about our history.
Douglass, Fredrick. 1854. “The Claims of the Negro Ethnologically Considered.” Speech, Western Reserve College, Hudson, OH, July 12, 1854.
Kendi, Ibram X. 2016. Stamped From The Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. Bold Type Books: New York.
Ostler, Jeffrey. 2020. “The Shameful Final Grievance of the Declaration of Independence.” The Atlantic, February 8, 2020. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/02/americas-twofold- original-sin/606163/
Simpson, Audra. 2014. Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States. Duke University Press: Durham.
Wilkerson, Isabel. 2020. Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. Penguin Random House: New York.
Laura Hughes (she/her) Editor-in-Chief
I am a Museum Anthropologist concerned about how we know what we know, and how museums have aided in perpetuating settler colonial agendas. How do museums generate representation? Who is behind those narratives? And what is the ripple effect of that outside their doors? My perspective is informed by my background in Anthropology, Sociology, Native American Studies, and Museums. Using my experiences, and my deep love of theory, I aim to generate critical context for the world in which we live.