Just in time for Independence Day, the Smithsonian Magazine featured a powerful photo of Shannon LaNier, a Black descendent of Thomas Jefferson and the enslaved Sally Hemmings.
Trigger Warning: This story contains themes of racism and slavery that readers may find disturbing
In a powerful campaign for the Smithsonian Magazine, photographer Drew Gardner recreated photos of influential people in American history using their descendants as models instead. Most shocking is the photo featuring TV news anchor Shannon LaNier, a Black descendent of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings, an enslaved woman of mixed race owned by President Jefferson. The side-by-side comparison is a reminder that the after-effects of slavery are still palpable in the modern day. So, for all the folks who dismiss systemic racism because "slavery happened so many years ago," here's living proof that it's real.
Unlike the other participants, LaNier chose not to wear a white wig as Jefferson did for his photo. He said he didn't want to resemble his great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather. "I didn’t want to become Jefferson," the news anchor explained. "My ancestor had his dreams—and now it’s up to all of us living in America today to make sure no one is excluded from the promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Perhaps he was referring to the Founding Father's participation in the creation of the country's constitution. When he helped draft it, though it claimed "all men are created equal," he himself owned slaves.
LaNier affirmed, "He was a brilliant man who preached equality, but he didn’t practice it. He owned people. And now I’m here because of it." LaNier, who co-authored the book Jefferson's Children: The Story of One American Family, has mixed feelings about his legacy, like many others whose backgrounds are forever intertwined with America's slave-owning past. In the United States, African-Americans are constantly reminded that they are descended from slaves even when they just go about their daily lives. However, that's specifically why today's Black Lives Matter movement is so important.
The resistance challenges the country's past and forces us—all of us—to confront the privileges we benefit from, even if they're invisible and hard to quantify. LaNier may have "made it" as he went on to become a popular TV news anchor, but this is not the story of most Black folks in the United States. And that needs to change. Whether it's the fact that Black people are more likely to die from coronavirus than their white counterparts or receive longer sentences for committing the same crime, slavery and its cultural ramifications have direct impacts on modern-day public policy. This picture is a reminder that our history is still living and breathing. We aren't going to be able to run away from it.