The country has spent days debating whether President Trump’s tweets telling four congresswomen of color to “go back” to their countries are racist. Although all four are U.S. citizens and three were born here, Trump’s tweets channeled a long American tradition of equating citizenship with whiteness.
But at this moment, we need to remember and reclaim another definition of citizenship: What makes someone American isn’t race but dedication to the country’s core principles of equality and justice for all. Enslaved people who fought to become free long before slavery ended in the United States exemplified that commitment to a country where everyone could lay claim to liberty and inclusion.
Their struggle was not an easy one. At the same time our Constitution was being ratified, framing the country’s identity and purpose as a beacon of liberty, slavery in the United States was expanding.
Pushing back against that expansion were people of color who fought to become free. In Virginia, the birthplace of the Constitution, many enslaved people gained their freedom in the early republic, as anti-slavery Quakers prodded the legislature to make emancipation easier.
Enslaved people took advantage of these openings in the law to claim freedom for themselves and their families. They overcame extraordinary obstacles to become free: working “overtime” on Sundays and late at night to earn wages to purchase freedom for themselves or loved ones; finding a lawyer to help them bring a lawsuit for freedom; taking depositions from white neighbors or family members attesting to their hard work and good character.
By the early 19th century, communities of free people of color were large enough to challenge many white people’s conceptions of black people’s “proper place.” Born in America, their “proper place” was in America, as citizens.