The First American President Was Actually Black

--Informant Info--
Nationality: American
Age: 20
Occupation: College Student
Residence: Charleston, South Carolina
Date of Performance/Collection: 4/5/20
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s):

Main Piece:

Subject: I was talking to this one guy because my grandfather wanted me to talk to him. He was involved in the Orangeburg Massacre that happened in South Carolina state in the 60’s or whatever. And then he brought back into my memory this thing- he mentioned it because he believed it… But he starts out by saying, “I always knew Abraham Lincoln was black.” And then that segwayed into him saying something that I heard as a kid, which is that the first president of America was black and wasn’t George Washington… and that you can find him on the back of a twenty dollar bill. 

Interviewer: And can you?

Subject: I mean the idea is that… it’s fucking black and white on green paper, so people are like, “You see this man right here? That’s a black man.” And it’s like yeah! Because in the 1700’s all the slave owners, and an economy built on slavery… they definitely would have elected and let a black man run the country. 

Interviewer: And could just reiterate who told you this idea?

Subject: This is folklore I have heard from various black people. It came back to my memory because I was talking to someone my Grandfather knows. But yeah… it’s just this belief that there is actually a long lost black president who was the first president before George Washington. And the only reason why we don’t know is because they erased it from our history books. You know the really simple phrase. “It’s not in the history books. They rewrote history.” That shit. Which does happen but not in this case. None of the logic follows through. What specifically gripped me about the second time around when I was talking to this guy… He basically was the catalyst for the South Carolina State Massacre. It started as a bowling alley that was segregated. He was the guy that broke the color line there. He was like, “Fuck this shit I want to go bowling.” So we’re talking… and I didn’t know this before talking to him. We talked at length about the massacre and why he wanted to talk about it. But for him to later say in the conversation, “I’ve learned more on the internet in the past five years than I have in the past sixty years.” This guy has a bachelor’s degree in chemistry! This is a smart man. He’s seen racism because that involved people dying. He understands how that looks in real time and how it operates in South Carolina. And yet… he somehow through the internet… he somehow believes that Abraham Lincoln was black. Even though we have pictures of him. And also believes there was a first black president. Which is antithetical to how racism works in America for that to ever be a possibility. In this person’s mind, how does that work? How do you separate those two and how do they overlap. Because I’m sure that’s a massive part of your life! 

Interviewer: I feel like I’ve heard that theory before… that the first president of America was actually black.

Subject: I’m not quite sure how popular it is. I think it could be pretty popular. But no one talks about it because it’s not believable! I heard it from various black men. They say, “Yeah the first president was black. Look at the back of your twenty dollar bill. They erased it from the history books. They don’t want you to know it.” It’s like, how do square that? It’s weird.

Context: The subject is a 20-year-old African American male in his sophomore year at Columbia University studying creative writing. The subject and I were best friends in high school, and we are both currently quarantined in our homes in Charleston. I asked the subject if he would like to meet up for a six-feet-apart walk one evening, and asked him if he had heard any folklore he could share with me, and he told me this fascinating folk belief regarding American history.

Interpretation: I have heard this folk legend before, and the theorized first black president of America was supposedly a man named John Hanson. Though the subject said he could be found on the back of $20 bill, many sources make the claim it is on the back of the $2 bill. On the back of the $2 bill, there is the image of the Second Continental Congress, and supposedly there is a man seated in the back who was believed to be Hanson, the first black president. As the subject alludes, it is a controversial belief. On one hand, I could see it is a legend that in away seeks to reclaim black history where so much of it has been erased and destroyed. On the other hand, the subject noted his frustration with it, in that it might subsequently, unintentionally undermine or downplay the racist foundation of which America was built. I see this legend as being very nuanced. The subject saying that the person who told him this folklore was a very educated, intelligent man makes me think that there is a romantic and poetic element to the legend more than a logical or factual one.