Interviewee: Melody Barnes, Vice Chair of the Board of Monticello, Professor of Practice in Public Affairs, and Co-Director of UVA’s Democracy Initiative
Interviewer(s): Deborah E. McDowell; James Perla
Interview date: 2019-03-08
Interview Summary: The interview discusses Monticello’s new exhibition on the life of Sally Hemings, the use of the term “rape” in the exhibition, and the relationship between Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson, more broadly.
Keywords: Monticello, Sally Hemings, terminology, rape, love, justice
DEBORAH MCDOWELL: You are going to be… I need to understand this. So, you’re the vice president of Monticello?
MELODY BARNES: I’m the Vice Chair of the Board.
DEBORAH MCDOWELL: Vice Chair of the Board. And then… that… you move from there to the chair of the board… Yes. And so, what is the work of the chair of the board?
MELODY BARNES: Well, the board is comprised of a number of really interesting people from all over the country. As you can imagine, a number are Virginians, but there are people from Texas and New York and the rest of the country and the board chair works very closely with Leslie Bowman who is the president of the foundation and her staff and the committee chairs as we think about everything from the grounds, to Jefferson scholarship, to the work that we are doing with the descendants of those who were enslaved at Monticello, thinking about new programming and executing on our strategic plan, which is to focus on what happened on the mountain but also to take that work off the mountain. So, for example, the big exhibit that Monticello did in D.C. a few years ago on the enslaved families and plans to take that abroad as well.
Jefferson for our times
DEBORAH MCDOWELL: Wonderful. Okay. Yeah, this is exactly in keeping with what we at least one of our objectives and that is to make Jefferson live for our times, really. Which involves really detaching ourselves from the reverence that has surrounded Jefferson but not for purposes of desecration or demonization. We just want to say obviously this was a revolutionary thinker and we want to know what his revolutionary thinking means for us today and how we can make it live again. It’s something of an axiom both from especially for Jefferson scholars that he’s a revolutionary thinker but obviously one who could not bring himself to realize and extend forward those possibilities contained in that vision. So, that’s the long preamble just trying to let you settle in to ask: to what extent does he remain an important figure for us today? And what do we need to do to ensure that he remains an important figure and a touchable figure?
MELODY BARNES: Right. One, I love that question. And for many reasons, that is the reason why I joined the board at Monticello because I think that Jefferson is critical for us and our understanding of Jefferson for us today because he represents both the challenge and the big thinking that I think is reflective of the country and the bold experiment that is the country. And many of the challenges that we are struggling with today. They are foundational. You could argue that they are part of our DNA, but that might reflect the fact that we think that they’re unchangeable or you could believe that they are…. They sit in the bone structure and we need to try and reshape the bone structure or the architecture of our founding ideals or the execution of our founding ideals. But I think if you look at Jefferson of, you know, the 17… the late 1800s early 1900s, you also then see the same challenges, the same problems, but also the same curiosity that exists in America today.
DEBORAH MCDOWELL: Oh, I just love that response and as a literary scholar I love the metaphors. The bone structure we’’re accustomed to hearing about the DNA but that it is in the bone structure. And if I heard you correctly then perhaps the bone structure may be more amenable to correction.
MELODY BARNES: Yes, we can reset the bones.
DEBORAH MCDOWELL: So what…
JAMES PERLA: A facelift maybe?
DEBORAH MCDOWELL: So, what would resetting the bones… what would resetting the bone consist?
MELODY BARNES: Well, I think the first thing that’s critical and again, this is why I think Monticello is important, why the study of Jefferson is important is because we have to understand the truth and all of it. wWe can no longer rely on symbols or myth and fantasy about what America was. And as a result of that, what America is today. My husband always cringes when I use this example, but I say if you really love… When you really love someone you don’t just think they are perfect. They may be perfect for you. But you understand their vulnerabilities, you understand their insecurities, you understand their flaws. So, I think for America, for the understanding of a constitutional republic, of liberal democracy, then the first thing we have to do is to get to the truth because ultimately then if we understand the truth and that history isn’t just something that’s dusty and old, but then we connect the dots through history to today, then we can understand what’s foundational to the challenges we face today and what has to be unearthed. And I also think that’s important because it’s critical to how we relate to one another as individuals, but also how we understand what’s systemic and what’s institutional.
systematic vs. institutional change
DEBORAH MCDOWELL: Wonderful. So, what is… many people conflate those two: systemic and institutional. So, I’m curious how would you distinguish between them?
MELODY BARNES: Well, I think about systems change. Well, one I think about institutions as some of the significant institutions that shape our polity. That shape our country, our society. Everything from the institutions of government and how they were formed and the rules and norms that shape and govern them, to the way that we think about our criminal justice system and that in those institutions and education institutions. And then I think about systems as the connective tissue among them. And if we can get into the system or the bloodstream that with our changes and our way forward, then we can start to, at scale, make larger changes and reforms to our democracy.
DEBORAH MCDOWELL: This is all just utterly fascinating I could hear you go on forever. So, I need to be… I need to be aware that we have a limited timeframe. But as I listen to you just now, I’m reminded of the fact that seldom do we acknowledge that the formation of this republic that there were changes going on all the time as this thing was forming and trying to come into being and yet we want to talk about it as if it is this rigid thing… Does not admit of any alteration, but alteration is actually its foundation too.
MELODY BARNES: I completely agree with you and it I think it’s part of the beauty that is our constitutional republic and to your point people have to remember and understand this: the founders didn’t think that they were creating something that should be static or that was perfect. And their letters I think between Adams and Jefferson around the framing of the Constitution and the ratification of the Constitution and they were talking about the amendment process and you know and said, “If future generations see that we’ve got something wrong then change it they must.” And that’s what’s incumbent upon us and we’ve done that in significant ways and when it comes to issues of race, obviously the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendment, you know, the Nineteenth Amendment that we’ll celebrate next year, the hundredth anniversary with regard to women. But then how we continue to execute on that whether it be through our laws, and policies, our practices, our norms, all of those things require us to think about how we meet the aspirations of the ideal.
to be of both Jefferson and Hemings
DEBORAH MCDOWELL: I somehow wish we could be broadcasting this in all directions. Yes. So, to get a little bit then more specific though, I think will be returning to these issues throughout. We are preparing the second in this series of what will be six podcasts six episodes and we’re working on the Sally Hemings one. And when Ian Baucom was a candidate for the Dean of the College, I was on the search committee and he made a statement again and again during the interview process and since that we must become… not just be the University of Jefferson, we must become the University of Sally Hemings. And so, we’ve been asking other people variations on that question. What would that mean? What would that mean to have to consider both these two figures together, to think them together? To think them as inseparable? To think them as… that no accounting would be complete without trying to wrestle with Sally Hemings. However little we know about her as a figure, right? In fact, it is perhaps the fact that we know so little and she is shrouded in mystery and mystification and everybody’s representations, you know. Since if that’s all we have, how do we work with that? To think these two figures together, right?
MELODY BARNES: I love this question and through the lens of Monticello, we think it’s so important and the opening of what we believed probably was her room. There were two rooms that we narrowed it down to and one of them that we thought okay, this could be it and the exhibit that opened to make sure that when people come to Monticello, yes, it was Jefferson’s home. But Jefferson did not live there alone nor was he able to do the good and the bad that happened there alone that there were over 600 enslaved men, women and children who were there. Sally Hemings being one of them. And A. literally the leveling of that mountain, the building of that house, the keeping and building of the farm, the plantation, all of that was because of all of the other people who were in labor there as slaves. Mixed with the ideas that Jefferson had about what he wanted to create and the ideas that he brought back there from all parts of the world. But to require us to understand that it wasn’t this one quote “great man”, but it was the intelligence and the ingenuity and the innovation of others who were of African descent who live there, requires us to understand that these are people who were three dimensional, that just as with today all of us, all of those stories are present and required. Which is also why when people say… some people say, “I don’t even understand why Monticello exists.” And my… in part my reaction to that is, “And so, you want to erase the Hemings family and the Graingers and the Faucets and the Herns?” And all of their stories which are also stories… They’re obviously stories of pain and hard labor and beatings and all the things that went into that but there are also stories about how men and women loved one another and took care of their children. The enslaved men who would walk miles every week to go visit the woman, the women that they consider to be their wives, even though the law didn’t, and to maintain and build those relationships. So, I think it’s critical to understand and Sally Hemings and in some ways she’s… I’m using her as a representation of all of those individuals, to understand the fulsomeness of American life… of African American family life to dispel and push back on the caricature of those individuals that even still exist today. So, it must be Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson if we’re going to wrap our arms around all of who we are as a culture and society.
DEBORAH MCDOWELL: I love that answer. It’s… it is absolutely the case and I want to return to the question of why does Monticello exist and should we just raze it to the ground? Because we are witnessing… Indeed, we are in the throes of that very impulse now and I am… I say something of a contrarian people look at me and are just scandalized by my saying, you know, “You can take these statues down. You can take all of these Confederate statue is down. You can change the name of every highway bearing the name of a confederate general, change the building of every racist university campus.” But you have to contend with the history, nonetheless. You simply cannot erase things. You simply cannot say now this is gone and we move on. This may be gone but we still live…. Alice Walker has wonderful line in a story. The dialogue is between two characters and one of them is from the North and one of them is from the South, so that schematic to begin with because a lot of racism happened in the North and so… But the character says well, you know what happened when you all took all the signs down? And the character says nothing happened. She says nothing happened. She says no. The signs had already done their work. The signs had already done their work. And so yes, it would be completely misguided to think that you could simply raze Monticello to the ground and that that even that would constitute some measure of justice for someone because we will still live with the residue of that hist… it is in our bone structure. That is absolutely the case. I don’t know if you are on Twitter…. are you on Twitter?
Interpretive caricatures of the enslaved experience
MELODY BARNES: I am.
DEBORAH MCDOWELL: Okay. There was the most wonderful exchange between a friend of mine who is an historian and at Princeton, Tera Hunter and Nicole Hannah Jones this week. And, you know, one of these multi-thread things. So, it’s… so Hannah Jones… And Nicole Hannah Jones kicked it off by referring to enslaved people as commodities and property exclusively. That they were not in the eyes of slave holders human beings they were simply chattel. And so, Tera Hunter comes back with an equally lengthy, but deeply thoughtful and measured response. “No, these people were not just chattel. These people, whether the slaveholders wrote about them in this way, they valued enslave people for their skills, they valued them for their human sensibilities. After all, a lot of these people were entrusted with bringing up their own children.” So, you’re absolutely right. But all of this is to say we have kind of accommodated ourselves whether consciously or not to really caricatures… interpretive caricatures, you know, we are accustomed to saying under U.S. chattel slavery, they were just property. But there are so many more dimensions to the story than that. Whether or not those other dimensions are told to the extent that yes, they are there.
MELODY BARNES: I completely agree with you and part of the archaeological work that’s taken place at Monticello tells us more and more and more about how the enslaved men, women and children lived. That there were marbles, there were… There’s evidence of how they might play. There was fiddling, there was musical talent and musical genius there. The work ethic that taking care of family and children, you know, the oral history that’s been handed down. I think part of the problem with trying to hold these individuals in a one dimensional plane is that it then connects dots to the one dimensional plane that society or some in society try to hold people of color in today. And to understand how these individuals lived and thought helps us to understand the fulsomeness. And I think one of the interesting things and this isn’t necessarily a Monticello story, but one of the interesting things that we know about those who were enslaved in parts of America is one of the first things that many of them did when they left the plantation was that they open savings accounts. Savings accounts and just A. the thinking that goes into that but it is also a reflection of hopefulness, of planning and then we see what happened, you know, post-Civil War and the leadership positions in communities and state legislatures…. Federal… So, we know that these were multi-dimensional, hard-working, thoughtful, deeply innovative people. So, let’s connect the dots as far as we can to understand that story and to tell that story which I think is critical not only for our all of our children to understand today, but for all of us to understand today from whence we came no matter who you are as a matter of race or ethnicity.
DEBORAH MCDOWELL: Absolutely.
The life of sally hemings exhibit at Monticello
JAMES PERLA: I have a question to follow up briefly about the Hemings exhibit, maybe two questions. But first, I just want to get a little bit of context about the process of setting up the exhibit. We talked to Niya Bates also at Monticello and I just wanted maybe you to meditate a bit on what that process was like and why was it that you… that Monticello in particular chose to represent Hemings in the way that you did in that exhibit?
MELODY BARNES: Sure. Well the evolution of the exhibit at Monticello… the exhibit about Sally Hemings’ life was a long one. And in some ways it has its roots in the response that was received to the restoration of Mulberry Row. The row of places where the enslaved families lived. And watching some people… Visitors walk in and look around and say, “Oh, well this wasn’t so bad,” which you know sends chills, you know through your body. So, one we wanted to think about how do we tell the story? Based on what we know and we don’t know a lot. There are no pictures that we can find. We can find written descriptions. And what we also had was the oral history and interview that one of her sons had done in an Ohio newspaper. So, using that, because we felt as though that gave us a lot of factual information that was firsthand and what we had from the records, we decided that the representation of Sally Hemings shouldn’t be an attempt at period restoration because we didn’t want the,”Oh, well this wasn’t so bad.”
JAMES PERLA: And by period restoration you mean like a reproduction of her room?
MELODY BARNES: Right, You know, sometimes, you know, you go to a historic home or you go to… Well, a historic home would be the best example and they try to recreate the bed or the pallet that the slaves slept in. That we didn’t want to do that. That we wanted to use the words of her son to tell that story. And that we wanted to create something that was deeply meditative for people with that information and we went back and forth and back and forth with a company that worked with us to help tell that story in that way. And for those who I hope will go to Monticello and see this. I’m being careful. I don’t want to… I want them to respond. I want people to respond to what they see but I think it is done very simply. But I think it is also done very very powerfully. And I know the reaction I had when I first saw it before it opened. And I was with my husband and two other friends and literally tears were in all of our eyes when we left that room. And being there the day that it opened and watching people come out, you know, in silence people needed a place to just be and to think and to contemplate what they had witnessed and what they had read through… in those words. I feel it it ultimately was the powerful representation and the most honest and truthful interpretation of her life that we could possibly give.
JAMES PERLA: For someone who might not… We’ve been. It’s fantastic but maybe for someone who might not be familiar with what the exhibit is. I think it’s notable that, you know, you walk into this, you know, there’s a buzz of activity going on around, you know, in the grounds and then you walk into this kind of quiet dark room. And so, could you maybe just describe… Maybe even your personal experience going through that and what that was like maybe on first viewing?
MELODY BARNES: Sure. So, you… To visit you walk into a room that is one of the two rooms that we believe that she lived in and that’s as far as we could narrow it down. And when the door is closed you are in darkness as she would have been but for candlelight or, you know, fire at night and there is the words of her son as told through an interview that he did with the newspaper are projected and then an outline of her kind of… in silhouette again, because we don’t know what she looked like we don’t we have a basic description from the oral history. But we don’t have any pictures so we didn’t want to pretend like we knew or even that we know what Sally Hemings looks like. So, there’s a silhouette that takes you through her history when she first came as a child when she was in France and with Jefferson, which is… she was there to help take care of one of Jefferson’s daughter’s. The fact that she came back and she was pregnant. The exchange that she had with Jefferson about what her life would look like if she came back because at first she was not going to come back. Her brother was living in France and in France there was the opportunity for freedom, but ultimately did come back. And then the life that she had going forward there. Again, all through the words of her son projected on the wall. And I think also that when I describe her in silhouette, even that changes as you go through the different… the arc of her life as she was at Monticello.
representation without information
JAMES PERLA: Sorry, final question at this point because we’re, you know, the notion of literary scholars I think is important and the role of representation because there’s so little information about Hemings herself. I wanted to ask… The sort of choice to make this sort of like a found poetry type of representation that is almost like a turn towards sort of a more abstract register to almost get to sort of the true story of Hemings the need to go through some type of representation that’s not necessarily a historical through and through a period piece or yeah. Does that question make sense?
MELODY BARNES: I feel your question in my bones, but I might need…
JAMES PERLA: I think another around this is the other day, Titus Kaphar gave a lecture at UVA Special Collections Library, and he hinted… I don’t know if this is officially, we’re supposed to say it… but he hinted at the possibility of showing some of his paintings at Monticello. Recently, there was a lot of buzz about a musical performance that you all did on the grounds of Monticello. And so, the role of sort of to animate and to show the humanity of enslaved peoples for whom we have very little information. The need to turn to the sort of gaps in the history and to sort of make that history have a sort of affective or emotional truth that is not represented in sort of historical information from the archives, which is obviously controlled by the sort of the…
DEBORAH MCDOWELL: “The lions write history.” And so, the work of the lions is in the archives. Yeah, people who leave papers people who leave writings? Yes, if maybe if I’m understanding you… are you asking what do we gain? What do we lose? With having recourse only to representation? Is that?
JAMES PERLA: Yeah, I think so and the possibilities of because they’re so little information this choice to make it sort of this meditative, as you describe, this feeling where, you know, you don’t get the, “Oh, that’s not so bad.” You get the… the sort of feeling of what that was like and again that’s sort of because of the lack of information. So, I think yeah that yeah sort of helps …
MELODY BARNES: It is and it’s a rich question there so many facets to it. I think one it forces us to wrestle with and look in the eye of the fact that we don’t have a lot of information. And that’s particularly interesting in this instance because it is Monticello and it is Jefferson and Jefferson wrote down everything. Everything. So, he leaves lots of detailed notes and the register of those who were enslaved there. There’s all of that. That he had the power, he could control that but for those who were enslaved they didn’t have that. So, what we have left behind are artifacts that have been uncovered as a result of archaeology and we have oral history and interviews by the descendants. And the oral history that we still have that we are still collecting at Monticello today of descendants. And so, that requires us, I think, to be very careful, to be thoughtful and to be responsible with… and accountable for how we are treating all of that information. Not making… letting people interpret it to make and draw their assumptions. To put it in an historical context. When people go they will see a sign outside of her room about the issue of rape, recognizing the lack of agency that enslaved women had at that time, the fact that she was owned by someone. And at the same time, we want people to understand the humanity of those who were enslaved there. And that comes through, I believe, when you go on the tour because everyone has been trained to talk about the multidimensionality of those individuals. I know, I have friends… I went to Monticello as a kid and, you know, people either we didn’t talk about the slaves or we talked about them as servants or so there are euphemisms and now there’s very plain spoken language. These were enslaved people. This is what happened. This was the labor that burdened them. This is the way some of them died. This is the way many of them… Some of them tried to escape. This is what happened to some of them who tried to escape. And included in that is the representation of Sally Hemings’ life in a way that we hope people do feel deeply and we’re not trying to shape or impress a set of feelings upon people but we’re trying to give you as much as we possibly can as accurately as we can so that people walk away with an understanding of what this woman’s life was about and the facts that we have about her life and the lives of hundreds of others who lived there for… With good reason we talk a lot about Sally Hemings, but there were hundreds of others who live there and we have their oral history and as much as the of the archaeological material as we possibly can to tell their stories as well.
The spectrum of love
DEBORAH MCDOWELL: I’m thinking there’s just so much resonance and what you’re saying. I want to go back to a few minutes ago. Well, no, I’ll come back to that later because I want to confront the question of rape and maybe then connect it to Sally Hemings in France because it’s so complicated from our contemporary perspective. Sally Hemings is fourteen. So, fourteen for us now is not the age of consent, but it would be anachronistic to say Sally Hemings was an underage girl that Jefferson raped and sexually exploited because fourteen-year-olds could be married in the 18th century. So, we are working with very different conceptions of childhood. In fact, indeed the reality that childhood as a category of human development is a very late phenomenon in human history. And so, we can’t say she was underage and yet we want to be able to capture that whether underage or not in the terms that the 18th century understood it, something happened to her and to her body that was wrong. So, we wrestle with the particularities of history, what history allows us to say if we’re being responsible, but it’s that… but what has to almost override it are the questions of morality because, you know, I’m reminded of, you know, Martin Luther King often made the distinction between man-made laws and moral laws, right? And so, this is analogous to that and so I was taken with the fact that both in the press, I read the review in the New York Times of the exhibition, and there on-site the the concept of rape is invoked, you know, unapologetically, right? And so, help us think about what brought you to that point even knowing that, well, how do you say it was rape? How do you know since so little is known about what passed between these people? How can you have conviction about whether that is the terminology you want to use?
MELODY BARNES: Well, throughout the building of that exhibit and I even every time I use the word exhibit I cringe a little bit because it sounds…. It doesn’t hold the import of what this is. So, as we were thinking about how to share and represent the story of her life based on what we knew, we spend a lot of time with historians who are Jefferson-Hemings historians, like Annette Gordon-Reed, to help us work through all of the issues and what we knew, but I think what was most important to us was A. identifying the lack of agency that she… Sally Hemings had. Simply by virtue of being born into slavery. She could not control her own body, her destiny, her decision. She… by what we know of what happened in France, she was able to have a back-and-forth of some sort with Jefferson to try and shape what her life would look like and the life of her children when she returned, if she returned, when she returned to Monticello, but she couldn’t wake up and say, “You know what? I ain’t doing that.” She didn’t have those choices that we have today and because that includes control over her body, we felt that it was absolutely necessary. It would be irresponsible not to call that question and not to require those who visit that exhibit to look in the eye of what it would be like to have been Sally Hemings and that period of time and literally one of the most powerful men in the country owns you and what happens as a result of that. And the, you know, six children. I may be a little bit off right now that she carried and bore. We have to understand that as a country and I think it is also important in the same way people similarly as they walked through Mulberry Row and said, “Oh this wasn’t so bad.” We want people to understand just what it would mean to be an enslaved woman at that point in time. Also understanding and bringing in as much of the facts, and as you say the context, as we possibly could.
DEBORAH MCDOWELL: It is vitally important and I think to impress that upon people is critical and yet there is always an “and yet” for speculative thinkers. And this is the “and yet” for me and it’s inspired by an account of another enslaved woman that literary historians have done lots of work to verify, to ascertain and that’s Harriet Jacobs who was owned by Dr. Flint in South Carolina. And she enters into a relationship with another white propertied man. He doesn’t own her but he’s a part of that class and she describes in the book: It is better to choose if you are going to enter into a relationship with someone who has overwhelming power over you. It is important to be able to choose that person. So, with Harriet Jacobs, whether we think it makes sense or not, in her mind, she’s making a choice. She’s making a choice to enter into a relationship with a white man to bear him two children, alright? So, I want to then go back to what you said much earlier about people who travel for miles and miles and miles to see their loved ones which establishes the fact that these were deeply feeling people who form deeply human, feeling, sustaining attachments, right? Toni Morrison writes about a character in Beloved, Sixo, who is in love with “the 30-Mile Woman” and he will walk 30 miles back and forth to be with that woman. So, that’s the depth of the love. So, then it brings us to the question, these are feeling people and feelings have a way of not yielding to human and social constructs. This is a long-winded preamble. I’m aware, but I’m intentionally being long-winded. So, Thomas Jefferson owns this woman. She has no agency. Certainly not under the law. Absolutely not. She can’t say, “I’m not doing this,” right? But she bore him six children. It’s impossible in the discourse for us to think of that relationship as possibly admitting of love between these two people. When people want to say… I was once at my own dinner table in a conversation with Mia Bay and Mia Bay says, “Deborah. That’s impossible. You just can’t say that. It is just it is an insult to Sally Hemings and to all the other enslaved women.” And I said, “That’s not what I’m doing here.” I’m simply asking why has that been such an unthinkable proposition? Why is it impossible to enter the conversation? Because you can’t know what happened you simply cannot know. We don’t know. And so, people on both sides of the ideological divide, whether they are diehard Jeffersonians or defenders of Sally Hemings, say you can’t even broach the question of love in this situation. They just don’t. I can’t. Leave that away. Leave that alone. What can’t we broach that question?
MELODY BARNES: Because of the horror that was slavery. Because of the genocide that was slavery. Because it was destructive in the most fundamental sense of the word that I believe it is hard to imagine that there is something loving that could have emanated from that and that’s why I believe it is so difficult, virtually impossible, to wrap your arms or your mind or your heart around that. Because it also I think it requires individuals to think someone that would buy and sell people, someone that would rip families apart, someone that would allow individuals to be beaten within an inch of their life, if not taking their life, someone who would see a person try to flee to freedom and send out slave catchers or an overseer to capture them and bring them back, how could that person also be in love with an enslaved person? Because if you love them wouldn’t you let them be free? So, that’s why I think it’s, you know, that idea kind of hits the mind and slides right off.
DEBORAH MCDOWELL: You know, I love that answer too and I especially love the thinking and the heart. You say, you know, in your thinking and in your heart you can’t admit of this. And I want to… James has heard me mentioned this many many times because, you know, I’m just I’m asking a different kind of question that may not always register as I intended and that’s in a failure of my own articulation, but I’m asking why can’t we think of this? Because children for example, who are abused, love the parents who abuse them. You know? That power in relationships is fundamental to relationships. I always joke and say people talk about how helpless infants have no power. Well, yeah in certain ways of understanding power, but if an infant is screaming to the top of that infant’s lung power at 3 a.m and will only stop if you walk back and forth rocking them, that infant has had the power to murder your sleep. So, this is all… and James has heard me use this analogy because, you know, as a person of my generation and my training so many of my references are literary references. And so, it’s so… Faulkner has this wonderful story in Go Down Moses and it’s a fictional character Ike McCaslin is in the commissary going over the ledgers much like Jefferson’s farm books. Everything is written down. So, gets to this point in the ledger where it says, and this is his grandfather, “Gave Eunice $1,000 upon the birth of her son.” So, Ike the grandson is saying, “What? He gave a slave woman $1000? There must have been some kind of love. Or something like love? She wasn’t just some afternoon spittoon?” But he doesn’t know what it is. But he’s saying there is something else that has to define this relationship. I don’t know what it is. Is it love? He’s not saying it is. And then Annette Gordon-Reed really kind of opens that door and then there are a lot of legal scholars Adrienne Davis is one of them. And Adrienne Davis has written and unearthed lots of instances of slaveholders, men of the planter class, who had long-term relationships with slave women. Some of them acknowledge those relationships, some of them… Yes. Some of them were common-law marriages. Some of them really left, bequeathed to these children property and such. And that the only time these men would be prosecuted for violating anti-miscegenation laws was when it could be determined that these were not fly-by-night relationships. That this is somebody I live with, I sleep with. I don’t just go through the back door and after two hours leave. So, we have all that evidence too. And I want to be… to make it clear. I’m with you. I understand people who do not want to say, “No, you couldn’t possibly love people when you do this to them. When you separate them from children, you… No. None of that is in the universe of love,” right? But the question is always… What do we lose when we can’t enter that conversation, even if we conclude well, this is not the kind of love I would want. This is a messed up, distorted, you know, abusive kind of love, so I don’t want any parts of it. But something… Something that had to be going on with these people that it lasted for as long as it did. Not just… he wasn’t making his way among the other women that he would have had access to. It was this woman. It was her.
MELODY BARNES: Yeah, I think that those questions and so many others are inherent to our struggle in America to talk about and to wrestle with what we know about slavery and that period of American history and also how it shapes our conceptions of blackness and whiteness and the society that we live in today. I mean well…. It is just, you know, I don’t know the third rail or whatever, you know, we… Taking what we know, taking what we feel, taking who we are today and putting that all together to have a conversation and to engage in that and to let the mind wrap around that is something that I think is it is so difficult for us and that’s why I think we struggle to ask ourselves the questions that you’ve posed.
DEBORAH MCDOWELL: I get it. I completely get it. I understand why many people would greet such a question as offensive as misguided as, you know, what kind of monster are you to even formulate this question. I mean, really?
MELODY BARNES: Are you trying to make it, make this better than it was?
DEBORAH MCDOWELL: Not about making it better because again, I was so glad to hear you, this is slight a slight departure, but I’ll circle back, you know, well slavery wasn’t so bad. I mean that’s one of the criticisms I have had of many universities that are seeking to interrogate their slave past. There’s always some figure that’s been legendary in the recovery… For UVA, it’s the Henry the bell ringer. For William and Mary, it’s Lemon… Lemon the slave named “Lemon” and I say well, you know, this recovery process and this coming to terms with your own foundations and slavery and the profits that ensued there from, it’s as if well, these are all triumphalist stories. No matter what, Henry’s a slave, he rang the bell every day. He never missed a day of ringing the bell like, oh really? So, when I was asked to read at the dedication of Henry the bell ringer and I am like, “Mrs. Otis regrets that she’s unable to read today.” And I just resisted the explanation but the explanation was that. Because slavery was an institution that broke people, that undid people and that brokenness has been passed down from generation to generation to generation. But also with that brokenness, is the humanity you’re talking about. So, if these people have the capacity to love, the capacity to love is the capacity to love. It’s… I love the arguments people make in defense of members of the LGBTQ community. Love if you have that experience, you are among the fortunate of humanity. You can’t say you can love here but you can’t love there.
Sexual Power Dynamics
JAMES PERLA: “Love Is Love.”
DEBORAH MCDOWELL: “Love Is Love,” right? And so, it’s not about wanting to romanticize because even love is something that lives in history. We reduce love to the kind of, again, very modern phenomenon of romantic love, right? And I try to say that, you know, it’s yeah, romantic love no, I wouldn’t want to say… But something would explain why… Because it can’t be just sexual release. Rape is power. Rape isn’t even about sex. But you go to this same woman and you get six children with this woman.
MELODY BARNES: One of the other reasons that people when hearing that still push back on it is that and this comes from the oral history as well, her son says that Jefferson didn’t… Essentially Jefferson didn’t treat us any differently than any other of the enslaved children. And so, if there had been more, why?… What I hear when I read that is why weren’t we treated differently, if we were his children? Why weren’t we treated better? And I just think that it is hard to… Impossible to imagine love as we conceive of it being a part of that relationship. I don’t know. I think that it requires us… What we can take and this is what we try to do was what we know of the time, what we know of her story as articulated by her son, understand the horror of that period and understand… Try to better understand what her life looked like. And, yeah.
DEBORAH MCDOWELL: I completely get it and it’s not speaking out of both sides of my mouth to say though that to the extent that we can’t broach this as the question then we really are wittingly or not basically continuing to perpetuate division. That hasn’t come out exactly as I want. And it would take me too long to interpret myself and you’ve already… We’re over the time you’ve allotted us. Yeah, we didn’t even ask most of the questions, but your answers were so fertile that I wanted to follow up on what you were saying. And again, as we wind down I think about Gayle Jones’s novel, Corrigedora. And it is about slavery in Brazil and Corrigedora is the name of the slaveholder and again the grandmother of the central character in the novel has passed down the stories about slavery and at one point the central character asks her mother who had asked her mother, you know, “What did you feel about Corregidora?” And she answers, “What I was taught to feel.” And that is very different. What I was taught to feel. What I was schooled to feel, right? So, we have all undergone a form of cultural tutelage and that tutelage has obligated us to a set of responses and reflexes and interpretations that we don’t want to let go of and it’s easy in one sense to keep them, “Oh, that? I know what that is. Let’s move on. That? Oh, yeah. I know what that. Let’s move on.” Mhm. And I think where the evidence is so thin, where so little is known, it seems to me when you open the door to speculation, you can open the door to speculation on a broad scale. Because you can say at one and the same time that something was going on that we don’t quite understand. And it was going on in the midst of brutality, in the midst of exploitation. I mean and that is the nature of life. I remember being also chastised when Marion Barry was convicted, you know, in the sting. And so, people well, they’re bringing down all our elected officials and they put black men under the greatest forms of surveillance. And I said, that’s true. But it is also true that he went into the Vista Hotel and smoked the crack pipe. Both of these things are true. [laughter]
The Responsibility of Historically Violent Spaces
JAMES PERLA: Well, you have been very generous with your time and possibly, you know, final questions, you know, pending thoughts? Anything you want to say? Yes, I’m thinking to you know about this progressivist narrative and I’m not sure if we’ve had the opportunity to ask the question of, you know, what responsibility does an institution like UVA or other such institutions have if any to sort of these histories of violence? And to addressing these histories? During our interview with Niya Bates, she mentioned this great line during… from the president of the Ford Foundation who said that, you know, institutions, and this is paraphrasing, but institutions sort of have to be willing to give up certain, you know, things in order to for sort of the moral and human like realities of what it takes to address those legacies of violence and history. And so, yeah, wherever you find your way into that. What are our institutions willing to give up willing not to give up or what responsibilities do institutions such as these have to that history?
MELODY BARNES: I think with with the University of Virginia and Monticello and in a different way, some ways the same, some ways different… If you’re in the education business, then you have to educate and that requires at its base telling as much of the truth as we know. To put as many of the facts that we have on the table and reverence, symbols…. They aren’t… They don’t help us in the long run. In fact, they are they are harmful because they allow us to perpetuate narratives that aren’t true. That it is possible and not only possible, it is necessary to tell the truth and to extract the positive from that. You know, Jefferson was founder to a university based on the idea that a democracy, a constitutional republic had to have an educated citizenry. Now, who he defined as who is a citizen and the treatment of those individuals is the ugly horrible part of the story that we also have to rectify but we can’t do that unless we tell all of the story and that is part of the education process. That’s part of what it requires to be in the education business and I believe that Monticello similarly has moved forward in ways that I think are so critically important. It’s why I joined the Board and could join the Board to help continue that work of telling the truth. And you can both talk about Jefferson and religious freedom, Jefferson as a deeply curious person, Jefferson as scientist. All of those things and also talk about what it means that Jefferson was a slaveholder and the contradiction in those things which I think is the contradiction that we still hold today. And it is important for us to tell the story of everyone who was there. Jefferson, his daughters, his wife who died young, and Sally Hemings, and all of those who are enslaved there if we’re going to understand all of that and what really happened. And that these things just didn’t kind of pop up like, “Oh, Monticello just appeared, you know, food it just appeared.” You know, I remember going in a house tour in Charleston, South Carolina and the tour guide said, described, you know, there were six slaves who lived here and then she described the architecture of the building and said, “But we don’t know how that happened.” What do you mean you don’t know how that happened? Of course, we know how that happened. So, it requires telling the entire set of… Putting all the facts on the table and I believe for the work that we are doing now and that I’m co-directing with the Democracy Initiative, that it is part and parcel of that. That for a public university that seeks to not only educate those who come here but to put information into the world that will improve not only our society but a global society, that it is important for us to take leadership, to take the helm of doing that at and to interrogate our assumptions. To interrogate what we know, the things we think we know and try to move forward with what is actually the truth and to share that in a way that people can understand and absorb it and that ultimately we can make our… Not only are our society here, but our global community better and stronger as a result of doing that work.
DEBORAH MCDOWELL: That’s a wonderful point, perhaps on which to end. Unless you have something else you might want to add. Yeah. This is really been wonderful. As I said I could just listen to you forever.
MELODY BARNES: I’ve so enjoyed this conversation which I’ve been wanting to have for the longest time. I remember when they did the new faculty dinner, whatever that was and I saw you across the room and then the dinner ended and since then I’ve been thinking I’ve got to reach out because I wanted to get together.