JAMES PERLA: The other thing is that there’s a way in which the format, too, you can do a critical analysis of. You know, the idea that we’re supposed to just be voices emanating from a microphone and it’s a little it can be seen as sort of, could be seen as a colonial and right? Yeah, so I think that’s something to keep in mind as well. But yeah, so.
MIA BAY: I started… Just sort of a call and response interview.
DEBORAH MCDOWELL: Yes. You can say that again and I just editorialize. I’ve actually been known to do that in lectures and it’s not good. I mean, it’s completely spontaneous and…
JAMES PERLA: You’re taken with the excitement of the content and the ideas. So the general question and I was explaining that some of the things at least at the beginning might seem sort of basic or elementary, but I think it might help set the context a little bit. But obviously we definitely want to talk about your book and your research in more, in-depth. But I guess maybe just so we have, I can set the levels and what not do you mind maybe just stating your name and institution, and your title for the record? I don’t know if you have it properly, but…
MIA BAY: I’m not sure if I know it. [Laughter]
DEBORAH MCDOWELL: Now you see this I love because this means that you are not completely invested in titles. Which the same can’t be said about most people, most academics I know. Not only would they know the title, they you can tell you chapter and verse. I’m relieved because I don’t know mine either. I keep calling it Griffith and its not Griffith. Its Griffin.
JAMES PERLA: Yeah, I mean it’s a good problem to have right?
MIA BAY: Okay, my name is Mia Bay. I am the Roy F and Jeanette P Nichols Chair of American History at the University of Pennsylvania.
JAMES PERLA: Excellent. Thanks. And so just maybe to get us started with a simple question of who is Sally Hemings?
MIA BAY: Sally Hemings is an enslaved woman who lived in the household of Thomas Jefferson. She and her family originally belonged to Jefferson’s wife who died quite young and she grew up in his household.
JAMES PERLA: Thanks. And so, there’s a, obviously we’re going to talk in this episode about the Hemings controversy, the fact too that Jefferson fathered children with Sally Hemings starting at quite a very early age. So I wonder if you could maybe just help us set the context a bit for how that relationship unfolded.
MIA BAY: Yes, the context for the relationship between or a special kind of relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings was that Thomas Jefferson was working in France for several years. He moved over there with his daughters. And at one point he moved over there with his older daughter at one point. He decided he wanted… Can we start again. I’m trying to…
JAMES PERLA: Oh yeah, no problem. The other thing I should mention is that most of these responses we’ll, we can, we’ll edit and adjust and so, you know, we can circle back to any details that you want to flesh out and more.
MIA BAY: Okay. Alright. So Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson, obviously Sally knew him all of her life, but their relationship changed at some point after Thomas Jefferson moved to France. He was living and working in France with his family and at one point, at one point he brought… I’m sorry. I’m sorry.
JAMES PERLA: He was on a diplomatic, was it? A diplomatic mission?
MIA BAY: It was diplomatic. What I keep, what I keep getting a little confused about is he brought, he brought, he came over with his older daughter and then he brought his younger daughter with Sally. So, I’m sorry.
JAMES PERLA: Oh and James Hemings too was there?
MIA BAY: James I think we’ve already there. Yeah, so Thomas Jefferson and so, I’ll start from the beginning. Again. [laughter]
JAMES PERLA: This is also to, this is, we’re still early in the morning. And I personally, you know, you’re just having your coffee.
MIA BAY: Switching topics from cars to Thomas Jefferson.
DEBORAH MCDOWELL: That requires a kind of agility. Between time and space, [5:00] topic. We know Thomas Jefferson didn’t have a car.
JAMES PERLA: Thats for sure.
DEBORAH MCDOWELL: If he could’ve had one you know he would’ve gone into debt to have one. He would’ve mortaged a few slaves to get a car. Sorry… I know that can’t [laughter] I’m sorry.
JAMES PERLA: He did spend beyond his means that’s, we do know that…
DEBORAH MCDOWELL: My problem is I’m just a giggle box.
JAMES PERLA: It’s good that we’re having fun. It’s not, yeah. Yeah, so, so you, so you were saying it it’s hard to I mean there’s that dynamic of when she officially came to France with him. But with his daughter?
MIA BAY: Yes. So, so Sally Hemings grew up in Thomas Jefferson’s household and at some point their relationship turns into something different. We know it must have started when he was living abroad in France working. He brought Sally over to take care of his youngest daughter. She traveled with Thomas’s youngest daughter over to France. She was about 14 at that age and she lived with the Jefferson family possibly part of the time at the school with Jefferson’s two girls. But certainly in his household for a couple years. And the things we know for sure is that when she returned with the Jefferson family to Virginia she was about 16 years old and she was pregnant and it was a Thomas Jefferson’s child according to the testimony of her son, Madison Hemings.
JAMES PERLA: Yeah, and that’s good because we did want to set up the context for in France. I know some scholars talk about the fact that Hemings could have petitioned for her freedom in some way and I wonder, that’s sort of in the weeds. But I wonder if you maybe want to meditate on that a little bit?
MIA BAY: Yeah, scholars have discussed the possibility that Hemings could have petitioned for her freedom in France and would have been likely to receive it in a French court. There’s some, that’s the way court cases went in France during this period. It’s a sort of challenging idea though, because Sally during her years in France is like 14 years old, 15 years old, maybe crosses into 16. She has left her family behind in Virginia, everyone she knows. She does not speak French. Her brother is in France, but she doesn’t have a lot of personal support or even access to information about how she would go about doing this and of course she may want to return home and see her family. The Hemings family had been living on the Jefferson plantation, you know in Virginia more specifically for generations. So the idea that she would make a new life in France as a free and independent, you know, 16 year old girl may not have been very appealing.
DEBORAH MCDOWELL: Yeah, it may not have been appealing and as you said beyond even the realm of imagination for her. Although our ideas about what it meant to be 16 in the 18th century and what it means to be 18 in contemporary times may vary. But still this is a very young person. No matter if a 16 year old could have been married in that era, this is still a young person. And as you say without the language, without the contacts. I mean, which really continues to bring me to the point of thinking about what are our conceptions of freedom? You know, what is freedom? Is it freedom to be free of this legal designation called slave and be in a foreign land, away from your family, away from anything you know, all the people you love, everything that gives your life meaning? What is freedom?
MIA BAY: Also, I mean especially when people kind of talk about her choices and speak of her as a free agent. I think we also have to remember, she didn’t have any money. She was a slave. She didn’t own even the clothes on her back. So the terms on which she would seek her freedom in France, I mean, to even get a lawyer. Also, how would she support herself? What would be likely to happen to a teenager in Paris with no means of support? All of these things do not strike me as very promising prospects where she would be like, [10:00] “Oh, this will be great. I’ll free myself and do very well.”
DEBORAH MCDOWELL: Right, and I think those questions bespeak in our position on the part of contemporary scholars. I mean, obviously we know a whole lot of anachronistic thinking goes on but barring that, we have been I don’t want to say hostage but I say hostage for want of a better word, to ideas about resistance as an analytic in scholarship across the disciplines for so long that we want to look for and we want to impute to people, in this case Sally Hemings a teenager in France, some more quote unquote revolutionary consciousness, and it’s a deeply problematical set of assumptions in scholarly approaches. And I don’t know that they serve us ultimately. But that’s editorializing.
MIA BAY: But I think that is a good point because I think part of the whole, just what troubles me sometimes about the discussion of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings is sort of the idea that they’re both these kind of free agents operating in a world of kind of choices. Sally Hemings having grown up in a slave community probably never saw herself as a free agent. You know, she, I think she probably saw herself as someone who was a member of a particular community, a particular class and definitely would not be easily moved to kind of imagine herself striking out on her own. She didn’t even know people who did things like that.
JAMES PERLA: And that brings me to a question about a similar kind of view of Hemings as a relatively privileged subject at Monticello because of her connections to Jefferson. I wonder if you want to reflect on to what extent is that appropriate or fair to say?
MIA BAY: Well, I mean that’s always a big issue in thinking about slavery. I mean, there’s sort of this house servant, in sort of, a stereotypical dichotomy between house servants and field hands. But in fact when you look at slavery closely, both of those positions have sort of unique disadvantages and both of them have advantages and it’s not clear to me that it was really better to be one or the other. I mean how servants had better access to things like good food, reasonably comfortable quarters, but they also had very little autonomy, very little time to themselves, very little sort of ability to have their own separate private life. And when you go to Monticello and you walk around there and you kind of see where they kind of live in this basement, you know as opposed to the house where everyone else lives it doesn’t seem it… I mean, it does not seem like they have wonderfully comfortable environments. I mean privilege, relative privilege, is a curious thing. The slaves out on some of the further away plantations. Yes, they might be living in shacks in the forest or in the fields, but they had, they sometimes had more autonomy, more ability to kind of choose their own partners make their own lives, worship, you know, worship in their own way as opposed to going to church with the master and literally not be like, house servants often slept on the floor beside the master’s bed so they would be on hand if, you know, if you know, so it really depends on which life seems more odious to you.
DEBORAH MCDOWELL: It just has continued to baffle me and it’s nothing more than a statement and then after which full stop. But the very irony and paradoxes of talking about privileged slaves, it just, it has just never struck me again as a very productive discussion. What does it mean to be a privileged slave? I mean, that’s oxymoronic.
MIA BAY: Also remember Frederick Douglass, I think he reflects on this in one of his memoirs. He talks about if you get a little privilege as the slave and I think he’s referring to his own situation in Baltimore when he had some freedom to hire himself out. He said it just makes you more discontent. So it’s a very complex question about whether privileged slaves really experienced any of it as a privilege.
DEBORAH MCDOWELL: He certainly talked about the disadvantages of learning to read, you know, the real, the hunger, the thirst or the schemes that he devised in order to get lessons but he [15:00] describes once he learned to read that it was a kind of miserable condition in another sense because the capacity to read, the ability to read, made him more acutely aware of just how far he was removed from the the position of an autonomous liberal subject and so. Yes, he talks about one the the fruits, the joy but also the miseries of knowing enough and learning enough to become constantly more aware of just how much you don’t own property in yourself. Yeah.
JAMES PERLA: Yeah, and in our interviews someone that brought this point to focus was Niya Bates at Monticello. She’s a public historian and directs the Getting Word project there, but she noted James Hemings and I think that’s a, possibly a good example of the fact of his, you know, he speaks French, he is a great chef and then, you know, eventually ends up committing suicide.
MIA BAY: Right, and seems to have been very depressed on and on most of his life. Now, I think I think that’s that’s an example. I mean slavery had many kinds of suffering and certainly there were some like the slaves on Louisiana sugar plantations were having trouble staying alive. Now, you know, the slaves in Jefferson’s household didn’t have trouble staying alive, but that didn’t mean that they were content or felt privileged in their position.
DEBORAH MCDOWELL: And to the extent that these distinctions, house slave, field slave, have actually had a real material legacy in the lives of some black folk. Really giving certain people a sense of entitlement about deciding who is and who is not black based on wherever you fit on either side of that ledger. It’s, that has also been unproductive. I mean to declare someone a house slave is, that’s a term of opprobrium. It’s an insult. In many cases because people want to…
JAMES PERLA: And you’re referring into sort of the legacy of that line.
DEBORAH MCDOWELL: Yes, the legacy. Mainly because, you know, the assumption is always that house slaves were of fairer skin. So the kind of history intergenerationally of colorism in black communities. I mean we’re seeing whiffs of it in the discussions of the Kamala Harris presidential candidacy. I mean that’s neither here nor there but these invidious distinctions that black people end up making themselves to decide who is or is not, who does or does not belong. And who did and who did not experience privilege at the hands of white oppressors. I’ve never found it, even with the realization that there are these distinctions to be drawn and I think people are making some important points to this moment to assume that black people from Africa, from the Caribbean, from the US. I mean that somehow we are all, it’s possible to talk about all of us as some unified group of people is mistaken. That’s true. Even with with an understanding of the distinctions that need to be made. I’m, my point is a simple one that I get impatient with the simple notion about what it would have meant to be a house slave. And as if that automatically meant that you enjoyed a kind of privilege in a set of possibilities and opportunities denied everybody else. It’s never been as nuanced as I would like to see it be but you know. MIA BAY: And also if you look at testimony from people who worked in houses in the WPA narratives and other in slave authored narratives, they say that they found the sort of continual supervision from white owners and white owners children to be, it just sort of drove them crazy particularly when they had, they were working for difficult people who, you know, had bad tempers or, you know, were routinely abusive to them that they really just hated being house servants. And when you hear their experiences, you understand that this cannot have felt like a position of privilege.
DEBORAH MCDOWELL: And particularly for women,[20:00] the sexual vulnerabilities that women face and then that they continue to face in forms, of different forms of domestic servitude in freedom quote-unquote. Yes, it made black women more vulnerable to sexual assault. Richard Wright has this hilarious, he did a group of radio narratives for a very short time. And in one of them, there’s a story about a man who goes to work for his wife, you know dressed as a woman to get money, but to spare her the vulnerability to the owners or the employers’ sexual aggression. And theres a moment when he’s in the bathtub. [Laughter] Yeah, so yeah, it’s yeah. Yeah. No, they did not, scholars haven’t done much with those radio narratives. And there were just a few of them, but they were hilarious and that was one of them. Yeah.
JAMES PERLA: I was gonna say back to the question of possible agency. I want to just briefly return to France and if you can maybe sort of talk a little bit about this alleged deal that was struck. Apparently. Yeah, if you can maybe give a little bit of context on that.
MIA BAY: Well, we know very, well we have a very limited amount of information about Sally and what actually went on between her and Thomas Jefferson, but there is this letter written by her son. Or, he actually, its a report to a newspaper editor where he says that she returned to Virginia with the Jefferson family after making a deal with Thomas Jefferson and that was that her children would be free. She was pregnant when she returns so assumedly this deal was about this particular child and it’s a complicated deal. I mean I can see why she would want some sort of concession in return for coming home. Some people have read this deal as her sort of seeking life as an advantaged slave but it’s not clear that she had a lot of choices in terms of what, you know, what other, what was her option if not making this deal? So, she asked for something and she got it. Presuming this isn’t, also as a person who knows a lot of family stories that are not true, what exactly the deal was, I think, it’s something we’ll never be entirely sure of.
DEBORAH MCDOWELL: And again the vulnerability in that. I mean that has no binding. I mean I guess there’s there is some term in the law. Why did I bring this up? Because I’m not likely to know it but a promissory estoppel where you make a verbal promise.
MIA BAY: But even under the law because Sally Hemings is enslaved there really is no, I mean, she couldn’t testify in court. She couldn’t take him to court. There’s, this is just this is a verbal agreement that he does or he does not have to honor if he doesn’t want to. And one thing that’s very notable to me in terms of the agreement that’s made, the terms are not very generous. I mean these Hemings children end up free but not on particularly generous terms. Harriet Hemings gets put on a stagecoach to Philadelphia with $50, one of them runs away and the others are freed after a long apprenticeship at the end of Jefferson’s life. So, It wasn’t a great deal.
DEBORAH MCDOWELL: You finish my sentences for me because what did it mean to promise anything to a slave who can’t testify in a court of law?
JAMES PERLA: And the fact that James had to train the or like there was all these conditions too that in order to fully be freed. The, you know, James had to essentially train the person to replace him, you know, the all these things and that’s not the descendant but the brother but I think still it’s worth noting that even most of the people that went free were in Jefferson’s will or after his death, right? So, even that, there seems to be a sense of wanting to redeem both Jefferson and Sally Hemings at the same time by saying Sally Hemings [25:00] made an agreement, a verbal agreement and enacted agency in doing that and Jefferson honored that agreement with an enslaved woman. And I think it’s, this is a helpful conversation.
DEBORAH MCDOWELL: Yeah, except they didn’t. You know, I have a question. It’s not here but I’ve always wanted to know this. I know at one level why you would be interested in Thomas Jefferson. You’re an intellectual historian. You know, that makes perfect sense to me. But what else do we have to say about Jefferson?
MIA BAY: Well I got interested in Thomas Jefferson, not really because the whole Sally Hemings thing but because when I was working on my first book, which was on ideas about white people and in nineteenth-century black thoughts and I was reading all these antebellum black newspapers. I came into the project, you know, reading reading historians who were talking about black nationalism, Africa, whatever and then I find them talking about Thomas Jefferson, quoting Thomas Jefferson. He just appears a lot in antebellum black discussions. He’s important because he’s a kind of symbol of American democracy and because also by the like the 1850s or so for all that he is not, you know, he was not an abolitionist and not particularly anti-, consistently anti-slavery. He was much more so than the politicians the 1850s. So black officers would quote a lot of things he said about slavery, “I tremble for my country when I remember that God is just.” Jefferson was part of an earlier generation of founding fathers who were at least at least recognized that slavery was not a democratic institution that it had been a sort of mistake to move forward with it so he became someone who was very important to antebellum black thought as a kind of symbol of America’s promise and failure at the same time.
DEBORAH MCDOWELL: Indeed, indeed. Promise and failure. It has always interested me though beyond the question of slavery and whether we should have gone over, the country should have gone forward with it or not, there is, that Jefferson’s ideas about race people return to. If people teach nothing else here, for example, if no one else teaches anything else in Jefferson here at the University of Virginia, which he founded, they teach Query 14 and people just glom on to Query 14 and not even all of the query but those sections where he’s making these absolutely racist statements and claims that have absolutely no bearing in anything. But he didn’t write very much about race and racial difference. He didn’t in the economy of what he wrote. And yet, for someone who wrote so little, what he did write has had prepossessing power in determining or influencing other people’s thoughts.
MIA BAY: I think there’s a number of reasons for that and one of them not, I mean, he was the he was really the first American to write much of anything and he also set this tone. I mean, during, at the time he wrote Notes on the State of Virginia, you could look to thinkers in the Caribbean, some of European thinkers who would talk about race but, you know, someone like Edward Long it’s just sort of very sort of it’s not particularly scientific. It’s sort of ad hominem stuff about black people being like apes. Whereas Jefferson set this kind of scientific tone. He’s talked about race in the context of this sort of naturalist report on America and its environs and politics and tried to sound very dispassionate very, you know, very kind of like a man of the Enlightenment whose thinking these things through carefully. So all of that, I think, makes it something that’s going to capture people’s imagination something that’s going to be quoted. He’s also obviously a toweringly important figure and he says more than anyone of his generation about race. I mean like George Washington for instance was actually probably better on race and slavery than Thomas Jefferson, but he was famously taciturn. He didn’t say much about it anything. We see, what we can sort of look at what he did. We can’t look at that much about what he says. [30:00] And then Jefferson also talks about race, I think, in Notes on the State of Virginia to resolve the kind of problem that he’s helped set up, which is that if you’re going to create this society founded on the notion that “all men are created equal” and you are going to have slavery you might have to qualify the “all men are created equal” by having suspicions that maybe some men are not created equal.
DEBORAH MCDOWELL: Yes, but the idea of suspicion is is the perfect choice. It’s his choice of words that you know that advance it as a suspicion. But he’s advancing and retreating rhetorically always and at the same time. I mean after he has planted this these ideas, try to wrap them in the authority of science, but it’s as everybody acknowledges is a pseudoscience. There is nothing scientific about these claims. Then he retreats from those positions, but he’s already planted the , I’d advance it then only as a suspicion but it’s also, for me, the most enlightened part of his discussion is the realization that these people are not likely to be able to live together in peace because the people who have been held captive are not going to soon forget what’s been done to them. So all of these boisterous passions, I mean, it may be that once these people are emancipated, they got to go somewhere else because these two groups of people cannot live in harmony. MIA BAY: But on the other hand, he is saying that at a time when they are getting rid of slavery in the Northern states and no race war is breaking out. I mean it’s also, I think of that period’s anti-slavery, which is, and Jefferson. Jefferson is probably the most articulate defender of it. But it’s kind of, I call it anti-slavery, pro-slavery because it’s like, it’s like you say slavery’s bad, but then you talk about how dangerous it would be to free the slaves. You have all these, you know, so it’s sort of this anguished regret over the institution combined with a series of arguments for why it cannot end right now, for why emancipation schemes aren’t feasible, you know, Jefferson is always sort of talking. First, saying something grandly anti-slavery and then coming up with 15 different reasons why it could not come to pass.
JAMES PERLA: And why is that?
MIA BAY: Well, I think he’s way too deeply invested in his life as a slave holder. I mean that’s his job. He doesn’t have really another job. He’s a plantation owner. He’s not the kind of businessman George Washington was. When George Washington decides he’s going to emancipate his slaves, he figures how to out how to do it economically. Kind of figures out what he needs to do, how to phase it in. Jefferson doesn’t have that kind of control over his life or finances at any point in his life. I think it’s also maybe fundamental to his identity in some way and then beyond that, I don’t know how much he cares whether his, you know, whether, I mean, he doesn’t care that much whether the slaves he actually fathers end up free in any meaningful way. I mean, we know that there are other slave owners who send their mixed-race children to Oberlin and make sure they have a life in the North. He does none of that. On some level, he just isn’t that deeply committed to anything more than a kind of rhetorical anti-slavery.
JAMES PERLA: He’s committed to the idea of it.
MIA BAY: Yeah, and I mean, you know as a great theorist of democracy, he sees the inconsistency. He has trouble reconciling. That’s I think one reason why he is so fundamentally kind of illogical on the subject of slavery. And also why he, I mean, Jefferson is not very religious. But when he talks about slavery he can sometimes get religious like, “I tremble for my country when I remember that God is just.” I mean, this is a man who in most, on most other subjects is not like talking to God but slavery he just can’t, you know, can’t make sense of it.
JAMES PERLA: Do you think that was a rhetorical, because I’m always curious about that too about Jefferson and religion. I mean is that rhetorical? Does he know that this will make him seem more sympathetic? Or is he actually invoking a kind of religious like [35:00] inflection? Or is that too hard to parse out?
MIA BAY: I think it’s hard to parse out but on the other hand, I mean keep in mind that for, you know, for other people, religion was, to really think about God being just meant you had to do something. So he may be, I mean, it may be a religious expression from someone who’s fundamentally not all that devout.
DEBORAH MCDOWELL: Maybe you do have to do something and maybe you don’t because certainly in certain forms of Christian practices, God will make a way. So in other words, you can retreat, you can justify or at least to yourself why you can take a more passive approach because there is, the moral arc of the universe is tending toward justice. And so that’s in God saying, God has the world in his hands. So in his own time, he will sort it out and I don’t have to. You know. Just because we got to get to lunch.
JAMES PERLA: And the classes are changing over so that’s always. Yeah, it’s just this actually turns into a sort of dining hall as you’ve seen the students on the ground, it’s quite yeah.
DEBORAH MCDOWELL: I think its one of the most uncivilized aspects of this supposedly genteel university. People eating in the hallways and sitting on the floor.
MIA BAY: Like, come on. They can give him a few benches out there.
DEBORAH MCDOWELL: You know, anyway. I know you’re doing the travel project. But just as this project on Jefferson is always percolating in the back of your mind, who are the black writers in your mind who have written most engagingly about Jefferson.
MIA BAY: About Jefferson? Well, I’m really most interested in the ones in the late 18th century and 19th century and they include people like William Hamilton, David Walker, James Pennington. I think I’m gonna write about Daniel Coker who has his dialogue between a Virginian and an African Minister who I think may, which I think may have been written with Jefferson in mind. So, people, you know, people writing, James McKim Smith, you know, he’s part of their landscape. So he’s someone that they talk about in interesting ways.
DEBORAH MCDOWELL: So, you wouldn’t bring it up to the mid 19th and twentieth…
MIA BAY: Well actually, I have to say that Barack Obama’s invocations of Thomas Jefferson are something that might tempt me to bring it to bring It forward. I do argue or will be arguing in this book in a sort of thing that I’ve begun to draft that there is this very abrupt switch from Thomas Jefferson to Abraham Lincoln as this sort of lodestar in black thought. Both of them are like loved and hated at the same time. But Thomas Jefferson is like all over antebellum era black thought and then after Lincoln’s death, it’s Lincoln. And they’re both the sort of symbol of both the promise and failures of American democracy and sometimes they’re, sometimes they almost blend. I mean in Emancipation Day celebrations, sometimes they sort of start to seem like one person. So, I’m going to follow that a little bit and then maybe bring it up to Barack Obama.
DEBORAH MCDOWELL: Yes. I remember as a child, we always had, in February, was the second Sunday in February called the Lincoln-Douglass Day breakfast. And as a child having to cut out these silhouettes of Douglass and of Lincoln. Yes. Absolutely. And Barack Obama uses those to, I mean, one of his favorite passages certainly in the first administration was beginning with the more perfect union speech. In the appeals in the second inaugural address to the better angels of our nature. So, yes, he finds great rhetorical grist in Jefferson and Lincoln absolutely.
JAMES PERLA: Yeah, one question. I know you, we, you have to get to your lunch but there’s this notion that I guess in our first episode, we’re going to talk about this a little bit, but the idea that Jefferson, you know, is obviously that phrase “he’s a man of his times,” right? But one thing that that I found interesting is that in this conversation, people within Jefferson’s times are critiquing Jefferson [40:00] for the very inconsistencies that we continue to talk about in our times. And so I wonder if you might reflect on that. Particularly black authors, you know, critiquing Jefferson within his times and the kind of limitations of that man of his times argument perhaps.
MIA BAY: Yeah. I mean, I think that I think that black authors probably wouldn’t have said he was so much a man of his times but maybe more symbolic of the the character of his nation, of, you know, that it was all they’re the sort of promise but the failings. They often spoke of him as someone who had, you know, the vision to have a sort of political vision that would have been a great thing, but this didn’t have the kind of strength to, you know, insist on making it happen, to really argue for it. So it’s… And in that sense he might be a man for all times. I mean, he might be a sort of ongoing symbol. I mean, I think that’s one reason why he comes up so often in Barack Obama. He’s a good ongoing symbol of the both the potential and failures of American democracy.
JAMES PERLA: And so by extension, what should we take from Jefferson? I know in our first conversation you said he’s someone that could do with updating for our times. Which I like just from my nerdy like software update. I’m like do a software update on Jefferson? No, but, you know, what should we take or leave from Jefferson.
MIA BAY: Well, I think we should I mean we should think about his ambitions for kind of universal democracy the way that he wants to have these sort of, I mean, his rhetoric describes democracy in very broad and generous terms. And part of that is maybe because he’s a master rhetorician and he’s speaking at a time when he’s trying to mobilize as many people as possible to support the patriot cause. But then we have to think of that rhetoric as promises that we have to keep. It’s been important rhetoric. A lot of people have employed it, found a place in it. The Declaration of Independence has come up time and time again for different groups who say, who are like, you know, if all men are created equal doesn’t that include us? And it’s actually become a kind of living document where people had sort of pushed their way into it and I think the updating it might be to take it more seriously, take it seriously and take it as a dream that we have to fulfill as opposed to like thinking well, he didn’t actually mean these in these and these people so let’s not worry about them.
DEBORAH MCDOWELL: Ah, yeah. When you said this is a promise we need to keep that just resonated so deeply and then another part of my brain just shot this beam in my, I’m thinking, why am I thinking about Robert Frost? But now, you know, this kind of trite little poem that every school person has to learn, once you said it “and I have miles to go before I sleep and miles to go.” Because we have, as a nation, in the words of that poem, I mean, two roads have always diverged in the wood and we take the one less traveled by. When will we take the one less traveled by? The one thats trotten is the one that denies or retreats from the promise and so, you know, I mean who knew I could use Walking by Woods in a Snowy Eve as a kind of parable of democracy. But it just came to my head then because we, you know, we keep taking the path less traveled, uh-huh. And we take that path and Jefferson clearly perhaps set the template for it in many ways for self-interested reasons. So particular individuals can, did enjoy the fruits of life and liberty and particular individuals can pursue happiness, right? And material advantage. I mean that is what we we’re always up against. No we can let the overwhelming majority languish as long as the few can realize the promises of this dream. But it continues to keep this republic rotten to the core and keep it from advancing to become a democracy. It’s never been a democracy, you know. And when Dennis Childs insisted, “I’m not going to call it a democracy, it is a republic” and is absolutely right [45:00] about that. Yeah. Anyway. Stopping by Woods on a Snow Eve.
JAMES PERLA: An anti-racist reading of…
DEBORAH MCDOWELL: You know, this tried poem I’ve always hated and wondered why people forced it on school children. Anyway… This is… We’re telling everybody before we use anything you say, we’ll send you the clip so you can see that what he’s surrounding it, not just your voice but your voice in the context of… I guess I have one last thing. Some people have said or at least one person said to me recently Sally Hemings was the original, for black women, Sally Hemings was the original founder of the Me Too movement. She was, if there could have been a Me Too movement in the 18th century, she would have been it. And, you know, the cynical and me just kind of nodded benignly, “Hm, let’s think about that.”
MIA BAY: Yeah, I don’t like that formulation. It’s deeply ahistorical and I mean the thing about Sally Hemings. There has been a lot of ink expended trying to put that relationship in some kind of exceptionalist framework. And in terms of modern concepts like the Me Too movement, every servant girl from the 16th century onward, white or black, would be in the Me Too movement if you want to think about it that way. But one thing I found interesting looking at discussions of Thomas Jefferson among the 19th century black thinkers is they’re aware of the Sally Hemings story. Everybody knows them. They don’t think it’s that interesting. They think he’s a slave holder. This is what slaveholders do to young women in their household. It, you know, like it’s not exceptional, it’s not unusual. Possibly it’s not even only Sally. You know, like I mean it’s, so, it’s one thing you have to come to terms with about about slavery is that it is a system that sets up the possibility of the sexual exploitation of young slave women and then it’s very very very common and, you know, that that in general the women are powerless to resist. So they’re not going to be coming and testifying as Me Too people which involves some kind of speaking out. This is sort of a system that works this way.
DEBORAH MCDOWELL: Precisely. I mean It’s even one of my problems with the Me Too movement because it does create or continue this paradigm of exceptionalism. And, you know, when you think about it, at least the people who are on public platforms are people who have privileged access to public platforms with very few exceptions, right? Because there remain women to this very day who are in similar circumstances without access to microphones. And Gloria Allred, “ever at the ready.” I’m thinking, “what is her caseload?”
JAMES PERLA: I mean we interviewed Robert Fatton, Jr. And he had a really funny anecdote about a similar notion of the, this not being exceptional from the perspective of Haiti where, you know, he was essentially saying when he came to the University of Virginia the fact that people didn’t think Jefferson fathered children with Sally Hemings was, you know, inconceivable, but that’s, you know, that’s the whole like that was just that’s just a fact in the in the Haitian context. That’s just the reality. And so just the final sort of note on those possibly anachronistic readings of this relationship. Using the term, because I think it’s under, you know, implicit in this conversation about the Me Too, but to what extent is it appropriate to use the term rape to discuss Jefferson and Hemings?
DEBORAH MCDOWELL: I think we did, did we ask you that earlier?
MIA BAY: That one’s so hard because maybe because we don’t I mean rape is a modern word in a certain way. It certainly, I mean, it’s a word that nowadays has meaning in criminal courts and everything [50:00] I know about relationships and households in the colonial era is that you know where there was hierarchy, men were able to take advantage of young women who were servants or slaves and women could try to get out of it, but they didn’t have any kind of recourse. So there are possibly more accurate or less anachronistic ways to talk about something so systematic. I mean it’s sexual exploitation, non-consensual intercourse are sort of rife with domestic slavery around the world. You know, and now I don’t want to deny anyone’s experience of non-consent by saying don’t call it rape, but maybe we need to also think about it somehow differently or in more complicated ways.
DEBORAH MCDOWELL: Much more complicated ways. I think that what has always been missing, I had this conversation with you, I think, Mia at my house with you were here that summer but you know, we have so little access or no access to people’s interior lives. We don’t know what they thought, we don’t know what they felt. And so we are then forced onto or we think that our only recourse then is to employ the terminologies by which we understand circumstances that are remote or vaguely similar. Whether it makes sense or not. I find one of the great vacuums in discussing this period and that relationship is precisely this inaccessibility to what Sally Hemings thought, what Sally Hemings felt, including what she thought and felt about Jefferson. All right? It’s like when people… Women in domestic abuse situations today, well “why didn’t she leave?” You know, we really, that layer, that layer of psychology and emotion. And we don’t have access to any of that and how it might be informing quote unquote choices. We both want to acknowledge that choice as a concept in this context is also anachronistic or it certainly makes no sense. But do we want to say we evacuate any understanding of choice and agency? I mean, these are the perennial conundrums. And so I did, we just have to sit with them and live with them. I’m reminded of a passage in Corregidora, Gayl Jones’ novel, where the great grandmother who has been enslaved in Brazil and whether consensual or non-consensual relationship with this slave owner. The granddaughter years later says, “Well, what did you feel about Corregidora, the slaveholder?” And she says, “What I was taught to feel.” You know, and I have always found that utterly fascinating and really capturing the complexities at some level that this is a novel, that it was what I was taught to feel. So nothing else for me. I don’t know if there’s anything else.
JAMES PERLA: Thank you so much for your time. I mean, this has been a wonderful visit on the whole and I hope yeah, we’ll keep you up to date about the series. I think, you know, this has been a great conversation and really looking forward to…
DEBORAH MCDOWELL: We grab people in. Folks say… Come to Woodson! In fact, that guy Ramsey called yesterday, he says okay, Deborah, what else do you want me to do? MIA BAY: He’s on to you!
DEBORAH MCDOWELL: I said everybodys on to me. Remember Dennis said, one time, he said “I’m here because if Deborah calls you, you have to come. And she always wants you to do something in addition to that for what she called for.” Anyway. When you eot smart, when you have smart people around you, you guys you know, really that’s I know she’s gonna say something else and we didn’t have ideal recording circumstances in the summer. So although in what we, where we have used you it’s reasonably clear but this will be clearer.
MIA BAY: All right.
JAMES PERLA: Yeah, so I appreciate your time and hopefully [54:54] that gives you enough time to get to lunch.