Interviewee: Noelle Hurd
Interviewer(s): Deborah E. McDowell; James Perla
Keywords: Monuments and memorials, civility, petition, grievances, black studies
Transcription: Laila Hurd
JAMES PERLA: Alright, well, thank you so much for coming on the cusp of the winter holiday to speak with us about Jefferson and many other things. Just so we have it, could you say your name and I guess your role at UVA?
NOELLE HURD: Sure. My name is Noelle Hurd and I am an Associate Professor in the psychology department.
JP: Thanks. Yes, so I guess we can sort of jump right into it. I mean, you’ve published a lot in the past few years sort of in a very public way. And one of the things that we wanted to start with was I guess it was directly after the presidential election of 2016, you spearheaded a petition to encourage the administration to sort of not quote Jefferson as much as they tend to do. So, I wonder if we could maybe just start by asking you to sort of walk us through the process of creating the petition and sort of the reasoning behind it.
NH: Yeah. Sure. Let’s see. I’ll try and give you the briefer version and then you can let me know if you have more questions about any of the things that I mentioned. I do remember that just being a difficult time for everyone. And also being really connected with undergraduates and graduate students here at UVA who are all kind of feeling a lot of trauma related to [Donald] Trump’s campaign, nomination, election and it definitely felt like the emails that we received from Teresa Sullivan both before and after the election that were really pointing us to Thomas Jefferson as kind of a moral compass in terms of, you know, this is a time filled with a lot of conflict and divisiveness and she was pointing us to think about Jefferson’s words as a way to kind of aspire to be better. And for me, that just felt incredibly tone-deaf and offensive. I think in the context and, you know, some of her initial email before the election had to do with acts of bigotry on campus and so it seemed particularly inappropriate to suggest that in a time when we’re having racist and bigoted remarks and actions on campus that the leader, you know, the moral leader who we should be thinking of in that moment would be Thomas Jefferson who himself was a white supremacist and owned slaves. So yeah, I remember having those conversations around the first email that she sent out with students saying, “Wow, I can’t believe, you know, this really feels like the wrong direction.” You know, to kind of try and encourage a better more civil and kind of united campus climate. And then I remember the email right after the election felt definitely like a tipping point for many of us and I remember even having like a group text message exchange with my graduate students where we were all just very frustrated about what was happening and it definitely felt like insult to injury in that moment. And I think also hearing that same day that there were things happening with University police officers who had been taunting students who were upset walking home from hearing that Trump had won the election. So, it was just a very like tumultuous and kind of upsetting time for many of us. And that’s where I think in the midst of us having this exchange of expressing our frustration. It seemed like obviously we shouldn’t just talk amongst ourselves, right? We need to communicate this information to the administration. So, then I think the rest of the process actually was kind of haphazard. I thought, you know, let me draft an email to kind of at least make sure that my University president understands that this is harmful. That this email that she sent out if nothing else is undermining the message that she presumably is attempting to convey. And also let me give other folks a chance to sign on to this as well because: One, I don’t know that it matters as much that one assistant professor in the psychology department feels this way it probably matters more if there’s broader consensus about. And two, you know, this might be something that other people are really interested in being able to express as well. And so in a very haphazard way just kind of sent out this open email to colleagues to graduate students and then within a matter of I think about 48 hours there were nearly 500 signatures which to me just communicated that this is a shared experience that many of us are having especially those of us who are members of marginalized groups that were not feeling that these emails are connecting in the way that I’m assuming our University president wanted them to. And so, that was kind of that process of, you know, I’m sure if I had been invested in like collecting as many signatures as I could I could have let it go another couple of days and probably had at least twice as many but, you know, I was trying to get the communication to her in a timely manner and so went ahead and submitted it. Yeah, so that was that process. I’m not sure if that’s…
UVA in Fall 2016
JP: And for clarifying purposes, you mentioned a few events leading up to the 2016 presidential election that happened on campus I wonder just so that people might, if they’re not familiar, if you want to allude to those…
NH: Yeah, I remember there were several. One of them that was the most disturbing and I think happened pretty close to the election was that a student had been walking across campus in the middle of the day and had been yelled… There was like a truck full… It wasn’t clear that these were like white males student aged individuals. I don’t know that it ever was made clear whether they were in fact students or not who were driving by in like a pickup truck and who yelled obscenities racial slurs and death threats at this woman as she was walking and it’s like in the afternoon on a Tuesday or something going to the library.
JP: It was on Jefferson Park Avenue or something?
NH: Yeah. So, that happened. I know there were other things around just like chalkings that were happening. So, people were writing I think anti-LGBTQ comments, they were writing things about kind of like black intellectual inferiority, and those had… those were events that had been happening in the summer when we actually have a lot of programs for students from underrepresented backgrounds to come to the university. And I think it was also before the election when some somebody had spray-painted the word “terrorist” on the side of a building with arrows pointed up to a room where some Muslim students I think resided. And so, those were some of, to me, the most like outstanding egregious incidents that happened. I know there were others, but I just remember having conversations with students and colleagues that these… it felt like things were escalating and also just being aware that that wasn’t just happening here at UVA. A lot of this did seem to be happening in tandem with Trump’s kind of ascent to power.
JP: Thank you.
Using Jefferson as a moral compass and a silencer
DEBORAH McDOWELL: Can you say what your effort and the responses you received told you more broadly about the way this University uses Jefferson as an icon as a moral compass and also as a silencer?
NH: That’s a good question. So, are you mostly interested in kind of there was like the official or unofficial response from the administration? Or kind of just like broader? Because it was this really interesting thing. And I guess there’s like a system to this where right-wing kind of conservative enterprises have a system in place where they’re kind of scanning these student newspapers. And so, because this, you know, public email got picked up by the student newspaper, somehow some kind of right-wing organized system got latched onto that and then it got picked up then through like Fox News, Breitbart, whatever and then they would just seem to be a very like kind of systemic trolling that happened as a result of that which I didn’t feel that that was necessarily like orchestrated by UVA, but I did get these really, I mean, I just got a slew of really awful emails, letters, voicemails and people would write the most awful, racist, horrible things and then sign off with their name and the year that they graduated from UVA. So, to me that was very telling and it wasn’t, you know, that wasn’t the entirety of it. I think there was plenty of just trolls from all over the country, but it was interesting to me to see people from who, you know, had a history, had a connection with UVA the alumni connection saying really awful things, really problematic things to me and then signing off right like kind of proudly of who they were and seeing themselves I think as kind of gatekeepers? And that happened that wasn’t just like one, right? So, there was enough of those that to me that felt kind of like indicative of what the institutional culture has been and continues to be.
DMcD: That is so important to say for a variety of reasons but not least in the aftermath of August 11th and 12th of 2017 because the immediate reflexive and sustained response to that event was “this is not us.” That was the refrain both within the university and within the larger community of Charlottesville. That somehow these outside elements, these extreme forces, these people who are not us have come in and infiltrated and basically assaulted our values. Well, what are our values if you receive a series of emails from alums, proudly identifying themselves as alums, expressing hateful bigoted responses to your petition? So, basically the response you receive would give the lie or certainly would complicate any notion that UVA is an environment in which tolerance for all quote-unquote differences abides because your experience would clearly belie that.
NH: Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, I guess two thoughts: One, just related to that connection you made with August 11 and 12, you know, and I’ve been very involved with that, I counter-protested, was there, you know, to me that connection was so obvious. Right? Like it was such a like the stream of experiences I’ve had personally being part of this community, you know, a little bit even before 2016 but especially in 2016 up until now have just been very consistent. I think tells a very clear and consistent narrative. Also, I think it has been so important for us to really own and acknowledge that both Jason Kessler and Richard Spencer are alums of this University and so their central role as organizers and the fact that we had we had a whole series of events leading up to that, right? I remember actually on Mother’s Day going to that park that I guess was Lee Park at the time because the day before Spencer had been there having the first torch-lit rally right of the summer. So, that was May then there was the Klu Klux Klan rally. So yeah, the fact that all of these things were kind of coalescing around Charlottesville for me was not shocking at all, right? And like what does it mean to have Jason Kessler and Richard Spencer to have such close ties here? And to feel so comfortable to come here and honestly to feel like the red carpet was basically rolled out for them and the way that our administration kind of handled, especially August 11th, and what happened here. Related to, I guess, I have one, you know, kind of anecdote that I think captures really well the things that I learned about my administration and also, you know, who makes decisions and who holds power around this University related to the open email that we sent asking Teresa Sullivan not to use Thomas Jefferson as a moral compass. And so, I think it was a few weeks after that. There was like a faculty Senate meeting and I attended and I was attending because a colleague and I had been working on a presentation that I think she ended up delivering to tell the faculty a little bit more about how to respond to critical incidents and how we needed to do more as faculty to acknowledge these things that were happening, you know, in our classrooms and to let students know that we were there standing in solidarity with them, that we wanted to be allies with marginalized students and that we were not complicit in these things that were happening. We had learned that it was really important to be explicit about that with our students. So, we went so I went to the meeting for that purpose, but Teresa Sullivan was there I think she had just five or 10 minutes to make some comments and I remember it was striking to me that she had such little time and spent so much of it talking about what she said was kind of controversy around “free speech.” That was the language she used at the meeting. And she specifically pointed out two things. One was this petition and another was like right around that time our basketball team UVA’s basketball team had taken a picture, I think it’s just like after practice. This wasn’t in a game. It wasn’t which, you know, I think all of those things are fine if they had kneeled during the national anthem as a sign of protest against injustice, I would support that. I think that’s well within their rights to do, right? That’s that also falls under this free speech umbrella. They took a picture but, you know, I think for me it’s important to note how benign the act was it was like they all wore these like black, I don’t know, jumpsuits that they had for practicing and they all kneeled together locked arms and then posted on I’m assuming on Instagram or some social media platform it said “kneeling against injustice.” And I thought well, you know, good for them, right? Like, you know, it’s a way of taking a stand it’s a way of using their, you know, kind of status and popularity within the university to say, we, you know, we realize all of these things are happening and we as a team are kind of standing in solidarity against injustice. And I remember that that got covered in like, you know, whatever Daily Progress, Cav Daily [Cavalier Daily] and there was a lot of really hateful commentary about that. And there was a lot of stuff that just seemed like trolling, you know? Like take their scholarships away, they shouldn’t be there, and I remember being like: who are these people? And like where do I live? And what is offensive about kneeling against injustice? What is it about that that’s so alarming to people? And then I think oh, you know, maybe these are just like trolls and this isn’t anything to take seriously, but that was, you know, of the ten minutes that Teresa Sullivan had in that faculty Senate meeting, the two things that she talked about. One that she had gotten many calls to revoke their scholarships and to expel those students and also to let us know that all of us who had signed on to that petition about quoting Thomas Jefferson. Oh, all she’d been doing was fielding phone calls about having us removed and fired and having the students suspended and I thought I think that’s when I really got to understand that because if those were just random trolls, right? Who spend their whole day on The Daily Progress and Cav Daily writing really ignorant misspelled, you know, offensive comments it seems that that wouldn’t wouldn’t warrant… That the little time that she has she would allocate to that. So, that’s when this light bulb moment happened for me when I was like, those are the donors. Those are the alumni. Those are the people who think we should be fired and lose our jobs for this and also clearly those are the people who are on her mind because those are the silliest comments I’ve ever heard and so for you to then take up this time to say, just so you know, this is happening, but I’m not going to fire you and I’m, you know, I’m such a benevolent leader I’m actually not going to kick these students out either and it was just like it was bizarro world, you know?
Navigating the status quo as a black academic
DMcD: And I appreciate that anecdote. It’s really very telling and so who’s inside and who’s outside, who holds these quote offensive positions. But I want to return to the question of the usefulness of Jefferson as a kind of silencing agent, whether that’s intended to be the case or not. But say, in her response I’m being deluged with calls to… that are calling for you renegade faculty members to be dismissed, but no I’m not going to do that. But that in itself is probably a cautionary move she’s making. Basically to say to you, “I am not going to follow this but who knows? Someone after me, so perhaps you who are so given to being critical of the founder of our institution might want to think again.” And I think it’s also important to consider anecdotes like that within a larger national context because we do know in fact the kinds of abuse that black faculty members have been subject to and universities across the country precisely for the positions that they’re taking. On a variety of what many would consider controversial positions but people invested in ideas of justice don’t find controversial at all, right? But it is if you’re right, if mere kneeling, if merely calling for a more measured, less reflexive appeal to Jefferson in times of crisis, if these pretty innocuous moves can create the kinds of responses, then we have a sense that the climate is us. We are in the climate. It is surrounding us, right? And the university is itself within a broad social… socio-cultural orbit and is not so much inoculated from all of the ills that we’re seeing everywhere else. That the university is itself in that. And not just in that environment. It has done its own bit of incubating and hosting, to continue my metaphors, these ideas, right? So, they are very much with us. So, Thomas Jefferson, who is this exponent of reason, who in many people’s mind is the veritable embodiment of reason and Enlightenment, that we appeal to him supposedly to calm the waters. We appeal to him because of his rationality, because of this pseudo-objective tone he seeks to strike. And so, if we appeal to him, he can get us out of this mess. But as you say turning to Jefferson in these times, actually exacerbates the problem rather than eliminate it.
JP: I wanted to just I mean I just under underlining some of the things, you know, people say that the university is not the quote-unquote real world. Right? And I think that comment shows that things are very real here, right?
DMcD: How can it not be the real world? In fact, when I gave the commencement address to the class of 2017, anyone, in fact, when I was writing the address, part of my agony had to do with the tension in my mind between acknowledging a celebratory occasion attended by, witnessed by, people many of whom had made great sacrifices to see their children walk the lawn. So, really wanting to honor this as a moment of celebration not to be cast in any negative light. And at the same time, wanting to acknowledge that there were many many things students commencing from this lawn on that day should leave thinking about. When I finish the speech, I thought this is a speech that is so innocuous that it’s not going to be of much use to anybody but it’s the speech I can give right now. Well, I also got hate mail. I was not calling for us to stop quoting Jefferson. I was simply actually appealing to Martin Luther King. It happened to be the 50th anniversary of the publication of “Where Do We Go From Here?” But no matter what, unless you stand on these grounds to say all is well with the world, unless you stand on these grounds to say, “Oh, what a wonderful world,” there is absolutely nothing facing you but venom. And it doesn’t matter where you fall on the continuum of expression. I would argue that on the continuum of expression and opinion and political positioning, my position in that speech on that day was clearly very mild to moderate. But it doesn’t matter unless what you’re going to say is, “I am happy to be here.” Unless you are willing to basically commit yourself to some version of a standard script that everyone I believe would like to give black people and particularly black women if you have managed to get into a place like this your script is, “from the outhouse to the lawn” or that you have scrambled your way through extreme hardship and as a result of institutional largesse, and so your only position is the position of gratitude.
NH: I would say two things that were related to that that really resonated with me. One was that I think… The two themes that I picked most from, you know, and I didn’t, you know, to be totally fair, I didn’t read a lot of these things carefully. When I could tell from the beginning of the voicemail that there was a lot of hate coming from it, I just deleted it. I mean, I didn’t feel the need to subject myself and do some kind of like content analysis, but my very general sense from the kind of overwhelming majority of messages that I at least took a glance at was: One, how dare you open your mouth. You should just be happy to be there and the fact that you think that you have the possibility to critique that space is like the biggest insult imaginable. And then the second one was, you know, I’m going to say anything and threaten anything just to get you to shut up. So, I think coming back to what you said about the silencing. It felt just very clear to me that and like you said if the most innocuous at to me that the picture that the basketball team took right after practice, my email was entirely too respectful, probably, right? And it was just very much like, you know, just me lonely, you know, lowly assistant professor reaching out and asking you, “Oh, president of the University. Could you, you know, had it occurred to you that possibly the message that you are giving out wasn’t quite consistent with your other points about unity and civility.” Right? And so, I thought oh if that is what gets people this angry right also, you all just won. You just got this like we’re the ones who should be angry right now, and I’m still like modulating and figuring out how to contort myself into such a way that I can express my feelings of outrage in the most respectful kind of commendable fashion. And then you are unleashing hatred on me for daring to do that. And so, I think the other thing I took away from it was people are just so committed to this endeavor of white supremacy and are willing, you know, there are no kind of boundaries, right? For what what it takes to keep the status quo the way that it is and so it has been interesting to me to see the commitment within the university and outside of it to maintaining that status quo and it also has made me ever more determined I think to give voice to these issues.
JP: One thing to circle back to and this is sort of by way of maybe housekeeping, not to use that term, but to just sort of underscore as Deborah exits. Just making sure that… Okay. No problem. Is I guess, your previous comment was sort of alluding to the concept without invoking the term of “civility.” And so, some of our other interviewees have mentioned civility. And so, I wonder if you might want to just expand slightly on in what ways this encounter particular with the petition, but then also sort of bringing it up to present to your current sort of role in writing op-eds and sort of more public intellectual life of, you know, what does civility mean? And like I said, I think your previous comment alluded to that sort of double edged sword of civility.
NH: Absolutely, and I think my thinking around what civility means and its usefulness has evolved quite a bit since then. So I think, you know, 2016, you know, Trump just got elected to the White House me was still probably a little bit in shock and probably still, you know, to some extent more committed to this notion of civility as the way of being able to advance one’s cause. I think there was a part of me that was probably more invested in that and saw that as a more legitimate and useful tool to advocate for social change and I think the experiences that I’ve had and the shifts that we’ve had in our socio-political climate just since then in really a fairly short period of time we’re talking about just a little over two years here has been quite vast and I think at this point, you know, the 2018 version of me now feels very very much less invested in civility. Also have a much better understanding of the ways in which that language is used as a way of silencing folks, right? It’s like, “ask nicely,” right? Like I know you want to be treated equally and I know you want to feel physically safe and those are things I’m entitled to but sure I can understand why you might want them, but ask politely and I’ll think about maybe letting you have those things, right? And seeing that I think having a much better understanding of how this expectation even that people who are literally just advocating for basic human rights, for equality that those are things that are so that are construed to be so radical. And that are so quickly shut down and I don’t think that asking politely is the way to gain equality. So, I think the investment that I have, you know, if I was if that issue, you know, presented itself again this month, I don’t think I would write the email in the same way and I don’t think that I would just… I don’t think I would think, “Oh, just send an email,” right? I think I would think more about showing up in protest or being more vocal or doing other things to shed more light on these practices as opposed to having this be, you know. That was that that was the other thing that was interesting to me in terms of the response from other folks within the administration who kind of attempted to shame me for making this a public spectacle as opposed to civilly having a very quiet, you know, one-to-one meeting with President Sullivan. Why didn’t you just meet with her quietly? She’s a very reasonable person and I was like, “Oh, you fundamentally don’t understand the point here,” right? You fundamentally don’t get what we’re literally committed to in regards to changing campus climate and it’s funny that you think that that would be a better solution because I’m quite certain that nothing would come from that, right? No attention would be given to it. I’m sure she would be very polite to me in person and nothing would be different as a result and I felt like if nothing else, the way in which this message is harmful to members of this campus community at least will now be documented and so you can continue to do that but you can no longer claim ignorance, right? To the fact that that message panders to privilege and does not consider your entire university community, especially those of us who are most affected by these acts of bigotry that your email is supposed to be responding to.
interpreting Jefferson's grievances
JP: That’s great. In your conversation about, you know, these are the… were advocating for certain sort of inalienable rights, right? The language and not to always return to Jefferson, but because it’s the sort of topic of conversation the notion of the grievance, you know, I think is something that we can even loop back in to…. is Jefferson, you know, that was the sort of language in the Declaration of the “grievances” for certain rights that are not held for all and so sort of ironically these claims of civility that silence… Put certain people’s grievances above others. So, I wonder if you can sort of meditate on. You know, whose grievances matter and what that means and in our moment?
NH: Yeah, and I mean, I think that’s the other thing that I’ve been more outspoken about in subsequent op-eds or pieces that I’ve been asked to submit around just how… The conversations that we have about Jefferson’s utility, right? And his contribution and the attempts that are often made to minimize the atrocities that he engaged in always do center around the notion that the ways in which he advanced our democracy benefited a subset, right? Of our broader population and he was I mean that… This is not my language it’s somebody else’s. I think it was a local clergy member around, you know, was being interviewed I think on a news station after August 12th and referred to Thomas Jefferson as the founding father of white supremacy and I think that’s a very accurate term in that and, you know, I teach a class on structural determines of inequality use Ibram [X.] Kendi’s [book] Stamped from the Beginning. There’s an entire section on Thomas Jefferson and really understanding the ways in which Notes on the State of Virginia at that time for what that literature meant for public thought and shaping public thought around black inferiority is important to understand, right? Not just that he owned slaves, that he raped Sally Hemings, that he fathered children with her, not just his actions as one person committing these transgressions, but the fact that he was influencing this broader conversation and understanding and the ways in which he, you know, founded University to be a pro-slavery institution, the ways in which we’ve had this history of eugenics and white supremacy with, you know, baked into the institution by design. And so, it’s been really interesting for people to say, “Everybody owned slaves back then like don’t get all hung up on that thing, right?” And the other thing is I think that the thing that is also a very anti-intellectual stance because it was in and you all know because you’re doing this podcast, but in his own writings, he even was able to talk about the horrors of slavery, right? So, he both was a white supremacist in some ways in his writings an abolitionist, although never consistent with that in his own actions, right? So, I think very like cowardly. One thing we know for sure about Thomas Jefferson is that he was loyal to his self, right? Self-interest came above everything else. So, the way to kind of reconcile his actions with, you know, the contradictions with his words as he did what worked best for him, right? Now, this is pretty consistent thing throughout his life. So, it is interesting to hear people say, you know, so what he did that, you know, he owned slaves and you know, he had an affair with Sally Hemings. Like those are just things that people did of that time and it’s like well, first of all all of the things that you want to give him credit for,right? And in terms of just, you know, leader of the Revolution, the ways in which he was able to come up with these ideas these founding principles for our democracy, those were not of his time, right? And then moreover if you really understood his writings you would know that it wasn’t just that he was not thinking about slavery from a critical lens. He thought about it as being harmful not just to slaves but to slave owners, right? And so, the fact that he was able to see all of these things and understand them but still act in a way that was so harmful to so many and then insured harm to come for generations. I think many of the things that we’re dealing with today are directly what he wanted, what he created. And what he fostered and now we are fighting so hard to try and undo them. So, it is tremendously harmful when people suggest that those transgressions should not mar this great man, right? Or that we should not take him down off of this pedestal just because, right? Just because some of his actions were harmful to some people. It’s like no. His actions were intentionally harmful to the people who have the least rights still today. And so, when we say those things don’t matter we are in essence saying black lives don’t matter.
a usable past
DMcD: So, we’re just going to go a little bit off sequence here, off script, James, but I’m inspired by your eloquent statements and the passion. So, when we began this series, one of the things or when we began it in conception, we said again and again that we did not want to do a podcast that would position us as its producers in either one or the other familiar camp that the one such as you just described. Well, this man did great things, he’s the founder of democracy, he gives us this idea that people are still trying to export all over the world and he did all of these other wonderful things and he was a man of his time. And then there are those more inclined to think it’s you think that well, so he was a man of his time but he was a man of his time far more influential than any ordinary Tom, Dick or Harry. And so, what do we do then? Where… we said to ourselves if that’s what we’re going to do in this podcast, perhaps it’s not worth doing. Is there anything in Jefferson that is usable? We talk about a “usable past,” frequently. Historians employ that concept for a variety of reasons in a variety of contexts, but I think it’s also possible to think about a usable present or usable future. Is there anything in Jefferson that could make for a usable present or future?
NH: Yeah, I mean, absolutely. I think, you know, again I teach Jefferson in my class, right? And so, you know, I think a lot of the attempts to undermine the petition were invested in trying to distort what I was even saying, right? So, people were saying, you know, this crazy leftist liberal professor wants to wipe Thomas Jefferson from the history books! She wants censorship! She wants… And I was like, well, no, I want us to not use Thomas Jefferson as a moral compass. I definitely want that. I didn’t say we shouldn’t talk about him. I didn’t say it’s not useful to understand the hypocrisy, the ways in which his writings were used around both white supremacy, but also around abolitionism the way in which civil rights leaders have used that language, right? “All men are created equal” to advance their cause, right? Which is a which is a just cause. So, that is to me… all of that is tremendously useful in an institution of higher learning, right? And I, you know, it has been interesting to me to have conversations even with other faculty who either assumed I don’t know about Thomas Jefferson or assumed I wasn’t teaching it or assumed that they knew more about Thomas Jefferson than I do because they didn’t understand the critique that I was leveraging and they didn’t understand the nuance in what I was saying which, yes, to me, you know, in the same way in which Ibram Kendi uses in his book to say, “how did we get here?” Right? Why do we still have so many people who think black people are inferior? Why do we think genocide of Native Americans is okay, right? Why do we think exploitation of black and brown bodies for white profit is the norm? And is not a questionable history? Why do we teach history the way that we teach history? So, to me, those are all very useful things in a class that’s around because the first half of my class is like how did we get here? What are the determinants? And the second half of my class is like what do we do now, right? And I think in one of the more recent op-eds that I wrote that for the student newspaper, they asked me to write one year after I think I wrote one and kind of response to August 11th and 12th last year. Just like what’s useful to think about a year later and I said it’s useful for us to think about this legacy that we have all inherited, that we are all dealing with by being here, and using that in the classroom to really better understand how did we get here? Because how on earth are we going to get out of here? If we don’t understand exactly what happened to create that moment of August 11th and 12th 2017. So, I think it’s incredibly useful. I absolutely advocate for teaching Notes of the State of Virginia for understanding the ways in which he… his writings and his ideas were not consistent with his actions, right? And also what’s so useful to me in that class, and a lot of that is coming from Ibram Kendi’s book, around the coexistence of racist and anti-racist ideas, agendas and actions throughout history. So, I think that’s also helpful to push back against this notion that, you know, people are of their time and to disregard. I mean, that to me that’s also really important to say what is the history that we even know? That we’re even being taught? That we don’t even know these stories of these anti-racist activists from the 17- and 1800’s. We don’t know them. We don’t know what they did. But we know Thomas Jefferson as our founding father.
DMcD: And obviously the attention that we devote to Jefferson including the attentiveness in critique and of critique has everything to do with his stature. As we say, he was not the embodiment… He was not the ordinary Tom, Dick or Harry. He was the person who occupied a very different rung on the social ladder, on the political ladder, on the cultural ladder. But one of the things I find fascinating, and I mentioned this to James the other day, it’s not necessarily about how much someone writes but the influence of what they write because when we look at what Jefferson wrote about race, what he wrote that qualifies as the discourse of anti-blackness, it’s not a whole lot. That in the overall economy of what he wrote, what he wrote about these issues…. Wouldn’t go… I think it would probably constitute a chapbook and yet it has enormous influence and I think at the same time that we want to make it clear that he is no ordinary man, I think we also have to say that his ideas are part and parcel of a whole set of discourses that he neither founded nor perpetuated exclusively, alright? That for these ideas to have the power and influence that they do have, they had to be echoed, ratified, reproduced in a variety of places by a variety of people and so it’s very important. Otherwise, we are… I remember there’s a line in Alice Walker’s novel Meridian where one of the characters is saying to another, “Well, once we have white people believing that they are the root of everything, good, bad or indifferent, we have them thinking that there are some kind of gods.” All right? And so, at the same time that we want to say Jefferson is extraordinary, in every meaning of that term, it is also important to note simultaneously that his voice his writings take their place within a whole complex. Some of it even inherited from others, all right? So, that we are very clear that when we were talking about challenging Jefferson, we’re talking about challenging somebody who was just kind of one of the more public facing examples of something that is much much larger and much more widespread.
Carter G. Woodson's 'reading' of Thomas Jefferson'
JP: Yeah, and we… This is kind of being efficient here, but the other day were also talking about sort of the dual legacy of people within Jefferson’s time critiquing Jefferson for the very inconsistencies that we’re still talking about today. So the… because there’s this risk of saying well, you’re imposing the values of 2018 on a figure like Jefferson who was part of his time. So, that’s a different sort of pivot for the man of his times argument. But we know, you know, from many people also teach Jefferson alongside David Walker and so, you know, within his time [Benjamin] Banneker and so within his time people were critiquing Jefferson for his inconsistencies. And I want to maybe invite Professor McDowell to sort of meditate on that, you know, particularly with the legacy of Woodson, you know, we’re in the Carter G. Woodson Institute, and so, thinking of this project as kind of like its impacts for what we’re doing with this project more broadly is to not just talk about Jefferson but to talk about sort of the work that’s kind of going on in Black Studies, more broadly.
DMcD: Yeah, I think that’s a very important question because that’s one of the ingenious aspects of white supremacy, especially in its extreme most visible forms, right? Because we know we have to talk about all of the ways in which it goes on unnoticed, invisible, and yet its impact is completely strangling and devastating too. But in its public manifestations, when we continue to talk about what white supremacy. Yes. We are, in fact, I mean this was one of the critiques of quote-unquote “whiteness studies” in its heyday in the ‘80s and ‘90s. People were saying, well, even if you are only talking about the failings of whiteness, and that is the bedrock of whiteness studies, you are still giving pride of place and pride to whiteness. All right. So, thinking about Woodson is adds another quote unquote, son of Virginia clearly one though without founding status. Woodson wrote, as you know, about a whole range of things. Woodson was a historical generalist, we might say because he is writing about everything from black religion, to migration patterns, to folks sayings to music to labor. So, he’s something of an historical polymath but through it all, no matter what he’s writing, he finds some opportunity to talk about Jefferson. I’ve been going back to some of the early issues of the Journal of Negro History, which Woodson founded as you know. So, really in the earliest issues Woodson is himself meditating in some way on Jefferson. In one essay I read two nights ago on the history of miscegenation in this nation, there is Jefferson right up there. Woodson, we believe, though I’m waiting for absolute verification because Woodson wrote these pieces in each issue of the Journal of Negro History that were called “Documents.” Sometimes other people wrote them and when other people wrote them, they would typically be attributed, “Noelle Hurd wrote this document.” But in others that were unattributed, the… what some scholars believe these were the ones Woodson himself wrote. So, a second piece I read just this week was about Thomas Jefferson’s views on “the Negro.” Pretty lengthy piece.
JP: Printed in 1819?
DMcD: No in 1918, you reversed the dates. Right. So, no matter what Woodson is doing, no matter what he’s writing about, he is finding a way to insert Jefferson. I mean this is really historical research, right? These are documents culled from here, this place and that place, one of the scholars I consulted answered to say if we could absolutely go to Woodson’s library in the Library of Congress, we could likely answer the question definitively because we could trace the references in the piece to the library.
JP: Maybe we should do that.
DMcD: Yes, maybe we should do that. But she was willing to hazard a guess that it’s a very strong likelihood that Woodson himself wrote this piece on Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Jefferson’s ideas about “the Negro” quote unquote. So, yes, thinking about people talking back to Thomas Jefferson is vitally important and not… they weren’t all black people. Clearly David Walker is confronting Jefferson quite forthrightly in The Appeal. Banneker is quoting him. But then even when Jefferson answers Banneker, he says, “Well, no, nothing would please me more than to arrive at the place where I could agree with your assessment,” right? That is the level of his arrogance. But back…
JP: Then he’s writing to other people to say stuff like… He’s sort of undercutting that when he’s writing to his friends and colleagues. Jefferson to say you wouldn’t believe this thing going on over here. And so, you know, he’s kind of flip-flopping a lot.
DMcD: Yes, you know, one could argue that that Jefferson becomes a fixture in Woodson’s writings, not the only one, but he is frequently referenced and he becomes a fixture because in no small measure I would speculate because that’s all I’m doing is that Woodson is himself a “son of Virginia” and he is born in Buckingham County. He is a descendant of enslaved people, right? And that basically as a popular historian, Woodson sets himself the task early on forthrightly. He was very explicit about it. That the reason the study of black history needed to be popularized was to puncture this notion widespread in the land and perpetuated by Jefferson that black people were intellectually inferior, had not contributed anything to the advancement of civilization, et cetera. And that that would be his “cause.” Woodson called it his cause. And that that could circulate widely in the bloodstream of the nation through popular mechanisms. And so, Woodson saw himself as posing a challenge too. In many ways Woodson, I mean, Jefferson’s ideas. And not just posing a challenge to them, but basically providing contravening evidence, right? Hence, “documentation.” That he sees himself as one invested with the power. And early on, this is a kind of a side note, but it says something about where we find ourselves as academics in any institution of higher learning and particularly this one because Woodson learned early on that to do the work he wanted to do, he couldn’t do it within under the auspices of the academy. So, he had to just abandon the academy. He knew that what he wanted to do would not be and could not be sustained within institutions of higher learning, not even Howard where he worked for a time. Because the inherently conservative nature of institutions is such that anybody whose intellectual project was by definition arrayed against or in expressed antithesis to the status quo would not survive. All right? So, he had to abandon foundation support because what these institutions support, what philanthropy supports, comes with strings attached and Woodson did not want the strings. He understood that the power of his critique would clearly be diluted. That he, in order to survive within academia, the power of that critique would have to undergo continual dilution to the point where it would bear no resemblance to what he anticipated. So, yes, he is challenging Jefferson wherever he can and challenging him also in ways that are both… That are using the power of documents and that are also using the power of editorializing because if you read in between the lines of the piece on Jefferson and the negro, he is inserting various juicy digs at Jefferson and at Jefferson’s offspring. What is happening to them?
JP: He’s “reading.”
DMcD: Yes, he’s yeah, he’s reading Jefferson. So again, this is I’ve begun to ramble. I think… I hope I’ve answered your questions.
How did we get here and where do we go?
JP: Certainly. We want to be mindful of time here as well. But this has been a wonderful conversation. I’m sure we could go on like this, you know, spinning around for hours. I wonder if you maybe either of you had anything else to add or include? Yeah.
DMcD: I wanted to ask Noelle about…
NH: Let me just…
JP: Yeah and you’ve been very generous with your time. So, we don’t want to take any more if that’s not.
[Whispering and overlapping conversations]
JP: That usually happens with the best of interviews…
NH: No, it’s fine. That was just my daughter calling so I just needed to make sure she was okay. She’s fine.
NH: Yeah, I mean I, you know, my first kind of instinctual response is to circle back to what we talked about a little bit earlier which was more of the like, “We need to understand how we got here if we’re going to really understand,” you know, and that’s where I think, you know, teaching a course on the structural determinants of inequality and understanding how radical, how extreme, how egregious, how perseverant, you know, the ways in which we have arrived where we are right now through such intentional effort to me is so important to understand and to make sure that others understand because if we are not equally radical and extreme and committed in our efforts to upend this very problematic structure that we find ourselves, I don’t think that’s possible for us to really truly arrive at a place where we have an equal society. So, you know, I again I, you know, I know some of that’s redundant with what I said earlier, but I think that to me, you know, which is quite a bit different and, you know, I’d be interested to hear more about what your thoughts are around how, you know, the ways in which diversity and inclusion kind of language and initiatives ends up being maybe kind of empty and meaningless. But, you know, for me, the contrast now is not only are we not doing any of these radical and extreme and highly important and, you know, part of the reason we’re not able to kind of implement the change that we want to see is because of white supremacy, right? Like it also has built into it so many strategies and techniques for silencing, shutting down, you know, creating limited possibilities. If we can’t even raise issues because we will make white people uncomfortable, then… and if our best like possibility for having radical institutional change is like doing that civilly and coming to agreement, right? And not making people unhappy or uncomfortable, then it seems impossible. right?
Shrouding as sacrilege
JP: It’s kind of this thing that if I may sort of circle back to your petition, one thing we’ve slightly left out is that the shrouding of the Jefferson statute, you know, that’s when it became explicit that this is sacred ground. So, at the very moment of taking your petition to sort of it’s… as you were saying earlier like your 2018… as you were saying your 2018 self would be a little bit more direct with how you confront this sort of institutional need to return to Jefferson. And not to sort of speculate too much, but that might look like shrouding the Jefferson statue? If that’s fair to say.
JP: And so, maybe meditating on that a bit in light of this comment just now.
NH: Yeah, I thought that’s, yeah, I guess that’s perfect cause I was a say, that’s the juxtapositioning with what I think the radicalness and the extremity with which we probably need to be advocating, right, for equity for, you know, being treated as humans, right? So, I think that’s what we need to do. And instead where we are is like bizarro world where it’s not even just like it’s not even that those things aren’t happening. But it’s like even the more kind of civil attempts to say,”Excuse me? Could we not have a Jefferson statue around every corner and could we not always be asked to work Jefferson quotes into our lectures and could we just at least could we talk about him in a more honest way? Could we just do that?” And then the kind of contempt with which we are met for doing so. And so, I was there that was like a month after August 12th. I think when the students organized a protest. There were a number of faculty there and it was very interesting to me to see as well. And I was like again this is a month after, you know, a bunch of our community members and students got run over by a car from a white supremacist and a person lost their life, right, as a result of that. So, yeah, to think about it in that aftermath what was striking was that the shrouding even is not as radical as we could be, right? And that I thought that was definitely a step definitely in the right direction right more so than my polite email. And the reaction from the administration in that case I think was also particularly telling, right? The language that was used especially in the even the separate email that went out to friends of the University, alumni, donors, where that statue is referred to as “sacred ground” and the language that was used to kind of like demonize the group of protesters and diminish, right? To suggest it was just a small group of students. It was not. It was plenty of students. It was also plenty of faculty and staff. We were there. There was a person who showed up who was not a part of our group who was actually there to antagonize who had a gun and I think the message that she sent was to misrepresent who was there, to misrepresent who was arrested, right? Who was not a member of our group and to try and discredit that effort and like you said to then invoke this language of a Jefferson statue is “sacred ground.” It’s like you didn’t even use the word sacred to talk about the life that was lost at the hands of a white supremacist. But you’re using that language to talk about students literally covering up a stupid statue. I mean to me that is the juxtapositioning of where we are right now and like how far we are, I think, from the types of things we probably need to be doing to actually see the type of change that we need to see.
Appeasing wealth and investing in the future
DMcD: Yes. This is very useful. This is, again, we’re not going to keep you forever. But your responses are so rich, they lead to more and more and more. One observation and then one question. And the observation is this: there were two separate emails and the email that went to friends and donors clearly… That is the reassurance that has to be superintendent, right? Because clearly as the state legislature invests less and less and less in the day-to-day operations of this public university, tt relies more and more on philanthropic dollars. And so, wealth has to be appeased. And so, it’s very very clear that I’m going to send a separate email to people who are bankrolling this observation. So, however offensive that was, the reasons for it are quite clear. That we don’t have to talk to people who don’t give us money and the people who are the quote-unquote rabble-rousers are not the people who are likely giving us money. But your comment also brought to mind.. Boy, it went right out of my head…. Shrouding. But there is a second question.
NH: I’ll say something else about that and maybe that’ll help to jog your memory. But to me that that point about who matters and who doesn’t and to me the other thing that’s really challenging about that is, yes, some part of your job is to fundraise, right? And to think about how to appease the donors. But if we’re going to have the kind of radical change that we need to have, then you have to be thinking about how do you create the University environment now for these students to have the type of experiences that may make them want to be donors, right? At some point. So, the ways in which, you know, when we talk about Jefferson and where we are now and who has wealth and who doesn’t. Well, these are all interrelated. Right? So, the fact that people who have wealth as a direct consequence of slave-owning are the people who don’t want to talk about white supremacy and who went to still uphold Jefferson as an uncontroversial, wonderful founding father. You know, that is all, you know, that’s the ways in which all of these things weave together so obviously for me. So, then that the students, you know, members of marginalized groups who are here, you know, upset and having… experiencing the university as a campus climate that’s not safe, right? And that is literally our administration’s job, right? Is our safety. So, as much as they may want to pander to the privileged and raise their money, they also literally do have to keep us safe, right? And I think it’s in our best interest to continue to remind them of that, right? As much as you may want to use whatever kind of language, you know, the things that you’re doing are both undermining the safety of people who are here now. People who, in these diversity and inclusion conversations, you are eager to brag about the diverse the diversity in your student body, right? So, if you want to do that, then you also have to keep those people safe here. And who knows maybe even let them have a positive experience? So, that one day in the future they would actually want to be proud alumni and donors. So, I think this strategy right now and this commitment to the people who are, you know, what the alumni body looks like today presumably is not going to be the alumni body of tomorrow and there needs to be more attention to what is happening in this space now and what are these experiences? And what is their actual job? Right? Like you may say my primary interest is in appealing to the people who are going to bankroll us. But it also is literally part of my job to keep people safe and I can’t opt out of the latter just to pursue the former.
JP: And it’s also the job to pursue knowledge and that sounds very naive but we’re here to ask questions and do research and do this kind of work that is in the service of critiquing.
DMcD: Yeah again, I still haven’t resurrected my question. But yes, it is our role to reproduce knowledge. And again, what is… what knowledge does the institution get behind? What knowledge does the institution support? In what corners of the university is knowledge production valued? You’ve heard me say this again and again, James, borrowing from Ralph Ellison, that this is an institution that wants to “move without moving.” That… and the greatest evidence of that desire is in “fringe” operations that… It did come back to me. When you say… if we want to change this University for the students who are to come many some of them are already here, then we have to think about providing them a radically different experience than we have. And so, I’ve been quite taken with the fact that however important it is to interrogate our origins in slavery, that is vitally important. I think this university has gone in a direction that basically has us backward looking and as long as we are backward-looking and quote-unquote attempting to atone for the sins of the past, we are really not focused as intently as we need to be on the requirements of the present. And again, it is a fine line you have to walk but I think we have settled comfortably into interrogating slavery because we can delude ourselves into believing we left all that behind. This is not who we are now, right? Our current dean has been given to saying in various public speeches that this university has to become the University of Sally Hemings as well as of Thomas Jefferson. And so, we interviewed him. We asked him what that would mean, in fact. Listening to you talk about the need for more radical changes and interventions: what might it mean to center Sally Hemings? And the legacy of Sally Hemings as we think about establishing a new blueprint for the future of this University?
Move Without moving: where to place jefferson
NH: That’s a really good question. Yeah, I’m and I’m also really struck by what you were just saying about needing to be more forward-looking and what that means and how do we kind of integrate all of these different threads in a way that feels meaningful, right? I mean, to me, it’s interesting to always like have this conversation and increasingly it is true in my time here, which is only been about six or seven years, you know, the report on slavery, the new commission around segregation, the, you know, that the memorial that’s going to get built, so like I am increasingly hearing about slavery, but it is this weird juxtapositioning. I’ll get an email from UVA, you know, whatever UVA News, Virginia Magazine. And it’s like, you know, a story about Thomas Jefferson’s greatness and then a story about slavery. And so, even that disconnect that happens there. I mean to me maybe part of that part I don’t you know, I can’t speak for the dean. But I wonder if some of it is that, you know, my request would be like, let’s think more about the integration of all of these things, right? You don’t have, you know, you don’t have a history of slavery at the University without Thomas Jefferson being front and center in that history, right? And so, even what I understood from the Bicentennial which I did not attend but that there was both this way of saying, you know, we want to bring descendants of slaves and onto stage and celebrate them, but we also want to have someone dressed up as Thomas Jefferson delivering a monologue. And I’m like… it’s like kind of like gaslighting, you know? Just this experience of being here and the ways in which these contradictions are almost like married to each other in a very consistent systematic way and it’s disturbing.
DMcD: And that to me would be a graphic example of the desire to “move without moving.” That you want to keep dragging and obviously you can never leave the past behind you. The past is… you’re going to be carrying it forward inevitably whether you think you can leave it behind or not. But there is this sense that we can… it is an additive approach. You know, it’s the critique of what people… that people have often leveled against the… before we got the concept of intersectionality when say black women would be asked, “Well, how do you feel most oppressed as a black person or as a woman?” And you would say, “Well, I am both these things simultaneously. There is never a moment when I’m not…” You know, and so we do take this additive approach that our idea of “correction” is adding on. It’s appending. It is not transforming from within. And that’s what you’re focused on when you’re talking about structures and that’s what’s being asked and that is what is so problematical about diversity and inclusion in some uncritical way because basically then you assume that a Department of Women… Studies in Women and Gender or Department of African American and African Studies would just be another department, right? That these would not be departments that in some ways would fundamentally interrogate the logic, the methodologies, the assumptions, the prerogatives of a whole range of disciplinary formations. And that unless you want to be simply another department added on, not one that would say, “hold it,” we can’t possibly think about history in the same way. Once we put this lens on it. It is that… that is structurally transformative or that holds the potential to be structurally transformative, but it’s a desire to just see that let a thousand flowers bloom because the what is additive would never interrogated or called into question. What is here?
NH: We’re not threatening the status quo, right? Like you can have your, you know, memorial and you can have your department and that’s fine, just don’t mess up any of the other stuff that we have, right? And don’t disrupt our Bicentennial Celebration with your protesting and your signs about white supremacy. Don’t do that. We’re going to give you your memorial but like let us continue to honor TJ. Let us continue continue to have Jefferson exceptionalism as our brand for our University. Like we don’t want to change those things and also you can come here and be part of this community, but don’t try and change it. Don’t try and make it someplace that you actually can be your authentic self and feel comfortable. That’s not what we’re in the business of doing here. So, to me, it all is consistent with this idea of maintaining the status quo. And so, the “bends” or the “gives” and I like your language around additive, right? It’s like well if we can keep the core intact and maybe make some smaller changes on the periphery, that’s really not that threatening to our status quo. But when you start talking about integration and you start talking about changing the statues that we have and the language that we use and our brand and the ways in which we’re teaching and the people we’re hiring and the students who we’re enrolling, that’s too radical.
JP: And who runs things.
NH: More importantly, yes.
DMcD: Yes, and who runs things. Because basically when we look at who runs things, that we have in 2000 and almost now 2019, we have virtually no one in central administration. No one with a vice presidential appointment. That’s there’s someone outgoing, all right? But again, how do we define these positions? Do these positions have the power to set policy? Do these positions operate independent of the executive? I mean it’s kind of like we are a university that is as much in need of a system of checks and balances as the government needs it. That if you are going to have offices or structures that are basically beholden to the executive branch, what possibilities do you have to change? If your very job is dependent upon your approval by the executive branch or the executive branch can make all kinds of changes via fiat and that you really can’t. That it… what I’ve come around to seeing, and it can seem ungracious, uncharitable and perhaps to some ears uncollegial, and I would never want that to be the case, but we are part of the entertainment of this University. And the way that black Americans are the performers for the nation, right? That there is space for us to make people feel good. There is space for people to be entertained, right? That the idea that we would attach to the Office of Diversity and Equity programming on Martin Luther King. However important programming is on Martin Luther King, that is not for that office. That office should be doing something else. This is not for the record. But if you see what I mean, so you then attach a form of entertainment. We come together in our as they are want to call them our ecumenical. They don’t call them faith faith based or it’s not faith. The term…
DMcD: Yes, but they use another term. But it’s, you know, our annual ecumenical service where all people of all faiths come together to commemorate Martin Luther King. But again, if we only commemorated the Martin Luther King that was himself invested in the structural determinants of inequality, but the Martin Luther King… that is not the Martin Luther King that is celebrated. And so frankly I’m coming around, I’m kind of cynical by disposition, but it seems to me that unless we are willing to play the role either to entertain or pacify or placate because and then when we think about it, the roots of that are again in slavery. That we are… we rightly focus our attention on slavery as the institution that extracted people’s labor that held them in bondage, that determined their time and how they would spend it, but it was also an institution that saw itself as molding, shaping, determining, and commandeering the emotional responses of people who were held captive, right? And so, you will have a book like 12 Years a Slave, narrating the plight of a woman whose children are taken from her and who then ceases to do anything but mourn for the rest of her time. Well, she is sent away from this plantation because what is being commanded of these people is that they perform happiness, all right? That this idea that we have of the loyal contented slave, right? That’s it. Unless you’re going to give us evidence that this is an innately beneficial institution for you and you would otherwise not have sense enough to come in from the cold. Unless you can do that, you have no place on the plantation. So, when Jefferson is talking about the emotional disposition, the dispositions of black Americans, he is participating in a pretty, by this point, pretty advanced discourse that has also attached certain forms of feeling to capacities for citizenship. So, when you really think about slavery in these terms, you are thinking about something that truly is seeking to own everything about captive people. It is attempting to own captive people body and soul. If we think that soul is that thing that is… that cannot be reached, that is contained within the wells of our being, no, this institution thought it had access even to that, right? And so, when we trace this, not in straight lines, but we trace these roots which are running in all directions, we take them back here. They are back there. Where what we need to say in or how we can say what we need to say has to be authorized by people who want to control tone, temper, and content. And this will be our undoing. You cannot have it both ways. You, you cannot. That’s too much preaching.
NH: But well, I think also what you’re saying just briefly add onto that it’s also…. It’s what we want from you and it’s also how anything you say will be interpreted, right? So, there’s because I have the expectations for what is possible for you, anytime you do anything that even mildly seems to violate that, right? It’s like even how I can perceive and receive anything that you do and whether I would respond to it differently whether it’s you saying it versus James saying the exact same thing, right? So, that’s the added layer on top of it.
DMcD: That is the added layer. And that you yourself don’t know when you’ve transgressed, until you have transgressed. And I think that’s one of, to kind of bring things full circle and back to the question of Jefferson and his contemporaries or people writing back to Jefferson, I mean, that’s one of the reasons that David Walker’s Appeal is rhetorically so brilliant. Because what David Walker understands is this language of dispassion, this language of reason, this measured tone that Jefferson is trying to strike in much of Notes on the State, can only be answered from a different higher and exaggerated and intentionally exaggerated register. That you don’t meet, that’s back to your point about you can’t promote radical change through moderate means. And so, what David Walker is doing in a sense, you know, Flannery O’Connor used to have this response to people who would say, “I mean you really did these characters to create this work your writing. It’s just weird.” And so, she would answer, “You know, we are in an age that has come to domesticate all kinds of thinking that should not be domesticated. And so, to the hard of hearing you must shout. And to the almost blind you must draw large and startling pictures.” And so, David Walker saying, “I can’t meet Jefferson on that ground.” I can’t meet Jefferson on the ground of reason, dispassion, moderation, rhetorically speaking. I got to meet him on a different rhetorical ground, all right? And you can call that ground extreme. You can call it exaggerated but it is a studied effort on my part to challenge him and to challenge him both in terms of content and in terms of mode. And this is what we’re missing here in our atmosphere of social politesse where everybody is not going to speak above a whisper and that for certain people, our position to occupy certain emotional terrain. It is no accident that black women are referred to here and elsewhere as angry. That is the terrain we get to occupy. And that is a terrain that is also meant to be disciplinary. It is meant to be corrective because if you bear that, if you carry that incubus around your neck, that is also which is that which is identifying you as something that can be ostracized. That can be ostracized and discredited. So, when we say white supremacy is baffling and cunning or when I say it, all right. I mean it. It is baffling and cunning. And it and its workings are not always visible to the naked eye.
DMcD: And I think if we need to take anything away from August 11th and 12th it is that for every need we have to decry and discredit what happened, we have to understand simultaneously that most of white supremacy does not take the form of men in khaki pants wielding tiki torches. That what we are witnessing at this University, who is endowed, what is endowed, what forms of knowledge are or are authorized, what forms of knowledge in structures within which these knowledge forms are being reproduced get by living hand-to-mouth? And what part get on agendas for capital campaigns? So, I’m with you and if we don’t think of anything other than, which is my great pet peeve about Henry the bell ringer, of all the ironies we’re going to talk about coming into a contemporary moment, we want to talk about social transformation and we plan a Bicentennial event celebrating Henry the bell ringer. This is a part of the tone-deafness, right? That maybe the only way you can get through to that is this you say not through email, not through petition but through more extreme though not violent means. I could talk to you forever. So rich. Everything is so rich.
NH: Yeah. The only thing I’d say related to that I don’t know if you were able to attend but Jelani Cobb was here earlier this year and he said something about how we want to do, you know, institutions of higher education want do all of this work to recruit black and brown bodies into this space just to have them politely have discussions about their own inferiority. And I think that, you know, resonated so much with me and ties into what you’re saying and also just all of the conversations that we continue to have at this University and at all these universities and in our country more broadly about free speech, right? And this language around civil discourse and intellectual exchange and the expectation that no matter how offensive and dehumanizing my argument, you just need to sit there and take it and be just as dispassionate about it as I am because I mean it’s just an idea and the fact that it’s an idea that threatens the entire core of who you are and your ancestry and your worth and your value and the ability to even qualify your qualify yourself as a human, that shouldn’t matter. We should just have a conversation, it’s just a discussion and if you want to get all upset about it, I think that means you’re not able to have a rational intellectual exchange. That means there’s something wrong with you and that actually kind of proves my point, right? So, I think when you talk about, you know, the brilliance and resilience of white supremacy, right? As this ideology that literally permeates everything and the temptation that people have to only see it in this very egregious attack that we sustain and not see it woven into the fabric of our day-to-day realities and amplified, I think, in many ways here at this institution and that’s to me a really powerful point.
DMcD: Yeah, it’s going to go off again on a long tangent, but you see this is it this is a part of the wiliness because if you… while you’re over here and I think it applies to a lesser degree to our overinvestment in symbols and statues. Because while you’re over here, basically laws and statutes, people are being packed on federal benches without even having hearings, that all of that apparatus goes on unchecked, right? So, to the extent that we can keep you focused on and preoccupied with the most extreme forms of white supremacy and bigotry, at the level of epithet etc. Then we can carry on over here out of sight. Going into buildings with our briefcases with our six figure salaries, it is… that is the focus. We need to focus and our students need to focus on trying to ensure a permanent presence at this University that cannot be dismantled by the ever rotating group of administrative players, deans, provosts, presidents. But that is what… we are pacified that this we are pacified and we are expected to pacify, you know, and pacifiers. You’re… neither of you was old enough to probably know about something that was a fixture of my childhood called a “sugar tit.” And you… it’s just empty calories. You would give a baby with sugar something with it that they could suck on and it’s just nothing there. Nothing of any nutritional value, right? But it quiets you, right?
JP: A placebo?
DMcD: Yes. Well, a placebo is a different thing. A placebo. Well, it’s in that family. It’s a cousin. But this is this actual little thing. The placebo is not giving you what the other drug… you’re not getting the drug, you’re getting the placebo. But you are getting the sugar tit, you know, you’re getting sugar water.
JP: It’s not nutritionally fortifying.
DMcD: No nutritional value. It is not sustaining. It can’t sustain you in fact it can rot your teeth even as they are coming in, right? But that… It quiets you.
JP: And it gives you a spark of energy. You do get a little sugar rush and then you fall asleep. And then you don’t get bothered anymore?
DMcD: Yeah, I am convinced that we are not meant to be anything more than a set of musical chairs here and that is consistent even with our approach to diversity. We don’t want to grow our own, right? We want to keep raiding other universities, right? So, there’s this… so you move from Harvard to Michigan from Michigan to here. That’s what we’re doing rather than investing in high school students, getting them basically introduced to research early on. Basically doing the work of renovating because students here in the public schools continue to say well UVA may as well be in Timbuktu. We don’t think of this as a place. How can you not think of this as a place to which you should have apply? This is a public university. So, even as I said, I’m not going to go off in another sermon, I am more and more convinced that unless we are willing to have these conversations that then we are all complicit in maintaining a structure that really does and is expert at what institutions do and are expert at. And that is maintaining themselves exactly as they wish to be seen, exactly as they wish to be known, with just enough tinkering around the edges to give to pacify some and give others the illusion of change. That is not change. That is “moving without moving.”
JP: Well, thank you so much for your time. You’ve so generous with us and hopefully that we will definitely keep you in the loop about how the project progresses and, you know, ideally we’re going to try to make the interviews available in full. Although some we might have to talk about certain things when it comes to that. But yeah, thank you so much. And I mean even just there was a moment of it’s just a funny anecdote that talking about the additive parts. In one of our interviews with Niya Bates, she talked about the descendant communities at Monticello during the Getting Word Project and they sometimes invite the families up for, you know, gatherings and whatnot. But they were having a gathering for the Hemings family descendants of Sally Hemings and the Jefferson family descendants felt entitled to go to that event. And she was saying, you know, like it in this was I think one of your points you made at the Bicentennial like how is it that you want to have the Sally Hemings descendants in the same physical space as the Thomas Jefferson descendants? Assuming that there’s just going to be some big grand family like that they’ve just sort of reconnected, a family reunion, right? And so, I think I wanted to just underline that a little bit because the language you were using was the language of the family, you know? We’re married to this idea of Jefferson and that, you know, so this concept that a university is in many ways providing a home away from home. You know, there’s a family component. Professors become advisors, but they also do a lot of emotional labor to be the sort of parental figures. That’s a lot of additional work. And so, in this weird dynamic that it’s a corporation, it’s a family, it’s a sort of a democratic body as well that the concept of the family is sort of constantly getting sort of exploited and sort of used in many different ways. And so, that’s just a…
DMcD: And it was used in the institution of slavery. That the pro-slavery advocates really appealed to that language all the time within the family circle is a very common concept. The law of love abides. So, it’s this idea that this is protofamilial in slavery that we are all… we take care of our own. Yeah, it’s a complete exploitation of familial rhetoric. Absolutely. And you in the life and history of all universities, not so much now, but there used to be a concept built into the idea and the language of University functioning that faculty did function in the… The term was in loco parentis. Yeah, then there was that certainly was in my years as a college student the concept of in loco parentis was very much in operation. So…
JP: Which means…
DMcD: It means as a parent, instead of, in the position of, in the location of a parent. That was absolutely the case. Ao indeed, but you see it is the familial language. Again, this is a… the wiliness of white supremacy. When it is convenient to employ that language, you employ it. When it is not convenient, right? You’ve heard me also talk about this. We all know that in human history, the concept of adolescence as a separate stage of development is really late in human history. But we do know that when we come to think of adolescence as a stage of development that accords the people in that category certain protections, right” In claims to innocence we know who is in exiled from that category. All right. When it is not that which is how to Tamir Rice can be said to be what he looked to be a lot older. Right? So, when it is convenient, people in in domestic servitude in… well after slavery were often told, “Oh, well Mage is like one of the family.” “Mage is just like one of the family.” Really? Uh-huh.” So, yeah the exportation of familial rhetoric. I mean or familial rhetoric is employed for exploitive and purposes, right? Because and that goes back to slavery. Slavery gives the captive person sentiment. You’re like a member of the family rather than legal protection. So, the tension between law and sentiment is what structures slavery.
JP: I wonder if you can maybe bring that to diversity and inclusion.
DMcD: Law and sentiment?
JP: Or in the sense that you know that… terms being replaced… That sentiment is not any legal protections.
DmcD: It’s not any legal protection. No, it is not.
JP: And in the same way where that sort of diversity is a sentimental sort of feeling. Of sort of the warm and fuzzy, “we’re all in this together” kind of…
DMcD: But it didn’t start out that way because, you see, diversity is the watered-down concept that replaced affirmative action. Affirmative action did at least have some “proto” associations with law. When Johnson stands there at that podium at Howard University to talk about affirmative action, he is talking about something that may, he hopes, have some legal binding. Goals and timetables. These were the things that were being taught and it was being thought about as something specific to a group of people whose movement and advancement through the society had been hampered by racism and white supremacy, right? So, diversity, no. That’s fuzzy loosey-goosey stuff. Right? Absolutely. So, that’s what you give instead of legal protection. But as you know sentiment can be proffered or withdrawn. Sentiment, you know, no one is I can love you today. I mean children give you the quick, fast, dirty lesson into this. You know, you know, how they get in their phases, “where I don’t love you. I hate you,” you know, they think you know love can be withdrawn and when you’re not getting me the Xbox I hate you. Sentiment is completely voluntary. You know, who you love, when you love, how you, I mean that there is no legal protection in sentiment. And that is what slavery sought to give people it held captive. You know, not legal protection. Not even functioning as legal beings not even being able to testify against people in law. You do not exist. You do not have property in your person. You are not a legal… I mean slavery is a legal category. Yes, it is a legal category and again the wiliness of white supremacy, you know, you may not have inherited this money over here because your status as a captive person comes through your mother, right? It is… it’s wiley. It is completely wiley. You will be perpetually a slave. This is your legal category but you will… you have no legal protections. You can lay no claims to Thomas Jefferson’s wealth and property and money. So, yeah, but we don’t want to have these conversations. These conversations fall on the ears of the likes of Teresa Sullivan as inflammatory, you know. And it seems to me that it is only if when we talk about, “Well, we need to have a conversation about race.” No, we don’t. I mean people talk about racism in the egregious manifestations of racism, which actually kills people as if, you know, “Okay, come into my parlor. Here’s a sherry? Would like some sherry. What would you like? I mean if this is just polite. I have always resented the idea that we are going approach these serious issues through the rhetoric of conversation, right? Again, I think it should be completely possible to talk about the language and rhetoric that is… that incentivizes change as almost of necessity, needing to be strident. What does it get us? So, we can agree to disagree. All of these mollifying terminologies that we invent and summon, right? And so, yeah, you… who has the kind of disposition to mollification? If you are from my background and your background, you don’t have the disposition to mollification. Why would you?
NH: Well, when you have all the privilege, why wouldn’t you tell everybody else, “calm down!” Would you like some of this? I’m gonna have a glass and also, it’s not a big deal. There’s no reason to get so upset it’s like because whoever gets to decide whether or not to even have the conversation is coming from that position of privilege.
DMcD: And so, these people then want to order because in the emotional labor, we are expected to perform in the face of these crises which are not of our making but somehow, we’re expected to stop exactly what we’re doing and go and give a lecture. And I have been refusing to do that of late because all of that is busy work. And all of that is functions in relation to the machinery of diversity so that constantly… you can appeal to things you’re doing, right? We did this. We are building the memorial. We changed the name of Barringer Hall. We are doing things. Because the university needs to at least provide its public the appearance of working toward change, but the appearance of working toward change is highly symbolic. Now symbolism has its place. I would be the first to say that. But basically to mount a campaign of transformation around symbol alone is to be mounting something on very friable ground. I mean, it’s not just about changing the names of buildings. And I say to people on the day that the name of Barringer Hall was named to Pinn Hall, then somebody should have been ready with fifteen med school scholarships. It’s easy to do these things and that we cannot…
NH: They don’t cost anything.
DMcD: They don’t cost anything. We cannot keep falling for the “okey-doke.” And we really do need to say, “Until you do this.” Because people do this all the time. I mean, how is it I… heaven forbid that I should say this out loud because then I’ll be fired from the University because this will be read as anti-Semitic, but there are all of these things we can and cannot say about Israel. You cannot say anything in support of Palestinians that is not then presumed to be… So, who has free speech? Well Marc Lamont Hill learned pretty quickly that he doesn’t have free speech, right? Talk Tucker Carlson and that crew can say whatever they want to say. But you cannot say anything about Palestinians without then having the yoke of anti-Semitism hung around your neck. And so, it seems to me that in the same way that people say until which time like I’m already looking at all of the things… Today, I’m sure you must have read it where we cannot do international business with this country, that country, and the other country and that if we do, we’re liable for this, that and the other. I didn’t read it closely but people all the time say until Syria changes its human rights policies, we will not do business with Syria. I think black people in these institutions need to say until you are really serious about change, deeply structural change, not fringe change, no, don’t count on me to come to the to the teach-in. I’m not… That is more work for me. And so.
NH: To your point, I think this institution in these symbolic tangential ways, is attempting to deal with the problem of white supremacy on the backs of black bodies. And that is not the solution, right? White supremacy is a white problem. And so, to say let’s get the handful black and brown folks we have and make them do the labor to present an outward image that suggests we’re doing something, is in itself entirely problematic, incorrect solution to a very large problem.
DMcD: Absolutely. And then to pay people. To pay people. I met with a group of people last weekend. They had been in the workshop. I don’t know if you were in the workshop last summer on teaching race, but basically I told them, you know, when I talk to people, I really like them to know what my positions are so would mean it’s truth in advertising. So, I do not need to speak to you. Dorothy Bach asked me to, but you here, I need to tell you I oppose that initiative and I need to tell you why I oppose that initiative. What does it mean to say: we are going to take this extreme moment as a time to look at our racial history? And that all the while we are starving entities of the University that have been doing this work since their inception. We’re actually going to pay people who don’t think about it. I mean to me there was something grossly wrong with that picture and then that who was consulted? In the face of it on the local television was a group of white people. This is deeply problematical. And so, how do you say what is it and how insulting to say: you can bring everybody up to speed who is going to go into a classroom come September in a week’s time. People have devoted their entire scholarly careers to this. So, to me, that was looking at race in a cheap way, in an insulting way, in a way that did not compel me to take anything seriously. So, when I hear from you that it was not successful, I am not surprised because it is….It’s it’s… The likelihood that it would not be successful was already built into its very conception. Right. And that when you are trying to do something just to be doing. This is the thing and that’s what I kept saying sometimes in the face of certain kinds of crises, you just need to be still. You know? And for many people that is an abdication of a kind of political responsibility. Maybe it will be in some instances. It may be not in others, but I was brought up by people… my great-grandmother was one who said when people are going crazy around you and especially in any finite parameters, that is the time for you to be very still. Don’t take your eye off them. Just be very very still.
JP: There’s another Ellison quote that you have referenced in the past…. from the end of the invisible, Invisible Man: “hibernation….”
DMcD: Oh yes, “Hibernation is covert preparation for more overt action,” right. And he was right because this is the character it kind of thank you for reminding me of that because that line in the novel comes from the narrator. But the narrator is referring to this character called “Ras the Exhorter.” So, Ras spends his days on various soap boxes in Harlem exhorting. All right. And so, in one of these exhortations a rioter erupts. And so, Ras is running underground and he’s down there underground in a cellar or cave being lit by the electrical company unbeknownst to the electrical company. And so, the narrator says hibernation is covert preparation for more overt action. Yeah, and I do believe that. Because there will always be people who are, you know, the shock troops, people who are on the front lines. I mean when you think about transformation when you think about revolution, this is a constant struggle. When Angela Davis borrowing from the anonymous voices of the many thousand gone, “freedom is a constant struggle.” That’s what she meant. So, you cannot be in this struggle without taking some time out. And you got to take some time out to strategize, to think. Because again, white supremacy has you locked in reactive mode. And when you were constantly in reactive mode, you will be worn out absolutely. You will be worn out and I think that that’s a part of its ingenuity as well. You keep on reacting. You keep on believing that there is something you must do right now. How many teach-ins have we had? How long have we been talking about teach-ins at least since Berkeley in the 1960s? Where are we now? We have had teach-ins. The latest incarnation is the syllabus for this that and the other. Also, as if simply learning about something is the root of transformation. Learning is essential, but this is not work that is going to be done at the level of the classroom. It’s not going to be done at the level of the syllabus. It’s going to be the classroom and the syllabus in tandem with a whole bunch of other things. And if it is the syllabus, it’s going to need to be a syllabus that is truly disruptive or that at least has disruptive potential. And the potential to disrupt what’s being taught elsewhere. We don’t have any of these syllabi checking each other, right? I’m sure there is a lot coming out of the History Department that I wouldn’t teach. I wouldn’t expose to students. All right. But the again the additive philosophy. Because it’s at… we’ve had the additive philosophy for a while, but it operates now in truly benign ways and seemingly magnanimous ways. By which I mean, you know, have the Multicultural Center over here, have La Rasa over here, have the Latinx over here. So, you have all of these, you know, exhibitions of tolerance for difference, but they’re all in their own arenas that none of them… and I think students have done a good job in some cases of combining forces to take on particular issues. I was quite impressed with a group that was working on the issue of tuition. They were very informed, they did a lot of research, but by and large, you see, even activism becomes a commodity. Even activism becomes commodified and so in many cases, this is not necessarily about change. This is about, “I am now on the platform.” And I as the spokesperson who has the mic for now, before I drop it a lot can come my way. So, people are actually making money. You give… and then again in fairness to the people who may have applied and wanted the $5,000. We are paid nine months out of the year, you know, not everybody is near retirement. Not everybody makes the money I make. So, for many people in the summer, I’m sure $5,000 was like a lot of money. So, I don’t begrudge them wanting that but there’s something bankrupt about wanting to teach people or introduce them to pedagogies of critique and resistance while basically telling the Woodson Institute you can live on starvation wages and whatever you want to do. You can go cup in hand in get from people. But we’re going to drop five thousand dollars to forty people. And before that, we have this fund so people are applying for money left and right. There was a lot of money to be had. What if we had taken that money and began that… use it as the basis of an endowment for Woodson? I gather Studies in Women and Gender is on course for endowment because there are a lot of LGBTQ donors with deep pockets, so they are going to be endowed. So, basically it because this is when you know of university is invested in seeing what you do as necessary at a foundational level to it’s very operations. Because institutions only endow what they value. They endow what they value and that they didn’t endow the Julian Bond professorship until after he died is very very telling, all right. So, James unless you turn off the mic… I don’t know what has gotten into me.
JP: When you’re in… isn’t there something about getting the spirit or something.
DMcD: You know, but I have been mild all day but somehow.
JP: It’s the occasion of a good guest.
JP: A good conversation mate.
DMcD: Yes. Noelle.
NH: Well, you have the history. I mean, your… The experiences that you’ve had in this institution and I mean your personal struggle for this department, for this University, for these students, for the faculty and staff. I mean. Yeah, I could listen to you talk all day. I just think you’re coming from, you know, such a wealth of expertise, but also just the experience that you’ve had here and the things that you’ve seen and this wiliness of white supremacy that you’ve personally been battling within the confines of this institution for a long time now.
DMcD: A long time. Absolutely. And they are ready for me to be done fighting them. You know, they are so ready for me to be done battling and I just tell them, you know, you will mess right around and, you know, don’t bother me. I will retire when I’m good and ready, you know.
NH: Well, this is why that legacy I mean it can’t… That can’t go when you go. Of course, you’re entitled to retirement and, you know, life after this and not to be, you know, confined to this experience forever. But thinking more about how do we make sure that there’s this inner generational transmission and that there is this stability in the presence of that fight because… And the wisdom that you have to offer so many of us who are just now entering into this space and the way that we need to attend to that and leverage that as we continue to move forward as opposed to, you know, showing up as if this work has not been happening for decades.
DMcD: It has been happening for decades and I think one of the things is the ways is the ways in which white supremacy divides us against each other as marginalized communities. Because I’m telling you, I would say to anybody who wanted to listen. I have… The battles that I have had to confront, have been equal in ferocity from black people as they have been from… Not a majority of blacks but those…
NH: The false positives, right? Isn’t that what [Eduardo] Bonilla-Silva says?
DMcD: Right. Exactly.
NH: And when you were saying like when you were talking about representation in administration and I was thinking, “Yeah.” And not just like physical, right? Because we like… Fox News finds these people all the time. Like you can handpick the people who look like, you know, your group but who have absolutely aligned themselves with white supremacist ideology.
DMcD: Absolutely. And, you know, there are people that I have and some black people argue that I have. I mean, I have to keep doing the work that I do because I know that’s a lie. And, you know, it’s just completely cannot be further from the truth. But I think that this is what we haven’t learned. And then the importance of promoting, getting out of the way the university’s run, we always want to be doing things with other people who are working on rights, other people of color because we know this is how white supremacy succeeds in thinking, well you’re all over here and that’s where you belong. I think we have to be constantly shaking up these silos and these fiefdoms in building coalitions and in actually promoting the work of people as best we can. Because, you know, we get looked at now as mainly a unit to ratify. Will you co-sponsor this? Will you co-sponsor that? No, as black people we have to be doing things together so that it is less likely that they can peel us off. It’s it is a wily thing. Whiteness will survive. It finds ingenious ways.