Interviewee: Lisa Woolfork, Associate Professor of English Literature at the University of Virginia
Interviewer(s): Deborah E. McDowell; James Perla
Interview date: 2018-07-23
Interview Summary: Interview with Lisa Woolfork, Associate Professor of English at UVa. The interview took place at the Carter G. Woodson Institute. In it, Woolfork discussed the shrouding of the Thomas Jefferson statue on September 11th 2017, the responsibility of institutions during times of crisis, and Jefferson’s grievances in the Declaration of Independence.
Keywords: Thomas Jefferson, #Charlottesville, the Declaration of Independence, slavery, Sally Hemings, rape
Transcription: Hahna Cho
the Shrouding of UVA's Jefferson Statue on September 11, 2017
James Perla: One of the things that I guess we’re interested about was kind of thinking about the project of ways to think about Jefferson in broader, more complicated or just complicated ways. Trying to complicate his legacy a little bit. And the moment that sticks out for us that you might have some connections to is the moment of the shrouding of the statue [the Jefferson statue] in the fall of what was that September 2017? Were you there during that event?
Lisa Woolfork: Yes, I was there. It was in the evening. I remember it was raining and students had climbed up to put a black shroud over the statue. And there was also a sign that said “Black Lives Matter.” And this was an action that was, I believe, led by the Graduate Student Alliance, which works in support of [1:00] EVASU, but also lots of community members came out. A lot of faculty from Religious Studies and other departments came to support the students. Some who had been absent because they were either out of town for the action on August 11th or there but not there. So, there were a lot of people coming out to lend support.
JP: Solidarity of sorts. So, can you describe the scene?
LW: I believe it was a two-pronged approach. Students had been assembled at the President’s house. Then they walked from the house across, down grounds, down that part of the grounds, the arts grounds, and across the street to assemble in front of the statue. In the meantime, some of the faculty, students, community members, came from the lawn side, came up over the Rotunda. In some ways, following a similar path that the white supremacists had followed to get to, to surround the statue. So, we [2:00] kind of met up and converged. Some came from the Chapel area. So, it really was a nice kind of convergence of support with students, graduate students, faculty, community members, there were people there who are not affiliated with UVA at all who were there to support the students and to really, I think, resist this narrative that the white supremacists had laid down there a month earlier.
JP: Yeah. And so what was… How many people would you say were there?
LW: I can’t remember. I can’t remember but it was quite a few. It was more than quite a few. I’m sorry, I can’t say what the exact numbers were.
JP: Yeah, not that crowd size matters…
Deborah McDowell: Only some people are concerned with crowd size… People with small hands.
JP: What was the feeling like?
LW: It was really… To be standing out in the dark and in the rain, it was still a very empowering and affirming moment to kind of place yourself in the same place where students have been made vulnerable and attacked. Some students, some staff, faculty who had been harmed during that time and to kind of reclaim that space and to be willing to stand out there, I thought was just a testament to the resolve that we as Charlottesville people want to write their own story. They want to rewrite it. They want to actually close the gap between the promises of this nation and the practices of this nation and it seems like that moment was an example of that.
James Perla: It must have been so raw still I mean, what was that? So, that was September?
LW: It was September 11th. I think it was exactly one month after and so that was chronologically one month distant, but I know for some people it didn’t [4:00] feel like much time had elapsed last at all. And so, I think that it’s really difficult to underestimate the weight of that event once you’ve been in the middle of it or once you’ve been a witness to it or once you’ve been a failed witness as a colleague has described.
JP: What do you mean by that?
LW: I mean, a colleague has written this really great piece that appeared pretty much maybe a week or two after the events of August 11th, and he was standing at the church on the outside of the church when the white supremacists marched up and he saw everything. But he didn’t go over because the training that people had gotten was to not intervene, was to protect the church, etc. etc. And so, it was a very morally complicated time and actually the piece that he wrote is called “Moral Trauma.” For someone who is an ethicist or someone who [5:00] is… who wants to do the right thing about how challenging it is to kind of believe that you’re taking a stand in faith and in resolve that also might leave others vulnerable. And so, I think there’s a lot of people who are still working through those types of decisions, people that I know who wish they had done more or weren’t present but wish that they had been. It makes you think about what the place of the university is, what the task of the university is, what the work of the university is, and what it means to be in community. And so, there’s lots of people who have been thinking about this for much longer than I have in this way. I mean for me before, community involvement was being the president of my child’s PTO at the elementary school. Those were the things that I was very comfortable with doing, I do those all the time, but this type of resistance was [6:00] new to me and like many people I was galvanized by the 2016 presidential election and just felt like I could not be silent.
Origins of A11 and A12, 2017 in Blue Ribbon Commission
JP: Yeah, and you were involved in some of the monument debates around the Blue Ribbon Commission as well. That is that fair to say?
LW: Yes. Yes. I believe that a lot of people… I think it was interesting that the Blue Ribbon Commission which had been impaneled by City Council to study the monuments and their place in the city had been impaneled for a little while. I think it might have been impaneled maybe in March or February. And the meetings had gone on with a lot… with not very much public commentary, but after November when Trump was elected, people started showing up to those meetings and it was really funny because you’d have these older white folks who have been coming to every one so that they could talk about their conservative, you know, I’m sorry not conservative, Confederate, great grandfather who [7:00] served in the war and how they were so proud of their legacy were stunned at people coming to talk about these monuments as racist. And where have these… I think one woman actually said, “Where did these people come from? I’ve been coming to these meetings since March and no one has complained about the monuments being bad and now all of a sudden, here they come saying that they’re about racism. That’s nonsense.” And I think that a lot of people were shaking out of this melees or apathy or whatever when Trump won and it changed people’s approach to politics beyond just the measures of voting.
JP: Yeah, you know, that is so true. And so, returning to that moment of I guess I mean because I’m thinking too I mean like we always… We were all observing and sort of like reluctant and compromised kind of onlookers. I know that night I was with a group before they went, some of the organizers before [8:00] they went to the statue and I went home because I had plans to to be out on, you know, on the day and I was like, I’m gonna go to sleep. I need to be ready for this and so to go home and kind of go to sleep while all this is happening, you know, so I think everyone has those sort of moments of wondering like what one might have done.
LW: I think that’s absolutely true. I remember I was at the church and I was actually doing an interview with a couple of outlets. I think one was The Guardian and the other one was Sojourners, I believe. And Cornel West and me and these two reporters were having this conversation about white supremacy and memorialization and all of these things and it was, you know, pretty exciting. And then someone rushed in and said the Klan is outside with fire stay here. And it was really just a staggering moment. Like, “What do you what do you mean?” I [9:00] don’t understand… It was hard to process like what was happening and as we tried to wrap up the conversations and I think I had thought up until that point that the work that I did as… That I do as a scholar and cultural critic and professor was to tell the story, was to make sure that the media represented the story in a powerful way and didn’t underestimate white supremacy, that they didn’t make false equivalencies. That was what I thought primarily was what the work was about. And I had been, you know, thinking of course in other ways. I was there for the Klan rally in July. So, you know, but I think that was more like a spectacle, carnival. The Klan was kind of in this little tiny box in the court square and the police were surrounding them actually facing us. They had [10:00] their backs to the Klan and their guns and bodies and stuff facing the crowd but like, everybody was there, you know, elementary school kids, high school kids, you know, they were… It was a lot of people who were there and we think about those moments of what you might consider a lapse after that event, after the Klan rally, I thought it was over. We had followed the Klan to this parking garage and then they the police had started to push into the crowd. And they had not yet I think declared it unlawful, but they were pushing and pushing and pushing and someone fell down and we had to kind of get them up and then they said… And then so thought… And then the Klan kind of drove away and I was like, “Okay, I think this is finished.” So, me and Ben, my husband, we leave and then we get a call like four minutes later that the state police have shot off tear gas, two [11:00] canisters of tear gas into the crowd and I was like, I don’t understand how that went so sideways so fast and we turned right around and went back and when we got back and parked the car and got out there were still people with stuff streaming down their faces. You could still like smell this tart mist in the air. And so, these moments of like, I don’t know it just… It was something like I had not experienced or had expected to experience, you know, as a matter of being a person in that location, which should have been a good indication for the events of August 11 and 12. But even as I knew that cognitively, I didn’t know it physically.
the role of a scholar or public intellectual during times of crisis
JP: Yeah, to pick up on a thread of, you know, you mentioned that your role as a scholar, a critic. I mean, how do you… What do you think of that one’s role? I [12:00] mean in light of events such as these a year on have you meditated on that rule and how you fit within within the larger context?
LW: I mean, I think for me, I think some people say, “Oh, you’re an activist” and I still don’t think of myself that way. I do organize with Black Lives Matter, I’m involved with several other community groups, I seem to go to a lot of meetings and I go to City Council a lot but I don’t necessarily see that as an activist as much as just someone who wants the world to be better for her children than it is right this minute. And we know that this kind of social change is not inevitable. That it is the product of labor. And I see myself as putting in that labor on the front end so that my kids don’t have to do it later. And so, maybe that’s just too pat. And so, people would obviously say you are an organizer therefore you are an activist or whatever, but I don’t [13:00] necessarily see it that way and I also do think a lot about narrative. I think about that a lot when I read the paper when I read about how the paper places things and frames things. All of that is about how a story gets presented. And that is part of the larger work of cultural criticism is to kind of understand the place and power of individuals within a larger context and I’m just doing my best to kind of, to take that seriously and whenever I can, whenever I have an opportunity, to amplify certain stories about Charlottesville I do them either by going to City Council meetings, by writing emails, by helping to advance or develop certain campaigns around issues. You know, that to me just seems an important part of making Charlottesville the place that [14:00] it already thinks it is.
JP: It’s interesting that it seems like you’re avoiding the term activist, right? Or not, maybe not avoiding but like why like thinking about the tradition and of protest and how protest these days has been seen as something that’s like, you know, like I’m just doing that like things… Like what’s the role? I mean, I think it’s interesting that like, you know, at this moment, you know, I think as scholars or as people who may be associated with the university, it’s like, oh, I’m not like this part of this group. I’m just like helping out or like I don’t know if that if that’s fair to say.
LW: I don’t know if my reluctance is that I find the term would be stigmatized. I don’t… I’m not concerned about stigma I think for me maybe it’s because the word activist has a really high bar. It’s someone who has dedicated like 100% of [15:00] their life to this particular cause and so for me, I don’t see activists as something that I would like to avoid or feel like no, no, don’t say that about me. I think I see it the opposite way. And I feel like for me, I realized I have, although I’m an African-American woman, I have a lot of privilege in the way that Charlottesville operates. There’s a lot of things that I can do that a lot of other African-American women and men can’t do. And so for me, it’s part of kind of recognizing that my privilege allows me to have a job where I get to write and to teach and to talk about things, right? Like that’s really a quite… And so I’m not saying that no one who is a professor could be an activist. I mean that that seems nonsensical. But I think one of the reasons that I might avoid it to describe myself, even though I might have been described that [16:00] way about other people, is because I think I have a really high bar. And maybe it’s a bar that nobody actually can meet.
DMcD: And that brings me to a question that’s only tangentially connected to, or maybe not tangentially, but as I listen to you and you say this is a high bar and you think about people who laid everything on the line, we study them, people who gave lives and limbs and absolutely, but I’m very interested in the ways in which well after let’s say, choosing randomly, the height of the Civil Rights Movement, many of those activists who gave it all began to talk about the need for respite. That this is a long-term struggle. This is a struggle the end of which nobody can anticipate so therefore everybody in it has to know when they need to pause. When they need to rest. When a [17:00] respite might be called for so that they can live to fight another day. So that the absence of a person at a particular rally may not necessarily say anything about the degree of their commitments, but that in all social struggle, effective outcomes have to be considered in relation to preservation, preserving yourself, preserving your communities, Long-winded more statement than question.
LW: No, I think I would agree with that. I think I would absolutely agree with that and that there is and that there’s a variety of roles that people play in order for movements and causes to advance successfully. That’s what people describe as diversity of tactics, that there’s different ways, there’s different organizational strategies, there’s some people who are comfortable doing, you know, one form of organizing and one form of action, you [18:00] know, nonviolent direct action, violent direct action, mass arrests. There’s people who provide support to those people who are willing to do those things there people there that run media and help to document all these things. So, and I think that it’s I think you’re absolutely right. It’s not it’s not worth it to me to kind of start passing out like, you know, “Woker than thou” badges, you know, or, you know, things that say, you know, well you’ve done this but you haven’t done that. I think that that’s such a dangerous… And I think that a lot of movements have that problem and I think you know, although we idealize aspects of the Civil Rights Movement I think that they had those same problems. And so, I think it’s worth… that we can kind of benefit from that history. We can benefit from that lesson to say that we all want to get to the same place but we’re not going to do it in the exact same way all at [19:00] the exact same time that it’s just not it’s not practical.
the role of protest in the nation's history
JP: Because this project is about Jefferson, thinking about the role of protest and the role of taking action and that’s kind of where I was leading in the question about… I’m trying to avoid the term activist like why shouldn’t we talk about protest? Why should we have to qualify the fact that we’re out protesting things? And so, thinking about sort of this tradition of protests at our nation’s very foundations.
LW: Absolutely. No, I think that’s absolutely excellent. And I think it’s so interesting to me the way that people who are critical of movements like Black Lives Matter, for example, want to claim somehow an inherent passivity and resignation to America. I mean, if you peel back the thinnest layer of American history, you get a revolution. How do they think that happened? That did not [20:00] happen because people politely wrote to the king and said, “Hey, you know, if you don’t mind, we’d like to get our freedom right now.” That didn’t happen. Instead they rose up. And they declared, they had a list of demands, they had a list of grievances. And so, I find it very interesting particularly since the way that people tend to read Jefferson like they read the Bible, right? Very selectively and self-servingly. They they don’t kind of they don’t go as far as you know, of course, you know Article 14 [query] in Notes on the State of Virginia, but they’ll even get all the way to all the grievances in the Declaration of Independence and there are two that I really like and that have found that if you read them in a really interesting, allegorical way, is when, one in [21:00] particular one of my favorites, is a great foundation for resistance that is paralleled to what we’re living through right now. So, one of the grievances that the colonists made against the king was the enforcement of taxes. And so, Chris Hayes has a great book about this that’s called A Colony in a Nation. And in it he says that you know, when we think about taxes today, we think about, you know, you file your W-2 with the IRS and you have to file all these different paper works and then you send in your bill, you get a refund. But before that was the case, the police, the Redcoats would be used as tax enforcers. They could come to your house, kick your door, take your stuff to get you to pay your taxes. And so, one of the grievances that the colonists had was about that system, about basically being over-policed. And there’s a line in the [22:00] Declaration and it says
“he has sent swarms of officers among us to harass our people and eat out their substance.”
And for me, if that doesn’t describe Ferguson, Missouri, if that doesn’t describe the life of under this hyper criminalized gaze of policing in the lives of black people not just the actual state, right? With the police shooting black people, pulling guns on black women at the beach or all of these things, but just regular things. Like going to a store and using the wrong coupon or too many coupons or a coupon that a white manager doesn’t recognize therefore I’m going to call the police for this $17.99 item, right? That seems to me, the same basis for revolution that helped to found this country. There are still people who have those grievances [23:00] today and they’re black people. And so, it becomes really important to kind of think about Jefferson and his paradoxes and to kind of fight this idea that people like to say when you want to critique Jefferson, you say, “Oh, well, he was a man of his time and, you know, he didn’t know any better” and that is completely false because we know people also of his time critiqued him during his time and after his time, you know? It’s not like everyone thought that slavery or the foundations of liberty were going to be secure, you know, if slavery existed. This is something that Jefferson himself critiqued himself in his time. So, this notion to somehow preserve Jefferson as a saint to kind of be engaged in this kind of retrospective hagiography, right? Is so… I’m not sure where it comes from. [24:00] But it seems like there are elements of Jefferson, the revolutionary aspects, that really do speak to the moment we have now.
DMcD: Very important point to make. We don’t tend to think of Jefferson… We think of him as a revolutionary, but often in the abstract. But to point to that article just as you’ve done and to say that there is in that article strong and direct implication for what black people in cities like Ferguson are coming up with. The second article you mentioned is your favorite one. What’s the second one?
LW: I’m trying to remember it right now. I’m not sure if I can even remember it, but I know… I love that one about: “He has sent swarms of officers among us to harass our people, eat out their substance.”
JP: Is there one about seizing property?
LW: Is it the property one or is it?
JP: The one about um, immigrate, uh immigration?
LW: Yeah, but that one is my favorite. I’m sorry. I think I missed… I think, I know I have two that I really like but the harassment one. The idea of like law enforcement harassment going all the way back to the founding of this nation and yet people can’t understand why this is a problem. I think it was in, it might have been the one about the Castle Doctrine. The Castle Doctrine and this was a doctrine that England had I think it is the one about unlawful search and seizure. And so, England had this doctrine called the Castle Doctrine and so, even if a man’s home be as humble as a hovel or as elaborate as a castle, it doesn’t matter, you know, he has the right to bar anybody from entry. And the British violated that when they were coming [26:00] to seize the property that they believed that the king was owed and so they were resisting that as well.
Teaching Jefferson in UVA's new curriculum
DMcD: Switching subject slightly, as a participant in the new curriculum, the engagement series, and teaching Jefferson within the context of that series, what do you most want to impart to your students? What do you think our students most need to know about Jefferson, to release about Jefferson, to expand?
LW: I think that one of the things I try to impart to students is that all of this is their legacy and their inheritance. Not just the Jefferson that, you know, who has his house on the back of the nickel or at least he used to, not just the Jefferson that the university idolizes and idealizes. But that the flaws of [27:00] the institution are also something that attracted them or resulted in a place that drew them here. And so, when we started the semester last year, this was pretty soon after the events of August 11 and 12 and I talked about how two of the organizers for this event, Jason Kessler and Richard Spencer, were alums of the University of Virginia just like you will be. And so, you need to think about what does that mean for you? What does that mean for what you have chose to participate in and to advance… and turning the question back to them. You know, what, is it about the place that you feel needs… what kind of story does the University needs to tell about itself in order to be held accountable for that past as well as to be held accountable for missteps in the present? And they took that very seriously and so they embarked on projects [28:00] that allowed them to look at the relationships between the university and the city. The entire curriculum studied the Rockfish Gap report, which was I think the 1818 citing of the university and why it ended up in this area as opposed to, I believe, Stanton was an option and Lexington might have been an option. They ended up, the Board of Governors at the time, ended up installing it here because this was where the most white people in the state lived. And so, then we get to think about like, what does that mean that this place exists here as opposed to anywhere else in the state simply because of a geographic work that linked it to whiteness. And so, these are some of the things that we talked about and in addition to looking at Ta-Nehisi Coates and talking about [29:00] Coates in the context of some of the articles, on the Notes on the State of Virginia, we talked about eugenics and biology, we talked about lots of different things. It was a short course. These are seven week courses that meet twice a week. And so they, there’s, you know, this, we have to be really kind of focused and direct in what we did. But the topic of the course that I’m referring to now was called, “Race, Racism, Colony and Nation” and in it we talked a lot about racism and where it comes from and the varieties of expressions. We talked about, you know, their own contributions in terms of what it means to them to make an intellectual contribution to this conversation. What had they learned and how do they unlearn? And so, I think that if anything, I think this seems really kind of pat but it’s kind of, for me, a useful thing to [30:00] consider that just because you love something does it mean you can’t critique it at the same time and I think it becomes really important to ask difficult questions of… that love does not require compliance. And that you can’t go into a place like this and expect not to have to deal with difficult things particularly at the time in which they were coming to school. They were coming as what was called the bicentennial class, but their orientation in some way had been on CNN when they got to see white supremacist marching through campus and then the next day, fights in the streets in the town that was soon to be theirs. And so, there are a lot of people who are interested in developing more relationships with the community and I really believe that UVA has not done a sufficient job, despite some structural elements to do so, of repairing this [31:00] town-gown divide, of thinking about how the policies of the university and it’s encroaching through the city has driven down wages, has made a housing crisis, has done all of these things. And yet, turning its back in some way by making people who live here feel as if they are outsiders or dependents.
DMcD: Very interesting point and we cannot have enough discussions about the town-gown relations, but I think if there’s one thing that that August 11th and 12th unearthed for me, is the importance of expanding our understanding of community because the University of Virginia is itself a community. And so, how do we take many of your insights here and apply them to an analysis of this [32:00] community of students, of faculty, from various backgrounds demographics, what needs to be repaired internally?
LW: Goodness, I don’t think this show is long enough for me to talk about all that needs to be repaired internally. And I’ve only been here 18 years so I don’t even know where all the bodies are buried. But it seems to me that I think accountability is the first step, you know, being accountable for things in the past and figuring out how to make actual, material healing and repairs of these things. I think institutions, the job of an institution is to serve and protect the institution. That seems to be what it is. It doesn’t… and that means that you’re not willing to be vulnerable, not willing to admit fault, or to admit wrong because that makes you culpable rather than accountable, [33:00] right? Open to lawsuits or whatever. But I do think that, you know, there’s a lot of power relationships, a lot of things that some would see as window dressing that don’t have a lot of material effect. There is also a lot of complicity both in how the university is telling parts of its story even as its still causing harm and people are being harmed. So, one quick example, recently The Daily Progress, this might have been three or four weeks ago, talked about the admissions rate for new first-year students and they talked about how this was a great class of diversity that might have even been the headline and what we were supposed to gain from this was that, “See? The events of August 11th and 12th they didn’t hurt us,” you know, it was really all fine. But when you read the article and started to look at what they were saying counted as diversity, they were thinking about [34:00] socio-economic diversity. And in fact, the numbers of black students who applied for early decision, which is an early indicator of people who… black folks who will come to UVA, that had gone down. And so, they’re claiming diversity, but they don’t mean racial diversity or they don’t mean black people at least and this… and that black student admissions at least from when I was here when I started 18 years ago, there were far more black students than there are today. And that’s something… how do we repair that? And again, this is nothing against the people who are doing difficult work at admissions and working with the college guides program and doing all of these things to kind of reach out and to include more black students, but I think it requires more institutional will to hire black faculty, to attract and fund and retain black [35:00] students, to acknowledge at least the emotional labor that a lot of black faculty do, all of these things are material things that we could do but seem not to. So, that’s just one example.
Jefferson's paradoxes: ideals and realities
DMcD: So, when I say Jefferson, whether in this context or in his writings, when I say Jefferson, give me five words that come to mind.
LW: And we’re talking about Thomas Jefferson not George Jefferson?
DMcD: Sorry, James. You told me I can’t laugh.
JP: No, you can you can definitely laugh! I don’t run that tight of a ship here.
DMcD: I have a lot of external commentaries so James has me on a leash. Yes, George, not George Jefferson.
LW: Well, that cuts down on all the positive things, or many of the positive things that I might say. But I think, when I think about Jefferson, I think [36:00] about idealism, I think about the distance between practice and ideals, I think about the paradox at the heart of American democracy and the paradox at the heart of this university. I think about someone who wrote about liberty and justice and equality and believed in that, but only to a point. Someone who also believed in a certain form of scientific racism and eugenics. That this is someone who represented the best and the worst of what America could be. And now that we are trying to tell a fuller story, and I know Monticello has been doing a lot of hard work in that for many years, now that we’re trying to tell a fuller story, we can say these things. We can say these things. We can tell the whole truth and not just the part that makes Jefferson into this deity. That we [37:00] can admit that there are fundamental flaws in the American experiment and these flaws are still having profound implications for how the rest of the world works and how in particular, justice works in the lives of black people in this city and in this university.
JP: To bring it sort of full circle to where we started, shrouding the statue?
LW: So, the shrouding of the statue was, I thought, a very powerful moment of students, claiming a certain desire to tell a larger story about Jefferson. Now, this was not the first time the statue was shrouded. It was shrouded I think back in the ’20s, after some election that the students didn’t like the outcome of and so they shrouded the statue in grief. What the shrouding of the [38:00] statue, even beyond what the students intentions might have been, was the fallout. The consequences. And you might recall there were two letters that President Sullivan released about the statute and the shrouding. The one that she released to alums kind of… said that… used the word, actually used the word “desecrate.” And so, she, in speaking to alums, she was imagining that the people she was writing to, who were probably just the funders not alums of color, but to those who had funded the university, they consider Jefferson sacred and someone who should not be covered or somehow hidden in any way or questioned or challenged. The one she wrote to us, to the university community, was a bit more flexible and fluid about Jefferson as a slave holder, etc, etc, [39:00] etc. And now we have a new building that we named after a black woman and look what we have done. And so again, the instincts of an institution is to protect the institution and both letters did that but one of them did it at the expense of students and calling what they’d done sacrilege as if somehow we are at a monastery and not an institution where we’re meant to ask difficult questions.
Anniversary Events for August 11 and 12, 2017
DMcD: So, again, speaking of where we are almost at an anniversary year, weeks away and we can see the preparation for… that’s been underway to again reassure another entering class and their anxious parents that all is well inside the [40:00] Academical Village. So, I was quite taken by the letter that Dean Risa Goluboff sent to the university summarizing and wrapping up the work of the Dean’s Commission. And that committee was appointed in the immediate aftermath as you know to formulate a variety of institutional responses to those events. So, I was taken with the wording in that letter: “We have healed on an individual and a collective… at an individual and collective level.” So, had I, and I will try to carve out a space and see if she can give me a space to have her elaborate on that, how would you talk about our investments as an institution in that this too is a part of preserving an institutional image. [41:00] This investment in healing and resolution and a declaration of resolution almost as if that say, reconciliation and healing can be conjured through verbal fiat.
LW: It really is quite disturbing and problematic to have the dean of an institution tell the rest of the institution that the community is all fine. That we have healed on an individual and a collective level. I don’t think that anyone should presume to make that type of assessment and to whom is that being addressed? Who needs to be told and reassured that we’re all right? And who benefits from that? And so, I think that once you answer that question, then you… [42:00] it helps to give a better answer as to what the stakes are here. And what… and I find it very distressing that the that the notions of healing and resolution and forward-thinking have become co-opted really just to get most people to shut the hell up and keep quiet so we can just go about as we were. And it seems to me that the events for example that the university is planning, there’s one on healing and restitution, not restitution, that’s absolutely not what they’re interested in. On healing and repair. Nope. Nope. Not repair, not repair, not repair.
DMcD: Its reconciliation. It’s a law school conference.
LW: Not that one. There’s another one. There’s another one that is going to happen on, I believe, on August 11th, and they’re now collecting tickets by lottery. You might be able to win a lottery ticket where you can come and be reconciled.
DMcD: And bring all your effects in a plastic bag and you cannot get through the [43:00] metal detectors without the plastic bag.
JP: Talk about search and seizure.
LW: That’s right. Those stadium procedures that we have to have now with these clear backpacks to make sure you’re reconciled. Well, this is interesting because downtown for the same weekend, there’s a whole list of prohibited items that you are not allowed to bring. Police will be scanning to kind of take away things that look like weapons, but you’re fine with a gun. You can bring a gun but you can’t bring, you know, a can of hairspray or something like that, but I digress.
DMcD: We need to get at that.
LW: Wait, first I have to talk about I have to talk about this University event that is coming up. And again, this seems to me another example of how one might, I don’t know. I’m not sure exactly what is the goal of this event. I think it’s [44:00] hard to say is this public relations? Is it community relations? Is it… like what the overall objective is? But it does seem to me to be about, you know, about basically holding a space in some ways for the mishaps of the past, but I don’t see how… The one thing about universities that it’s really big and while one hand is trying to reconcile, the other hand is undoing. And so, you asked about like what lessons in resistance and activism we might see within our own community, I have been really taken in observing this hiring of the Trump administrator at the Miller Center. And the Miller Center scholars are pretty upset about this. There was no… there was no transparency, there was no general process. And the Miller Center is a bipartisan center where left and right and [45:00] Democrats and conservatives all get together all the time. So, it’s not like they don’t want to hear from the other side. It’s that person represents, as Nicole Hemmer said, who’s a professor at the Miller Center, not the difference between Democrat and Republican or between conservative and liberal but between liberal and illiberalism. And that this is not… we don’t have to kind of hire this person to teach this concept when you could have it… She said, “I don’t object to him coming to here and give a speech but to hire him and to give him a public Ivy parachute is the danger.” And so, to do this one year after Trump said there are many good many fine people on both sides and this person supports that policy and support child separations at the border and all of these things, [46:00] these are not intellectual exercises. These are acts of white supremacy that don’t border on fascism but are fascist lite, you know? To have the university kind of be doing both at the same time, seems like, I’m not sure if they’re playing both sides against the middle, I’m not sure if they’re hedging? And I believe that this community does need healing and repair. But it also needs honesty and vulnerability for that to happen. And that there a lot of people here that are still wounded and hurting and the institution has yet to do more than say we have healed and we’re okay.
Healing and Civility
DM: Indeed. I don’t know. In fact, I doubt that it will make its way into a formal finished podcast, but I feel the need to say that it is evident to my eyes and it is evident to my sensibilities that you are still very injured from [47:00] this event. It is quite evident. I’ve known you for 19 years. This has deeply affected you. And I think seeing you, hearing you, looking into your eyes, it is evident to me that you as but one person are an example of the dangers if not, the irresponsibilities of suggesting that time has passed, we’ve moved on, nothing to see here, because it is evident to me that you are still living with the effects of that weekend.
LW: Absolutely, absolutely. And I think the community is as well. And I think that what we see at the university level is also paralleled at the level of the city. And so, there’s a lot of conversation about civility these days in [48:00] Charlottesville. “Let’s make Charlottesville civil again.” Or there’s a wonderful story in the New York Times and part of it included a comment from a downtown business owner who said, you know, “I’ve been in this community for 28 years and I’ve never heard anyone complain about these statues until those outside agitators came in.” And I thought, “Have I time travelled to like 1961? Like really?” And it’s like well, of course when you only talk to other business owners and you don’t know any black people, it makes perfect sense that this would be… this would seem like a completely irregular experience to you. But these are the types of folks who are calling for politeness and civility and I really have been urging people to be careful about not allowing fascists to harness our civic virtues and these institutions. So, in the same way that [49:00] they’ve harnessed the courts and the, you know, you have someone like Kessler suing an activist for yelling at him in public and winning five dollars. Just like, you know, the same people that beat up DeAndre Harris in the parking garage, pressed charges against him for assault. Like, these are dangerous things and dangerous people, but they are using the courts, they are using notions of… that we value like civility and politeness to kind of you know normalize white supremacy and that is something that I think that everyone should be alarmed about.
DM: Everyone. I was talking to somebody the other day because back to Jefferson, Jefferson could not be more civil in Notes on [the State of] Virginia. That even in those queries where he’s making the most outlandish claims that are [50:00] racist and racialist, he’s calm. His prose conforms to what most people would consider impersonality, detachment, objectivity. There is civility aplenty on the surface, or few would quarrel, but the idea or the demand for civility is, I would agree with you, is coextensive at this moment with a demand and albeit unspoken to let us do what we want to do, without your complaining and again, this won’t be anything that could make its way into an interview, but the one time Al Sharpton ran for president and people were interviewing him, “Well, Reverend Sharpton. Why are you so angry? Why are you constantly protesting?” And he says, “Well, I’ll tell you what, if you’re pouring piss on my head, I’m not [51:00] gonna call it rain.” And so, we are expected to call things rain and that, you know, someone is beating you and then you’re supposed to say kick me, beat me, make me write bad checks. It is this idea that the demand for civility is coextensive with some of the most repressive, oppressive and violent actions being taken at the same time. And so, civility is one of these terms that has to be considered not in the abstract. It has to be considered in relation in historical time. Audience, speaker, who’s calling for civility?
LW: And if you think about this too and relevant for us in talking about Jefferson, for me, is the notion of southern hospitality. Where do people think southern hospitality came from? This is not just sweet tea and Jesus we were talking about. That is not southern hospitality. Southern hospitality, this idea [52:00] that the South where the, you know, the cotton is high in the living is easy. All of that is manufactured through forced labor and there is no place better to see that than at Monticello. And so, you have this, you know, this beautiful room in the home where they have that dumbwaiter and, you know, it was really a marvel at the time, so say the docents, and, you know, Jefferson will be entertaining and then he would open this door and then food would come out of this closet and he would put in the dirty dishes would go down and then you would close it and basically it’s a dumb waiter and the food is being transported through the floor into the basement where there is a kitchen that must be at all times more than 110 degrees with the fires and all of those things that are running but it hides the means of its production and just like Jefferson and Monticello and [53:00] UVA, hide their slavery in favor of beauty. And so, it’s just like what [Toni] Morrison was saying in Beloved right when Sethe looks at Sweet Home, she says it’s beautiful, but there was not a leaf or a blade a blade of grass on that place that did not make her want to scream and it made her wonder if Hell was a pretty place too. And so, if you look at Monticello, you look at UVA you see how beautiful it is a lot of that is structured by slavery and it was, and he was, Jefferson was a great host. And so, this notion of hospitality, civility, all of these things cloak and conceal white supremacy in its basest forms and today I believe the calls for civility and politeness, to not raise your voice, to not protest, to not complain, is an extension of that.
Sally Hemings exhibit at Monticello and question of terminology: is 'rape' an appropriate term?
DM: Very much so. The exhibition that’s up now at Monticello is, we can’t [54:00] wait to see it and we’re going to take our student interns to see it, and it’s focused on Sally Hemings. But yeah, so you didn’t know about it?
LW: I heard of it, but I’ve not seen it myself. I’ve not been to see it.
DM: We are going and it’s what I’m calling, without having seen it, a non exhibition exhibition in that there is very little, in the material form, that can be a part of the exhibition. I mean, even we don’t have an absolutely definitive image of Hemings and so a shadow has to be projected on the wall to stand in the place where something else might stand. So, when one of the curators talked about the exhibition to the New York Times, she used the term rape. That we should now finally talk about rape at Monticello. And so, I’ve [55:00] wanted to ask as many people as we can, what do you think about that terminology even given all of the ways in which we can de-idealize Jefferson and should. What about the analytical terminology? What terms are appropriate to summon when talking about Jefferson? Is rape useful?
LW: I think that I think the word is absolutely useful. I mean, what other word would you use to have sex with someone who cannot consent to have sex with you? This was Jefferson having sex with a teenager that he owned in body and in spirit. This is someone who he owned, this person and any shadow she might cast. And so to me, even though I believe that there are folks who, people do this a lot less of course than they used to, want to romanticize this as some forbidden [56:00] love or whatever. There’s… it seems significant me that he never freed her. And that there was something about her captivity that was essential to the relationship. And so, I don’t know if you call it compromised consent? I don’t know how it’s even possible to to make that determination. But when someone cannot consent, it’s like having sex with someone who is asleep. Is that rape? I’d say so. You know, this person, you know, her yes, or her no didn’t really matter. And if he wanted it all to work out and be a relationship, then he could have freed her and then courted her and married her and then, you know, he was a former president and rich. He could do whatever he wanted. This was someone who helped to free the nation. Surely he could free one teenager.
JP: What if an interesting about that is that I guess, it’s sort of an… you’re using that as sort of an analogy. So, like what do we have in our contemporary lexicon that can be equivalent to or comparable to that idea of what was happening at that time? So, using using the force of the concept of rape perhaps not the legal sense of what constitutes rape but in terms of an analogy of what that situation might have been like if that’s fair to say.
LW: Yeah. I know maybe the word rape is… it conjures in the minds of some people what maybe the word activist conjures for me. Not that these are both, you know, one is terrible and one is not terrible, but that these are terms that are highly charged and very fraught and very weighted. For some people, you can’t be raped by someone you know. For some people you can’t be raped by someone you’re married to. For some people you can’t be raped if you’re a sex worker. For some people [58:00] you can’t be raped if you’ve had sex with this person before. For some people you can’t be raped unless you conceive. I mean there’s all of these like rules that people want to put on rape that make it as narrow as possible. It’s almost like asking the average white person what is racism? There are no racists to be found anywhere in America apparently except for the KKK, you know, you have to have insignia and a pointed white hood to be a racist these days. But it seems to me that… and I appreciate the kind of challenge of vocabulary, but for me, the system of slavery itself was so corrosive and deeply corrupt that any possibilities, I would say, of mutually, constitutive, sexual relationships are kind of hard to create in that kind of environment. Like I [59:00] think that we have a difficult time kind of imagining that working at all. Maybe one example might be, I think, the Joan Little case from the 1970s? This was a woman who was raped by a prison guard, you know, so like could she even have consented in this case? This person had… she was a kid. She was a teenager. She was a kid. This person had power over her, like I don’t know. It just seems like the system, the structure of the society, the structure of the relationship, was already so tainted and corrupt that how can you have sex with a person you own, a person who has no means or power or volition that’s legally recognizable to their yes, or to their no? And so, for me, rape does work even if you want to think about rape as, you know, I don’t know. It just seems, it’s [60:00] compromised. It’s incredibly compromised.
Keywords for Jefferson
JP: That’s wonderful and I’m thinking too back to your… to your class how you gave an assignment to create a dictionary.
LW: A glossary.
JP: Yeah, can you just talk a bit about that just really briefly because I’m just saying in a sort of or sort of sidebar way that we may adapt that.
LW: Everyone’s copying my idea. There’s a lot of people in the college fellows program, I’m not going to name names because I’m friends with some of these people, but they have copied a lot of my ideas and one of them was to have the students do a glossary. And so, we went through the course for seven weeks, each week we had a theme and each theme had a reading and two keywords attached to them. And for the keywords, they had to write definitions of those keywords and see how they appeared in the reading and how they applied to the context of the class. So that… I gave them all these little bound stitched notebooks and they [61:00] would, you know, fill them out throughout the semester. I mean, it was really useful. So like one week we had them… I had them look at the trailer to I Am Not Your Negro, we read “What to The Slave was the Fourth of July,” and I think we might have watched the Kendrick Lamar video and the two words for that week were independence and freedom. And so, they had to think about those two words. I had them look up… we spent a good amount of time looking at the word “cuck.” And which is… or it started from cuck-servative. This is an alt-right term to describe basically traitors to the white race, you know, usually from back in the day and the you know, 16th, 15th, 17th centuries, a cuck was basically a bird that laid its eggs in another bird’s nest and it meant later on [62:00] when a man was cheated on by his wife.
DM: So that’s where cuckolding comes from.
LW: That’s where cuckolding comes from. And a cuck now is used within the alt-right and white supremacist movement to talk about basically white people who are traitors to the white race. I had them look up Black Lives Matter and talk about that. So, there was a lot of different things that that they did every week and it was that was a really fruitful project. We did eugenics. It was a ton of great terms that students looked up and thought about and came prepared to discuss in class.
JP: What would be your… what would be your keyword for Jefferson?
LW: Oh, that is that was sneaky question, James. The keyword for Jefferson. Well, they did get two and so I’m gonna hedge. Yeah, they got two words. I [63:00] think I might just say liberalism and illiberalism. Like what does it mean to put freedom and bondage at the same time in one person. Someone who espoused the ideas of freedom for some based in the bondage of others.