Mia Bay

JAMES PERLA: The other thing is that there’s a way in which the format, too, you can do a critical analysis of. You know, the idea that we’re supposed to just be voices emanating from a microphone and it’s a little it can be seen as sort of, could be seen as a colonial and right? Yeah, so I think that’s something to keep in mind as well. But yeah, so.

MIA BAY: I started… Just sort of a call and response interview.

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: Yes. You can say that again and I just editorialize. I’ve actually been known to do that in lectures and it’s not good. I mean, it’s completely spontaneous and…

JAMES PERLA: You’re taken with the excitement of the content and the ideas. So the general question and I was explaining that some of the things at least at the beginning might seem sort of basic or elementary, but I think it might help set the context a little bit. But obviously we definitely want to talk about your book and your research in more, in-depth. But I guess maybe just so we have, I can set the levels and what not do you mind maybe just stating your name and institution, and your title for the record? I don’t know if you have it properly, but…

MIA BAY: I’m not sure if I know it. [Laughter]

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: Now you see this I love because this means that you are not completely invested in titles. Which the same can’t be said about most people, most academics I know. Not only would they know the title, they you can tell you chapter and verse. I’m relieved because I don’t know mine either. I keep calling it Griffith and its not Griffith. Its Griffin.

JAMES PERLA: Yeah, I mean it’s a good problem to have right?

MIA BAY: Okay, my name is Mia Bay. I am the Roy F and Jeanette P Nichols Chair of American History at the University of Pennsylvania.

JAMES PERLA: Excellent. Thanks. And so just maybe to get us started with a simple question of who is Sally Hemings?

MIA BAY: Sally Hemings is an enslaved woman who lived in the household of Thomas Jefferson. She and her family originally belonged to Jefferson’s wife who died quite young and she grew up in his household.

JAMES PERLA: Thanks. And so, there’s a, obviously we’re going to talk in this episode about the Hemings controversy, the fact too that Jefferson fathered children with Sally Hemings starting at quite a very early age. So I wonder if you could maybe just help us set the context a bit for how that relationship unfolded.

MIA BAY: Yes, the context for the relationship between or a special kind of relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings was that Thomas Jefferson was working in France for several years. He moved over there with his daughters. And at one point he moved over there with his older daughter at one point. He decided he wanted… Can we start again. I’m trying to…

JAMES PERLA: Oh yeah, no problem. The other thing I should mention is that most of these responses we’ll, we can, we’ll edit and adjust and so, you know, we can circle back to any details that you want to flesh out and more.

MIA BAY: Okay. Alright. So Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson, obviously Sally knew him all of her life, but their relationship changed at some point after Thomas Jefferson moved to France. He was living and working in France with his family and at one point, at one point he brought… I’m sorry. I’m sorry.

JAMES PERLA: He was on a diplomatic, was it? A diplomatic mission?

MIA BAY: It was diplomatic. What I keep, what I keep getting a little confused about is he brought, he brought, he came over with his older daughter and then he brought his younger daughter with Sally. So, I’m sorry.

JAMES PERLA: Oh and James Hemings too was there?

MIA BAY: James I think we’ve already there. Yeah, so Thomas Jefferson and so, I’ll start from the beginning. Again. [laughter]

JAMES PERLA: This is also to, this is, we’re still early in the morning. And I personally, you know, you’re just having your coffee.

MIA BAY: Switching topics from cars to Thomas Jefferson.

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: That requires a kind of agility. Between time and space, [5:00] topic. We know Thomas Jefferson didn’t have a car.

JAMES PERLA: Thats for sure.

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: If he could’ve had one you know he would’ve gone into debt to have one. He would’ve mortaged a few slaves to get a car. Sorry… I know that can’t [laughter] I’m sorry.

JAMES PERLA: He did spend beyond his means that’s, we do know that…

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: My problem is I’m just a giggle box.

JAMES PERLA: It’s good that we’re having fun. It’s not, yeah. Yeah, so, so you, so you were saying it it’s hard to I mean there’s that dynamic of when she officially came to France with him. But with his daughter?

MIA BAY: Yes. So, so Sally Hemings grew up in Thomas Jefferson’s household and at some point their relationship turns into something different. We know it must have started when he was living abroad in France working. He brought Sally over to take care of his youngest daughter. She traveled with Thomas’s youngest daughter over to France. She was about 14 at that age and she lived with the Jefferson family possibly part of the time at the school with Jefferson’s two girls. But certainly in his household for a couple years. And the things we know for sure is that when she returned with the Jefferson family to Virginia she was about 16 years old and she was pregnant and it was a Thomas Jefferson’s child according to the testimony of her son, Madison Hemings.

JAMES PERLA: Yeah, and that’s good because we did want to set up the context for in France. I know some scholars talk about the fact that Hemings could have petitioned for her freedom in some way and I wonder, that’s sort of in the weeds. But I wonder if you maybe want to meditate on that a little bit?

MIA BAY: Yeah, scholars have discussed the possibility that Hemings could have petitioned for her freedom in France and would have been likely to receive it in a French court. There’s some, that’s the way court cases went in France during this period. It’s a sort of challenging idea though, because Sally during her years in France is like 14 years old, 15 years old, maybe crosses into 16. She has left her family behind in Virginia, everyone she knows. She does not speak French. Her brother is in France, but she doesn’t have a lot of personal support or even access to information about how she would go about doing this and of course she may want to return home and see her family. The Hemings family had been living on the Jefferson plantation, you know in Virginia more specifically for generations. So the idea that she would make a new life in France as a free and independent, you know, 16 year old girl may not have been very appealing.

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: Yeah, it may not have been appealing and as you said beyond even the realm of imagination for her. Although our ideas about what it meant to be 16 in the 18th century and what it means to be 18 in contemporary times may vary. But still this is a very young person. No matter if a 16 year old could have been married in that era, this is still a young person. And as you say without the language, without the contacts. I mean, which really continues to bring me to the point of thinking about what are our conceptions of freedom? You know, what is freedom? Is it freedom to be free of this legal designation called slave and be in a foreign land, away from your family, away from anything you know, all the people you love, everything that gives your life meaning? What is freedom?

MIA BAY: Also, I mean especially when people kind of talk about her choices and speak of her as a free agent. I think we also have to remember, she didn’t have any money. She was a slave. She didn’t own even the clothes on her back. So the terms on which she would seek her freedom in France, I mean, to even get a lawyer. Also, how would she support herself? What would be likely to happen to a teenager in Paris with no means of support? All of these things do not strike me as very promising prospects where she would be like, [10:00] “Oh, this will be great. I’ll free myself and do very well.”

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: Right, and I think those questions bespeak in our position on the part of contemporary scholars. I mean, obviously we know a whole lot of anachronistic thinking goes on but barring that, we have been I don’t want to say hostage but I say hostage for want of a better word, to ideas about resistance as an analytic in scholarship across the disciplines for so long that we want to look for and we want to impute to people, in this case Sally Hemings a teenager in France, some more quote unquote revolutionary consciousness, and it’s a deeply problematical set of assumptions in scholarly approaches. And I don’t know that they serve us ultimately. But that’s editorializing.

MIA BAY: But I think that is a good point because I think part of the whole, just what troubles me sometimes about the discussion of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings is sort of the idea that they’re both these kind of free agents operating in a world of kind of choices. Sally Hemings having grown up in a slave community probably never saw herself as a free agent. You know, she, I think she probably saw herself as someone who was a member of a particular community, a particular class and definitely would not be easily moved to kind of imagine herself striking out on her own. She didn’t even know people who did things like that.

JAMES PERLA: And that brings me to a question about a similar kind of view of Hemings as a relatively privileged subject at Monticello because of her connections to Jefferson. I wonder if you want to reflect on to what extent is that appropriate or fair to say?

MIA BAY: Well, I mean that’s always a big issue in thinking about slavery. I mean, there’s sort of this house servant, in sort of, a stereotypical dichotomy between house servants and field hands. But in fact when you look at slavery closely, both of those positions have sort of unique disadvantages and both of them have advantages and it’s not clear to me that it was really better to be one or the other. I mean how servants had better access to things like good food, reasonably comfortable quarters, but they also had very little autonomy, very little time to themselves, very little sort of ability to have their own separate private life. And when you go to Monticello and you walk around there and you kind of see where they kind of live in this basement, you know as opposed to the house where everyone else lives it doesn’t seem it… I mean, it does not seem like they have wonderfully comfortable environments. I mean privilege, relative privilege, is a curious thing. The slaves out on some of the further away plantations. Yes, they might be living in shacks in the forest or in the fields, but they had, they sometimes had more autonomy, more ability to kind of choose their own partners make their own lives, worship, you know, worship in their own way as opposed to going to church with the master and literally not be like, house servants often slept on the floor beside the master’s bed so they would be on hand if, you know, if you know, so it really depends on which life seems more odious to you.

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: It just has continued to baffle me and it’s nothing more than a statement and then after which full stop. But the very irony and paradoxes of talking about privileged slaves, it just, it has just never struck me again as a very productive discussion. What does it mean to be a privileged slave? I mean, that’s oxymoronic.

MIA BAY: Also remember Frederick Douglass, I think he reflects on this in one of his memoirs. He talks about if you get a little privilege as the slave and I think he’s referring to his own situation in Baltimore when he had some freedom to hire himself out. He said it just makes you more discontent. So it’s a very complex question about whether privileged slaves really experienced any of it as a privilege.

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: He certainly talked about the disadvantages of learning to read, you know, the real, the hunger, the thirst or the schemes that he devised in order to get lessons but he [15:00] describes once he learned to read that it was a kind of miserable condition in another sense because the capacity to read, the ability to read, made him more acutely aware of just how far he was removed from the the position of an autonomous liberal subject and so. Yes, he talks about one the the fruits, the joy but also the miseries of knowing enough and learning enough to become constantly more aware of just how much you don’t own property in yourself. Yeah.

JAMES PERLA: Yeah, and in our interviews someone that brought this point to focus was Niya Bates at Monticello. She’s a public historian and directs the Getting Word project there, but she noted James Hemings and I think that’s a, possibly a good example of the fact of his, you know, he speaks French, he is a great chef and then, you know, eventually ends up committing suicide.

MIA BAY: Right, and seems to have been very depressed on and on most of his life. Now, I think I think that’s that’s an example. I mean slavery had many kinds of suffering and certainly there were some like the slaves on Louisiana sugar plantations were having trouble staying alive. Now, you know, the slaves in Jefferson’s household didn’t have trouble staying alive, but that didn’t mean that they were content or felt privileged in their position.

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: And to the extent that these distinctions, house slave, field slave, have actually had a real material legacy in the lives of some black folk. Really giving certain people a sense of entitlement about deciding who is and who is not black based on wherever you fit on either side of that ledger. It’s, that has also been unproductive. I mean to declare someone a house slave is, that’s a term of opprobrium. It’s an insult. In many cases because people want to…

JAMES PERLA: And you’re referring into sort of the legacy of that line.

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: Yes, the legacy. Mainly because, you know, the assumption is always that house slaves were of fairer skin. So the kind of history intergenerationally of colorism in black communities. I mean we’re seeing whiffs of it in the discussions of the Kamala Harris presidential candidacy. I mean that’s neither here nor there but these invidious distinctions that black people end up making themselves to decide who is or is not, who does or does not belong. And who did and who did not experience privilege at the hands of white oppressors. I’ve never found it, even with the realization that there are these distinctions to be drawn and I think people are making some important points to this moment to assume that black people from Africa, from the Caribbean, from the US. I mean that somehow we are all, it’s possible to talk about all of us as some unified group of people is mistaken. That’s true. Even with with an understanding of the distinctions that need to be made. I’m, my point is a simple one that I get impatient with the simple notion about what it would have meant to be a house slave. And as if that automatically meant that you enjoyed a kind of privilege in a set of possibilities and opportunities denied everybody else. It’s never been as nuanced as I would like to see it be but you know. MIA BAY: And also if you look at testimony from people who worked in houses in the WPA narratives and other in slave authored narratives, they say that they found the sort of continual supervision from white owners and white owners children to be, it just sort of drove them crazy particularly when they had, they were working for difficult people who, you know, had bad tempers or, you know, were routinely abusive to them that they really just hated being house servants. And when you hear their experiences, you understand that this cannot have felt like a position of privilege.

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: And particularly for women,[20:00] the sexual vulnerabilities that women face and then that they continue to face in forms, of different forms of domestic servitude in freedom quote-unquote. Yes, it made black women more vulnerable to sexual assault. Richard Wright has this hilarious, he did a group of radio narratives for a very short time. And in one of them, there’s a story about a man who goes to work for his wife, you know dressed as a woman to get money, but to spare her the vulnerability to the owners or the employers’ sexual aggression. And theres a moment when he’s in the bathtub. [Laughter] Yeah, so yeah, it’s yeah. Yeah. No, they did not, scholars haven’t done much with those radio narratives. And there were just a few of them, but they were hilarious and that was one of them. Yeah.

JAMES PERLA: I was gonna say back to the question of possible agency. I want to just briefly return to France and if you can maybe sort of talk a little bit about this alleged deal that was struck. Apparently. Yeah, if you can maybe give a little bit of context on that.

MIA BAY: Well, we know very, well we have a very limited amount of information about Sally and what actually went on between her and Thomas Jefferson, but there is this letter written by her son. Or, he actually, its a report to a newspaper editor where he says that she returned to Virginia with the Jefferson family after making a deal with Thomas Jefferson and that was that her children would be free. She was pregnant when she returns so assumedly this deal was about this particular child and it’s a complicated deal. I mean I can see why she would want some sort of concession in return for coming home. Some people have read this deal as her sort of seeking life as an advantaged slave but it’s not clear that she had a lot of choices in terms of what, you know, what other, what was her option if not making this deal? So, she asked for something and she got it. Presuming this isn’t, also as a person who knows a lot of family stories that are not true, what exactly the deal was, I think, it’s something we’ll never be entirely sure of.

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: And again the vulnerability in that. I mean that has no binding. I mean I guess there’s there is some term in the law. Why did I bring this up? Because I’m not likely to know it but a promissory estoppel where you make a verbal promise.

MIA BAY: But even under the law because Sally Hemings is enslaved there really is no, I mean, she couldn’t testify in court. She couldn’t take him to court. There’s, this is just this is a verbal agreement that he does or he does not have to honor if he doesn’t want to. And one thing that’s very notable to me in terms of the agreement that’s made, the terms are not very generous. I mean these Hemings children end up free but not on particularly generous terms. Harriet Hemings gets put on a stagecoach to Philadelphia with $50, one of them runs away and the others are freed after a long apprenticeship at the end of Jefferson’s life. So, It wasn’t a great deal.

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: You finish my sentences for me because what did it mean to promise anything to a slave who can’t testify in a court of law?

JAMES PERLA: And the fact that James had to train the or like there was all these conditions too that in order to fully be freed. The, you know, James had to essentially train the person to replace him, you know, the all these things and that’s not the descendant but the brother but I think still it’s worth noting that even most of the people that went free were in Jefferson’s will or after his death, right? So, even that, there seems to be a sense of wanting to redeem both Jefferson and Sally Hemings at the same time by saying Sally Hemings [25:00] made an agreement, a verbal agreement and enacted agency in doing that and Jefferson honored that agreement with an enslaved woman. And I think it’s, this is a helpful conversation.

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: Yeah, except they didn’t. You know, I have a question. It’s not here but I’ve always wanted to know this. I know at one level why you would be interested in Thomas Jefferson. You’re an intellectual historian. You know, that makes perfect sense to me. But what else do we have to say about Jefferson?

MIA BAY: Well I got interested in Thomas Jefferson, not really because the whole Sally Hemings thing but because when I was working on my first book, which was on ideas about white people and in nineteenth-century black thoughts and I was reading all these antebellum black newspapers. I came into the project, you know, reading reading historians who were talking about black nationalism, Africa, whatever and then I find them talking about Thomas Jefferson, quoting Thomas Jefferson. He just appears a lot in antebellum black discussions. He’s important because he’s a kind of symbol of American democracy and because also by the like the 1850s or so for all that he is not, you know, he was not an abolitionist and not particularly anti-, consistently anti-slavery. He was much more so than the politicians the 1850s. So black officers would quote a lot of things he said about slavery, “I tremble for my country when I remember that God is just.” Jefferson was part of an earlier generation of founding fathers who were at least at least recognized that slavery was not a democratic institution that it had been a sort of mistake to move forward with it so he became someone who was very important to antebellum black thought as a kind of symbol of America’s promise and failure at the same time.

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: Indeed, indeed. Promise and failure. It has always interested me though beyond the question of slavery and whether we should have gone over, the country should have gone forward with it or not, there is, that Jefferson’s ideas about race people return to. If people teach nothing else here, for example, if no one else teaches anything else in Jefferson here at the University of Virginia, which he founded, they teach Query 14 and people just glom on to Query 14 and not even all of the query but those sections where he’s making these absolutely racist statements and claims that have absolutely no bearing in anything. But he didn’t write very much about race and racial difference. He didn’t in the economy of what he wrote. And yet, for someone who wrote so little, what he did write has had prepossessing power in determining or influencing other people’s thoughts.

MIA BAY: I think there’s a number of reasons for that and one of them not, I mean, he was the he was really the first American to write much of anything and he also set this tone. I mean, during, at the time he wrote Notes on the State of Virginia, you could look to thinkers in the Caribbean, some of European thinkers who would talk about race but, you know, someone like Edward Long it’s just sort of very sort of it’s not particularly scientific. It’s sort of ad hominem stuff about black people being like apes. Whereas Jefferson set this kind of scientific tone. He’s talked about race in the context of this sort of naturalist report on America and its environs and politics and tried to sound very dispassionate very, you know, very kind of like a man of the Enlightenment whose thinking these things through carefully. So all of that, I think, makes it something that’s going to capture people’s imagination something that’s going to be quoted. He’s also obviously a toweringly important figure and he says more than anyone of his generation about race. I mean like George Washington for instance was actually probably better on race and slavery than Thomas Jefferson, but he was famously taciturn. He didn’t say much about it anything. We see, what we can sort of look at what he did. We can’t look at that much about what he says. [30:00] And then Jefferson also talks about race, I think, in Notes on the State of Virginia to resolve the kind of problem that he’s helped set up, which is that if you’re going to create this society founded on the notion that “all men are created equal” and you are going to have slavery you might have to qualify the “all men are created equal” by having suspicions that maybe some men are not created equal.

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: Yes, but the idea of suspicion is is the perfect choice. It’s his choice of words that you know that advance it as a suspicion. But he’s advancing and retreating rhetorically always and at the same time. I mean after he has planted this these ideas, try to wrap them in the authority of science, but it’s as everybody acknowledges is a pseudoscience. There is nothing scientific about these claims. Then he retreats from those positions, but he’s already planted the , I’d advance it then only as a suspicion but it’s also, for me, the most enlightened part of his discussion is the realization that these people are not likely to be able to live together in peace because the people who have been held captive are not going to soon forget what’s been done to them. So all of these boisterous passions, I mean, it may be that once these people are emancipated, they got to go somewhere else because these two groups of people cannot live in harmony. MIA BAY: But on the other hand, he is saying that at a time when they are getting rid of slavery in the Northern states and no race war is breaking out. I mean it’s also, I think of that period’s anti-slavery, which is, and Jefferson. Jefferson is probably the most articulate defender of it. But it’s kind of, I call it anti-slavery, pro-slavery because it’s like, it’s like you say slavery’s bad, but then you talk about how dangerous it would be to free the slaves. You have all these, you know, so it’s sort of this anguished regret over the institution combined with a series of arguments for why it cannot end right now, for why emancipation schemes aren’t feasible, you know, Jefferson is always sort of talking. First, saying something grandly anti-slavery and then coming up with 15 different reasons why it could not come to pass.

JAMES PERLA: And why is that?

MIA BAY: Well, I think he’s way too deeply invested in his life as a slave holder. I mean that’s his job. He doesn’t have really another job. He’s a plantation owner. He’s not the kind of businessman George Washington was. When George Washington decides he’s going to emancipate his slaves, he figures how to out how to do it economically. Kind of figures out what he needs to do, how to phase it in. Jefferson doesn’t have that kind of control over his life or finances at any point in his life. I think it’s also maybe fundamental to his identity in some way and then beyond that, I don’t know how much he cares whether his, you know, whether, I mean, he doesn’t care that much whether the slaves he actually fathers end up free in any meaningful way. I mean, we know that there are other slave owners who send their mixed-race children to Oberlin and make sure they have a life in the North. He does none of that. On some level, he just isn’t that deeply committed to anything more than a kind of rhetorical anti-slavery.

JAMES PERLA: He’s committed to the idea of it.

MIA BAY: Yeah, and I mean, you know as a great theorist of democracy, he sees the inconsistency. He has trouble reconciling. That’s I think one reason why he is so fundamentally kind of illogical on the subject of slavery. And also why he, I mean, Jefferson is not very religious. But when he talks about slavery he can sometimes get religious like, “I tremble for my country when I remember that God is just.” I mean, this is a man who in most, on most other subjects is not like talking to God but slavery he just can’t, you know, can’t make sense of it.

JAMES PERLA: Do you think that was a rhetorical, because I’m always curious about that too about Jefferson and religion. I mean is that rhetorical? Does he know that this will make him seem more sympathetic? Or is he actually invoking a kind of religious like [35:00] inflection? Or is that too hard to parse out?

MIA BAY: I think it’s hard to parse out but on the other hand, I mean keep in mind that for, you know, for other people, religion was, to really think about God being just meant you had to do something. So he may be, I mean, it may be a religious expression from someone who’s fundamentally not all that devout.

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: Maybe you do have to do something and maybe you don’t because certainly in certain forms of Christian practices, God will make a way. So in other words, you can retreat, you can justify or at least to yourself why you can take a more passive approach because there is, the moral arc of the universe is tending toward justice. And so that’s in God saying, God has the world in his hands. So in his own time, he will sort it out and I don’t have to. You know. Just because we got to get to lunch.

JAMES PERLA: And the classes are changing over so that’s always. Yeah, it’s just this actually turns into a sort of dining hall as you’ve seen the students on the ground, it’s quite yeah.

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: I think its one of the most uncivilized aspects of this supposedly genteel university. People eating in the hallways and sitting on the floor.

MIA BAY: Like, come on. They can give him a few benches out there.

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: You know, anyway. I know you’re doing the travel project. But just as this project on Jefferson is always percolating in the back of your mind, who are the black writers in your mind who have written most engagingly about Jefferson.

MIA BAY: About Jefferson? Well, I’m really most interested in the ones in the late 18th century and 19th century and they include people like William Hamilton, David Walker, James Pennington. I think I’m gonna write about Daniel Coker who has his dialogue between a Virginian and an African Minister who I think may, which I think may have been written with Jefferson in mind. So, people, you know, people writing, James McKim Smith, you know, he’s part of their landscape. So he’s someone that they talk about in interesting ways.

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: So, you wouldn’t bring it up to the mid 19th and twentieth…

MIA BAY: Well actually, I have to say that Barack Obama’s invocations of Thomas Jefferson are something that might tempt me to bring it to bring It forward. I do argue or will be arguing in this book in a sort of thing that I’ve begun to draft that there is this very abrupt switch from Thomas Jefferson to Abraham Lincoln as this sort of lodestar in black thought. Both of them are like loved and hated at the same time. But Thomas Jefferson is like all over antebellum era black thought and then after Lincoln’s death, it’s Lincoln. And they’re both the sort of symbol of both the promise and failures of American democracy and sometimes they’re, sometimes they almost blend. I mean in Emancipation Day celebrations, sometimes they sort of start to seem like one person. So, I’m going to follow that a little bit and then maybe bring it up to Barack Obama.

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: Yes. I remember as a child, we always had, in February, was the second Sunday in February called the Lincoln-Douglass Day breakfast. And as a child having to cut out these silhouettes of Douglass and of Lincoln. Yes. Absolutely. And Barack Obama uses those to, I mean, one of his favorite passages certainly in the first administration was beginning with the more perfect union speech. In the appeals in the second inaugural address to the better angels of our nature. So, yes, he finds great rhetorical grist in Jefferson and Lincoln absolutely.

JAMES PERLA: Yeah, one question. I know you, we, you have to get to your lunch but there’s this notion that I guess in our first episode, we’re going to talk about this a little bit, but the idea that Jefferson, you know, is obviously that phrase “he’s a man of his times,” right? But one thing that that I found interesting is that in this conversation, people within Jefferson’s times are critiquing Jefferson [40:00] for the very inconsistencies that we continue to talk about in our times. And so I wonder if you might reflect on that. Particularly black authors, you know, critiquing Jefferson within his times and the kind of limitations of that man of his times argument perhaps.

MIA BAY: Yeah. I mean, I think that I think that black authors probably wouldn’t have said he was so much a man of his times but maybe more symbolic of the the character of his nation, of, you know, that it was all they’re the sort of promise but the failings. They often spoke of him as someone who had, you know, the vision to have a sort of political vision that would have been a great thing, but this didn’t have the kind of strength to, you know, insist on making it happen, to really argue for it. So it’s… And in that sense he might be a man for all times. I mean, he might be a sort of ongoing symbol. I mean, I think that’s one reason why he comes up so often in Barack Obama. He’s a good ongoing symbol of the both the potential and failures of American democracy.

JAMES PERLA: And so by extension, what should we take from Jefferson? I know in our first conversation you said he’s someone that could do with updating for our times. Which I like just from my nerdy like software update. I’m like do a software update on Jefferson? No, but, you know, what should we take or leave from Jefferson.

MIA BAY: Well, I think we should I mean we should think about his ambitions for kind of universal democracy the way that he wants to have these sort of, I mean, his rhetoric describes democracy in very broad and generous terms. And part of that is maybe because he’s a master rhetorician and he’s speaking at a time when he’s trying to mobilize as many people as possible to support the patriot cause. But then we have to think of that rhetoric as promises that we have to keep. It’s been important rhetoric. A lot of people have employed it, found a place in it. The Declaration of Independence has come up time and time again for different groups who say, who are like, you know, if all men are created equal doesn’t that include us? And it’s actually become a kind of living document where people had sort of pushed their way into it and I think the updating it might be to take it more seriously, take it seriously and take it as a dream that we have to fulfill as opposed to like thinking well, he didn’t actually mean these in these and these people so let’s not worry about them.

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: Ah, yeah. When you said this is a promise we need to keep that just resonated so deeply and then another part of my brain just shot this beam in my, I’m thinking, why am I thinking about Robert Frost? But now, you know, this kind of trite little poem that every school person has to learn, once you said it “and I have miles to go before I sleep and miles to go.” Because we have, as a nation, in the words of that poem, I mean, two roads have always diverged in the wood and we take the one less traveled by. When will we take the one less traveled by? The one thats trotten is the one that denies or retreats from the promise and so, you know, I mean who knew I could use Walking by Woods in a Snowy Eve as a kind of parable of democracy. But it just came to my head then because we, you know, we keep taking the path less traveled, uh-huh. And we take that path and Jefferson clearly perhaps set the template for it in many ways for self-interested reasons. So particular individuals can, did enjoy the fruits of life and liberty and particular individuals can pursue happiness, right? And material advantage. I mean that is what we we’re always up against. No we can let the overwhelming majority languish as long as the few can realize the promises of this dream. But it continues to keep this republic rotten to the core and keep it from advancing to become a democracy. It’s never been a democracy, you know. And when Dennis Childs insisted, “I’m not going to call it a democracy, it is a republic” and is absolutely right [45:00] about that. Yeah. Anyway. Stopping by Woods on a Snow Eve.

JAMES PERLA: An anti-racist reading of…

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: You know, this tried poem I’ve always hated and wondered why people forced it on school children. Anyway… This is… We’re telling everybody before we use anything you say, we’ll send you the clip so you can see that what he’s surrounding it, not just your voice but your voice in the context of… I guess I have one last thing. Some people have said or at least one person said to me recently Sally Hemings was the original, for black women, Sally Hemings was the original founder of the Me Too movement. She was, if there could have been a Me Too movement in the 18th century, she would have been it. And, you know, the cynical and me just kind of nodded benignly, “Hm, let’s think about that.”

MIA BAY: Yeah, I don’t like that formulation. It’s deeply ahistorical and I mean the thing about Sally Hemings. There has been a lot of ink expended trying to put that relationship in some kind of exceptionalist framework. And in terms of modern concepts like the Me Too movement, every servant girl from the 16th century onward, white or black, would be in the Me Too movement if you want to think about it that way. But one thing I found interesting looking at discussions of Thomas Jefferson among the 19th century black thinkers is they’re aware of the Sally Hemings story. Everybody knows them. They don’t think it’s that interesting. They think he’s a slave holder. This is what slaveholders do to young women in their household. It, you know, like it’s not exceptional, it’s not unusual. Possibly it’s not even only Sally. You know, like I mean it’s, so, it’s one thing you have to come to terms with about about slavery is that it is a system that sets up the possibility of the sexual exploitation of young slave women and then it’s very very very common and, you know, that that in general the women are powerless to resist. So they’re not going to be coming and testifying as Me Too people which involves some kind of speaking out. This is sort of a system that works this way.

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: Precisely. I mean It’s even one of my problems with the Me Too movement because it does create or continue this paradigm of exceptionalism. And, you know, when you think about it, at least the people who are on public platforms are people who have privileged access to public platforms with very few exceptions, right? Because there remain women to this very day who are in similar circumstances without access to microphones. And Gloria Allred, “ever at the ready.” I’m thinking, “what is her caseload?”

JAMES PERLA: I mean we interviewed Robert Fatton, Jr. And he had a really funny anecdote about a similar notion of the, this not being exceptional from the perspective of Haiti where, you know, he was essentially saying when he came to the University of Virginia the fact that people didn’t think Jefferson fathered children with Sally Hemings was, you know, inconceivable, but that’s, you know, that’s the whole like that was just that’s just a fact in the in the Haitian context. That’s just the reality. And so just the final sort of note on those possibly anachronistic readings of this relationship. Using the term, because I think it’s under, you know, implicit in this conversation about the Me Too, but to what extent is it appropriate to use the term rape to discuss Jefferson and Hemings?

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: I think we did, did we ask you that earlier?

MIA BAY: That one’s so hard because maybe because we don’t I mean rape is a modern word in a certain way. It certainly, I mean, it’s a word that nowadays has meaning in criminal courts and everything [50:00] I know about relationships and households in the colonial era is that you know where there was hierarchy, men were able to take advantage of young women who were servants or slaves and women could try to get out of it, but they didn’t have any kind of recourse. So there are possibly more accurate or less anachronistic ways to talk about something so systematic. I mean it’s sexual exploitation, non-consensual intercourse are sort of rife with domestic slavery around the world. You know, and now I don’t want to deny anyone’s experience of non-consent by saying don’t call it rape, but maybe we need to also think about it somehow differently or in more complicated ways.

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: Much more complicated ways. I think that what has always been missing, I had this conversation with you, I think, Mia at my house with you were here that summer but you know, we have so little access or no access to people’s interior lives. We don’t know what they thought, we don’t know what they felt. And so we are then forced onto or we think that our only recourse then is to employ the terminologies by which we understand circumstances that are remote or vaguely similar. Whether it makes sense or not. I find one of the great vacuums in discussing this period and that relationship is precisely this inaccessibility to what Sally Hemings thought, what Sally Hemings felt, including what she thought and felt about Jefferson. All right? It’s like when people… Women in domestic abuse situations today, well “why didn’t she leave?” You know, we really, that layer, that layer of psychology and emotion. And we don’t have access to any of that and how it might be informing quote unquote choices. We both want to acknowledge that choice as a concept in this context is also anachronistic or it certainly makes no sense. But do we want to say we evacuate any understanding of choice and agency? I mean, these are the perennial conundrums. And so I did, we just have to sit with them and live with them. I’m reminded of a passage in Corregidora, Gayl Jones’ novel, where the great grandmother who has been enslaved in Brazil and whether consensual or non-consensual relationship with this slave owner. The granddaughter years later says, “Well, what did you feel about Corregidora, the slaveholder?” And she says, “What I was taught to feel.” You know, and I have always found that utterly fascinating and really capturing the complexities at some level that this is a novel, that it was what I was taught to feel. So nothing else for me. I don’t know if there’s anything else.

JAMES PERLA: Thank you so much for your time. I mean, this has been a wonderful visit on the whole and I hope yeah, we’ll keep you up to date about the series. I think, you know, this has been a great conversation and really looking forward to…

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: We grab people in. Folks say… Come to Woodson! In fact, that guy Ramsey called yesterday, he says okay, Deborah, what else do you want me to do? MIA BAY: He’s on to you!

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: I said everybodys on to me. Remember Dennis said, one time, he said “I’m here because if Deborah calls you, you have to come. And she always wants you to do something in addition to that for what she called for.” Anyway. When you eot smart, when you have smart people around you, you guys you know, really that’s I know she’s gonna say something else and we didn’t have ideal recording circumstances in the summer. So although in what we, where we have used you it’s reasonably clear but this will be clearer.

MIA BAY: All right.

JAMES PERLA: Yeah, so I appreciate your time and hopefully [54:54] that gives you enough time to get to lunch.

Lisa Woolfork

Transcript (text only)

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 we’re interesting about is thinking about the project of ways to think about Jefferson in more complicated ways. The moment that sticks out to us that you might have some connections to is the moment of the shrouding of the statue [the Jefferson statue] in the Fall, 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. Students had climbed up to put a black shroud over the statue. And there was also a sign that said Black Lives Matter. 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 faculty from 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. 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 at 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 followed to get to the statue. So we [2:00] kind of met up and converged. Some came from the Chapel area. So, it was really a nice convergence of support with students, graduate students, faculty, community members, there were people there who were not affiliated with UVa at all who were there to support the students and to really resist, I think, this narrative that the white supremacists had laid down there a month earlier.

JP: How many people would you say were there?

LW: I can’t remember. 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, um moment to kind of place yourself in the same place where students have been made vulnerable and attacked. Some students, staff, faculty who had been harmed during that time and to kind of reclaim that space and to be willing to stand out there. Um, 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 um 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 um, chronologically one month distant, but I know for some people it didn’t [4:00]feel like much time had elapsed last at all. Um, 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 um, 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 um, the training that people had gotten was to not intervene, was to protect the church, etc. etc. And so it was it was a very morally complicated time and the piece that he wrote is called Moral Trauma. Um 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 more or weren’t present but which 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. Um, 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, I knew 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. Um, I believe that a lot of people. Um, 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 was had been impaneled for a little while. I think it might have been impaneled maybe in March or February. Um, and the meetings had gone on with 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, um, 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, um people’s approach to to politics beyond just the measures of voting.

JP: Yeah, you know, that is so true. And so, um returning to that moment of I guess I mean because I’m thinking to 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. Um, 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 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. Um, and they had not yet I think declared 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 somebody 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 to [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 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. Um, but even as I knew that um, 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 um 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 um 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. Um, 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. Um, all of that is about how a story gets presented. Um, 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 it 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 just seems an important part of making Charlottesville the place that [14:00] it already thinks.

JP: It is 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 like what’s the role? I mean, I think it’s interesting that like, you know, uh 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’m not concerned about stigma I think for me maybe it’s because the word activist has a really high bar. Um, it’s someone who is 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. Um 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 um, 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. Um, 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 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 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, um 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. Um, there’s people who provide support to those people who are willing to do those things there people there that 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 they had those same problems. Um, 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 this 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: Um, because this project is about Jefferson, um thinking about the role of protest and the role of um of 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, um thinking about sort of this tradition of protests at our nation’s very foundations.

LW: Absolutely. 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, um 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? Um 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. Um, and they declared, they had a list of demands, they had a list of grievances. Um, 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. Um, 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 that found that if you read them in a really interesting, allegorical way, um is when, one in [21:00] particular one of my favorites, 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. Um. 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. Um, 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. Um, [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 as 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: Ts it the is 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 um, the one about the castle doctrine. The castle doctrine and this was that this was a doctrine that England had I think it is the one about unlawful search and seizure. Um, and so England had this doctrine called the castle doctrine and so even if a man’s home be as humble as a hobby or as elaborate as a castle, it doesn’t matter, you know, he has the right to bar anybody from entry. Um, and the 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 participant in the new curriculum, the engagement series, uh 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, uh 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 um, 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, um, 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 are, what you have chose to participate in and to advance and turning the question back to them. Um, 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? Um, and they took that very seriously and so they embarked on projects, [28:00] um 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 in 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 for the 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, um and biology we talked about lots of different things. It was a short course. These are seven week courses that meet twice a week. Um, 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. Um, what had they learned and how do they unlearn um, 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. Um, 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, um, and then the next day fights in the streets in the town that was soon to be theirs. Um, 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. Um and yet turning its back in some way by making people who live here feel as if they are outsiders or dependents.

the University as a community in need of engagement and repair

DMcD: Very interesting point um, 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, uh, 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. Um, and I’ve only been here 18 years so I don’t even know where all the bodies are buried. Um, 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 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, um being 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.

Um, 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. Um, there is also a lot of complicity both in how the university is telling parts of its story even as its till 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 um 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. Um, 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, um, 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 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. Um, 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. Uh, I think about someone who wrote about liberty and justice and equality and believed in that, but only to a point. Um, someone who also believed in a certain form of scientific racism and eugenics. Um 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, um shrouding the statue?

LW: So the shrouding of the statue was I thought a very powerful moment of students, um 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, um, 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 â€˜desecrate.’ Um, 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. Um, 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 uh, we can see the preparation for, that’s been underway to again reassure another entering class and their anxious parents that all is well, uh inside the [40:00] Academical Village. So I was quite taken by the letter that Dean Risa Goluboff sent to the university, uh, summarizing and wrapping up the work of the Dean’s Commission. Uh, 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, uh 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 in 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. Um, and what and I find it very distressing that the that the notions of healing and resolution, um and forward-thinking have become co-opted really just to get most people to shut the hell up and um keep quiet so we can just go about as we were and it seems to me that um 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 and…

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 um 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? It’s a community relations? Is it like what the overall objective is, but it does seem to me to be about you know, um, 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 and 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 in 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, um, 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. Um, 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, uh because it is evident to me that you are still living with the effects of that uh 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. Um, 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. Um, 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. Um, 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 uh 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, uh, he’s calm, his prose conforms to what most people would consider impersonality, detachment, objectivity. Uh, there is civility a plenty on the surface, uh, but the idea or the demand for civility is, I would agree with you, is coextensive at this moment with demand and albeit unspoken to let us do what we want to do, uh 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 uh, 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 actionsbeing 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?

UVA and Monticello hide the violence of slavery in favor of beauty

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 atthe 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 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 Morrison was saying in Beloved right when Sethe looks at Sweet Some, 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. Um 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 um, an absolutely definitive image of uh, Hemings and so a shadow has to be projected on the wall. To stand in the place where something else might stand. So um, 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 um, I [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 uh, 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. Um, there’s, it seems significant me that he never freed her. Um, 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 know 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 rate but in terms of an analogy of what that um, 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. 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 like this all of these like rules that people want to put on um 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. Um, 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. Um, 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, um, 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, um, like. I don’t know. It’s just 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 to 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 um, you know, fill them out throughout the semester. I mean, it was reallyuseful. So like one week we had them. Um, 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. Um, 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.” Um, and which which is um, or it started from cuck-servative. This is an alt-right term to describe um, 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. Um, 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. Um the keyword for Jefferson. Well, they did get two and so I’m gonna hedge. Yeah, they got two words. Um, 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.