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.

Melody Barnes

Interviewee:

Interviewer(s): Deborah E. McDowell; James Perla

Interview date:

Interview Summary:

Keywords:

Transcription:

Introductions

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: You are going to be… I need to understand this. So, you’re the vice president of Monticello?

MELODY BARNES: I’m the Vice Chair of the Board. 

DEBORAH MCDOWELL:  Vice Chair of the Board. And then… that… you move from there to the chair of the board… Yes. And so, what is the work of the chair of the board? 

 MELODY BARNES: Well, the board is comprised of a number of really interesting people from all over the country. As you can imagine, a number are Virginians, but there are people from Texas and New York and the rest of the country and the board chair works very closely with Leslie Bowman who is the president of the foundation and her staff and the committee chairs as we think about everything from the grounds, to Jefferson scholarship, to the work that we are doing with the descendants of those who were enslaved at Monticello, thinking about new programming and executing on our strategic plan, which is to focus on what happened on the mountain but also to take that work off the mountain. So, for example, the big exhibit that Monticello did in D.C. a few years ago on the enslaved families and plans to take that abroad as well. 

Jefferson for our times

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: Wonderful. Okay. Yeah, this is exactly in keeping with what we at least one of our objectives and that is to make Jefferson live for our times, really. Which involves really detaching ourselves from the reverence that has surrounded Jefferson but not for purposes of desecration or demonization. We just want to say obviously this was a revolutionary thinker and we want to know what his revolutionary thinking means for us today and how we can make it live again. It’s something of an axiom both from especially for Jefferson scholars that he’s a revolutionary thinker but obviously one who could not bring himself to realize and extend forward those possibilities contained in that vision. So, that’s the long preamble just trying to let you settle in to ask: to what extent does he remain an important figure for us today? And what do we need to do to ensure that he remains an important figure and a touchable figure?  

MELODY BARNES: Right. One, I love that question. And for many reasons, that is the reason why I joined the board at Monticello because I think that Jefferson is critical for us and our understanding of Jefferson for us today because he represents both the challenge and the big thinking that I think is reflective of the country and the bold experiment that is the country. And many of the challenges that we are struggling with today. They are foundational. You could argue that they are part of our DNA, but that might reflect the fact that we think that they’re unchangeable or you could believe that they are…. They sit in the bone structure and we need to try and reshape the bone structure or the architecture of our founding ideals or the execution of our founding ideals. But I think if you look at Jefferson of, you know, the 17… the late 1800s early 1900s, you also then see the same challenges, the same problems, but also the same curiosity that exists in America today. 

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: Oh, I just love that response and as a literary scholar I love the metaphors. The bone structure we’’re accustomed to hearing about the DNA but that it is in the bone structure. And if I heard you correctly then perhaps the bone structure may be more amenable to correction. 

MELODY BARNES: Yes, we can reset the bones. 

 DEBORAH MCDOWELL: So what…  

JAMES PERLA: A facelift maybe? 

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: So, what would resetting the bones… what would resetting the bone consist?  

MELODY BARNES: Well, I think the first thing that’s critical and again, this is why I think Monticello is important, why the study of Jefferson is important is because we have to understand the truth and all of it. wWe can no longer rely on symbols or myth and fantasy about what America was. And as a result of that, what America is today. My husband always cringes when I use this example, but I say if you really love… When you really love someone you don’t just think they are perfect. They may be perfect for you. But you understand their vulnerabilities, you understand their insecurities, you understand their flaws. So, I think for America, for the understanding of a constitutional republic, of liberal democracy, then the first thing we have to do is to get to the truth because ultimately then if we understand the truth and that history isn’t just something that’s dusty and old, but then we connect the dots through history to today, then we can understand what’s foundational to the challenges we face today and what has to be unearthed. And I also think that’s important because it’s critical to how we relate to one another as individuals, but also how we understand what’s systemic and what’s institutional. 

systematic vs. institutional change

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: Wonderful. So, what is… many people conflate those two: systemic and institutional. So, I’m curious how would you distinguish between them?  

MELODY BARNES: Well, I think about systems change. Well, one I think about institutions as some of the significant institutions that shape our polity. That shape our country, our society. Everything from the institutions of government and how they were formed and the rules and norms that shape and govern them, to the way that we think about our criminal justice system and that in those institutions and education institutions. And then I think about systems as the connective tissue among them. And if we can get into the system or the bloodstream that with our changes and our way forward, then we can start to, at scale, make larger changes and reforms to our democracy.  

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: This is all just utterly fascinating I could hear you go on forever. So, I need to be… I need to be aware that we have a limited timeframe. But as I listen to you just now, I’m reminded of the fact that seldom do we acknowledge that the formation of this republic that there were changes going on all the time as this thing was forming and trying to come into being and yet we want to talk about it as if it is this rigid thing… Does not admit of any alteration, but alteration is actually its foundation too.  

MELODY BARNES: I completely agree with you and it I think it’s part of the beauty that is our constitutional republic and to your point people have to remember and understand this: the founders didn’t think that they were creating something that should be static or that was perfect. And their letters I think between Adams and Jefferson around the framing of the Constitution and the ratification of the Constitution and they were talking about the amendment process and you know and said, “If future generations see that we’ve got something wrong then change it they must.” And that’s what’s incumbent upon us and we’ve done that in significant ways and when it comes to issues of race, obviously the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendment, you know, the Nineteenth Amendment that we’ll celebrate next year, the hundredth anniversary with regard to women. But then how we continue to execute on that whether it be through our laws, and policies, our practices, our norms, all of those things require us to think about how we meet the aspirations of the ideal.

to be of both Jefferson and Hemings

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: I somehow wish we could be broadcasting this in all directions. Yes. So, to get a little bit then more specific though, I think will be returning to these issues throughout. We are preparing the second in this series of what will be six podcasts six episodes and we’re working on the Sally Hemings one. And when Ian Baucom was a candidate for the Dean of the College, I was on the search committee and he made a statement again and again during the interview process and since that we must become… not just be the University of Jefferson, we must become the University of Sally Hemings. And so, we’ve been asking other people variations on that question. What would that mean? What would that mean to have to consider both these two figures together, to think them together? To think them as inseparable? To think them as… that no accounting would be complete without trying to wrestle with Sally Hemings. However little we know about her as a figure, right? In fact, it is perhaps the fact that we know so little and she is shrouded in mystery and mystification and everybody’s representations, you know. Since if that’s all we have, how do we work with that? To think these two figures together, right?  

MELODY BARNES: I love this question and through the lens of Monticello, we think it’s so important and the opening of what we believed probably was her room. There were two rooms that we narrowed it down to and one of them that we thought okay, this could be it and the exhibit that opened to make sure that when people come to Monticello, yes, it was Jefferson’s home. But Jefferson did not live there alone nor was he able to do the good and the bad that happened there alone that there were over 600 enslaved men, women and children who were there. Sally Hemings being one of them. And A. literally the leveling of that mountain, the building of that house, the keeping and building of the farm, the plantation, all of that was because of all of the other people who were in labor there as slaves. Mixed with the ideas that Jefferson had about what he wanted to create and the ideas that he brought back there from all parts of the world. But to require us to understand that it wasn’t this one quote “great man”, but it was the intelligence and the ingenuity and the innovation of others who were of African descent who live there, requires us to understand that these are people who were three dimensional, that just as with today all of us, all of those stories are present and required. Which is also why when people say… some people say, “I don’t even understand why Monticello exists.” And my… in part my reaction to that is, “And so, you want to erase the Hemings family and the Graingers and the Faucets and the Herns?” And all of their stories which are also stories… They’re obviously stories of pain and hard labor and beatings and all the things that went into that but there are also stories about how men and women loved one another and took care of their children. The enslaved men who would walk miles every week to go visit the woman, the women that they consider to be their wives, even though the law didn’t, and to maintain and build those relationships. So, I think it’s critical to understand and Sally Hemings and in some ways she’s… I’m using her as a representation of all of those individuals, to understand the fulsomeness of American life… of African American family life to dispel and push back on the caricature of those individuals that even still exist today. So, it must be Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson if we’re going to wrap our arms around all of who we are as a culture and society.  

DEBORAH MCDOWELL:  I love that answer. It’s… it is absolutely the case and I want to return to the question of why does Monticello exist and should we just raze it to the ground? Because we are witnessing… Indeed, we are in the throes of that very impulse now and I am… I say something of a contrarian people look at me and are just scandalized by my saying, you know, “You can take these statues down. You can take all of these Confederate statue is down. You can change the name of every highway bearing the name of a confederate general, change the building of every racist university campus.” But you have to contend with the history, nonetheless. You simply cannot erase things. You simply cannot say now this is gone and we move on. This may be gone but we still live…. Alice Walker has wonderful line in a story. The dialogue is between two characters and one of them is from the North and one of them is from the South, so that schematic to begin with because a lot of racism happened in the North and so… But the character says well, you know what happened when you all took all the signs down? And the character says nothing happened. She says nothing happened. She says no. The signs had already done their work. The signs had already done their work. And so yes, it would be completely misguided to think that you could simply raze Monticello to the ground and that that even that would constitute some measure of justice for someone because we will still live with the residue of that hist… it is in our bone structure. That is absolutely the case. I don’t know if you are on Twitter…. are you on Twitter? 

Interpretive caricatures of the enslaved experience

MELODY BARNES: I am. 

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: Okay. There was the most wonderful exchange between a friend of mine who is an historian and at Princeton, Tera Hunter and Nicole Hannah Jones this week. And, you know, one of these multi-thread things. So, it’s… so Hannah Jones… And Nicole Hannah Jones kicked it off by referring to enslaved people as commodities and property exclusively. That they were not in the eyes of slave holders human beings they were simply chattel. And so, Tera Hunter comes back with an equally lengthy, but deeply thoughtful and measured response. “No, these people were not just chattel. These people, whether the slaveholders wrote about them in this way, they valued enslave people for their skills, they valued them for their human sensibilities. After all, a lot of these people were entrusted with bringing up their own children.” So, you’re absolutely right. But all of this is to say we have kind of accommodated ourselves whether consciously or not to really caricatures… interpretive caricatures, you know, we are accustomed to saying under U.S. chattel slavery, they were just property. But there are so many more dimensions to the story than that. Whether or not those other dimensions are told to the extent that yes, they are there.  

MELODY BARNES: I completely agree with you and part of the archaeological work that’s taken place at Monticello tells us more and more and more about how the enslaved men, women and children lived. That there were marbles, there were… There’s evidence of how they might play. There was fiddling, there was musical talent and musical genius there. The work ethic that taking care of family and children, you know, the oral history that’s been handed down. I think part of the problem with trying to hold these individuals in a one dimensional plane is that it then connects dots to the one dimensional plane that society or some in society try to hold people of color in today. And to understand how these individuals lived and thought helps us to understand the fulsomeness. And I think one of the interesting things and this isn’t necessarily a Monticello story, but one of the interesting things that we know about those who were enslaved in parts of America is one of the first things that many of them did when they left the plantation was that they open savings accounts. Savings accounts and just A. the thinking that goes into that but it is also a reflection of hopefulness, of planning and then we see what happened, you know, post-Civil War and the leadership positions in communities and state legislatures…. Federal… So, we know that these were multi-dimensional, hard-working, thoughtful, deeply innovative people. So, let’s connect the dots as far as we can to understand that story and to tell that story which I think is critical not only for our all of our children to understand today, but for all of us to understand today from whence we came no matter who you are as a matter of race or ethnicity. 

DEBORAH MCDOWELL:  Absolutely. 

The life of sally hemings exhibit at Monticello

JAMES PERLA: I have a question to follow up briefly about the Hemings exhibit, maybe two questions. But first, I just want to get a little bit of context about the process of setting up the exhibit. We talked to Niya Bates also at Monticello and I just wanted maybe you to meditate a bit on what that process was like and why was it that you… that Monticello in particular chose to represent Hemings in the way that you did in that exhibit?  

MELODY BARNES: Sure. Well the evolution of the exhibit at Monticello… the exhibit about Sally Hemings’ life was a long one. And in some ways it has its roots in the response that was received to the restoration of Mulberry Row. The row of places where the enslaved families lived. And watching some people… Visitors walk in and look around and say, “Oh, well this wasn’t so bad,” which you know sends chills, you know through your body. So, one we wanted to think about how do we tell the story? Based on what we know and we don’t know a lot. There are no pictures that we can find. We can find written descriptions. And what we also had was the oral history and interview that one of her sons had done in an Ohio newspaper. So, using that, because we felt as though that gave us a lot of factual information that was firsthand and what we had from the records, we decided that the representation of Sally Hemings shouldn’t be an attempt at period restoration because we didn’t want the,”Oh, well this wasn’t so bad.”

JAMES PERLA: And by period restoration you mean like a reproduction of her room? 

MELODY BARNES:  Right, You know, sometimes, you know, you go to a historic home or you go to… Well, a historic home would be the best example and they try to recreate the bed or the pallet that the slaves slept in. That we didn’t want to do that. That we wanted to use the words of her son to tell that story. And that we wanted to create something that was deeply meditative for people with that information and we went back and forth and back and forth with a company that worked with us to help tell that story in that way. And for those who I hope will go to Monticello and see this.  I’m being careful. I don’t want to… I want them to respond. I want people to respond to what they see but I think it is done very simply. But I think it is also done very very powerfully. And I know the reaction I had when I first saw it before it opened. And I was with my husband and two other friends and literally tears were in all of our eyes when we left that room. And being there the day that it opened and watching people come out, you know, in silence people needed a place to just be and to think and to contemplate what they had witnessed and what they had read through… in those words. I feel it it ultimately was the powerful representation and the most honest and truthful interpretation of her life that we could possibly give.   

JAMES PERLA: For someone who might not… We’ve been. It’s fantastic but maybe for someone who might not be familiar with what the exhibit is. I think it’s notable that, you know, you walk into this, you know, there’s a buzz of activity going on around, you know, in the grounds and then you walk into this kind of quiet dark room. And so, could you maybe just describe… Maybe even your personal experience going through that and what that was like maybe on first viewing? 

MELODY BARNES: Sure. So, you… To visit you walk into a room that is one of the two rooms that we believe that she lived in and that’s as far as we could narrow it down. And when the door is closed you are in darkness as she would have been but for candlelight or, you know, fire at night and there is the words of her son as told through an interview that he did with the newspaper are projected and then an outline of her kind of… in silhouette again, because we don’t know what she looked like we don’t we have a basic description from the oral history. But we don’t have any pictures so we didn’t want to pretend like we knew or even that we know what Sally Hemings looks like. So, there’s a silhouette that takes you through her history when she first came as a child when she was in France and with Jefferson, which is… she was there to help take care of one of Jefferson’s daughter’s. The fact that she came back and she was pregnant. The exchange that she had with Jefferson about what her life would look like if she came back because at first she was not going to come back. Her brother was living in France and in France there was the opportunity for freedom, but ultimately did come back. And then the life that she had going forward there. Again, all through the words of her son projected on the wall. And I think also that when I describe her in silhouette, even that changes as you go through the different… the arc of her life as she was at Monticello. 

representation without information

JAMES PERLA: Sorry, final question at this point because we’re, you know, the notion of literary scholars I think is important and the role of representation because there’s so little information about Hemings herself. I wanted to ask… The sort of choice to make this sort of like a found poetry type of representation that is almost like a turn towards sort of a more abstract register to almost get to sort of the true story of Hemings the need to go through some type of representation that’s not necessarily a historical through and through a period piece or yeah. Does that question make sense? 

MELODY BARNES: I feel your question in my bones, but I might need… 

JAMES PERLA: I think another around this is the other day, Titus Kaphar gave a lecture at UVA Special Collections Library, and he hinted… I don’t know if this is officially, we’re supposed to say it… but he hinted at the possibility of showing some of his paintings at Monticello. Recently, there was a lot of buzz about a musical performance that you all did on the grounds of Monticello. And so, the role of sort of to animate and to show the humanity of enslaved peoples for whom we have very little information. The need to turn to the sort of gaps in the history and to sort of make that history have a sort of affective or emotional truth that is not represented in sort of historical information from the archives, which is obviously controlled by the sort of the…  

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: “The lions write history.” And so, the work of the lions is in the archives. Yeah, people who leave papers people who leave writings? Yes, if maybe if I’m understanding you… are you asking what do we gain? What do we lose? With having recourse only to representation? Is that?

JAMES PERLA: Yeah, I think so and the possibilities of because they’re so little information this choice to make it sort of this meditative, as you describe, this feeling where, you know, you don’t get the, “Oh, that’s not so bad.” You get the… the sort of feeling of what that was like and again that’s sort of because of the lack of information. So, I think yeah that yeah sort of helps … 

MELODY BARNES: It is and it’s a rich question there so many facets to it. I think one it forces us to wrestle with and look in the eye of the fact that we don’t have a lot of information. And that’s particularly interesting in this instance because it is Monticello and it is Jefferson and Jefferson wrote down everything. Everything. So, he leaves lots of detailed notes and the register of those who were enslaved there. There’s all of that. That he had the power, he could control that but for those who were enslaved they didn’t have that. So, what we have left behind are artifacts that have been uncovered as a result of archaeology and we have oral history and interviews by the descendants. And the oral history that we still have that we are still collecting at Monticello today of descendants. And so, that requires us, I think, to be very careful, to be thoughtful and to be responsible with… and accountable for how we are treating all of that information. Not making…  letting people interpret it to make and draw their assumptions. To put it in an historical context. When people go they will see a sign outside of her room about the issue of rape, recognizing the lack of agency that enslaved women had at that time, the fact that she was owned by someone. And at the same time, we want people to understand the humanity of those who were enslaved there. And that comes through, I believe, when you go on the tour because everyone has been trained to talk about the multidimensionality of those individuals. I know, I have friends… I went to Monticello as a kid and, you know, people either we didn’t talk about the slaves or we talked about them as servants or so there are euphemisms and now there’s very plain spoken language. These were enslaved people. This is what happened. This was the labor that burdened them. This is the way some of them died. This is the way many of them… Some of them tried to escape. This is what happened to some of them who tried to escape. And included in that is the representation of Sally Hemings’ life in a way that we hope people do feel deeply and we’re not trying to shape or impress a set of feelings upon people but we’re trying to give you as much as we possibly can as accurately as we can so that people walk away with an understanding of what this woman’s life was about and the facts that we have about her life and the lives of hundreds of others who lived there for… With good reason we talk a lot about Sally Hemings, but there were hundreds of others who live there and we have their  oral history and as much as the of the archaeological material as we possibly can to tell their stories as well.  

The spectrum of love

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: I’m thinking there’s just so much resonance and what you’re saying. I want to go back to a few minutes ago. Well, no, I’ll come back to that later because I want to confront the question of rape and maybe then connect it to Sally Hemings in France because it’s so complicated from our contemporary perspective. Sally Hemings is fourteen. So, fourteen for us now is not the age of consent, but it would be anachronistic to say Sally Hemings was an underage girl that Jefferson raped and sexually exploited because fourteen-year-olds could be married in the 18th century. So, we are working with very different conceptions of childhood. In fact, indeed the reality that childhood as a category of human development is a very late phenomenon in human history. And so, we can’t say she was underage and yet we want to be able to capture that whether underage or not in the terms that the 18th century understood it, something happened to her and to her body that was wrong. So, we wrestle with the particularities of history, what history allows us to say if we’re being responsible, but it’s that… but what has to almost override it are the questions of morality because, you know, I’m reminded of, you know, Martin Luther King often made the distinction between man-made laws and moral laws, right? And so, this is analogous to that and so I was taken with the fact that both in the press, I read the review in the New York Times of the exhibition, and there on-site the the concept of rape is invoked, you know, unapologetically, right? And so, help us think about what brought you to that point even knowing that, well, how do you say it was rape? How do you know since so little is known about what passed between these people? How can you have conviction about whether that is the terminology you want to use?   

MELODY BARNES: Well, throughout the building of that exhibit and I even every time I use the word exhibit I cringe a little bit because it sounds…. It doesn’t hold the import of what this is. So, as we were thinking about how to share and represent the story of her life based on what we knew, we spend a lot of time with historians who are Jefferson-Hemings historians, like Annette Gordon-Reed, to help us work through all of the issues and what we knew, but I think what was most important to us was A. identifying the lack of agency that she… Sally Hemings had. Simply by virtue of being born into slavery. She could not control her own body, her destiny, her decision. She… by what we know of what happened in France, she was able to have a back-and-forth of some sort with Jefferson to try and shape what her life would look like and the life of her children when she returned, if she returned, when she returned to Monticello, but she couldn’t wake up and say, “You know what? I ain’t doing that.” She didn’t have those choices that we have today and because that includes control over her body, we felt that it was absolutely necessary. It would be irresponsible not to call that question and not to require those who visit that exhibit to look in the eye of what it would be like to have been Sally Hemings and that period of time and literally one of the most powerful men in the country owns you and what happens as a result of that. And the, you know, six children. I may be a little bit off right now that she carried and bore. We have to understand that as a country and I think it is also important in the same way people similarly as they walked through Mulberry Row and said, “Oh this wasn’t so bad.” We want people to understand just what it would mean to be an enslaved woman at that point in time. Also understanding and bringing in as much of the facts, and as you say the context, as we possibly could. 

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: It is vitally important and I think to impress that upon people is critical and yet there is always an “and yet” for speculative thinkers. And this is the “and yet” for me and it’s inspired by an account of another enslaved woman that literary historians have done lots of work to verify, to ascertain and that’s Harriet Jacobs who was owned by Dr. Flint in South Carolina. And she enters into a relationship with another white propertied man. He doesn’t own her but he’s a part of that class and she describes in the book: It is better to choose if you are going to enter into a relationship with someone who has overwhelming power over you. It is important to be able to choose that person. So, with Harriet Jacobs, whether we think it makes sense or not, in her mind, she’s making a choice. She’s making a choice to enter into a relationship with a white man to bear him two children, alright? So, I want to then go back to what you said much earlier about people who travel for miles and miles and miles to see their loved ones which establishes the fact that these were deeply feeling people who form deeply human, feeling, sustaining attachments, right? Toni Morrison writes about a character in Beloved, Sixo, who is in love with “the 30-Mile Woman” and he will walk 30 miles back and forth to be with that woman. So, that’s the depth of the love. So, then it brings us to the question, these are feeling people and feelings have a way of not yielding to human and social constructs. This is a long-winded preamble. I’m aware, but I’m intentionally being long-winded. So, Thomas Jefferson owns this woman. She has no agency. Certainly not under the law. Absolutely not. She can’t say, “I’m not doing this,” right?  But she bore him six children. It’s impossible in the discourse for us to think of that relationship as possibly admitting of love between these two people. When people want to say… I was once at my own dinner table in a conversation with Mia Bay and Mia Bay says, “Deborah. That’s impossible. You just can’t say that. It is just it is an insult to Sally Hemings and to all the other enslaved women.” And I said, “That’s not what I’m doing here.” I’m simply asking why has that been such an unthinkable proposition? Why is it impossible to enter the conversation? Because you can’t know what happened you simply cannot know. We don’t know. And so, people on both sides of the ideological divide, whether they are diehard Jeffersonians or defenders of Sally Hemings, say you can’t even broach the question of love in this situation. They just don’t. I can’t. Leave that away. Leave that alone. What can’t we broach that question?   

MELODY BARNES: Because of the horror that was slavery. Because of the genocide that was slavery. Because it was destructive in the most fundamental sense of the word that I believe it is hard to imagine that there is something loving that could have emanated from that and that’s why I believe it is so difficult, virtually impossible, to wrap your arms or your mind or your heart around that. Because it also I think it requires individuals to think someone that would buy and sell people, someone that would rip families apart, someone that would allow individuals to be beaten within an inch of their life, if not taking their life, someone who would see a person try to flee to freedom and send out slave catchers or an overseer to capture them and bring them back, how could that person also be in love with an enslaved person? Because if you love them wouldn’t you let them be free? So, that’s why I think it’s, you know, that idea kind of hits the mind and slides right off. 

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: You know, I love that answer too and I especially love the thinking and the heart. You say, you know, in your thinking and in your heart you can’t admit of this. And I want to… James has heard me mentioned this many many times because, you know, I’m just I’m asking a different kind of question that may not always register as I intended and that’s in a failure of my own articulation, but I’m asking why can’t we think of this? Because children for example, who are abused, love the parents who abuse them. You know? That power in relationships is fundamental to relationships. I always joke and say people talk about how helpless infants have no power. Well, yeah in certain ways of understanding power, but if an infant is screaming to the top of that infant’s lung power at 3 a.m and will only stop if you walk back and forth rocking them, that infant has had the power to murder your sleep. So, this is all… and James has heard me use this analogy because, you know, as a person of my generation and my training so many of my references are literary references. And so, it’s so… Faulkner has this wonderful story in Go Down Moses and it’s a fictional character Ike McCaslin is in the commissary going over the ledgers much like Jefferson’s farm books. Everything is written down. So, gets to this point in the ledger where it says, and this is his grandfather, “Gave Eunice $1,000 upon the birth of her son.” So, Ike the grandson is saying, “What? He gave a slave woman $1000? There must have been some kind of love. Or something like love? She wasn’t just some afternoon spittoon?” But he doesn’t know what it is. But he’s saying there is something else that has to define this relationship. I don’t know what it is. Is it love? He’s not saying it is. And then Annette Gordon-Reed really kind of opens that door and then there are a lot of legal scholars Adrienne Davis is one of them. And Adrienne Davis has written and unearthed lots of instances of slaveholders, men of the planter class, who had long-term relationships with slave women. Some of them acknowledge those relationships, some of them… Yes. Some of them were common-law marriages. Some of them really left, bequeathed to these children property and such. And that the only time these men would be prosecuted for violating anti-miscegenation laws was when it could be determined that these were not fly-by-night relationships. That this is somebody I live with, I sleep with. I don’t just go through the back door and after two hours leave. So, we have all that evidence too. And I want to be… to make it clear. I’m with you. I understand people who do not want to say, “No, you couldn’t possibly love people when you do this to them. When you separate them from children, you… No. None of that is in the universe of love,” right? But the question is always… What do we lose when we can’t enter that conversation, even if we conclude well, this is not the kind of love I would want. This is a messed up, distorted, you know, abusive kind of love, so I don’t want any parts of it. But something… Something that had to be going on with these people that it lasted for as long as it did. Not just… he wasn’t making his way among the other women that he would have had access to. It was this woman. It was her.  

MELODY BARNES: Yeah, I think that those questions and so many others are inherent to our struggle in America to talk about and to wrestle with what we know about slavery and that period of American history and also how it shapes our conceptions of blackness and whiteness and the society that we live in today. I mean well…. It is just, you know, I don’t know the third rail or whatever, you know, we… Taking what we know, taking what we feel, taking who we are today and putting that all together to have a conversation and to engage in that and to let the mind wrap around that is something that I think is it is so difficult for us and that’s why I think we struggle to ask ourselves the questions that you’ve posed. 

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: I get it. I completely get it. I understand why many people would greet such a question as offensive as misguided as, you know, what kind of monster are you to even formulate this question. I mean, really? 

MELODY BARNES: Are you trying to make it, make this better than it was?

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: Not about making it better because again, I was so glad to hear you, this is slight a slight departure, but I’ll circle back, you know, well slavery wasn’t so bad. I mean that’s one of the criticisms I have had of many universities that are seeking to interrogate their slave past. There’s always some figure that’s been legendary in the recovery… For UVA, it’s the Henry the bell ringer. For William and Mary, it’s Lemon… Lemon the slave named “Lemon” and I say well, you know, this recovery process and this coming to terms with your own foundations and slavery and the profits that ensued there from, it’s as if well, these are all triumphalist stories. No matter what, Henry’s a slave, he rang the bell every day. He never missed a day of ringing the bell like, oh really? So, when I was asked to read at the dedication of Henry the bell ringer and I am like, “Mrs. Otis regrets that she’s unable to read today.” And I just resisted the explanation but the explanation was that. Because slavery was an institution that broke people, that undid people and that brokenness has been passed down from generation to generation to generation. But also with that brokenness, is the humanity you’re talking about. So, if these people have the capacity to love, the capacity to love is the capacity to love. It’s… I love the arguments people make in defense of members of the LGBTQ community. Love if you have that experience, you are among the fortunate of humanity. You can’t say you can love here but you can’t love there. 

Sexual Power Dynamics

JAMES PERLA: “Love Is Love.” 

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: “Love Is Love,” right? And so, it’s not about wanting to romanticize because even love is something that lives in history. We reduce love to the kind of, again, very modern phenomenon of romantic love, right? And I try to say that, you know, it’s yeah, romantic love no, I wouldn’t want to say… But something would explain why… Because it can’t be just sexual release. Rape is power. Rape isn’t even about sex. But you go to this same woman and you get six children with this woman. 

MELODY BARNES: One of the other reasons that people when hearing that still push back on it is that and this comes from the oral history as well, her son says that Jefferson didn’t… Essentially Jefferson didn’t treat us any differently than any other of the enslaved children. And so, if there had been more, why?… What I hear when I read that is why weren’t we treated differently, if we were his children? Why weren’t we treated better? And I just think that it is hard to… Impossible to imagine love as we conceive of it being a part of that relationship. I don’t know. I think that it requires us… What we can take and this is what we try to do was what we know of the time, what we know of her story as articulated by her son, understand the horror of that period and understand… Try to better understand what her life looked like. And, yeah. 

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: I completely get it and it’s not speaking out of both sides of my mouth to say though that to the extent that we can’t broach this as the question then we really are wittingly or not basically continuing to perpetuate division. That hasn’t come out exactly as I want. And it would take me too long to interpret myself and you’ve already… We’re over the time you’ve allotted us. Yeah, we didn’t even ask most of the questions, but your answers were so fertile that I wanted to follow up on what you were saying. And again, as we wind down I think about Gayle Jones’s novel, Corrigedora. And it is about slavery in Brazil and Corrigedora is the name of the slaveholder and again the grandmother of the central character in the novel has passed down the stories about slavery and at one point the central character asks her mother who had asked her mother, you know, “What did you feel about Corregidora?” And she answers, “What I was taught to feel.” And that is very different. What I was taught to feel. What I was schooled to feel, right? So, we have all undergone a form of cultural tutelage and that tutelage has obligated us to a set of responses and reflexes and interpretations that we don’t want to let go of and it’s easy in one sense to keep them, “Oh, that? I know what that is. Let’s move on. That? Oh, yeah. I know what that. Let’s move on.” Mhm. And I think where the evidence is so thin, where so little is known, it seems to me when you open the door to speculation, you can open the door to speculation on a broad scale. Because you can say at one and the same time that something was going on that we don’t quite understand. And it was going on in the midst of brutality, in the midst of exploitation. I mean and that is the nature of life. I remember being also chastised when Marion Barry was convicted, you know, in the sting. And so, people well, they’re bringing down all our elected officials and they put black men under the greatest forms of surveillance. And I said, that’s true. But it is also true that he went into the Vista Hotel and smoked the crack pipe. Both of these things are true. [laughter] 

The Responsibility of Historically Violent Spaces

JAMES PERLA: Well, you have been very generous with your time and possibly, you know, final questions, you know, pending thoughts? Anything you want to say? Yes, I’m thinking to you know about this progressivist narrative and I’m not sure if we’ve had the opportunity to ask the question of, you know, what responsibility does an institution like UVA or other such institutions have if any to sort of these histories of violence? And to addressing these histories? During our interview with Niya Bates, she mentioned this great line during… from the president of the Ford Foundation who said that, you know, institutions, and this is paraphrasing, but institutions sort of have to be willing to give up certain, you know, things in order to for sort of the moral and human like realities of what it takes to address those legacies of violence and history. And so, yeah, wherever you find your way into that. What are our institutions willing to give up willing not to give up or what responsibilities do institutions such as these have to that history? 

MELODY BARNES: I think with with the University of Virginia and Monticello and in a different way, some ways the same, some ways different… If you’re in the education business, then you have to educate and that requires at its base telling as much of the truth as we know. To put as many of the facts that we have on the table and reverence, symbols…. They aren’t… They don’t help us in the long run. In fact, they are they are harmful because they allow us to perpetuate narratives that aren’t true. That it is possible and not only possible, it is necessary to tell the truth and to extract the positive from that. You know, Jefferson was founder to a university based on the idea that a democracy, a constitutional republic had to have an educated citizenry. Now, who he defined as who is a citizen and the treatment of those individuals is the ugly horrible part of the story that we also have to rectify but we can’t do that unless we tell all of the story and that is part of the education process. That’s part of what it requires to be in the education business and I believe that Monticello similarly has moved forward in ways that I think are so critically important. It’s why I joined the Board and could join the Board to help continue that work of telling the truth. And you can both talk about Jefferson and religious freedom, Jefferson as a deeply curious person, Jefferson as scientist. All of those things and also talk about what it means that Jefferson was a slaveholder and the contradiction in those things which I think is the contradiction that we still hold today. And it is important for us to tell the story of everyone who was there. Jefferson, his daughters, his wife who died young, and Sally Hemings, and all of those who are enslaved there if we’re going to understand all of that and what really happened. And that these things just didn’t kind of pop up like, “Oh, Monticello just appeared, you know, food it just appeared.” You know, I remember going in a house tour in Charleston, South Carolina and the tour guide said, described, you know, there were six slaves who lived here and then she described the architecture of the building and said, “But we don’t know how that happened.” What do you mean you don’t know how that happened? Of course, we know how that happened. So, it requires telling the entire set of… Putting all the facts on the table and I believe for the work that we are doing now and that I’m co-directing with the Democracy Initiative, that it is part and parcel of that. That for a public university that seeks to not only educate those who come here but to put information into the world that will improve not only our society but a global society, that it is important for us to take leadership, to take the helm of doing that at and to interrogate our assumptions. To interrogate what we know, the things we think we know and try to move forward with what is actually the truth and to share that in a way that people can understand and absorb it and that ultimately we can make our… Not only are our society here, but our global community better and stronger as a result of doing that work. 

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: That’s a wonderful point, perhaps on which to end. Unless you have something else you might want to add. Yeah. This is really been wonderful. As I said I could just listen to you forever.

MELODY BARNES: I’ve so enjoyed this conversation which I’ve been wanting to have for the longest time. I remember when they did the new faculty dinner, whatever that was and I saw you across the room and then the dinner ended and since then I’ve been thinking I’ve got to reach out because I wanted to get together.

Noelle Hurd


Interviewee: Noelle Hurd
Interviewer(s): Deborah E. McDowell; James Perla
Interview date:
Interview Summary:
Keywords: Monuments and memorials, civility, petition, grievances, black studies
Transcription: Laila Hurd


(mis)quoting Jefferson

JAMES PERLA: Alright, well, thank you so much for coming on the cusp of the winter holiday to speak with us about Jefferson and many other things. Just so we have it, could you say your name and I guess your role at UVA?  

NOELLE HURD: Sure. My name is Noelle Hurd and I am an Associate Professor in the psychology department.   

JP: Thanks. Yes, so I guess we can sort of jump right into it. I mean, you’ve published a lot in the past few years sort of in a very public way. And one of the things that we wanted to start with was I guess it was directly after the presidential election of 2016, you spearheaded a petition to encourage the administration to sort of not quote Jefferson as much as they tend to do. So, I wonder if we could maybe just start by asking you to sort of walk us through the process of creating the petition and sort of the reasoning behind it.  

NH: Yeah. Sure. Let’s see. I’ll try and give you the briefer version and then you can let me know if you have more questions about any of the things that I mentioned. I do remember that just being a difficult time for everyone. And also being really connected with undergraduates and graduate students here at UVA who are all kind of feeling a lot of trauma related to [Donald] Trump’s campaign, nomination, election and it definitely felt like the emails that we received from Teresa Sullivan both before and after the election that were really pointing us to Thomas Jefferson as kind of a moral compass in terms of, you know, this is a time filled with a lot of conflict and divisiveness and she was pointing us to think about Jefferson’s words as a way to kind of aspire to be better. And for me, that just felt incredibly tone-deaf and offensive. I think in the context and, you know, some of her initial email before the election had to do with acts of bigotry on campus and so it seemed particularly inappropriate to suggest that in a time when we’re having racist and bigoted remarks and actions on campus that the leader, you know, the moral leader who we should be thinking of in that moment would be Thomas Jefferson who himself was a white supremacist and owned slaves. So yeah, I remember having those conversations around the first email that she sent out with students saying, “Wow, I can’t believe, you know, this really feels like the wrong direction.” You know, to kind of try and encourage a better more civil and kind of united campus climate. And then I remember the email right after the election felt definitely like a tipping point for many of us and I remember even having like a group text message exchange with my graduate students where we were all just very frustrated about what was happening and it definitely felt like insult to injury in that moment. And I think also hearing that same day that there were things happening with University police officers who had been taunting students who were upset walking home from hearing that Trump had won the election. So, it was just a very like tumultuous and kind of upsetting time for many of us. And that’s where I think in the midst of us having this exchange of expressing our frustration. It seemed like obviously we shouldn’t just talk amongst ourselves, right? We need to communicate this information to the administration. So, then I think the rest of the process actually was kind of haphazard. I thought, you know, let me draft an email to kind of at least make sure that my University president understands that this is harmful. That this email that she sent out if nothing else is undermining the message that she presumably is attempting to convey. And also let me give other folks a chance to sign on to this as well because: One, I don’t know that it matters as much that one assistant professor in the psychology department feels this way it probably matters more if there’s broader consensus about. And two, you know, this might be something that other people are really interested in being able to express as well. And so in a very haphazard way just kind of sent out this open email to colleagues to graduate students and then within a matter of I think about 48 hours there were nearly 500 signatures which to me just communicated that this is a shared experience that many of us are having especially those of us who are members of marginalized groups that were not feeling that these emails are connecting in the way that I’m assuming our University president wanted them to. And so, that was kind of that process of, you know, I’m sure if I had been invested in like collecting as many signatures as I could I could have let it go another couple of days and probably had at least twice as many but, you know, I was trying to get the communication to her in a timely manner and so went ahead and submitted it.  Yeah, so that was that process. I’m not sure if that’s…


UVA in Fall 2016

JP: And for clarifying purposes, you mentioned a few events leading up to the 2016 presidential election that happened on campus I wonder just so that people might, if they’re not familiar, if you want to allude to those… 

NH: Yeah, I remember there were several. One of them that was the most disturbing and I think happened pretty close to the election was that a student had been walking across campus in the middle of the day and had been yelled… There was like a truck full… It wasn’t clear that these were like white males student aged individuals. I don’t know that it ever was made clear whether they were in fact students or not who were driving by in like a pickup truck and who yelled obscenities racial slurs and death threats at this woman as she was walking and it’s like in the afternoon on a Tuesday or something going to the library.  

JP: It was on Jefferson Park Avenue or something? 

NH: Yeah. So, that happened. I know there were other things around just like chalkings that were happening. So, people were writing I think anti-LGBTQ comments, they were writing things about kind of like black intellectual inferiority, and those had… those were events that had been happening in the summer when we actually have a lot of programs for students from underrepresented backgrounds to come to the university. And I think it was also before the election when some somebody had spray-painted the word “terrorist” on the side of a building with arrows pointed up to a room where some Muslim students I think resided. And so, those were some of, to me, the most like outstanding egregious incidents that happened. I know there were others, but I just remember having conversations with students and colleagues that these… it felt like things were escalating and also just being aware that that wasn’t just happening here at UVA. A lot of this did seem to be happening in tandem with Trump’s kind of ascent to power.  

JP: Thank you.  


Using Jefferson as a moral compass and a silencer

DEBORAH McDOWELL: Can you say what your effort and the responses you received told you more broadly about the way this University uses Jefferson as an icon as a moral compass and also as a silencer?

NH: That’s a good question. So, are you mostly interested in kind of there was like the official or unofficial response from the administration? Or kind of just like broader? Because it was this really interesting thing. And I guess there’s like a system to this where right-wing kind of conservative enterprises have a system in place where they’re kind of scanning these student newspapers. And so, because this, you know, public email got picked up by the student newspaper, somehow some kind of right-wing organized system got latched onto that and then it got picked up then through like Fox News, Breitbart, whatever and then they would just seem to be a very like kind of systemic trolling that happened as a result of that which I didn’t feel that that was necessarily like orchestrated by UVA, but I did get these really, I mean, I just got a slew of really awful emails, letters, voicemails and people would write the most awful, racist, horrible things and then sign off with their name and the year that they graduated from UVA. So, to me that was very telling and it wasn’t, you know, that wasn’t the entirety of it. I think there was plenty of just trolls from all over the country, but it was interesting to me to see people from who, you know, had a history, had a connection with UVA the alumni connection saying really awful things, really problematic things to me and then signing off right like kind of proudly of who they were and seeing themselves I think as kind of gatekeepers? And that happened that wasn’t just like one, right? So, there was enough of those that to me that felt kind of like indicative of what the institutional culture has been and continues to be.  

DMcD: That is so important to say for a variety of reasons but not least in the aftermath of August 11th and 12th of 2017 because the immediate reflexive and sustained response to that event was “this is not us.” That was the refrain both within the university and within the larger community of Charlottesville. That somehow these outside elements, these extreme forces, these people who are not us have come in and infiltrated and basically assaulted our values. Well, what are our values if you receive a series of emails from alums, proudly identifying themselves as alums, expressing hateful bigoted responses to your petition? So, basically the response you receive would give the lie or certainly would complicate any notion that UVA is an environment in which tolerance for all quote-unquote differences abides because your experience would clearly belie that.

NH: Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, I guess two thoughts: One, just related to that connection you made with August 11 and 12, you know, and I’ve been very involved with that, I counter-protested, was there, you know, to me that connection was so obvious. Right? Like it was such a like the stream of experiences I’ve had personally being part of this community, you know, a little bit even before 2016 but especially in 2016 up until now have just been very consistent. I think tells a very clear and consistent narrative. Also, I think it has been so important for us to really own and acknowledge that both Jason Kessler and Richard Spencer are alums of this University and so their central role as organizers and the fact that we had we had a whole series of events leading up to that, right? I remember actually on Mother’s Day going to that park that I guess was Lee Park at the time because the day before Spencer had been there having the first torch-lit rally right of the summer. So, that was May then there was the Klu Klux Klan rally. So yeah, the fact that all of these things were kind of coalescing around Charlottesville for me was not shocking at all, right? And like what does it mean to have Jason Kessler and Richard Spencer to have such close ties here? And to feel so comfortable to come here and honestly to feel like the red carpet was basically rolled out for them and the way that our administration kind of handled, especially August 11th, and what happened here. Related to, I guess, I have one, you know, kind of anecdote that I think captures really well the things that I learned about my administration and also, you know, who makes decisions and who holds power around this University related to the open email that we sent asking Teresa Sullivan not to use Thomas Jefferson as a moral compass. And so, I think it was a few weeks after that. There was like a faculty Senate meeting and I attended and I was attending because a colleague and I had been working on a presentation that I think she ended up delivering to tell the faculty a little bit more about how to respond to critical incidents and how we needed to do more as faculty to acknowledge these things that were happening, you know, in our classrooms and to let students know that we were there standing in solidarity with them, that we wanted to be allies with marginalized students and that we were not complicit in these things that were happening. We had learned that it was really important to be explicit about that with our students. So, we went so I went to the meeting for that purpose, but Teresa Sullivan was there I think she had just five or 10 minutes to make some comments and I remember it was striking to me that she had such little time and spent so much of it talking about what she said was kind of controversy around “free speech.” That was the language she used at the meeting. And she specifically pointed out two things. One was this petition and another was like right around that time our basketball team UVA’s basketball team had taken a picture, I think it’s just like after practice. This wasn’t in a game. It wasn’t which, you know, I think all of those things are fine if they had kneeled during the  national anthem as a sign of protest against injustice, I would support that. I think that’s well within their rights to do, right? That’s that also falls under this free speech umbrella. They took a picture but, you know, I think for me it’s important to note how benign the act was it was like they all wore these like black, I don’t know, jumpsuits that they had for practicing and they all kneeled together locked arms and then posted on I’m assuming on Instagram or some social media platform it said “kneeling against injustice.” And I thought well, you know, good for them, right? Like, you know, it’s a way of taking a stand it’s a way of using their, you know, kind of status and popularity within the university to say, we, you know, we realize all of these things are happening and we as a team are kind of standing in solidarity against injustice. And I remember that that got covered in like, you know, whatever Daily Progress, Cav Daily [Cavalier Daily] and there was a lot of really hateful commentary about that. And there was a lot of stuff that just seemed like trolling, you know? Like take their scholarships away, they shouldn’t be there, and I remember being like: who are these people? And like where do I live? And what is offensive about kneeling against injustice? What is it about that that’s so alarming to people? And then I think oh, you know, maybe these are just like trolls and this isn’t anything to take seriously, but that was, you know, of the ten minutes that Teresa Sullivan had in that faculty Senate meeting, the two things that she talked about. One that she had gotten many calls to revoke their scholarships and to expel those students and also to let us know that all of us who had signed on to that petition about quoting Thomas Jefferson. Oh, all she’d been doing was fielding phone calls about having us removed and fired and having the students suspended and I thought I think that’s when I really got to understand that because if those were just random trolls, right? Who spend their whole day on The Daily Progress and Cav Daily writing really ignorant misspelled, you know, offensive comments it seems that that wouldn’t wouldn’t warrant… That the little time that she has she would allocate to that. So, that’s when this light bulb moment happened for me when I was like, those are the donors. Those are the alumni. Those are the people who think we should be fired and lose our jobs for this and also clearly those are the people who are on her mind because those are the silliest comments I’ve ever heard and so for you to then take up this time to say, just so you know, this is happening, but I’m not going to fire you and I’m, you know, I’m such a benevolent leader I’m actually not going to kick these students out either and it was just like it was bizarro world, you know? 


Navigating the status quo as a black academic

DMcD: And I appreciate that anecdote. It’s really very telling and so who’s inside and who’s outside, who holds these quote offensive positions. But I want to return to the question of the usefulness of Jefferson as a kind of silencing agent, whether that’s intended to be the case or not. But say, in her response I’m being deluged with calls to… that are calling for you renegade faculty members to be dismissed, but no I’m not going to do that. But that in itself is probably a cautionary move she’s making. Basically to say to you, “I am not going to follow this but who knows? Someone after me, so perhaps you who are so given to being critical of the founder of our institution might want to think again.” And I think it’s also important to consider anecdotes like that within a larger national context because we do know in fact the kinds of abuse that black faculty members have been subject to and universities across the country precisely for the positions that they’re taking. On a variety of what many would consider controversial positions but people invested in ideas of justice don’t find controversial at all, right? But it is if you’re right, if mere kneeling, if merely calling for a more measured, less reflexive appeal to Jefferson in times of crisis, if these pretty innocuous moves can create the kinds of responses, then we have a sense that the climate is us. We are in the climate. It is surrounding us, right? And the university is itself within a broad social… socio-cultural orbit and is not so much inoculated from all of the ills that we’re seeing everywhere else. That the university is itself in that. And not just in that environment. It has done its own bit of incubating and hosting, to continue my metaphors, these ideas, right? So, they are very much with us. So, Thomas Jefferson, who is this exponent of reason, who in many people’s mind is the veritable embodiment of reason and Enlightenment, that we appeal to him supposedly to calm the waters. We appeal to him because of his rationality, because of this pseudo-objective tone he seeks to strike. And so, if we appeal to him, he can get us out of this mess. But as you say turning to Jefferson in these times, actually exacerbates the problem rather than eliminate it.  

JP: I wanted to just I mean I just under underlining some of the things, you know, people say that the university is not the quote-unquote real world. Right? And I think that comment shows that things are very real here, right?

DMcD: How can it not be the real world? In fact, when I gave the commencement address to the class of 2017, anyone, in fact, when I was writing the address, part of my agony had to do with the tension in my mind between acknowledging a celebratory occasion attended by, witnessed by, people many of whom had made great sacrifices to see their children walk the lawn. So, really wanting to honor this as a moment of celebration not to be cast in any negative light. And at the same time, wanting to acknowledge that there were many many things students commencing from this lawn on that day should leave thinking about. When I finish the speech, I thought this is a speech that is so innocuous that it’s not going to be of much use to anybody but it’s the speech I can give right now. Well, I also got hate mail. I was not calling for us to stop quoting Jefferson. I was simply actually appealing to Martin Luther King. It happened to be the 50th anniversary of the publication of “Where Do We Go From Here?” But no matter what, unless you stand on these grounds to say all is well with the world, unless you stand on these grounds to say, “Oh, what a wonderful world,” there is absolutely nothing facing you but venom. And it doesn’t matter where you fall on the continuum of expression. I would argue that on the continuum of expression and opinion and political positioning, my position in that speech on that day was clearly very mild to moderate. But it doesn’t matter unless what you’re going to say is, “I am happy to be here.” Unless you are willing to basically commit yourself to some version of a standard script that everyone I believe would like to give black people and particularly black women if you have managed to get into a place like this your script is, “from the outhouse to the lawn” or that you have scrambled your way through extreme hardship and as a result of institutional largesse, and so your only position is the position of gratitude. 

NH: I would say two things that were related to that that really resonated with me. One was that I think… The two themes that I picked most from, you know, and I didn’t, you know, to be totally fair, I didn’t read a lot of these things carefully. When I could tell from the beginning of the voicemail that there was a lot of hate coming from it, I just deleted it. I mean, I didn’t feel the need to subject myself and do some kind of like content analysis, but my very general sense from the kind of overwhelming majority of messages that I at least took a glance at was: One, how dare you open your mouth. You should just be happy to be there and the fact that you think that you have the possibility to critique that space is like the biggest insult imaginable. And then the second one was, you know,  I’m going to say anything and threaten anything just to get you to shut up. So, I think coming back to what you said about the silencing. It felt just very clear to me that and like you said if the most innocuous at to me that the picture that the basketball team took right after practice, my email was entirely too respectful, probably, right? And it was just very much like, you know, just me lonely, you know, lowly assistant professor reaching out and asking you, “Oh, president of the University. Could you, you know, had it occurred to you that possibly the message that you are giving out wasn’t quite consistent with your other points about unity and civility.” Right? And so, I thought oh if that is what gets people this angry right also, you all just won. You just got this like we’re the ones who should be angry right now, and I’m still like modulating and figuring out how to contort myself into such a way that I can express my feelings of outrage in the most respectful kind of commendable fashion. And then you are unleashing hatred on me for daring to do that. And so, I think the other thing I took away from it was people are just so committed to this endeavor of white supremacy and are willing, you know, there are no kind of boundaries, right? For what what it takes to keep the status quo the way that it is and so it has been interesting to me to see the commitment within the university and outside of it to maintaining that status quo and it also has made me ever more determined I think to give voice to these issues. 


the role of civility in activism

JP: One thing to circle back to and this is sort of by way of maybe housekeeping, not to use that term, but to just sort of underscore as Deborah exits. Just making sure that… Okay. No problem. Is I guess, your previous comment was sort of alluding to the concept without invoking the term of “civility.” And so, some of our other interviewees have mentioned civility. And so, I wonder if you might want to just expand slightly on in what ways this encounter particular with the petition, but then also sort of bringing it up to present to your current sort of role in writing op-eds and sort of more public intellectual life of, you know, what does civility mean? And like I said, I think your previous comment alluded to that sort of double edged sword of civility.  

NH: Absolutely, and I think my thinking around what civility means and its usefulness has evolved quite a bit since then. So I think, you know, 2016, you know, Trump just got elected to the White House me was still probably a little bit in shock and probably still, you know, to some extent more committed to this notion of civility as the way of being able to advance one’s cause. I think there was a part of me that was probably more invested in that and saw that as a more legitimate and useful tool to advocate for social change and I think the experiences that I’ve had and the shifts that we’ve had in our socio-political climate just since then in really a fairly short period of time we’re talking about just a little over two years here has been quite vast and I think at this point, you know, the 2018 version of me now feels very very much less invested in civility. Also have a much better understanding of the ways in which that language is used as a way of silencing folks, right? It’s like, “ask nicely,” right? Like I know you want to be treated equally and I know you want to feel physically safe and those are things I’m entitled to but sure I can understand why you might want them, but ask politely and I’ll think about maybe letting you have those things, right? And seeing that I think having a much better understanding of how this expectation even that people who are literally just advocating for basic human rights, for equality that those are things that are so that are construed to be so radical. And that are so quickly shut down and I don’t think that asking politely is the way to gain equality. So, I think the investment that I have, you know, if I was if that issue, you know, presented itself again this month, I don’t think I would write the email in the same way and I don’t think that I would just… I don’t think I would think, “Oh, just send an email,” right? I think I would think more about showing up in protest or being more vocal or doing other things to shed more light on these practices as opposed to having this be, you know. That was that that was the other thing that was interesting to me in terms of the response from other folks within the administration who kind of attempted to shame me for making this a public spectacle as opposed to civilly having a very quiet, you know, one-to-one meeting with President Sullivan. Why didn’t you just meet with her quietly? She’s a very reasonable person and I was like, “Oh, you fundamentally don’t understand the point here,” right? You fundamentally don’t get what we’re literally committed to in regards to changing campus climate and it’s funny that you think that that would be a better solution because I’m quite certain that nothing would come from that, right? No attention would be given to it. I’m sure she would be very polite to me in person and nothing would be different as a result and I felt like if nothing else, the way in which this message is harmful to members of this campus community at least will now be documented and so you can continue to do that but you can no longer claim ignorance, right? To the fact that that message panders to privilege and does not consider your entire university community, especially those of us who are most affected by these acts of bigotry that your email is supposed to be responding to.  


interpreting Jefferson's grievances

JP: That’s great. In your conversation about, you know, these are the… were advocating for certain sort of inalienable rights, right? The language and not to always return to Jefferson, but because it’s the sort of topic of conversation the notion of the grievance, you know, I think is something that we can even loop back in to…. is Jefferson, you know, that was the sort of language in the Declaration of the “grievances” for certain rights that are not held for all and so sort of ironically these claims of civility that silence… Put certain people’s grievances above others. So, I wonder if you can sort of meditate on. You know, whose grievances matter and what that means and in our moment?

NH: Yeah, and I mean, I think that’s the other thing that I’ve been more outspoken about in subsequent op-eds or pieces that I’ve been asked to submit around just how… The conversations that we have about Jefferson’s utility, right? And his contribution and the attempts that are often made to minimize the atrocities that he engaged in always do center around the notion that the ways in which he advanced our democracy benefited a subset, right? Of our broader population and he was I mean that… This is not my language it’s somebody else’s. I think it was a local clergy member around, you know, was being interviewed I think on a news station after August 12th and referred to Thomas Jefferson as the founding father of white supremacy and I think that’s a very accurate term in that and, you know, I teach a class on structural determines of inequality use Ibram [X.] Kendi’s [book] Stamped from the Beginning. There’s an entire section on Thomas Jefferson and really understanding the ways in which Notes on the State of Virginia at that time for what that literature meant for public thought and shaping public thought around black inferiority is important to understand, right? Not just that he owned slaves, that he raped Sally Hemings, that he fathered children with her, not just his actions as one person committing these transgressions, but the fact that he was influencing this broader conversation and understanding and the ways in which he, you know, founded University to be a pro-slavery institution, the ways in which we’ve had this history of eugenics and white supremacy with, you know, baked into the institution by design. And so, it’s been really interesting for people to say, “Everybody owned slaves back then like don’t get all hung up on that thing, right?” And the other thing is I think that the thing that is also a very anti-intellectual stance because it was in and you all know because you’re doing this podcast, but in his own writings, he even was able to talk about the horrors of slavery, right? So, he both was a white supremacist in some ways in his writings an abolitionist, although never consistent with that in his own actions, right? So, I think very like cowardly. One thing we know for sure about Thomas Jefferson is that he was loyal to his self, right? Self-interest came above everything else. So, the way to kind of reconcile his actions with, you know, the contradictions with his words as he did what worked best for him, right? Now, this is pretty consistent thing throughout his life. So, it is interesting to hear people say, you know, so what he did that, you know, he owned slaves and you know, he had an affair with Sally Hemings. Like those are just things that people did of that time and it’s like well, first of all all of the things that you want to give him credit for,right? And in terms of just, you know, leader of the Revolution, the ways in which he was able to come up with these ideas these founding principles for our democracy, those were not of his time, right? And then moreover if you really understood his writings you would know that it wasn’t just that he was not thinking about slavery from a critical lens. He thought about it as being harmful not just to slaves but to slave owners, right? And so, the fact that he was able to see all of these things and understand them but still act in a way that was so harmful to so many and then insured harm to come for generations. I think many of the things that we’re dealing with today are directly what he wanted, what he created. And what he fostered and now we are fighting so hard to try and undo them. So, it is tremendously harmful when people suggest that those transgressions should not mar this great man, right? Or that we should not take him down off of this pedestal just because, right? Just because some of his actions were harmful to some people. It’s like no. His actions were intentionally harmful to the people who have the least rights still today. And so, when we say those things don’t matter we are in essence saying black lives don’t matter.  


a usable past

DMcD: So, we’re just going to go a little bit off sequence here, off script, James, but I’m inspired by your eloquent statements and the passion. So, when we began this series, one of the things or when we began it in conception, we said again and again that we did not want to do a podcast that would position us as its producers in either one or the other familiar camp that the one such as you just described. Well, this man did great things, he’s the founder of democracy, he gives us this idea that people are still trying to export all over the world and he did all of these other wonderful things and he was a man of his time. And then there are those more inclined to think it’s you think that well, so he was a man of his time but he was a man of his time far more influential than any ordinary Tom, Dick or Harry. And so, what do we do then? Where… we said to ourselves if that’s what we’re going to do in this podcast, perhaps it’s not worth doing. Is there anything in Jefferson that is usable? We talk about a “usable past,” frequently. Historians employ that concept for a variety of reasons in a variety of contexts, but I think it’s also possible to think about a usable present or usable future. Is there anything in Jefferson that could make for a usable present or future?

NH: Yeah, I mean, absolutely. I think, you know, again I teach Jefferson in my class, right? And so, you know, I think a lot of the attempts to undermine the petition were invested in trying to distort what I was even saying, right? So, people were saying, you know, this crazy leftist liberal professor wants to wipe Thomas Jefferson from the history books! She wants censorship! She wants… And I was like, well, no, I want us to not use Thomas Jefferson as a moral compass. I definitely want that. I didn’t say we shouldn’t talk about him. I didn’t say it’s not useful to understand the hypocrisy, the ways in which his writings were used around both white supremacy, but also around abolitionism the way in which civil rights leaders have used that language, right? “All men are created equal” to advance their cause, right? Which is a which is a just cause. So, that is to me… all of that is tremendously useful in an institution of higher learning, right? And I, you know, it has been interesting to me to have conversations even with other faculty who either assumed I don’t know about Thomas Jefferson or assumed I wasn’t teaching it or assumed that they knew more about Thomas Jefferson than I do because they didn’t understand the critique that I was leveraging and they didn’t understand the nuance in what I was saying which, yes, to me, you know, in the same way in which Ibram Kendi uses in his book to say, “how did we get here?” Right? Why do we still have so many people who think black people are inferior? Why do we think genocide of Native Americans is okay, right? Why do we think exploitation of black and brown bodies for white profit is the norm? And is not a questionable history? Why do we teach history the way that we teach history? So, to me, those are all very useful things in a class that’s around because the first half of my class is like how did we get here? What are the determinants? And the second half of my class is like what do we do now, right? And I think in one of the more recent op-eds that I wrote that for the student newspaper, they asked me to write one year after I think I wrote one and kind of response to August 11th and 12th last year. Just like what’s useful to think about a year later and I said it’s useful for us to think about this legacy that we have all inherited, that we are all dealing with by being here, and using that in the classroom to really better understand how did we get here? Because how on earth are we going to get out of here? If we don’t understand exactly what happened to create that moment of August 11th and 12th 2017. So, I think it’s incredibly useful. I absolutely advocate for teaching Notes of the State of Virginia for understanding the ways in which he… his writings and his ideas were not consistent with his actions, right? And also what’s so useful to me in that class, and a lot of that is coming from Ibram Kendi’s book, around the coexistence of racist and anti-racist ideas, agendas and actions throughout history. So, I think that’s also helpful to push back against this notion that, you know, people are of their time and to disregard. I mean, that to me that’s also really important to say what is the history that we even know? That we’re even being taught? That we don’t even know these stories of these anti-racist activists from the 17- and 1800’s. We don’t know them. We don’t know what they did. But we know Thomas Jefferson as our founding father.

DMcD: And obviously the attention that we devote to Jefferson including the attentiveness in critique and of critique has everything to do with his stature. As we say, he was not the embodiment… He was not the ordinary Tom, Dick or Harry. He was the person who occupied a very different rung on the social ladder, on the political ladder, on the cultural ladder. But one of the things I find fascinating, and I mentioned this to James the other day, it’s not necessarily about how much someone writes but the influence of what they write because when we look at what Jefferson wrote about race, what he wrote that qualifies as the discourse of anti-blackness, it’s not a whole lot. That in the overall economy of what he wrote, what he wrote about these issues…. Wouldn’t go… I think it would probably constitute a chapbook and yet it has enormous influence and I think at the same time that we want to make it clear that he is no ordinary man, I think we also have to say that his ideas are part and parcel of a whole set of discourses that he neither founded nor perpetuated exclusively, alright? That for these ideas to have the power and influence that they do have, they had to be echoed, ratified, reproduced in a variety of places by a variety of people and so it’s very important. Otherwise, we are… I remember there’s a line in Alice Walker’s novel Meridian where one of the characters is saying to another, “Well, once we have white people believing that they are the root of everything, good, bad or indifferent, we have them thinking that there are some kind of gods.” All right? And so, at the same time that we want to say Jefferson is extraordinary, in every meaning of that term, it is also important to note simultaneously that his voice his writings take their place within a whole complex. Some of it even inherited from others, all right? So, that we are very clear that when we were talking about challenging Jefferson, we’re talking about challenging somebody who was just kind of one of the more public facing examples of something that is much much larger and much more widespread.  


Carter G. Woodson's 'reading' of Thomas Jefferson'

JP: Yeah, and we… This is kind of being efficient here, but the other day were also talking about sort of the dual legacy of people within Jefferson’s time critiquing Jefferson for the very inconsistencies that we’re still talking about today. So the… because there’s this risk of saying well, you’re imposing the values of 2018 on a figure like Jefferson who was part of his time. So, that’s a different sort of pivot for the man of his times argument. But we know, you know, from many people also teach Jefferson alongside David Walker and so, you know, within his time [Benjamin] Banneker and so within his time people were critiquing Jefferson for his inconsistencies. And I want to maybe invite Professor McDowell to sort of meditate on that, you know, particularly with the legacy of Woodson, you know, we’re in the Carter G. Woodson Institute, and so, thinking of this project as kind of like its impacts for what we’re doing with this project more broadly is to not just talk about Jefferson but to talk about sort of the work that’s kind of going on in Black Studies, more broadly.  

DMcD: Yeah, I think that’s a very important question because that’s one of the ingenious aspects of white supremacy, especially in its extreme most visible forms, right? Because we know we have to talk about all of the ways in which it goes on unnoticed, invisible, and yet its impact is completely strangling and devastating too. But in its public manifestations, when we continue to talk about what white supremacy. Yes. We are, in fact, I mean this was one of the critiques of quote-unquote “whiteness studies” in its heyday in the ‘80s and ‘90s. People were saying, well, even if you are only talking about the failings of whiteness, and that is the bedrock of whiteness studies, you are still giving pride of place and pride to whiteness. All right. So, thinking about Woodson is adds another quote unquote, son of Virginia clearly one though without founding status. Woodson wrote, as you know, about a whole range of things. Woodson was a historical generalist, we might say because he is writing about everything from black religion, to migration patterns, to folks sayings to music to labor. So, he’s something of an historical polymath but through it all, no matter what he’s writing, he finds some opportunity to talk about Jefferson. I’ve been going back to some of the early issues of the Journal of Negro History, which Woodson founded as you know. So, really in the earliest issues Woodson is himself meditating in some way on Jefferson. In one essay I read two nights ago on the history of miscegenation in this nation,  there is Jefferson right up there. Woodson, we believe, though I’m waiting for absolute verification because Woodson wrote these pieces in each issue of the Journal of Negro History that were called “Documents.” Sometimes other people wrote them and when other people wrote them, they would typically be attributed, “Noelle Hurd wrote this document.” But in others that were unattributed, the… what some scholars believe these were the ones Woodson himself wrote. So, a second piece I read just this week was about Thomas Jefferson’s views on “the Negro.” Pretty lengthy piece.

JP: Printed in 1819?  

DMcD: No in 1918, you reversed the dates. Right. So, no matter what Woodson is doing, no matter what he’s writing about, he is finding a way to insert Jefferson. I mean this is really historical research, right? These are documents culled from here, this place and that place, one of the scholars I consulted answered to say if we could absolutely go to Woodson’s library in the Library of Congress, we could likely answer the question definitively because we could trace the references in the piece to the library.

JP: Maybe we should do that.  

DMcD: Yes, maybe we should do that. But she was willing to hazard a guess that it’s a very strong likelihood that Woodson himself wrote this piece on Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Jefferson’s ideas about “the Negro” quote unquote. So, yes, thinking about people talking back to Thomas Jefferson is vitally important and not… they weren’t all black people. Clearly David Walker is confronting Jefferson quite forthrightly in The Appeal. Banneker is quoting him. But then even when Jefferson answers Banneker, he says, “Well, no, nothing would please me more than to arrive at the place where I could agree with your assessment,” right? That is the level of his arrogance. But back…

JP: Then he’s writing to other people to say stuff like… He’s sort of undercutting that when he’s writing to his friends and colleagues. Jefferson to say you wouldn’t believe this thing going on over here. And so, you know, he’s kind of flip-flopping a lot.  

DMcD: Yes, you know, one could argue that that Jefferson becomes a fixture in Woodson’s writings, not the only one, but he is frequently referenced and he becomes a fixture because in no small measure I would speculate because that’s all I’m doing is that Woodson is himself a “son of Virginia” and he is born in Buckingham County. He is a descendant of enslaved people, right? And that basically as a popular historian, Woodson sets himself the task early on forthrightly. He was very explicit about it. That the reason the study of black history needed to be popularized was to puncture this notion widespread in the land and perpetuated by Jefferson that black people were intellectually inferior, had not contributed anything to the advancement of civilization, et cetera. And that that would be his “cause.” Woodson called it his cause. And that that could circulate widely in the bloodstream of the nation through popular mechanisms. And so, Woodson saw himself as posing a challenge too. In many ways Woodson, I mean, Jefferson’s ideas. And not just posing a challenge to them, but basically providing contravening evidence, right? Hence, “documentation.” That he sees himself as one invested with the power. And early on, this is a kind of a side note, but it says something about where we find ourselves as academics in any institution of higher learning and particularly this one because Woodson learned early on that to do the work he wanted to do, he couldn’t do it within under the auspices of the academy. So, he had to just abandon the academy. He knew that what he wanted to do would not be and could not be sustained within institutions of higher learning, not even Howard where he worked for a time. Because the inherently conservative nature of institutions is such that anybody whose intellectual project was by definition arrayed against or in expressed antithesis to the status quo would not survive. All right? So, he had to abandon foundation support because what these institutions support, what philanthropy supports, comes with strings attached and Woodson did not want the strings. He understood that the power of his critique would clearly be diluted. That he, in order to survive within academia, the power of that critique would have to undergo continual dilution to the point where it would bear no resemblance to what he anticipated. So, yes, he is challenging Jefferson wherever he can and challenging him also in ways that are both… That are using the power of documents and that are also using the power of editorializing because if you read in between the lines of the piece on Jefferson and the negro, he is inserting various juicy digs at Jefferson and at Jefferson’s offspring. What is happening to them?

JP: He’s “reading.”  

DMcD: Yes, he’s yeah, he’s reading Jefferson. So again, this is I’ve begun to ramble. I think… I hope I’ve answered your questions.


How did we get here and where do we go?

JP: Certainly. We want to be mindful of time here as well. But this has been a wonderful conversation. I’m sure we could go on like this, you know, spinning around for hours. I wonder if you maybe either of you had anything else to add or include? Yeah.  

DMcD: I wanted to ask Noelle about… 

NH: Let me just…

JP: Yeah and you’ve been very generous with your time. So, we don’t want to take any more if that’s not.

[Whispering and overlapping conversations]

JP: That usually happens with the best of interviews…  

NH: No, it’s fine. That was just my daughter calling so I just needed to make sure she was okay. She’s fine.  

DMcD: Because one of the things I want to talk about here takes us to at least one of the third objectives of this podcast. Is to try to think about how Jefferson might be useful to us, pro or con, in terms of useful and thinking about institutional transformation. I am a person who has grown impatient with the language of diversity and inclusion. In fact, there is an expression in Alabama, spoken by people who consider themselves wise in the ways of the world. Maybe they don’t have as they say “book knowledge,” but they have “street knowledge.” And so, there’s the caution that people with “street knowledge,” which some people value more than “book knowledge,” will say “don’t go falling for the “okey-doke.” I think that many of us fell for the “okey-doke” when it came for diversity, when it came to thinking about diversity and inclusion. So, I’m trying to… This is a very global question and you can find your point of access as you will into thinking about what Jefferson gets us or where he might get us in thinking in more productive ways about diversity and inclusion then we seem to be inclined to think.  

NH: Yeah, I mean I, you know, my first kind of instinctual response is to circle back to what we talked about a little bit earlier which was more of the like, “We need to understand how we got here if we’re going to really understand,” you know, and that’s where I think, you know, teaching a course on the structural determinants of inequality and understanding how radical, how extreme, how egregious, how perseverant, you know, the ways in which we have arrived where we are right now through such intentional effort to me is so important to understand and to make sure that others understand because if we are not equally radical and extreme and committed in our efforts to upend this very problematic structure that we find ourselves, I don’t think that’s possible for us to really truly arrive at a place where we have an equal society. So, you know, I again I, you know, I know some of that’s redundant with what I said earlier, but I think that to me, you know, which is quite a bit different and, you know, I’d be interested to hear more about what your thoughts are around how, you know, the ways in which diversity and inclusion kind of language and initiatives ends up being maybe kind of empty and meaningless. But, you know, for me, the contrast now is not only are we not doing any of these radical and extreme and highly important and, you know, part of the reason we’re not able to kind of implement the change that we want to see is because of white supremacy, right? Like it also has built into it so many strategies and techniques for silencing, shutting down, you know, creating limited possibilities. If we can’t even raise issues because we will make white people uncomfortable, then… and if our best like possibility for having radical institutional change is like doing that civilly and coming to agreement, right? And not making people unhappy or uncomfortable, then it seems impossible. right?


Shrouding as sacrilege

JP: It’s kind of this thing that if I may sort of circle back to your petition, one thing we’ve slightly left out is that the shrouding of the Jefferson statute, you know, that’s when it became explicit that this is sacred ground. So, at the very moment of taking your petition to sort of it’s… as you were saying earlier like your 2018… as you were saying your 2018 self would be a little bit more direct with how you confront this sort of institutional need to return to Jefferson. And not to sort of speculate too much, but that might look like shrouding the Jefferson statue? If that’s fair to say.  

NH: Yes. 

JP: And so, maybe meditating on that a bit in light of this comment just now.  

NH: Yeah, I thought that’s, yeah, I guess that’s perfect cause I was a say, that’s the juxtapositioning with what I think the radicalness and the extremity with which we probably need to be advocating, right, for equity for, you know, being treated as humans, right? So, I think that’s what we need to do. And instead where we are is like bizarro world where it’s not even just like it’s not even that those things aren’t happening. But it’s like even the more kind of civil attempts to say,”Excuse me? Could we not have a Jefferson statue around every corner and could we not always be asked to work Jefferson quotes into our lectures and could we just at least could we talk about him in a more honest way? Could we just do that?” And then the kind of contempt with which we are met for doing so. And so, I was there that was like a month after August 12th. I think when the students organized a protest. There were a number of faculty there and it was very interesting to me to see as well. And I was like again this is a month after, you know, a bunch of our community members and students got run over by a car from a white supremacist and a person lost their life, right, as a result of that. So, yeah, to think about it in that aftermath what was striking was that the shrouding even is not as radical as we could be, right? And that I thought that was definitely a step definitely in the right direction right more so than my polite email. And the reaction from the administration in that case I think was also particularly telling, right? The language that was used especially in the even the separate email that went out to friends of the University, alumni, donors, where that statue is referred to as “sacred ground” and the language that was used to kind of like demonize the group of protesters and diminish, right? To suggest it was just a small group of students. It was not. It was plenty of students. It was also plenty of faculty and staff. We were there. There was a person who showed up who was not a part of our group who was actually there to antagonize who had a gun and I think the message that she sent was to misrepresent who was there, to misrepresent who was arrested, right? Who was not a member of our group and to try and discredit that effort and like you said to then invoke this language of a Jefferson statue is “sacred ground.” It’s like you didn’t even use the word sacred to talk about the life that was lost at the hands of a white supremacist. But you’re using that language to talk about students literally covering up a stupid statue. I mean to me that is the juxtapositioning of where we are right now and like how far we are, I think, from the types of things we probably need to be doing to actually see the type of change that we need to see.


Appeasing wealth and investing in the future

DMcD: Yes. This is very useful. This is, again, we’re not going to keep you forever. But your responses are so rich, they lead to more and more and more. One observation and then one question. And the observation is this: there were two separate emails and the email that went to friends and donors clearly… That is the reassurance that has to be superintendent, right? Because clearly as the state legislature invests less and less and less in the day-to-day operations of this public university, tt relies more and more on philanthropic dollars. And so, wealth has to be appeased. And so, it’s very very clear that I’m going to send a separate email to people who are bankrolling this observation. So, however offensive that was, the reasons for it are quite clear. That we don’t have to talk to people who don’t give us money and the people who are the quote-unquote rabble-rousers are not the people who are likely giving us money. But your comment also brought to mind.. Boy, it went right out of my head…. Shrouding. But there is a second question.

NH: I’ll say something else about that and maybe that’ll help to jog your memory. But to me that that point about who matters and who doesn’t and to me the other thing that’s really challenging about that is, yes, some part of your job is to fundraise, right? And to think about how to appease the donors. But if we’re going to have the kind of radical change that we need to have, then you have to be thinking about how do you create the University environment now for these students to have the type of experiences that may make them want to be donors, right? At some point. So, the ways in which, you know, when we talk about Jefferson and where we are now and who has wealth and who doesn’t. Well, these are all interrelated. Right? So, the fact that people who have wealth as a direct consequence of slave-owning are the people who don’t want to talk about white supremacy and who went to still uphold Jefferson as an uncontroversial, wonderful founding father. You know, that is all, you know, that’s the ways in which all of these things weave together so obviously for me. So, then that the students, you know, members of marginalized groups who are here, you know, upset and having… experiencing the university as a campus climate that’s not safe, right? And that is literally our administration’s job, right? Is our safety. So, as much as they may want to pander to the privileged and raise their money, they also literally do have to keep us safe, right? And I think it’s in our best interest to continue to remind them of that, right? As much as you may want to use whatever kind of language, you know, the things that you’re doing are both undermining the safety of people who are here now. People who, in these diversity and inclusion conversations, you are eager to brag about the diverse the diversity in your student body, right? So, if you want to do that, then you also have to keep those people safe here. And who knows maybe even let them have a positive experience? So, that one day in the future they would actually want to be proud alumni and donors. So, I think this strategy right now and this commitment to the people who are, you know, what the alumni body looks like today presumably is not going to be the alumni body of tomorrow and there needs to be more attention to what is happening in this space now and what are these experiences? And what is their actual job? Right? Like you may say my primary interest is in appealing to the people who are going to bankroll us. But it also is literally part of my job to keep people safe and I can’t opt out of the latter just to pursue the former. 

JP: And it’s also the job to pursue knowledge and that sounds very naive but we’re here to ask questions and do research and do this kind of work that is in the service of critiquing.  

DMcD: Yeah again, I still haven’t resurrected my question. But yes, it is our role to reproduce knowledge. And again, what is… what knowledge does the institution get behind? What knowledge does the institution support? In what corners of the university is knowledge production valued? You’ve heard me say this again and again, James, borrowing from Ralph Ellison, that this is an institution that wants to “move without moving.” That… and the greatest evidence of that desire is in “fringe” operations that… It did come back to me. When you say… if we want to change this University for the students who are to come many some of them are already here, then we have to think about providing them a radically different experience than we have. And so, I’ve been quite taken with the fact that however important it is to interrogate our origins in slavery, that is vitally important. I think this university has gone in a direction that basically has us backward looking and as long as we are backward-looking and quote-unquote attempting to atone for the sins of the past, we are really not focused as intently as we need to be on the requirements of the present. And again, it is a fine line you have to walk but I think we have settled comfortably into interrogating slavery because we can delude ourselves into believing we left all that behind. This is not who we are now, right? Our current dean has been given to saying in various public speeches that this university has to become the University of Sally Hemings as well as of Thomas Jefferson. And so, we interviewed him. We asked him what that would mean, in fact. Listening to you talk about the need for more radical changes and interventions: what might it mean to center Sally Hemings? And the legacy of Sally Hemings as we think about establishing a new blueprint for the future of this University?


Move Without moving: where to place jefferson

NH: That’s a really good question. Yeah, I’m and I’m also really struck by what you were just saying about needing to be more forward-looking and what that means and how do we kind of integrate all of these different threads in a way that feels meaningful, right? I mean, to me, it’s interesting to always like have this conversation and increasingly it is true in my time here, which is only been about six or seven years, you know, the report on slavery, the new commission around segregation, the, you know, that the memorial that’s going to get built, so like I am increasingly hearing about slavery, but it is this weird juxtapositioning. I’ll get an email from UVA, you know, whatever UVA News, Virginia Magazine. And it’s like, you know, a story about Thomas Jefferson’s greatness and then a story about slavery. And so, even that disconnect that happens there. I mean to me maybe part of that part I don’t you know, I can’t speak for the dean. But I wonder if some of it is that, you know, my request would be like, let’s think more about the integration of all of these things, right? You don’t have, you know, you don’t have a history of slavery at the University without Thomas Jefferson being front and center in that history, right?  And so, even what I understood from the Bicentennial which I did not attend but that there was both this way of saying, you know, we want to bring descendants of slaves and onto stage and celebrate them, but we also want to have someone dressed up as Thomas Jefferson delivering a monologue. And I’m like… it’s like kind of like gaslighting, you know? Just this experience of being here and the ways in which these contradictions are almost like married to each other in a very consistent systematic way and it’s disturbing. 

DMcD: And that to me would be a graphic example of the desire to “move without moving.” That you want to keep dragging and obviously you can never leave the past behind you. The past is… you’re going to be carrying it forward inevitably whether you think you can leave it behind or not. But there is this sense that we can… it is an additive approach. You know, it’s the critique of what people… that people have often leveled against the… before we got the concept of intersectionality when say black women would be asked, “Well, how do you feel most oppressed as a black person or as a woman?” And you would say, “Well, I am both these things simultaneously. There is never a moment when I’m not…” You know, and so we do take this additive approach that our idea of “correction” is adding on. It’s appending. It is not transforming from within. And that’s what you’re focused on when you’re talking about structures and that’s what’s being asked and that is what is so problematical about diversity and inclusion in some uncritical way because basically then you assume that a Department of Women… Studies in Women and Gender or Department of African American and African Studies would just be another department, right? That these would not be departments that in some ways would fundamentally interrogate the logic, the methodologies, the assumptions, the prerogatives of a whole range of disciplinary formations. And that unless you want to be simply another department added on, not one that would say, “hold it,” we can’t possibly think about history in the same way. Once we put this lens on it. It is that… that is structurally transformative or that holds the potential to be structurally transformative, but it’s a desire to just see that let a thousand flowers bloom because the what is additive would never interrogated or called into question. What is here?  

NH: We’re not threatening the status quo, right? Like you can have your, you know, memorial and you can have your department and that’s fine, just don’t mess up any of the other stuff that we have, right? And don’t disrupt our Bicentennial Celebration with your protesting and your signs about white supremacy. Don’t do that. We’re going to give you your memorial but like let us continue to honor TJ. Let us continue continue to have Jefferson exceptionalism as our brand for our University. Like we don’t want to change those things and also you can come here and be part of this community, but don’t try and change it. Don’t try and make it someplace that you actually can be your authentic self and feel comfortable. That’s not what we’re in the business of doing here. So, to me, it all is consistent with this idea of maintaining the status quo. And so, the “bends” or the “gives” and I like your language around additive, right? It’s like well if we can keep the core intact and maybe make some smaller changes on the periphery, that’s really not that threatening to our status quo. But when you start talking about integration and you start talking about changing the statues that we have and the language that we use and our brand and the ways in which we’re teaching and the people we’re hiring and the students who we’re enrolling, that’s too radical. 

JP: And who runs things.

NH: More importantly, yes.  

DMcD: Yes, and who runs things. Because basically when we look at who runs things, that we have in 2000 and almost now 2019, we have virtually no one in central administration. No one with a vice presidential appointment. That’s there’s someone outgoing, all right? But again, how do we define these positions? Do these positions have the power to set policy? Do these positions operate independent of the executive? I mean it’s kind of like we are a university that is as much in need of a system of checks and balances as the government needs it. That if you are going to have offices or structures that are basically beholden to the executive branch, what possibilities do you have to change? If your very job is dependent upon your approval by the executive branch or the executive branch can make all kinds of changes via fiat and that you really can’t. That it… what I’ve come around to seeing, and it can seem ungracious, uncharitable and perhaps to some ears uncollegial, and I would never want that to be the case, but we are part of the entertainment of this University. And the way that black Americans are the performers for the nation, right? That there is space for us to make people feel good. There is space for people to be entertained, right? That the idea that we would attach to the Office of Diversity and Equity programming on Martin Luther King. However important programming is on Martin Luther King, that is not for that office. That office should be doing something else. This is not for the record. But if you see what I mean, so you then attach a form of entertainment. We come together in our as they are want to call them our ecumenical. They don’t call them faith faith based or it’s not faith. The term…  

JP: Non-denominational.

DMcD: Yes, but they use another term. But it’s, you know, our annual ecumenical service where all people of all faiths come together to commemorate Martin Luther King. But again, if we only commemorated the Martin Luther King that was himself invested in the structural determinants of inequality, but the Martin Luther King… that is not the Martin Luther King that is celebrated. And so frankly I’m coming around, I’m kind of cynical by disposition, but it seems to me that unless we are willing to play the role either to entertain or pacify or placate because and then when we think about it, the roots of that are again in slavery. That we are… we rightly focus our attention on slavery as the institution that extracted people’s labor that held them in bondage, that determined their time and how they would spend it, but it was also an institution that saw itself as molding, shaping, determining, and commandeering the emotional responses of people who were held captive, right?  And so, you will have a book like 12 Years a Slave, narrating the plight of a woman whose children are taken from her and who then ceases to do anything but mourn for the rest of her time. Well, she is sent away from this plantation because what is being commanded of these people is that they perform happiness, all right? That this idea that we have of the loyal contented slave, right? That’s it. Unless you’re going to give us evidence that this is an innately beneficial institution for you and you would otherwise not have sense enough to come in from the cold. Unless you can do that, you have no place on the plantation. So, when Jefferson is talking about the emotional disposition, the dispositions of black Americans, he is participating in a pretty, by this point, pretty advanced discourse that has also attached certain forms of feeling to capacities for citizenship. So, when you really think about slavery in these terms, you are thinking about something that truly is seeking to own everything about captive people. It is attempting to own captive people body and soul. If we think that soul is that thing that is… that cannot be reached, that is contained within the wells of our being, no, this institution thought it had access even to that, right? And so, when we trace this, not in straight lines, but we trace these roots which are running in all directions, we take them back here. They are back there. Where what we need to say in or how we can say what we need to say has to be authorized by people who want to control tone, temper, and content. And this will be our undoing. You cannot have it both ways. You, you cannot. That’s too much preaching.  

NH: But well, I think also what you’re saying just briefly add onto that it’s also…. It’s what we want from you and it’s also how anything you say will be interpreted, right? So, there’s because I have the expectations for what is possible for you, anytime you do anything that even mildly seems to violate that, right? It’s like even how I can perceive and receive anything that you do and whether I would respond to it differently whether it’s you saying it versus James saying the exact same thing, right? So, that’s the added layer on top of it.  

DMcD: That is the added layer. And that you yourself don’t know when you’ve transgressed, until you have transgressed. And I think that’s one of, to kind of bring things full circle and back to the question of Jefferson and his contemporaries or people writing back to Jefferson, I mean, that’s one of the reasons that David Walker’s Appeal is rhetorically so brilliant. Because what David Walker understands is this language of dispassion, this language of reason, this measured tone that Jefferson is trying to strike in much of Notes on the State, can only be answered from a different higher and exaggerated and intentionally exaggerated register. That you don’t meet, that’s back to your point about you can’t promote radical change through moderate means. And so, what David Walker is doing in a sense, you know, Flannery O’Connor used to have this response to people who would say, “I mean you really did these characters to create this work your writing. It’s just weird.” And so, she would answer, “You know, we are in an age that has come to domesticate all kinds of thinking that should not be domesticated. And so, to the hard of hearing you must shout. And to the almost blind you must draw large and startling pictures.” And so, David Walker saying, “I can’t meet Jefferson on that ground.” I can’t meet Jefferson on the ground of reason, dispassion, moderation, rhetorically speaking. I got to meet him on a different rhetorical ground, all right? And you can call that ground extreme. You can call it exaggerated but it is a studied effort on my part to challenge him and to challenge him both in terms of content and in terms of mode. And this is what we’re missing here in our atmosphere of social politesse where everybody is not going to speak above a whisper and that for certain people, our position to occupy certain emotional terrain. It is no accident that black women are referred to here and elsewhere as angry. That is the terrain we get to occupy. And that is a terrain that is also meant to be disciplinary. It is meant to be corrective because if you bear that, if you carry that incubus around your neck, that is also which is that which is identifying you as something that can be ostracized. That can be ostracized and discredited. So, when we say white supremacy is baffling and cunning or when I say it, all right. I mean it. It is baffling and cunning. And it and its workings are not always visible to the naked eye. 

NH: Yes. 

DMcD: And I think if we need to take anything away from August 11th and 12th it is that for every need we have to decry and discredit what happened, we have to understand simultaneously that most of white supremacy does not take the form of men in khaki pants wielding tiki torches. That what we are witnessing at this University, who is endowed, what is endowed, what forms of knowledge are or are authorized, what forms of knowledge in structures within which these knowledge forms are being reproduced get by living hand-to-mouth? And what part get on agendas for capital campaigns? So, I’m with you and if we don’t think of anything other than, which is my great pet peeve about Henry the bell ringer, of all the ironies we’re going to talk about coming into a contemporary moment, we want to talk about social transformation and we plan a Bicentennial event celebrating Henry the bell ringer. This is a part of the tone-deafness, right? That maybe the only way you can get through to that is this you say not through email, not through petition but through more extreme though not violent means. I could talk to you forever. So rich. Everything is so rich.

NH: Yeah. The only thing I’d say related to that I don’t know if you were able to attend but Jelani Cobb was here earlier this year and he said something about how we want to do, you know, institutions of higher education want do all of this work to recruit black and brown bodies into this space just to have them politely have discussions about their own inferiority. And I think that, you know, resonated so much with me and ties into what you’re saying and also just all of the conversations that we continue to have at this University and at all these universities and in our country more broadly about free speech, right? And this language around civil discourse and intellectual exchange and the expectation that no matter how offensive and dehumanizing my argument, you just need to sit there and take it and be just as dispassionate about it as I am because I mean it’s just an idea and the fact that it’s an idea that threatens the entire core of who you are and your ancestry and your worth and your value and the ability to even qualify your qualify yourself as a human, that shouldn’t matter. We should just have a conversation, it’s just a discussion and if you want to get all upset about it, I think that means you’re not able to have a rational intellectual exchange. That means there’s something wrong with you and that actually kind of proves my point, right? So, I think when you talk about, you know, the brilliance and resilience of white supremacy, right? As this ideology that literally permeates everything and the temptation that people have to only see it in this very egregious attack that we sustain and not see it woven into the fabric of our day-to-day realities and amplified, I think, in many ways here at this institution and that’s to me a really powerful point.

DMcD: Yeah, it’s going to go off again on a long tangent, but you see this is it this is a part of the wiliness because if you… while you’re over here and I think it applies to a lesser degree to our overinvestment in symbols and statues. Because while you’re over here, basically laws and statutes, people are being packed on federal benches without even having hearings, that all of that apparatus goes on unchecked, right? So, to the extent that we can keep you focused on and preoccupied with the most extreme forms of white supremacy and bigotry, at the level of epithet etc. Then we can carry on over here out of sight. Going into buildings with our briefcases with our six figure salaries, it is… that is the focus. We need to focus and our students need to focus on trying to ensure a permanent presence at this University that cannot be dismantled by the ever rotating group of administrative players, deans, provosts, presidents. But that is what… we are pacified that this we are pacified and we are expected to pacify, you know, and pacifiers. You’re… neither of you was old enough to probably know about something that was a fixture of my childhood called a “sugar tit.” And you… it’s just empty calories. You would give a baby with sugar something with it that they could suck on and it’s just nothing there. Nothing of any nutritional value, right? But it quiets you, right?

JP: A placebo?  

DMcD: Yes. Well, a placebo is a different thing. A placebo. Well, it’s in that family. It’s a cousin. But this is this actual little thing. The placebo is not giving you what the other drug… you’re not getting the drug, you’re getting the placebo. But you are getting the sugar tit, you know, you’re getting sugar water.  

JP: It’s not nutritionally fortifying. 

DMcD: No nutritional value. It is not sustaining. It can’t sustain you in fact it can rot your teeth even as they are coming in, right? But that… It quiets you.

JP: And it gives you a spark of energy. You do get a little sugar rush and then you fall asleep. And then you don’t get bothered anymore?  

DMcD: Yeah, I am convinced that we are not meant to be anything more than a set of musical chairs here and that is consistent even with our approach to diversity. We don’t want to grow our own, right? We want to keep raiding other universities, right? So, there’s this… so you move from Harvard to Michigan from Michigan to here. That’s what we’re doing rather than investing in high school students, getting them basically introduced to research early on. Basically doing the work of renovating because students here in the public schools continue to say well UVA may as well be in Timbuktu. We don’t think of this as a place. How can you not think of this as a place to which you should have apply? This is a public university. So, even as I said, I’m not going to go off in another sermon, I am more and more convinced that unless we are willing to have these conversations that then we are all complicit in maintaining a structure that really does and is expert at what institutions do and are expert at. And that is maintaining themselves exactly as they wish to be seen, exactly as they wish to be known, with just enough tinkering around the edges to give to pacify some and give others the illusion of change. That is not change. That is “moving without moving.”  

JP: Well, thank you so much for your time. You’ve so generous with us and hopefully that we will definitely keep you in the loop about how the project progresses and, you know, ideally we’re going to try to make the interviews available in full. Although some we might have to talk about certain things when it comes to that. But yeah, thank you so much. And I mean even just there was a moment of it’s just a funny anecdote that talking about the additive parts. In one of our interviews with Niya Bates, she talked about the descendant communities at Monticello during the Getting Word Project and they sometimes invite the families up for, you know, gatherings and whatnot. But they were having a gathering for the Hemings family descendants of Sally Hemings and the Jefferson family descendants felt entitled to go to that event. And she was saying, you know, like it in this was I think one of your points you made at the Bicentennial like how is it that you want to have the Sally Hemings descendants in the same physical space as the Thomas Jefferson descendants? Assuming that there’s just going to be some big grand family like that they’ve just sort of reconnected, a family reunion, right? And so, I think I wanted to just underline that a little bit because the language you were using was the language of the family, you know? We’re married to this idea of Jefferson and that, you know, so this concept that a university is in many ways providing a home away from home. You know, there’s a family component. Professors become advisors, but they also do a lot of emotional labor to be the sort of parental figures. That’s a lot of additional work. And so, in this weird dynamic that it’s a corporation, it’s a family, it’s a sort of a democratic body as well that the concept of the family is sort of constantly getting sort of exploited and sort of used in many different ways. And so, that’s just a…  

 DMcD: And it was used in the institution of slavery. That the pro-slavery advocates really appealed to that language all the time within the family circle is a very common concept. The law of love abides. So, it’s this idea that this is protofamilial in slavery that we are all… we take care of our own. Yeah, it’s a complete exploitation of familial rhetoric. Absolutely. And you in the life and history of all universities, not so much now, but there used to be a concept built into the idea and the language of University functioning that faculty did function in the… The term was in loco parentis. Yeah, then there was that certainly was in my years as a college student the concept of in loco parentis was very much in operation. So… 

JP: Which means…  

DMcD: It means as a parent, instead of, in the position of, in the location of a parent. That was absolutely the case. Ao indeed, but you see it is the familial language. Again, this is a… the wiliness of white supremacy. When it is convenient to employ that language, you employ it. When it is not convenient, right? You’ve heard me also talk about this. We all know that in human history, the concept of adolescence as a separate stage of development is really late in human history. But we do know that when we come to think of adolescence as a stage of development that accords the people in that category certain protections, right” In claims to innocence we know who is in exiled from that category. All right. When it is not that which is how to Tamir Rice can be said to be what he looked to be a lot older. Right? So, when it is convenient, people in in domestic servitude in… well after slavery were often told, “Oh, well Mage is like one of the family.” “Mage is just like one of the family.” Really? Uh-huh.” So, yeah the exportation of familial rhetoric. I mean or familial rhetoric is employed for exploitive and purposes, right? Because and that goes back to slavery. Slavery gives the captive person sentiment. You’re like a member of the family rather than legal protection. So, the tension between law and sentiment is what structures slavery. 

JP: I wonder if you can maybe bring that to diversity and inclusion.

DMcD: Law and sentiment?  

JP: Or in the sense that you know that… terms being replaced… That sentiment is not any legal protections. 

 DmcD: It’s not any legal protection. No, it is not.

JP: And in the same way where that sort of diversity is a sentimental sort of feeling. Of sort of the warm and fuzzy, “we’re all in this together” kind of…   

DMcD: But it didn’t start out that way because, you see, diversity is the watered-down concept that replaced affirmative action. Affirmative action did at least have some “proto” associations with law. When Johnson stands there at that podium at Howard University to talk about affirmative action, he is talking about something that may, he hopes, have some legal binding. Goals and timetables. These were the things that were being taught and it was being thought about as something specific to a group of people whose movement and advancement through the society had been hampered by racism and white supremacy, right? So, diversity, no. That’s fuzzy loosey-goosey stuff. Right? Absolutely. So, that’s what you give instead of legal protection. But as you know sentiment can be proffered or withdrawn. Sentiment, you know, no one is I can love you today. I mean children give you the quick, fast, dirty lesson into this. You know, you know, how they get in their phases, “where I don’t love you. I hate you,” you know, they think you know love can be withdrawn and when you’re not getting me the Xbox I hate you. Sentiment is completely voluntary. You know, who you love, when you love, how you, I mean that there is no legal protection in sentiment. And that is what slavery sought to give people it held captive. You know, not legal protection. Not even functioning as legal beings not even being able to testify against people in law. You do not exist. You do not have property in your person. You are not a legal… I mean slavery is a legal category. Yes, it is a legal category and again the wiliness of white supremacy, you know, you may not have inherited this money over here because your status as a captive person comes through your mother, right? It is… it’s wiley. It is completely wiley. You will be perpetually a slave. This is your legal category but you will… you have no legal protections. You can lay no claims to Thomas Jefferson’s wealth and property and money. So, yeah, but we don’t want to have these conversations. These conversations fall on the ears of the likes of Teresa Sullivan as inflammatory, you know. And it seems to me that it is only if when we talk about, “Well, we need to have a conversation about race.” No, we don’t. I mean people talk about racism in the egregious manifestations of racism, which actually kills people as if, you know, “Okay, come into my parlor. Here’s a sherry? Would like some sherry. What would you like? I mean if this is just polite. I have always resented the idea that we are going approach these serious issues through the rhetoric of conversation, right? Again, I think it should be completely possible to talk about the language and rhetoric that is… that incentivizes change as almost of necessity, needing to be strident. What does it get us? So, we can agree to disagree. All of these mollifying terminologies that we invent and summon, right? And so, yeah, you… who has the kind of disposition to mollification? If you are from my background and your background, you don’t have the disposition to mollification. Why would you?

NH: Well, when you have all the privilege, why wouldn’t you tell everybody else, “calm down!” Would you like some of this? I’m gonna have a glass and also, it’s not a big deal. There’s no reason to get so upset it’s like because whoever gets to decide whether or not to even have the conversation is coming from that position of privilege.  

DMcD: And so, these people then want to order because in the emotional labor, we are expected to perform in the face of these crises which are not of our making but somehow, we’re expected to stop exactly what we’re doing and go and give a lecture. And I have been refusing to do that of late because all of that is busy work. And all of that is functions in relation to the machinery of diversity so that constantly… you can appeal to things you’re doing, right? We did this. We are building the memorial. We changed the name of Barringer Hall. We are doing things. Because the university needs to at least provide its public the appearance of working toward change, but the appearance of working toward change is highly symbolic. Now symbolism has its place. I would be the first to say that. But basically to mount a campaign of transformation around symbol alone is to be mounting something on very friable ground. I mean, it’s not just about changing the names of buildings. And I say to people on the day that the name of Barringer Hall was named to Pinn Hall, then somebody should have been ready with fifteen med school scholarships. It’s easy to do these things and that we cannot…

NH: They don’t cost anything.

DMcD: They don’t cost anything. We cannot keep falling for the “okey-doke.” And we really do need to say, “Until you do this.” Because people do this all the time. I mean, how is it I… heaven forbid that I should say this out loud because then I’ll be fired from the University because this will be read as anti-Semitic, but there are all of these things we can and cannot say about Israel. You cannot say anything in support of Palestinians that is not then presumed to be… So, who has free speech? Well Marc Lamont Hill learned pretty quickly that he doesn’t have free speech, right? Talk Tucker Carlson and that crew can say whatever they want to say. But you cannot say anything about Palestinians without then having the yoke of anti-Semitism hung around your neck. And so, it seems to me that in the same way that people say until which time like I’m already looking at all of the things… Today, I’m sure you must have read it where we cannot do international business with this country, that country, and the other country and that if we do, we’re liable for this, that and the other. I didn’t read it closely but people all the time say until Syria changes its human rights policies, we will not do business with Syria. I think black people in these institutions need to say until you are really serious about change, deeply structural change, not fringe change, no, don’t count on me to come to the to the teach-in. I’m not… That is more work for me. And so.

NH: To your point, I think this institution in these symbolic tangential ways, is attempting to deal with the problem of white supremacy on the backs of black bodies. And that is not the solution, right? White supremacy is a white problem. And so, to say let’s get the handful black and brown folks we have and make them do the labor to present an outward image that suggests we’re doing something, is in itself entirely problematic, incorrect solution to a very large problem. 

DMcD: Absolutely. And then to pay people. To pay people. I met with a group of people last weekend. They had been in the workshop. I don’t know if you were in the workshop last summer on teaching race, but basically I told them, you know, when I talk to people, I really like them to know what my positions are so would mean it’s truth in advertising. So, I do not need to speak to you. Dorothy Bach asked me to, but you here, I need to tell you I oppose that initiative and I need to tell you why I oppose that initiative. What does it mean to say: we are going to take this extreme moment as a time to look at our racial history? And that all the while we are starving entities of the University that have been doing this work since their inception. We’re actually going to pay people who don’t think about it. I mean to me there was something grossly wrong with that picture and then that who was consulted? In the face of it on the local television was a group of white people. This is deeply problematical. And so, how do you say what is it and how insulting to say: you can bring everybody up to speed who is going to go into a classroom come September in a week’s time. People have devoted their entire scholarly careers to this. So, to me, that was looking at race in a cheap way, in an insulting way, in a way that did not compel me to take anything seriously. So, when I hear from you that it was not successful, I am not surprised because it is….It’s it’s… The likelihood that it would not be successful was already built into its very conception. Right. And that when you are trying to do something just to be doing. This is the thing and that’s what I kept saying sometimes in the face of certain kinds of crises, you just need to be still. You know? And for many people that is an abdication of a kind of political responsibility. Maybe it will be in some instances. It may be not in others, but I was brought up by people… my great-grandmother was one who said when people are going crazy around you and especially in any finite parameters, that is the time for you to be very still. Don’t take your eye off them. Just be very very still.

JP: There’s another Ellison quote that you have referenced in the past…. from the end of the invisible, Invisible Man: “hibernation….”

DMcD: Oh yes, “Hibernation is covert preparation for more overt action,” right. And he was right because this is the character it kind of thank you for reminding me of that because that line in the novel comes from the narrator. But the narrator is referring to this character called “Ras the Exhorter.” So, Ras spends his days on various soap boxes in Harlem exhorting. All right. And so, in one of these exhortations a rioter erupts. And so, Ras is running underground and he’s down there underground in a cellar or cave being lit by the electrical company unbeknownst to the electrical company. And so, the narrator says hibernation is covert preparation for more overt action. Yeah, and I do believe that. Because there will always be people who are, you know, the shock troops, people who are on the front lines. I mean when you think about transformation when you think about revolution, this is a constant struggle. When Angela Davis borrowing from the anonymous voices of the many thousand gone, “freedom is a constant struggle.” That’s what she meant. So, you cannot be in this struggle without taking some time out. And you got to take some time out to strategize, to think. Because again, white supremacy has you locked in reactive mode. And when you were constantly in reactive mode, you will be worn out absolutely. You will be worn out and I think that that’s a part of its ingenuity as well. You keep on reacting. You keep on believing that there is something you must do right now. How many teach-ins have we had? How long have we been talking about teach-ins at least since Berkeley in the 1960s? Where are we now? We have had teach-ins. The latest incarnation is the syllabus for this that and the other. Also, as if simply learning about something is the root of transformation. Learning is essential, but this is not work that is going to be done at the level of the classroom. It’s not going to be done at the level of the syllabus. It’s going to be the classroom and the syllabus in tandem with a whole bunch of other things. And if it is the syllabus, it’s going to need to be a syllabus that is truly disruptive or that at least has disruptive potential. And the potential to disrupt what’s being taught elsewhere. We don’t have any of these syllabi checking each other, right? I’m sure there is a lot coming out of the History Department that I wouldn’t teach. I wouldn’t expose to students. All right. But the again the additive philosophy. Because it’s at… we’ve had the additive philosophy for a while, but it operates now in truly benign ways and seemingly magnanimous ways. By which I mean, you know, have the Multicultural Center over here, have La Rasa over here, have the Latinx over here. So, you have all of these, you know, exhibitions of tolerance for difference, but they’re all in their own arenas that none of them… and I think students have done a good job in some cases of combining forces to take on particular issues. I was quite impressed with a group that was working on the issue of tuition. They were very informed, they did a lot of research, but by and large, you see, even activism becomes a commodity. Even activism becomes commodified and so in many cases, this is not necessarily about change. This is about, “I am now on the platform.” And I as the spokesperson who has the mic for now, before I drop it a lot can come my way. So, people are actually making money. You give… and then again in fairness to the people who may have applied and wanted the $5,000. We are paid nine months out of the year, you know, not everybody is near retirement. Not everybody makes the money I make. So, for many people in the summer, I’m sure $5,000 was like a lot of money. So, I don’t begrudge them wanting that but there’s something bankrupt about wanting to teach people or introduce them to pedagogies of critique and resistance while basically telling the Woodson Institute you can live on starvation wages and whatever you want to do. You can go cup in hand in get from people. But we’re going to drop five thousand dollars to forty people. And before that, we have this fund so people are applying for money left and right. There was a lot of money to be had. What if we had taken that money and began that… use it as the basis of an endowment for Woodson? I gather Studies in Women and Gender is on course for endowment because there are a lot of LGBTQ donors with deep pockets, so they are going to be endowed. So, basically it because this is when you know of university is invested in seeing what you do as necessary at a foundational level to it’s very operations. Because institutions only endow what they value. They endow what they value and that they didn’t endow the Julian Bond professorship until after he died is very very telling, all right. So, James unless you turn off the mic… I don’t know what has gotten into me. 

 JP: When you’re in… isn’t there something about getting the spirit or something. 

DMcD: You know, but I have been mild all day but somehow.  

JP: It’s the occasion of a good guest.  

DMcD: Yes.  

JP: A good conversation mate.  

DMcD: Yes. Noelle.  

NH: Well, you have the history. I mean, your… The experiences that you’ve had in this institution and I mean your personal struggle for this department, for this University, for these students, for the faculty and staff. I mean. Yeah, I could listen to you talk all day. I just think you’re coming from, you know, such a wealth of expertise, but also just the experience that you’ve had here and the things that you’ve seen and this wiliness of white supremacy that you’ve personally been battling within the confines of this institution for a long time now. 

DMcD: A long time. Absolutely. And they are ready for me to be done fighting them. You know, they are so ready for me to be done battling and I just tell them, you know, you will mess right around and, you know, don’t bother me. I will retire when I’m good and ready, you know.  

NH: Well, this is why that legacy I mean it can’t… That can’t go when you go. Of course, you’re entitled to retirement and, you know, life after this and not to be, you know, confined to this experience forever. But thinking more about how do we make sure that there’s this inner generational transmission and that there is this stability in the presence of that fight because… And the wisdom that you have to offer so many of us who are just now entering into this space and the way that we need to attend to that and leverage that as we continue to move forward as opposed to, you know, showing up as if this work has not been happening for decades.  

DMcD: It has been happening for decades and I think one of the things is the ways is the ways in which white supremacy divides us against each other as marginalized communities. Because I’m telling you, I would say to anybody who wanted to listen. I have… The battles that I have had to confront, have been equal in ferocity from black people as they have been from… Not a majority of blacks but those…

NH: The false positives, right? Isn’t that what [Eduardo] Bonilla-Silva says?

DMcD: Right. Exactly.

NH: And when you were saying like when you were talking about representation in administration and I was thinking, “Yeah.” And not just like physical, right? Because we like… Fox News finds these people all the time. Like you can handpick the people who look like, you know, your group but who have absolutely aligned themselves with white supremacist ideology.

DMcD: Absolutely. And, you know, there are people that I have and some black people argue that I have. I mean, I have to keep doing the work that I do because I know that’s a lie. And, you know, it’s just completely cannot be further from the truth. But I think that this is what we haven’t learned. And then the importance of promoting, getting out of the way the university’s run, we always want to be doing things with other people who are working on rights, other people of color because we know this is how white supremacy succeeds in thinking, well you’re all over here and that’s where you belong. I think we have to be constantly shaking up these silos and these fiefdoms in building coalitions and in actually promoting the work of people as best we can. Because, you know, we get looked at now as mainly a unit to ratify. Will you co-sponsor this? Will you co-sponsor that? No, as black people we have to be doing things together so that it is less likely that they can peel us off. It’s it is a wily thing. Whiteness will survive. It finds ingenious ways.  

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.

Noelle Hurd

JAMES PERLA: Alright, well, thank you so much for coming on the cusp of the winter holiday to speak with us about Jefferson and many other things. Just so we have it, could you say your name and I guess your role at UVA?  

NOELLE HURD: Sure. My name is Noelle Hurd and I am an Associate Professor in the psychology department.   

JP: Thanks. Yes, so I guess we can sort of jump right into it. I mean, you’ve published a lot in the past few years sort of in a very public way. And one of the things that we wanted to start with was I guess it was directly after the presidential election of 2016, you spearheaded a petition to encourage the administration to sort of not quote Jefferson as much as they tend to do. So, I wonder if we could maybe just start by asking you to sort of walk us through the process of creating the petition and sort of the reasoning behind it.  

NH: Yeah. Sure. Let’s see. I’ll try and give you the briefer version and then you can let me know if you have more questions about any of the things that I mentioned. I do remember that just being a difficult time for everyone. And also being really connected with undergraduates and graduate students here at UVA who are all kind of feeling a lot of trauma related to [Donald] Trump’s campaign, nomination, election and it definitely felt like the emails that we received from Teresa Sullivan both before and after the election that were really pointing us to Thomas Jefferson as kind of a moral compass in terms of, you know, this is a time filled with a lot of conflict and divisiveness and she was pointing us to think about Jefferson’s words as a way to kind of aspire to be better. And for me, that just felt incredibly tone-deaf and offensive. I think in the context and, you know, some of her initial email before the election had to do with acts of bigotry on campus and so it seemed particularly inappropriate to suggest that in a time when we’re having racist and bigoted remarks and actions on campus that the leader, you know, the moral leader who we should be thinking of in that moment would be Thomas Jefferson who himself was a white supremacist and owned slaves. So yeah, I remember having those conversations around the first email that she sent out with students saying, “Wow, I can’t believe, you know, this really feels like the wrong direction.” You know, to kind of try and encourage a better more civil and kind of united campus climate. And then I remember the email right after the election felt definitely like a tipping point for many of us and I remember even having like a group text message exchange with my graduate students where we were all just very frustrated about what was happening and it definitely felt like insult to injury in that moment. And I think also hearing that same day that there were things happening with University police officers who had been taunting students who were upset walking home from hearing that Trump had won the election. So, it was just a very like tumultuous and kind of upsetting time for many of us. And that’s where I think in the midst of us having this exchange of expressing our frustration. It seemed like obviously we shouldn’t just talk amongst ourselves, right? We need to communicate this information to the administration. So, then I think the rest of the process actually was kind of haphazard. I thought, you know, let me draft an email to kind of at least make sure that my University president understands that this is harmful. That this email that she sent out if nothing else is undermining the message that she presumably is attempting to convey. And also let me give other folks a chance to sign on to this as well because: One, I don’t know that it matters as much that one assistant professor in the psychology department feels this way it probably matters more if there’s broader consensus about. And two, you know, this might be something that other people are really interested in being able to express as well. And so in a very haphazard way just kind of sent out this open email to colleagues to graduate students and then within a matter of I think about 48 hours there were nearly 500 signatures which to me just communicated that this is a shared experience that many of us are having especially those of us who are members of marginalized groups that were not feeling that these emails are connecting in the way that I’m assuming our University president wanted them to. And so, that was kind of that process of, you know, I’m sure if I had been invested in like collecting as many signatures as I could I could have let it go another couple of days and probably had at least twice as many but, you know, I was trying to get the communication to her in a timely manner and so went ahead and submitted it.  Yeah, so that was that process. I’m not sure if that’s…

JP: And for clarifying purposes, you mentioned a few events leading up to the 2016 presidential election that happened on campus I wonder just so that people might, if they’re not familiar, if you want to allude to those… 

NH: Yeah, I remember there were several. One of them that was the most disturbing and I think happened pretty close to the election was that a student had been walking across campus in the middle of the day and had been yelled… There was like a truck full… It wasn’t clear that these were like white males student aged individuals. I don’t know that it ever was made clear whether they were in fact students or not who were driving by in like a pickup truck and who yelled obscenities racial slurs and death threats at this woman as she was walking and it’s like in the afternoon on a Tuesday or something going to the library.  

JP: It was on Jefferson Park Avenue or something? 

NH: Yeah. So, that happened. I know there were other things around just like chalkings that were happening. So, people were writing I think anti-LGBTQ comments, they were writing things about kind of like black intellectual inferiority, and those had… those were events that had been happening in the summer when we actually have a lot of programs for students from underrepresented backgrounds to come to the university. And I think it was also before the election when some somebody had spray-painted the word “terrorist” on the side of a building with arrows pointed up to a room where some Muslim students I think resided. And so, those were some of, to me, the most like outstanding egregious incidents that happened. I know there were others, but I just remember having conversations with students and colleagues that these… it felt like things were escalating and also just being aware that that wasn’t just happening here at UVA. A lot of this did seem to be happening in tandem with Trump’s kind of ascent to power.  

JP: Thank you.  

DEBORAH McDOWELL: Can you say what your effort and the responses you received told you more broadly about the way this University uses Jefferson as an icon as a moral compass and also as a silencer?

NH: That’s a good question. So, are you mostly interested in kind of there was like the official or unofficial response from the administration? Or kind of just like broader? Because it was this really interesting thing. And I guess there’s like a system to this where right-wing kind of conservative enterprises have a system in place where they’re kind of scanning these student newspapers. And so, because this, you know, public email got picked up by the student newspaper, somehow some kind of right-wing organized system got latched onto that and then it got picked up then through like Fox News, Breitbart, whatever and then they would just seem to be a very like kind of systemic trolling that happened as a result of that which I didn’t feel that that was necessarily like orchestrated by UVA, but I did get these really, I mean, I just got a slew of really awful emails, letters, voicemails and people would write the most awful, racist, horrible things and then sign off with their name and the year that they graduated from UVA. So, to me that was very telling and it wasn’t, you know, that wasn’t the entirety of it. I think there was plenty of just trolls from all over the country, but it was interesting to me to see people from who, you know, had a history, had a connection with UVA the alumni connection saying really awful things, really problematic things to me and then signing off right like kind of proudly of who they were and seeing themselves I think as kind of gatekeepers? And that happened that wasn’t just like one, right? So, there was enough of those that to me that felt kind of like indicative of what the institutional culture has been and continues to be.  

DMcD: That is so important to say for a variety of reasons but not least in the aftermath of August 11th and 12th of 2017 because the immediate reflexive and sustained response to that event was “this is not us.” That was the refrain both within the university and within the larger community of Charlottesville. That somehow these outside elements, these extreme forces, these people who are not us have come in and infiltrated and basically assaulted our values. Well, what are our values if you receive a series of emails from alums, proudly identifying themselves as alums, expressing hateful bigoted responses to your petition? So, basically the response you receive would give the lie or certainly would complicate any notion that UVA is an environment in which tolerance for all quote-unquote differences abides because your experience would clearly belie that.

NH: Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, I guess two thoughts: One, just related to that connection you made with August 11 and 12, you know, and I’ve been very involved with that, I counter-protested, was there, you know, to me that connection was so obvious. Right? Like it was such a like the stream of experiences I’ve had personally being part of this community, you know, a little bit even before 2016 but especially in 2016 up until now have just been very consistent. I think tells a very clear and consistent narrative. Also, I think it has been so important for us to really own and acknowledge that both Jason Kessler and Richard Spencer are alums of this University and so their central role as organizers and the fact that we had we had a whole series of events leading up to that, right? I remember actually on Mother’s Day going to that park that I guess was Lee Park at the time because the day before Spencer had been there having the first torch-lit rally right of the summer. So, that was May then there was the Klu Klux Klan rally. So yeah, the fact that all of these things were kind of coalescing around Charlottesville for me was not shocking at all, right? And like what does it mean to have Jason Kessler and Richard Spencer to have such close ties here? And to feel so comfortable to come here and honestly to feel like the red carpet was basically rolled out for them and the way that our administration kind of handled, especially August 11th, and what happened here. Related to, I guess, I have one, you know, kind of anecdote that I think captures really well the things that I learned about my administration and also, you know, who makes decisions and who holds power around this University related to the open email that we sent asking Teresa Sullivan not to use Thomas Jefferson as a moral compass. And so, I think it was a few weeks after that. There was like a faculty Senate meeting and I attended and I was attending because a colleague and I had been working on a presentation that I think she ended up delivering to tell the faculty a little bit more about how to respond to critical incidents and how we needed to do more as faculty to acknowledge these things that were happening, you know, in our classrooms and to let students know that we were there standing in solidarity with them, that we wanted to be allies with marginalized students and that we were not complicit in these things that were happening. We had learned that it was really important to be explicit about that with our students. So, we went so I went to the meeting for that purpose, but Teresa Sullivan was there I think she had just five or 10 minutes to make some comments and I remember it was striking to me that she had such little time and spent so much of it talking about what she said was kind of controversy around “free speech.” That was the language she used at the meeting. And she specifically pointed out two things. One was this petition and another was like right around that time our basketball team UVA’s basketball team had taken a picture, I think it’s just like after practice. This wasn’t in a game. It wasn’t which, you know, I think all of those things are fine if they had kneeled during the  national anthem as a sign of protest against injustice, I would support that. I think that’s well within their rights to do, right? That’s that also falls under this free speech umbrella. They took a picture but, you know, I think for me it’s important to note how benign the act was it was like they all wore these like black, I don’t know, jumpsuits that they had for practicing and they all kneeled together locked arms and then posted on I’m assuming on Instagram or some social media platform it said “kneeling against injustice.” And I thought well, you know, good for them, right? Like, you know, it’s a way of taking a stand it’s a way of using their, you know, kind of status and popularity within the university to say, we, you know, we realize all of these things are happening and we as a team are kind of standing in solidarity against injustice. And I remember that that got covered in like, you know, whatever Daily Progress, Cav Daily [Cavalier Daily] and there was a lot of really hateful commentary about that. And there was a lot of stuff that just seemed like trolling, you know? Like take their scholarships away, they shouldn’t be there, and I remember being like: who are these people? And like where do I live? And what is offensive about kneeling against injustice? What is it about that that’s so alarming to people? And then I think oh, you know, maybe these are just like trolls and this isn’t anything to take seriously, but that was, you know, of the ten minutes that Teresa Sullivan had in that faculty Senate meeting, the two things that she talked about. One that she had gotten many calls to revoke their scholarships and to expel those students and also to let us know that all of us who had signed on to that petition about quoting Thomas Jefferson. Oh, all she’d been doing was fielding phone calls about having us removed and fired and having the students suspended and I thought I think that’s when I really got to understand that because if those were just random trolls, right? Who spend their whole day on The Daily Progress and Cav Daily writing really ignorant misspelled, you know, offensive comments it seems that that wouldn’t wouldn’t warrant… That the little time that she has she would allocate to that. So, that’s when this light bulb moment happened for me when I was like, those are the donors. Those are the alumni. Those are the people who think we should be fired and lose our jobs for this and also clearly those are the people who are on her mind because those are the silliest comments I’ve ever heard and so for you to then take up this time to say, just so you know, this is happening, but I’m not going to fire you and I’m, you know, I’m such a benevolent leader I’m actually not going to kick these students out either and it was just like it was bizarro world, you know? 

DMcD: And I appreciate that anecdote. It’s really very telling and so who’s inside and who’s outside, who holds these quote offensive positions. But I want to return to the question of the usefulness of Jefferson as a kind of silencing agent, whether that’s intended to be the case or not. But say, in her response I’m being deluged with calls to… that are calling for you renegade faculty members to be dismissed, but no I’m not going to do that. But that in itself is probably a cautionary move she’s making. Basically to say to you, “I am not going to follow this but who knows? Someone after me, so perhaps you who are so given to being critical of the founder of our institution might want to think again.” And I think it’s also important to consider anecdotes like that within a larger national context because we do know in fact the kinds of abuse that black faculty members have been subject to and universities across the country precisely for the positions that they’re taking. On a variety of what many would consider controversial positions but people invested in ideas of justice don’t find controversial at all, right? But it is if you’re right, if mere kneeling, if merely calling for a more measured, less reflexive appeal to Jefferson in times of crisis, if these pretty innocuous moves can create the kinds of responses, then we have a sense that the climate is us. We are in the climate. It is surrounding us, right? And the university is itself within a broad social… socio-cultural orbit and is not so much inoculated from all of the ills that we’re seeing everywhere else. That the university is itself in that. And not just in that environment. It has done its own bit of incubating and hosting, to continue my metaphors, these ideas, right? So, they are very much with us. So, Thomas Jefferson, who is this exponent of reason, who in many people’s mind is the veritable embodiment of reason and Enlightenment, that we appeal to him supposedly to calm the waters. We appeal to him because of his rationality, because of this pseudo-objective tone he seeks to strike. And so, if we appeal to him, he can get us out of this mess. But as you say turning to Jefferson in these times, actually exacerbates the problem rather than eliminate it.  

JP: I wanted to just I mean I just under underlining some of the things, you know, people say that the university is not the quote-unquote real world. Right? And I think that comment shows that things are very real here, right?

DMcD: How can it not be the real world? In fact, when I gave the commencement address to the class of 2017, anyone, in fact, when I was writing the address, part of my agony had to do with the tension in my mind between acknowledging a celebratory occasion attended by, witnessed by, people many of whom had made great sacrifices to see their children walk the lawn. So, really wanting to honor this as a moment of celebration not to be cast in any negative light. And at the same time, wanting to acknowledge that there were many many things students commencing from this lawn on that day should leave thinking about. When I finish the speech, I thought this is a speech that is so innocuous that it’s not going to be of much use to anybody but it’s the speech I can give right now. Well, I also got hate mail. I was not calling for us to stop quoting Jefferson. I was simply actually appealing to Martin Luther King. It happened to be the 50th anniversary of the publication of “Where Do We Go From Here?” But no matter what, unless you stand on these grounds to say all is well with the world, unless you stand on these grounds to say, “Oh, what a wonderful world,” there is absolutely nothing facing you but venom. And it doesn’t matter where you fall on the continuum of expression. I would argue that on the continuum of expression and opinion and political positioning, my position in that speech on that day was clearly very mild to moderate. But it doesn’t matter unless what you’re going to say is, “I am happy to be here.” Unless you are willing to basically commit yourself to some version of a standard script that everyone I believe would like to give black people and particularly black women if you have managed to get into a place like this your script is, “from the outhouse to the lawn” or that you have scrambled your way through extreme hardship and as a result of institutional largesse, and so your only position is the position of gratitude. 

NH: I would say two things that were related to that that really resonated with me. One was that I think… The two themes that I picked most from, you know, and I didn’t, you know, to be totally fair, I didn’t read a lot of these things carefully. When I could tell from the beginning of the voicemail that there was a lot of hate coming from it, I just deleted it. I mean, I didn’t feel the need to subject myself and do some kind of like content analysis, but my very general sense from the kind of overwhelming majority of messages that I at least took a glance at was: One, how dare you open your mouth. You should just be happy to be there and the fact that you think that you have the possibility to critique that space is like the biggest insult imaginable. And then the second one was, you know,  I’m going to say anything and threaten anything just to get you to shut up. So, I think coming back to what you said about the silencing. It felt just very clear to me that and like you said if the most innocuous at to me that the picture that the basketball team took right after practice, my email was entirely too respectful, probably, right? And it was just very much like, you know, just me lonely, you know, lowly assistant professor reaching out and asking you, “Oh, president of the University. Could you, you know, had it occurred to you that possibly the message that you are giving out wasn’t quite consistent with your other points about unity and civility.” Right? And so, I thought oh if that is what gets people this angry right also, you all just won. You just got this like we’re the ones who should be angry right now, and I’m still like modulating and figuring out how to contort myself into such a way that I can express my feelings of outrage in the most respectful kind of commendable fashion. And then you are unleashing hatred on me for daring to do that. And so, I think the other thing I took away from it was people are just so committed to this endeavor of white supremacy and are willing, you know, there are no kind of boundaries, right? For what what it takes to keep the status quo the way that it is and so it has been interesting to me to see the commitment within the university and outside of it to maintaining that status quo and it also has made me ever more determined I think to give voice to these issues. 

JP: One thing to circle back to and this is sort of by way of maybe housekeeping, not to use that term, but to just sort of underscore as Deborah exits. Just making sure that… Okay. No problem. Is I guess, your previous comment was sort of alluding to the concept without invoking the term of “civility.” And so, some of our other interviewees have mentioned civility. And so, I wonder if you might want to just expand slightly on in what ways this encounter particular with the petition, but then also sort of bringing it up to present to your current sort of role in writing op-eds and sort of more public intellectual life of, you know, what does civility mean? And like I said, I think your previous comment alluded to that sort of double edged sword of civility.  

NH: Absolutely, and I think my thinking around what civility means and its usefulness has evolved quite a bit since then. So I think, you know, 2016, you know, Trump just got elected to the White House me was still probably a little bit in shock and probably still, you know, to some extent more committed to this notion of civility as the way of being able to advance one’s cause. I think there was a part of me that was probably more invested in that and saw that as a more legitimate and useful tool to advocate for social change and I think the experiences that I’ve had and the shifts that we’ve had in our socio-political climate just since then in really a fairly short period of time we’re talking about just a little over two years here has been quite vast and I think at this point, you know, the 2018 version of me now feels very very much less invested in civility. Also have a much better understanding of the ways in which that language is used as a way of silencing folks, right? It’s like, “ask nicely,” right? Like I know you want to be treated equally and I know you want to feel physically safe and those are things I’m entitled to but sure I can understand why you might want them, but ask politely and I’ll think about maybe letting you have those things, right? And seeing that I think having a much better understanding of how this expectation even that people who are literally just advocating for basic human rights, for equality that those are things that are so that are construed to be so radical. And that are so quickly shut down and I don’t think that asking politely is the way to gain equality. So, I think the investment that I have, you know, if I was if that issue, you know, presented itself again this month, I don’t think I would write the email in the same way and I don’t think that I would just… I don’t think I would think, “Oh, just send an email,” right? I think I would think more about showing up in protest or being more vocal or doing other things to shed more light on these practices as opposed to having this be, you know. That was that that was the other thing that was interesting to me in terms of the response from other folks within the administration who kind of attempted to shame me for making this a public spectacle as opposed to civilly having a very quiet, you know, one-to-one meeting with President Sullivan. Why didn’t you just meet with her quietly? She’s a very reasonable person and I was like, “Oh, you fundamentally don’t understand the point here,” right? You fundamentally don’t get what we’re literally committed to in regards to changing campus climate and it’s funny that you think that that would be a better solution because I’m quite certain that nothing would come from that, right? No attention would be given to it. I’m sure she would be very polite to me in person and nothing would be different as a result and I felt like if nothing else, the way in which this message is harmful to members of this campus community at least will now be documented and so you can continue to do that but you can no longer claim ignorance, right? To the fact that that message panders to privilege and does not consider your entire university community, especially those of us who are most affected by these acts of bigotry that your email is supposed to be responding to.  

JP: That’s great. In your conversation about, you know, these are the… were advocating for certain sort of inalienable rights, right? The language and not to always return to Jefferson, but because it’s the sort of topic of conversation the notion of the grievance, you know, I think is something that we can even loop back in to…. is Jefferson, you know, that was the sort of language in the Declaration of the “grievances” for certain rights that are not held for all and so sort of ironically these claims of civility that silence… Put certain people’s grievances above others. So, I wonder if you can sort of meditate on. You know whose grievances matter and what that means and in our moment?

NH: Yeah, and I mean, I think that’s the other thing that I’ve been more outspoken about in subsequent op-eds or pieces that I’ve been asked to submit around just how… The conversations that we have about Jefferson’s utility, right? And his contribution and the attempts that are often made to minimize the atrocities that he engaged in always do center around the notion that the ways in which he advanced our democracy benefited a subset, right? Of our broader population and he was I mean that… This is not my language it’s somebody else’s. I think it was a local clergy member around, you know, was being interviewed I think on a news station after August 12th and referred to Thomas Jefferson as the founding father of white supremacy and I think that’s a very accurate term in that and, you know, I teach a class on structural determines of inequality use Ibram [X.] Kendi’s [book] Stamped from the Beginning. There’s an entire section on Thomas Jefferson and really understanding the ways in which Notes on the State of Virginia at that time for what that literature meant for public thought and shaping public thought around black inferiority is important to understand, right? Not just that he owned slaves, that he raped Sally Hemings, that he fathered children with her, not just his actions as one person committing these transgressions, but the fact that he was influencing this broader conversation and understanding and the ways in which he, you know, founded University to be a pro-slavery institution, the ways in which we’ve had this history of eugenics and white supremacy with, you know, baked into the institution by design. And so, it’s been really interesting for people to say, “Everybody owned slaves back then like don’t get all hung up on that thing, right?” And the other thing is I think that the thing that is also a very anti-intellectual stance because it was in and you all know because you’re doing this podcast, but in his own writings, he even was able to talk about the horrors of slavery, right? So, he both was a white supremacist in some ways in his writings an abolitionist, although never consistent with that in his own actions, right? So, I think very like cowardly. One thing we know for sure about Thomas Jefferson is that he was loyal to his self, right? Self-interest came above everything else. So, the way to kind of reconcile his actions with, you know, the contradictions with his words as he did what worked best for him, right? Now, this is pretty consistent thing throughout his life. So, it is interesting to hear people say, you know, so what he did that, you know, he owned slaves and you know, he had an affair with Sally Hemings. Like those are just things that people did of that time and it’s like well, first of all all of the things that you want to give him credit for,right? And in terms of just, you know, leader of the Revolution, the ways in which he was able to come up with these ideas these founding principles for our democracy, those were not of his time, right? And then moreover if you really understood his writings you would know that it wasn’t just that he was not thinking about slavery from a critical lens. He thought about it as being harmful not just to slaves but to slave owners, right? And so, the fact that he was able to see all of these things and understand them but still act in a way that was so harmful to so many and then insured harm to come for generations. I think many of the things that we’re dealing with today are directly what he wanted, what he created. And what he fostered and now we are fighting so hard to try and undo them. So, it is tremendously harmful when people suggest that those transgressions should not mar this great man, right? Or that we should not take him down off of this pedestal just because, right? Just because some of his actions were harmful to some people. It’s like no. His actions were intentionally harmful to the people who have the least rights still today. And so, when we say those things don’t matter we are in essence saying black lives don’t matter.  

DMcD: So, we’re just going to go a little bit off sequence here, off script, James, but I’m inspired by your eloquent statements and the passion. So, when we began this series, one of the things or when we began it in conception, we said again and again that we did not want to do a podcast that would position us as its producers in either one or the other familiar camp that the one such as you just described. Well, this man did great things, he’s the founder of democracy, he gives us this idea that people are still trying to export all over the world and he did all of these other wonderful things and he was a man of his time. And then there are those more inclined to think it’s you think that well, so he was a man of his time but he was a man of his time far more influential than any ordinary Tom, Dick or Harry. And so, what do we do then? Where… we said to ourselves if that’s what we’re going to do in this podcast, perhaps it’s not worth doing. Is there anything in Jefferson that is usable? We talk about a “usable past,” frequently. Historians employ that concept for a variety of reasons in a variety of contexts, but I think it’s also possible to think about a usable present or usable future. Is there anything in Jefferson that could make for a usable present or future?

NH: Yeah, I mean, absolutely. I think, you know, again I teach Jefferson in my class, right? And so, you know, I think a lot of the attempts to undermine the petition were invested in trying to distort what I was even saying, right? So, people were saying, you know, this crazy leftist liberal professor wants to wipe Thomas Jefferson from the history books! She wants censorship! She wants… And I was like, well, no, I want us to not use Thomas Jefferson as a moral compass. I definitely want that. I didn’t say we shouldn’t talk about him. I didn’t say it’s not useful to understand the hypocrisy, the ways in which his writings were used around both white supremacy, but also around abolitionism the way in which civil rights leaders have used that language, right? “All men are created equal” to advance their cause, right? Which is a which is a just cause. So, that is to me… all of that is tremendously useful in an institution of higher learning, right? And I, you know, it has been interesting to me to have conversations even with other faculty who either assumed I don’t know about Thomas Jefferson or assumed I wasn’t teaching it or assumed that they knew more about Thomas Jefferson than I do because they didn’t understand the critique that I was leveraging and they didn’t understand the nuance in what I was saying which, yes, to me, you know, in the same way in which Ibram Kendi uses in his book to say, “how did we get here?” Right? Why do we still have so many people who think black people are inferior? Why do we think genocide of Native Americans is okay, right? Why do we think exploitation of black and brown bodies for white profit is the norm? And is not a questionable history? Why do we teach history the way that we teach history? So, to me, those are all very useful things in a class that’s around because the first half of my class is like how did we get here? What are the determinants? And the second half of my class is like what do we do now, right? And I think in one of the more recent op-eds that I wrote that for the student newspaper, they asked me to write one year after I think I wrote one and kind of response to August 11th and 12th last year. Just like what’s useful to think about a year later and I said it’s useful for us to think about this legacy that we have all inherited, that we are all dealing with by being here, and using that in the classroom to really better understand how did we get here? Because how on earth are we going to get out of here? If we don’t understand exactly what happened to create that moment of August 11th and 12th 2017. So, I think it’s incredibly useful. I absolutely advocate for teaching Notes of the State of Virginia for understanding the ways in which he… his writings and his ideas were not consistent with his actions, right? And also what’s so useful to me in that class, and a lot of that is coming from Ibram Kendi’s book, around the coexistence of racist and anti-racist ideas, agendas and actions throughout history. So, I think that’s also helpful to push back against this notion that, you know, people are of their time and to disregard. I mean, that to me that’s also really important to say what is the history that we even know? That we’re even being taught? That we don’t even know these stories of these anti-racist activists from the 17- and 1800’s. We don’t know them. We don’t know what they did. But we know Thomas Jefferson as our founding father.

DMcD: And obviously the attention that we devote to Jefferson including the attentiveness in critique and of critique has everything to do with his stature. As we say, he was not the embodiment… He was not the ordinary Tom, Dick or Harry. He was the person who occupied a very different rung on the social ladder, on the political ladder, on the cultural ladder. But one of the things I find fascinating, and I mentioned this to James the other day, it’s not necessarily about how much someone writes but the influence of what they write because when we look at what Jefferson wrote about race, what he wrote that qualifies as the discourse of anti-blackness, it’s not a whole lot. That in the overall economy of what he wrote, what he wrote about these issues…. Wouldn’t go… I think it would probably constitute a chapbook and yet it has enormous influence and I think at the same time that we want to make it clear that he is no ordinary man, I think we also have to say that his ideas are part and parcel of a whole set of discourses that he neither founded nor perpetuated exclusively, alright? That for these ideas to have the power and influence that they do have, they had to be echoed, ratified, reproduced in a variety of places by a variety of people and so it’s very important. Otherwise, we are… I remember there’s a line in Alice Walker’s novel Meridian where one of the characters is saying to another, “Well, once we have white people believing that they are the root of everything, good, bad or indifferent, we have them thinking that there are some kind of gods.” All right? And so, at the same time that we want to say Jefferson is extraordinary, in every meaning of that term, it is also important to note simultaneously that his voice his writings take their place within a whole complex. Some of it even inherited from others, all right? So, that we are very clear that when we were talking about challenging Jefferson, we’re talking about challenging somebody who was just kind of one of the more public facing examples of something that is much much larger and much more widespread.  

JP: Yeah, and we… This is kind of being efficient here, but the other day were also talking about sort of the dual legacy of people within Jefferson’s time critiquing Jefferson for the very inconsistencies that we’re still talking about today. So the… because there’s this risk of saying well, you’re imposing the values of 2018 on a figure like Jefferson who was part of his time. So, that’s a different sort of pivot for the man of his times argument. But we know, you know, from many people also teach Jefferson alongside David Walker and so, you know, within his time [Benjamin] Banneker and so within his time people were critiquing Jefferson for his inconsistencies. And I want to maybe invite Professor McDowell to sort of meditate on that, you know, particularly with the legacy of Woodson, you know, we’re in the Carter G. Woodson Institute, and so, thinking of this project as kind of like its impacts for what we’re doing with this project more broadly is to not just talk about Jefferson but to talk about sort of the work that’s kind of going on in Black Studies, more broadly.  

DMcD: Yeah, I think that’s a very important question because that’s one of the ingenious aspects of white supremacy, especially in its extreme most visible forms, right? Because we know we have to talk about all of the ways in which it goes on unnoticed, invisible, and yet its impact is completely strangling and devastating too. But in its public manifestations, when we continue to talk about what white supremacy. Yes. We are, in fact, I mean this was one of the critiques of quote-unquote “whiteness studies” in its heyday in the ‘80s and ‘90s. People were saying, well, even if you are only talking about the failings of whiteness, and that is the bedrock of whiteness studies, you are still giving pride of place and pride to whiteness. All right. So, thinking about Woodson is adds another quote unquote, son of Virginia clearly one though without founding status. Woodson wrote, as you know, about a whole range of things. Woodson was a historical generalist, we might say because he is writing about everything from black religion, to migration patterns, to folks sayings to music to labor. So, he’s something of an historical polymath but through it all, no matter what he’s writing, he finds some opportunity to talk about Jefferson. I’ve been going back to some of the early issues of the Journal of Negro History, which Woodson founded as you know. So, really in the earliest issues Woodson is himself meditating in some way on Jefferson. In one essay I read two nights ago on the history of miscegenation in this nation,  there is Jefferson right up there. Woodson, we believe, though I’m waiting for absolute verification because Woodson wrote these pieces in each issue of the Journal of Negro History that were called “Documents.” Sometimes other people wrote them and when other people wrote them, they would typically be attributed, “Noelle Hurrd wrote this document.” But in others that were unattributed, the… what some scholars believe these were the ones Woodson himself wrote. So, a second piece I read just this week was about Thomas Jefferson’s views on “the Negro.” Pretty lengthy piece. 

JP: Printed in 1819?  

DMcD: No in 1918, you reversed the dates. Right. So, no matter what Woodson is doing, no matter what he’s writing about, he is finding a way to insert Jefferson. I mean this is really historical research, right? These are documents culled from here, this place and that place, one of the scholars I consulted answered to say if we could absolutely go to Woodson’s library in the Library of Congress, we could likely answer the question definitively because we could trace the references in the piece to the library.

JP: Maybe we should do that.  

DMcD: Yes, maybe we should do that. But she was willing to hazard a guess that it’s a very strong likelihood that Woodson himself wrote this piece on Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Jefferson’s ideas about “the Negro” quote unquote. So, yes, thinking about people talking back to Thomas Jefferson is vitally important and not… they weren’t all black people. Clearly David Walker is confronting Jefferson quite forthrightly in The Appeal. Banneker is quoting him. But then even when Jefferson answers Banneker, he says, “Well, no, nothing would please me more than to arrive at the place where I could agree with your assessment,” right? That is the level of his arrogance. But back…

JP: Then he’s writing to other people to say stuff like… He’s sort of undercutting that when he’s writing to his friends and colleagues. Jefferson to say you wouldn’t believe this thing going on over here. And so, you know, he’s kind of flip-flopping a lot.  

DMcD: Yes, you know, one could argue that that Jefferson becomes a fixture in Woodson’s writings, not the only one, but he is frequently referenced and he becomes a fixture because in no small measure I would speculate because that’s all I’m doing is that Woodson is himself a “son of Virginia” and he is born in Buckingham County. He is a descendant of enslaved people, right? And that basically as a popular historian, Woodson sets himself the task early on forthrightly. He was very explicit about it. That the reason the study of black history needed to be popularized was to puncture this notion widespread in the land and perpetuated by Jefferson that black people were intellectually inferior, had not contributed anything to the advancement of civilization, et cetera. And that that would be his “cause.” Woodson called it his cause. And that that could circulate widely in the bloodstream of the nation through popular mechanisms. And so, Woodson saw himself as posing a challenge too. In many ways Woodson, I mean, Jefferson’s ideas. And not just posing a challenge to them, but basically providing contravening evidence, right? Hence, “documentation.” That he sees himself as one invested with the power. And early on, this is a kind of a side note, but it says something about where we find ourselves as academics in any institution of higher learning and particularly this one because Woodson learned early on that to do the work he wanted to do, he couldn’t do it within under the auspices of the academy. So, he had to just abandon the academy. He knew that what he wanted to do would not be and could not be sustained within institutions of higher learning, not even Howard where he worked for a time. Because the inherently conservative nature of institutions is such that anybody whose intellectual project was by definition arrayed against or in expressed antithesis to the status quo would not survive. All right? So, he had to abandon foundation support because what these institutions support, what philanthropy supports, comes with strings attached and Woodson did not want the strings. He understood that the power of his critique would clearly be diluted. That he, in order to survive within academia, the power of that critique would have to undergo continual dilution to the point where it would bear no resemblance to what he anticipated. So, yes, he is challenging Jefferson wherever he can and challenging him also in ways that are both… That are using the power of documents and that are also using the power of editorializing because if you read in between the lines of the piece on Jefferson and the negro, he is inserting various juicy digs at Jefferson and at Jefferson’s offspring. What is happening to them?

JP: He’s “reading.”  

DMcD: Yes, he’s yeah, he’s reading Jefferson. So again, this is I’ve begun to ramble. I think… I hope I’ve answered your questions.

JP: Certainly. We want to be mindful of time here as well. But this has been a wonderful conversation. I’m sure we could go on like this, you know, spinning around for hours. I wonder if you maybe either of you had anything else to add or include? Yeah.  

DMcD: I wanted to ask Noelle about… 

NH: Let me just…

JP: Yeah and you’ve been very generous with your time. So, we don’t want to take any more if that’s not.

[Whispering and overlapping conversations]

JP: That usually happens with the best of interviews…  

NH: No, it’s fine. That was just my daughter calling so I just needed to make sure she was okay. She’s fine.  

DMcD: Because one of the things I want to talk about here takes us to at least one of the third objectives of this podcast. Is to try to think about how Jefferson might be useful to us, pro or con, in terms of useful and thinking about institutional transformation. I am a person who has grown impatient with the language of diversity and inclusion. In fact, there is an expression in Alabama, spoken by people who consider themselves wise in the ways of the world. Maybe they don’t have as they say “book knowledge,” but they have “street knowledge.” And so, there’s the caution that people with “street knowledge,” which some people value more than “book knowledge,” will say “don’t go falling for the “okey-doke.” I think that many of us fell for the “okey-doke” when it came for diversity, when it came to thinking about diversity and inclusion. So, I’m trying to… This is a very global question and you can find your point of access as you will into thinking about what Jefferson gets us or where he might get us in thinking in more productive ways about diversity and inclusion then we seem to be inclined to think.  

NH: Yeah, I mean I, you know, my first kind of instinctual response is to circle back to what we talked about a little bit earlier which was more of the like, “We need to understand how we got here if we’re going to really understand,” you know, and that’s where I think, you know, teaching a course on the structural determinants of inequality and understanding how radical, how extreme, how egregious, how perseverant, you know, the ways in which we have arrived where we are right now through such intentional effort to me is so important to understand and to make sure that others understand because if we are not equally radical and extreme and committed in our efforts to upend this very problematic structure that we find ourselves, I don’t think that’s possible for us to really truly arrive at a place where we have an equal society. So, you know, I again I, you know, I know some of that’s redundant with what I said earlier, but I think that to me, you know, which is quite a bit different and, you know, I’d be interested to hear more about what your thoughts are around how, you know, the ways in which diversity and inclusion kind of language and initiatives ends up being maybe kind of empty and meaningless. But, you know, for me, the contrast now is not only are we not doing any of these radical and extreme and highly important and, you know, part of the reason we’re not able to kind of implement the change that we want to see is because of white supremacy, right? Like it also has built into it so many strategies and techniques for silencing, shutting down, you know, creating limited possibilities. If we can’t even raise issues because we will make white people uncomfortable, then… and if our best like possibility for having radical institutional change is like doing that civilly and coming to agreement, right? And not making people unhappy or uncomfortable, then it seems impossible. right?

JP: It’s kind of this thing that if I may sort of circle back to your petition, one thing we’ve slightly left out is that the shrouding of the Jefferson statute, you know, that’s when it became explicit that this is sacred ground. So, at the very moment of taking your petition to sort of it’s… as you were saying earlier like your 2018… as you were saying your 2018 self would be a little bit more direct with how you confront this sort of institutional need to return to Jefferson. And not to sort of speculate too much, but that might look like shrouding the Jefferson statue? If that’s fair to say.  

NH: Yes. 

JP: And so, maybe meditating on that a bit in light of this comment just now.  

NH: Yeah, I thought that’s, yeah, I guess that’s perfect cause I was a say, that’s the juxtapositioning with what I think the radicalness and the extremity with which we probably need to be advocating, right, for equity for, you know, being treated as humans, right? So, I think that’s what we need to do. And instead where we are is like bizarro world where it’s not even just like it’s not even that those things aren’t happening. But it’s like even the more kind of civil attempts to say,”Excuse me? Could we not have a Jefferson statue around every corner and could we not always be asked to work Jefferson quotes into our lectures and could we just at least could we talk about him in a more honest way? Could we just do that?” And then the kind of contempt with which we are met for doing so. And so, I was there that was like a month after August 12th. I think when the students organized a protest. There were a number of faculty there and it was very interesting to me to see as well. And I was like again this is a month after, you know, a bunch of our community members and students got run over by a car from a white supremacist and a person lost their life, right, as a result of that. So, yeah, to think about it in that aftermath what was striking was that the shrouding even is not as radical as we could be, right? And that I thought that was definitely a step definitely in the right direction right more so than my polite email. And the reaction from the administration in that case I think was also particularly telling, right? The language that was used especially in the even the separate email that went out to friends of the University, alumni, donors, where that statue is referred to as “sacred ground” and the language that was used to kind of like demonize the group of protesters and diminish, right? To suggest it was just a small group of students. It was not. It was plenty of students. It was also plenty of faculty and staff. We were there. There was a person who showed up who was not a part of our group who was actually there to antagonize who had a gun and I think the message that she sent was to misrepresent who was there, to misrepresent who was arrested, right? Who was not a member of our group and to try and discredit that effort and like you said to then invoke this language of a Jefferson statue is “sacred ground.” It’s like you didn’t even use the word sacred to talk about the life that was lost at the hands of a white supremacist. But you’re using that language to talk about students literally covering up a stupid statue. I mean to me that is the juxtapositioning of where we are right now and like how far we are, I think, from the types of things we probably need to be doing to actually see the type of change that we need to see.

DMcD: Yes. This is very useful. This is, again, we’re not going to keep you forever. But your responses are so rich, they lead to more and more and more. One observation and then one question. And the observation is this: there were two separate emails and the email that went to friends and donors clearly… That is the reassurance that has to be superintendent, right? Because clearly as the state legislature invests less and less and less in the day-to-day operations of this public university, tt relies more and more on philanthropic dollars. And so, wealth has to be appeased. And so, it’s very very clear that I’m going to send a separate email to people who are bankrolling this observation. So, however offensive that was, the reasons for it are quite clear. That we don’t have to talk to people who don’t give us money and the people who are the quote-unquote rabble-rousers are not the people who are likely giving us money. But your comment also brought to mind.. Boy, it went right out of my head…. Shrouding. But there is a second question.

NH: I’ll say something else about that and maybe that’ll help to jog your memory. But to me that that point about who matters and who doesn’t and to me the other thing that’s really challenging about that is, yes, some part of your job is to fundraise, right? And to think about how to appease the donors. But if we’re going to have the kind of radical change that we need to have, then you have to be thinking about how do you create the University environment now for these students to have the type of experiences that may make them want to be donors, right? At some point. So, the ways in which, you know, when we talk about Jefferson and where we are now and who has wealth and who doesn’t. Well, these are all interrelated. Right? So, the fact that people who have wealth as a direct consequence of slave-owning are the people who don’t want to talk about white supremacy and who went to still uphold Jefferson as an uncontroversial, wonderful founding father. You know, that is all, you know, that’s the ways in which all of these things weave together so obviously for me.  So, then that the students, you know, members of marginalized groups who are here, you know, upset and having… experiencing the university as a campus climate that’s not safe, right? And that is literally our administration’s job, right? Is our safety. So, as much as they may want to pander to the privileged and raise their money, they also literally do have to keep us safe, right? And I think it’s in our best interest to continue to remind them of that, right? As much as you may want to use whatever kind of language, you know, the things that you’re doing are both undermining the safety of people who are here now. People who, in these diversity and inclusion conversations, you are eager to brag about the diverse the diversity in your student body, right? So, if you want to do that, then you also have to keep those people safe here. And who knows maybe even let them have a positive experience? So, that one day in the future they would actually want to be proud alumni and donors. So, I think this strategy right now and this commitment to the people who are, you know, what the alumni body looks like today presumably is not going to be the alumni body of tomorrow and there needs to be more attention to what is happening in this space now and what are these experiences? And what is their actual job? Right? Like you may say my primary interest is in appealing to the people who are going to bankroll us. But it also is literally part of my job to keep people safe and I can’t opt out of the latter just to pursue the former.  

JP: And it’s also the job to pursue knowledge and that sounds very naive but we’re here to ask questions and do research and do this kind of work that is in the service of critiquing.  

DMcD: Yeah again, I still haven’t resurrected my question. But yes, it is our role to reproduce knowledge. And again, what is… what knowledge does the institution get behind? What knowledge does the institution support? In what corners of the university is knowledge production valued? You’ve heard me say this again and again, James, borrowing from Ralph Ellison, that this is an institution that wants to “move without moving.” That… and the greatest evidence of that desire is in “fringe” operations that… It did come back to me. When you say… if we want to change this University for the students who are to come many some of them are already here, then we have to think about providing them a radically different experience than we have. And so, I’ve been quite taken with the fact that however important it is to interrogate our origins in slavery, that is vitally important. I think this university has gone in a direction that basically has us backward looking and as long as we are backward-looking and quote-unquote attempting to atone for the sins of the past, we are really not focused as intently as we need to be on the requirements of the present. And again, it is a fine line you have to walk but I think we have settled comfortably into interrogating slavery because we can delude ourselves into believing we left all that behind. This is not who we are now, right?  Our current dean has been given to saying in various public speeches that this university has to become the University of Sally Hemings as well as of Thomas Jefferson. And so, we interviewed him. We asked him what that would mean, in fact. Listening to you talk about the need for more radical changes and interventions: what might it mean to center Sally Hemings? And the legacy of Sally Hemings as we think about establishing a new blueprint for the future of this University? 

NH: That’s a really good question. Yeah, I’m and I’m also really struck by what you were just saying about needing to be more forward-looking and what that means and how do we kind of integrate all of these different threads in a way that feels meaningful, right? I mean, to me, it’s interesting to always like have this conversation and increasingly it is true in my time here, which is only been about six or seven years, you know, the report on slavery, the new commission around segregation, the, you know, that the memorial that’s going to get built, so like I am increasingly hearing about slavery, but it is this weird juxtapositioning. I’ll get an email from UVA, you know, whatever UVA News, Virginia Magazine. And it’s like, you know, a story about Thomas Jefferson’s greatness and then a story about slavery. And so, even that disconnect that happens there. I mean to me maybe part of that part I don’t you know, I can’t speak for the dean. But I wonder if some of it is that, you know, my request would be like, let’s think more about the integration of all of these things, right? You don’t have, you know, you don’t have a history of slavery at the University without Thomas Jefferson being front and center in that history, right?  And so, even what I understood from the Bicentennial which I did not attend but that there was both this way of saying, you know, we want to bring descendants of slaves and onto stage and celebrate them, but we also want to have someone dressed up as Thomas Jefferson delivering a monologue. And I’m like… it’s like kind of like gaslighting, you know? Just this experience of being here and the ways in which these contradictions are almost like married to each other in a very consistent systematic way and it’s disturbing. 

DMcD: And that to me would be a graphic example of the desire to “move without moving.” That you want to keep dragging and obviously you can never leave the past behind you. The past is… you’re going to be carrying it forward inevitably whether you think you can leave it behind or not. But there is this sense that we can… it is an additive approach. You know, it’s the critique of what people… that people have often leveled against the… before we got the concept of intersectionality when say black women would be asked, “Well, how do you feel most oppressed as a black person or as a woman?” And you would say, “Well, I am both these things simultaneously. There is never a moment when I’m not…” You know, and so we do take this additive approach that our idea of “correction” is adding on. It’s appending. It is not transforming from within. And that’s what you’re focused on when you’re talking about structures and that’s what’s being asked and that is what is so problematical about diversity and inclusion in some uncritical way because basically then you assume that a Department of Women… Studies in Women and Gender or Department of African American and African Studies would just be another department, right? That these would not be departments that in some ways would fundamentally interrogate the logic, the methodologies, the assumptions, the prerogatives of a whole range of disciplinary formations. And that unless you want to be simply another department added on, not one that would say, “hold it,” we can’t possibly think about history in the same way. Once we put this lens on it. It is that… that is structurally transformative or that holds the potential to be structurally transformative, but it’s a desire to just see that let a thousand flowers bloom because the what is additive would never interrogated or called into question. What is here?  

NH: We’re not threatening the status quo, right? Like you can have your, you know, memorial and you can have your department and that’s fine, just don’t mess up any of the other stuff that we have, right? And don’t disrupt our Bicentennial Celebration with your protesting and your signs about white supremacy. Don’t do that. We’re going to give you your memorial but like let us continue to honor TJ. Let us continue continue to have Jefferson exceptionalism as our brand for our University. Like we don’t want to change those things and also you can come here and be part of this community, but don’t try and change it. Don’t try and make it someplace that you actually can be your authentic self and feel comfortable. That’s not what we’re in the business of doing here. So, to me, it all is consistent with this idea of maintaining the status quo. And so, the “bends” or the “gives” and I like your language around additive, right? It’s like well if we can keep the core intact and maybe make some smaller changes on the periphery, that’s really not that threatening to our status quo. But when you start talking about integration and you start talking about changing the statues that we have and the language that we use and our brand and the ways in which we’re teaching and the people we’re hiring and the students who we’re enrolling, that’s too radical. 

JP: And who  runs things. 

NH: More importantly, yes.  

DMcD: Yes, and who runs things. Because basically when we look at who runs things, that we have in 2000 and almost now 2019, we have virtually no one in central administration. No one with a vice presidential appointment. That’s there’s someone outgoing, all right? But again, how do we define these positions? Do these positions have the power to set policy? Do these positions operate independent of the executive? I mean it’s kind of like we are a university that is as much in need of a system of checks and balances as the government needs it. That if you are going to have offices or structures that are basically beholden to the executive branch, what possibilities do you have to change? If your very job is dependent upon your approval by the executive branch or the executive branch can make all kinds of changes via fiat and that you really can’t. That it… what I’ve come around to seeing, and it can seem ungracious, uncharitable and perhaps to some ears uncollegial, and I would never want that to be the case, but we are part of the entertainment of this University. And the way that black Americans are the performers for the nation, right? That there is space for us to make people feel good. There is space for people to be entertained, right? That the idea that we would attach to the Office of Diversity and Equity programming on Martin Luther King. However important programming is on Martin Luther King, that is not for that office. That office should be doing something else. This is not for the record. But if you see what I mean, so you then attach a form of entertainment. We come together in our as they are want to call them our ecumenical. They don’t call them faith faith based or it’s not faith. The term…  

JP: Non-denominational.

DMcD: Yes, but they use another term. But it’s, you know, our annual ecumenical service where all people of all faiths come together to commemorate Martin Luther King. But again, if we only commemorated the Martin Luther King that was himself invested in the structural determinants of inequality, but the Martin Luther King… that is not the Martin Luther King that is celebrated. And so frankly I’m coming around, I’m kind of cynical by disposition, but it seems to me that unless we are willing to play the role either to entertain or pacify or placate because and then when we think about it, the roots of that are again in slavery. That we are… we rightly focus our attention on slavery as the institution that extracted people’s labor that held them in bondage, that determined their time and how they would spend it, but it was also an institution that saw itself as molding, shaping, determining, and commandeering the emotional responses of people who were held captive, right?  And so, you will have a book like 12 Years a Slave, narrating the plight of a woman whose children are taken from her and who then ceases to do anything but mourn for the rest of her time. Well, she is sent away from this plantation because what is being commanded of these people is that they perform happiness, all right? That this idea that we have of the loyal contented slave, right? That’s it. Unless you’re going to give us evidence that this is an innately beneficial institution for you and you would otherwise not have sense enough to come in from the cold. Unless you can do that, you have no place on the plantation. So, when Jefferson is talking about the emotional disposition, the dispositions of black Americans, he is participating in a pretty, by this point, pretty advanced discourse that has also attached certain forms of feeling to capacities for citizenship. So, when you really think about slavery in these terms, you are thinking about something that truly is seeking to own everything about captive people. It is attempting to own captive people body and soul. If we think that soul is that thing that is… that cannot be reached, that is contained within the wells of our being, no, this institution thought it had access even to that, right? And so, when we trace this, not in straight lines, but we trace these roots which are running in all directions, we take them back here. They are back there. Where what we need to say in or how we can say what we need to say has to be authorized by people who want to control tone, temper, and content. And this will be our undoing. You cannot have it both ways. You, you cannot. That’s too much preaching.  

NH: But well, I think also what you’re saying just briefly add onto that it’s also…. It’s what we want from you and it’s also how anything you say will be interpreted, right? So, there’s because I have the expectations for what is possible for you, anytime you do anything that even mildly seems to violate that, right? It’s like even how I can perceive and receive anything that you do and whether I would respond to it differently whether it’s you saying it versus James saying the exact same thing, right? So, that’s the added layer on top of it.  

DMcD: That is the added layer. And that you yourself don’t know when you’ve transgressed, until you have transgressed. And I think that’s one of, to kind of bring things full circle and back to the question of Jefferson and his contemporaries or people writing back to Jefferson, I mean, that’s one of the reasons that David Walker’s Appeal is rhetorically so brilliant. Because what David Walker understands is this language of dispassion, this language of reason, this measured tone that Jefferson is trying to strike in much of Notes on the State, can only be answered from a different higher and exaggerated and intentionally exaggerated register. That you don’t meet, that’s back to your point about you can’t promote radical change through moderate means. And so, what David Walker is doing in a sense, you know, Flannery O’Connor used to have this response to people who would say, “I mean you really did these characters to create this work your writing. It’s just weird.” And so, she would answer, “You know, we are in an age that has come to domesticate all kinds of thinking that should not be domesticated. And so, to the hard of hearing you must shout. And to the almost blind you must draw large and startling pictures.” And so, David Walker saying, “I can’t meet Jefferson on that ground.” I can’t meet Jefferson on the ground of reason, dispassion, moderation, rhetorically speaking. I got to meet him on a different rhetorical ground, all right? And you can call that ground extreme. You can call it exaggerated but it is a studied effort on my part to challenge him and to challenge him both in terms of content and in terms of mode. And this is what we’re missing here in our atmosphere of social politesse where everybody is not going to speak above a whisper and that for certain people, our position to occupy certain emotional terrain. It is no accident that black women are referred to here and elsewhere as angry. That is the terrain we get to occupy. And that is a terrain that is also meant to be disciplinary. It is meant to be corrective because if you bear that, if you carry that incubus around your neck, that is also which is that which is identifying you as something that can be ostracized. That can be ostracized and discredited. So, when we say white supremacy is baffling and cunning or when I say it, all right. I mean it. It is baffling and cunning. And it and its workings are not always visible to the naked eye. 

NH: Yes. 

DMcD: And I think if we need to take anything away from August 11th and 12th it is that for every need we have to decry and discredit what happened, we have to understand simultaneously that most of white supremacy does not take the form of men in khaki pants wielding tiki torches. That what we are witnessing at this University, who is endowed, what is endowed, what forms of knowledge are or are authorized, what forms of knowledge in structures within which these knowledge forms are being reproduced get by living hand-to-mouth? And what part get on agendas for capital campaigns? So, I’m with you and if we don’t think of anything other than, which is my great pet peeve about Henry the bell ringer, of all the ironies we’re going to talk about coming into a contemporary moment, we want to talk about social transformation and we plan a Bicentennial event celebrating Henry the bell ringer. This is a part of the tone-deafness, right? That maybe the only way you can get through to that is this you say not through email, not through petition but through more extreme though not violent means. I could talk to you forever. So rich. Everything is so rich.

NH: Yeah. The only thing I’d say related to that I don’t know if you were able to attend but Jelani Cobb was here earlier this year and he said something about how we want to do, you know, institutions of higher education want do all of this work to recruit black and brown bodies into this space just to have them politely have discussions about their own inferiority. And I think that, you know, resonated so much with me and ties into what you’re saying and also just all of the conversations that we continue to have at this University and at all these universities and in our country more broadly about free speech, right? And this language around civil discourse and intellectual exchange and the expectation that no matter how offensive and dehumanizing my argument, you just need to sit there and take it and be just as dispassionate about it as I am because I mean it’s just an idea and the fact that it’s an idea that threatens the entire core of who you are and your ancestry and your worth and your value and the ability to even qualify your qualify yourself as a human, that shouldn’t matter. We should just have a conversation, it’s just a discussion and if you want to get all upset about it, I think that means you’re not able to have a rational intellectual exchange. That means there’s something wrong with you and that actually kind of proves my point, right? So, I think when you talk about, you know, the brilliance and resilience of white supremacy, right? As this ideology that literally permeates everything and the temptation that people have to only see it in this very egregious attack that we sustain and not see it woven into the fabric of our day-to-day realities and amplified, I think, in many ways here at this institution and that’s to me a really powerful point.

DMcD: Yeah, it’s going to go off again on a long tangent, but you see this is it this is a part of the wiliness because if you… while you’re over here and I think it applies to a lesser degree to our overinvestment in symbols and statues. Because while you’re over here, basically laws and statutes, people are being packed on federal benches without even having hearings, that all of that apparatus goes on unchecked, right? So, to the extent that we can keep you focused on and preoccupied with the most extreme forms of white supremacy and bigotry, at the level of epithet etc. Then we can carry on over here out of sight. Going into buildings with our briefcases with our six figure salaries, it is… that is the focus. We need to focus and our students need to focus on trying to ensure a permanent presence at this University that cannot be dismantled by the ever rotating group of administrative players, deans, provosts, presidents. But that is what… we are pacified that this we are pacified and we are expected to pacify, you know, and pacifiers. You’re… neither of you was old enough to probably know about something that was a fixture of my childhood called a “sugar tit.” And you… it’s just empty calories. You would give a baby with sugar something with it that they could suck on and it’s just nothing there. Nothing of any nutritional value, right? But it quiets you, right?

JP: A placebo?  

DMcD: Yes. Well, a placebo is a different thing. A placebo. Well, it’s in that family. It’s a cousin. But this is this actual little thing. The placebo is not giving you what the other drug… you’re not getting the drug, you’re getting the placebo. But you are getting the sugar tit, you know, you’re getting sugar water.  

JP: It’s not nutritionally fortifying. 

DMcD: No nutritional value. It is not sustaining. It can’t sustain you in fact it can rot your teeth even as they are coming in, right? But that… It quiets you.

JP: And it gives you a spark of energy. You do get a little sugar rush and then you fall asleep. And then you don’t get bothered anymore?  

DMcD: Yeah, I am convinced that we are not meant to be anything more than a set of musical chairs here and that is consistent even with our approach to diversity. We don’t want to grow our own, right? We want to keep raiding other universities, right? So, there’s this… so you move from Harvard to Michigan from Michigan to here. That’s what we’re doing rather than investing in high school students, getting them basically introduced to research early on. Basically doing the work of renovating because students here in the public schools continue to say well UVA may as well be in Timbuktu. We don’t think of this as a place. How can you not think of this as a place to which you should have apply? This is a public university. So, even as I said, I’m not going to go off in another sermon, I am more and more convinced that unless we are willing to have these conversations that then we are all complicit in maintaining a structure that really does and is expert at what institutions do and are expert at. And that is maintaining themselves exactly as they wish to be seen, exactly as they wish to be known, with just enough tinkering around the edges to give to pacify some and give others the illusion of change. That is not change. That is “moving without moving.”  

JP: Well, thank you so much for your time. You’ve so generous with us and hopefully that we will definitely keep you in the loop about how the project progresses and, you know, ideally we’re going to try to make the interviews available in full. Although some we might have to talk about certain things when it comes to that. But yeah, thank you so much. And I mean even just there was a moment of it’s just a funny anecdote that talking about the additive parts. In one of our interviews with Niya Bates, she talked about the descendant communities at Monticello during the Getting Word Project and they sometimes invite the families up for, you know, gatherings and whatnot. But they were having a gathering for the Hemings family descendants of Sally Hemings and the Jefferson family descendants felt entitled to go to that event. And she was saying, you know, like it in this was I think one of your points you made at the Bicentennial like how is it that you want to have the Sally Hemings descendants in the same physical space as the Thomas Jefferson descendants? Assuming that there’s just going to be some big grand family like that they’ve just sort of reconnected, a family reunion, right? And so, I think I wanted to just underline that a little bit because the language you were using was the language of the family, you know? We’re married to this idea of Jefferson and that, you know, so this concept that a university is in many ways providing a home away from home. You know, there’s a family component. Professors become advisors, but they also do a lot of emotional labor to be the sort of parental figures. That’s a lot of additional work. And so, in this weird dynamic that it’s a corporation, it’s a family, it’s a sort of a democratic body as well that the concept of the family is sort of constantly getting sort of exploited and sort of used in many different ways. And so, that’s just a…  

 DMcD: And it was used in the institution of slavery. That the pro-slavery advocates really appealed to that language all the time within the family circle is a very common concept. The law of love abides. So, it’s this idea that this is protofamilial in slavery that we are all… we take care of our own. Yeah, it’s a complete exploitation of familial rhetoric. Absolutely. And you in the life and history of all universities, not so much now, but there used to be a concept built into the idea and the language of University functioning that faculty did function in the… The term was in loco parentis. Yeah, then there was that certainly was in my years as a college student the concept of in loco parentis was very much in operation. So… 

JP: Which means…  

DMcD: It means as a parent, instead of, in the position of, in the location of a parent. That was absolutely the case. Ao indeed, but you see it is the familial language. Again, this is a… the wiliness of white supremacy. When it is convenient to employ that language, you employ it. When it is not convenient, right? You’ve heard me also talk about this. We all know that in human history, the concept of adolescence as a separate stage of development is really late in human history. But we do know that when we come to think of adolescence as a stage of development that accords the people in that category certain protections, right” In claims to innocence we know who is in exiled from that category. All right. When it is not that which is how to Tamir Rice can be said to be what he looked to be a lot older. Right? So, when it is convenient, people in in domestic servitude in… well after slavery were often told, “Oh, well Mage is like one of the family.” “Mage is just like one of the family.” Really? Uh-huh.” So, yeah the exportation of familial rhetoric. I mean or familial rhetoric is employed for exploitive and purposes, right? Because and that goes back to slavery. Slavery gives the captive person sentiment. You’re like a member of the family rather than legal protection. So, the tension between law and sentiment is what structures slavery. 

JP: I wonder if you can maybe bring that to diversity and inclusion.

DMcD: Law and sentiment?  

JP: Or in the sense that you know that… terms being replaced… That sentiment is not any legal protections. 

 DmcD: It’s not any legal protection. No, it is not.

JP: And in the same way where that sort of diversity is a sentimental sort of feeling. Of sort of the warm and fuzzy, “we’re all in this together” kind of…   

DMcD: But it didn’t start out that way because, you see, diversity is the watered-down concept that replaced affirmative action. Affirmative action did at least have some “proto” associations with law. When Johnson stands there at that podium at Howard University to talk about affirmative action, he is talking about something that may, he hopes, have some legal binding. Goals and timetables. These were the things that were being taught and it was being thought about as something specific to a group of people whose movement and advancement through the society had been hampered by racism and white supremacy, right? So, diversity, no. That’s fuzzy loosey-goosey stuff. Right? Absolutely. So, that’s what you give instead of legal protection. But as you know sentiment can be proffered or withdrawn. Sentiment, you know, no one is I can love you today. I mean children give you the quick, fast, dirty lesson into this. You know, you know, how they get in their phases, “where I don’t love you. I hate you,” you know, they think you know love can be withdrawn and when you’re not getting me the Xbox I hate you. Sentiment is completely voluntary. You know, who you love, when you love, how you, I mean that there is no legal protection in sentiment. And that is what slavery sought to give people it held captive. You know, not legal protection. Not even functioning as legal beings not even being able to testify against people in law. You do not exist. You do not have property in your person. You are not a legal… I mean slavery is a legal category. Yes, it is a legal category and again the wiliness of white supremacy, you know, you may not have inherited this money over here because your status as a captive person comes through your mother, right? It is… it’s wiley. It is completely wiley. You will be perpetually a slave. This is your legal category but you will… you have no legal protections. You can lay no claims to Thomas Jefferson’s wealth and property and money. So, yeah, but we don’t want to have these conversations. These conversations fall on the ears of the likes of Teresa Sullivan as inflammatory, you know. And it seems to me that it is only if when we talk about, “Well, we need to have a conversation about race.” No, we don’t. I mean people talk about racism in the egregious manifestations of racism, which actually kills people as if, you know, “Okay, come into my parlor. Here’s a sherry? Would like some sherry. What would you like? I mean if this is just polite. I have always resented the idea that we are going approach these serious issues through the rhetoric of conversation, right? Again, I think it should be completely possible to talk about the language and rhetoric that is… that incentivizes change as almost of necessity, needing to be strident. What does it get us? So, we can agree to disagree. All of these mollifying terminologies that we invent and summon, right? And so, yeah, you… who has the kind of disposition to mollification? If you are from my background and your background, you don’t have the disposition to mollification. Why would you?

NH: Well, when you have all the privilege, why wouldn’t you tell everybody else, “calm down!” Would you like some of this? I’m gonna have a glass and also, it’s not a big deal. There’s no reason to get so upset it’s like because whoever gets to decide whether or not to even have the conversation is coming from that position of privilege.  

DMcD: And so, these people then want to order because in the emotional labor, we are expected to perform in the face of these crises which are not of our making but somehow, we’re expected to stop exactly what we’re doing and go and give a lecture. And I have been refusing to do that of late because all of that is busy work. And all of that is functions in relation to the machinery of diversity so that constantly… you can appeal to things you’re doing, right? We did this. We are building the memorial. We changed the name of Barringer Hall. We are doing things. Because the university needs to at least provide its public the appearance of working toward change, but the appearance of working toward change is highly symbolic. Now symbolism has its place. I would be the first to say that. But basically to mount a campaign of transformation around symbol alone is to be mounting something on very friable ground. I mean, it’s not just about changing the names of buildings. And I say to people on the day that the name of Barringer Hall was named to Pinn Hall, then somebody should have been ready with fifteen med school scholarships. It’s easy to do these things and that we cannot…

NH: They don’t cost anything.

DMcD: They don’t cost anything. We cannot keep falling for the “okey-doke.” And we really do need to say, “Until you do this.” Because people do this all the time. I mean, how is it I… heaven forbid that I should say this out loud because then I’ll be fired from the University because this will be read as anti-Semitic, but there are all of these things we can and cannot say about Israel. You cannot say anything in support of Palestinians that is not then presumed to be… So, who has free speech? Well Marc Lamont Hill learned pretty quickly that he doesn’t have free speech, right? Talk Tucker Carlson and that crew can say whatever they want to say. But you cannot say anything about Palestinians without then having the yoke of anti-Semitism hung around your neck. And so, it seems to me that in the same way that people say until which time like I’m already looking at all of the things… Today, I’m sure you must have read it where we cannot do international business with this country, that country, and the other country and that if we do, we’re liable for this, that and the other. I didn’t read it closely but people all the time say until Syria changes its human rights policies, we will not do business with Syria. I think black people in these institutions need to say until you are really serious about change, deeply structural change, not fringe change, no, don’t count on me to come to the to the teach-in. I’m not… That is more work for me. And so.

NH: To your point, I think this institution in these symbolic tangential ways, is attempting to deal with the problem of white supremacy on the backs of black bodies. And that is not the solution, right? White supremacy is a white problem. And so, to say let’s get the handful black and brown folks we have and make them do the labor to present an outward image that suggests we’re doing something, is in itself entirely problematic, incorrect solution to a very large problem. 

DMcD: Absolutely. And then to pay people. To pay people. I met with a group of people last weekend. They had been in the workshop. I don’t know if you were in the workshop last summer on teaching race, but basically I told them, you know, when I talk to people, I really like them to know what my positions are so would mean it’s truth in advertising. So, I do not need to speak to you. Dorothy Bach asked me to, but you here, I need to tell you I oppose that initiative and I need to tell you why I oppose that initiative. What does it mean to say: we are going to take this extreme moment as a time to look at our racial history? And that all the while we are starving entities of the University that have been doing this work since their inception. We’re actually going to pay people who don’t think about it. I mean to me there was something grossly wrong with that picture and then that who was consulted? In the face of it on the local television was a group of white people. This is deeply problematical. And so, how do you say what is it and how insulting to say: you can bring everybody up to speed who is going to go into a classroom come September in a week’s time. People have devoted their entire scholarly careers to this. So, to me, that was looking at race in a cheap way, in an insulting way, in a way that did not compel me to take anything seriously. So, when I hear from you that it was not successful, I am not surprised because it is….It’s it’s… The likelihood that it would not be successful was already built into its very conception. Right. And that when you are trying to do something just to be doing. This is the thing and that’s what I kept saying sometimes in the face of certain kinds of crises, you just need to be still. You know? And for many people that is an abdication of a kind of political responsibility. Maybe it will be in some instances. It may be not in others, but I was brought up by people… my great-grandmother was one who said when people are going crazy around you and especially in any finite parameters, that is the time for you to be very still. Don’t take your eye off them. Just be very very still.

JP: There’s another Ellison quote that you have referenced in the past…. from the end of the invisible, Invisible Man: “hibernation….” 

DMcD: Oh yes, “Hibernation is covert preparation for more overt action,” right. And he was right because this is the character it kind of thank you for reminding me of that because that line in the novel comes from the narrator. But the narrator is referring to this character called “Ras the Exhorter.” So, Ras spends his days on various soap boxes in Harlem exhorting. All right. And so, in one of these exhortations a rioter erupts. And so, Ras is running underground and he’s down there underground in a cellar or cave being lit by the electrical company unbeknownst to the electrical company. And so, the narrator says hibernation is covert preparation for more overt action. Yeah, and I do believe that. Because there will always be people who are, you know, the shock troops, people who are on the front lines. I mean when you think about transformation when you think about revolution, this is a constant struggle. When Angela Davis borrowing from the anonymous voices of the many thousand gone, “freedom is a constant struggle.” That’s what she meant. So, you cannot be in this struggle without taking some time out. And you got to take some time out to strategize, to think. Because again, white supremacy has you locked in reactive mode. And when you were constantly in reactive mode, you will be worn out absolutely. You will be worn out and I think that that’s a part of its ingenuity as well. You keep on reacting. You keep on believing that there is something you must do right now. How many teach-ins have we had? How long have we been talking about teach-ins at least since Berkeley in the 1960s? Where are we now? We have had teach-ins. The latest incarnation is the syllabus for this that and the other. Also, as if simply learning about something is the root of transformation. Learning is essential, but this is not work that is going to be done at the level of the classroom. It’s not going to be done at the level of the syllabus. It’s going to be the classroom and the syllabus in tandem with a whole bunch of other things. And if it is the syllabus, it’s going to need to be a syllabus that is truly disruptive or that at least has disruptive potential. And the potential to disrupt what’s being taught elsewhere. We don’t have any of these syllabi checking each other, right? I’m sure there is a lot coming out of the History Department that I wouldn’t teach. I wouldn’t expose to students. All right. But the again the additive philosophy. Because it’s at… we’ve had the additive philosophy for a while, but it operates now in truly benign ways and seemingly magnanimous ways. By which I mean, you know, have the Multicultural Center over here, have La Rasa over here, have the Latinx over here. So, you have all of these, you know, exhibitions of tolerance for difference, but they’re all in their own arenas that none of them… and I think students have done a good job in some cases of combining forces to take on particular issues. I was quite impressed with a group that was working on the issue of tuition. They were very informed, they did a lot of research, but by and large, you see, even activism becomes a commodity. Even activism becomes commodified and so in many cases, this is not necessarily about change. This is about, “I am now on the platform.” And I as the spokesperson who has the mic for now, before I drop it a lot can come my way. So, people are actually making money. You give… and then again in fairness to the people who may have applied and wanted the $5,000. We are paid nine months out of the year, you know, not everybody is near retirement. Not everybody makes the money I make. So, for many people in the summer, I’m sure $5,000 was like a lot of money. So, I don’t begrudge them wanting that but there’s something bankrupt about wanting to teach people or introduce them to pedagogies of critique and resistance while basically telling the Woodson Institute you can live on starvation wages and whatever you want to do. You can go cup in hand in get from people. But we’re going to drop five thousand dollars to forty people. And before that, we have this fund so people are applying for money left and right. There was a lot of money to be had. What if we had taken that money and began that… use it as the basis of an endowment for Woodson? I gather Studies in Women and Gender is on course for endowment because there are a lot of LGBTQ donors with deep pockets, so they are going to be endowed. So, basically it because this is when you know of university is invested in seeing what you do as necessary at a foundational level to it’s very operations. Because institutions only endow what they value. They endow what they value and that they didn’t endow the Julian Bond professorship until after he died is very very telling, all right. So, James unless you turn off the mic… I don’t know what has gotten into me. 

 JP: When you’re in… isn’t there something about getting the spirit or something. 

DMcD: You know, but I have been mild all day but somehow.  

JP: It’s the occasion of a good guest.  

DMcD: Yes.  

JP: A good conversation mate.  

DMcD: Yes. Noelle.  

NH: Well, you have the history. I mean, your… The experiences that you’ve had in this institution and I mean your personal struggle for this department, for this University, for these students, for the faculty and staff. I mean. Yeah, I could listen to you talk all day. I just think you’re coming from, you know, such a wealth of expertise, but also just the experience that you’ve had here and the things that you’ve seen and this wiliness of white supremacy that you’ve personally been battling within the confines of this institution for a long time now. 

DMcD: A long time. Absolutely. And they are ready for me to be done fighting them. You know, they are so ready for me to be done battling and I just tell them, you know, you will mess right around and, you know, don’t bother me. I will retire when I’m good and ready, you know.  

NH: Well, this is why that legacy I mean it can’t… That can’t go when you go. Of course, you’re entitled to retirement and, you know, life after this and not to be, you know, confined to this experience forever. But thinking more about how do we make sure that there’s this inner generational transmission and that there is this stability in the presence of that fight because… And the wisdom that you have to offer so many of us who are just now entering into this space and the way that we need to attend to that and leverage that as we continue to move forward as opposed to, you know, showing up as if this work has not been happening for decades.  

DMcD: It has been happening for decades and I think one of the things is the ways is the ways in which white supremacy divides us against each other as marginalized communities. Because I’m telling you, I would say to anybody who wanted to listen. I have… The battles that I have had to confront, have been equal in ferocity from black people as they have been from… Not a majority of blacks but those…

NH: The false positives, right? Isn’t that what [Eduardo] Bonilla-Silva says?

DMcD: Right. Exactly.

NH: And when you were saying like when you were talking about representation in administration and I was thinking, “Yeah.” And not just like physical, right? Because we like… Fox News finds these people all the time. Like you can handpick the people who look like, you know, your group but who have absolutely aligned themselves with white supremacist ideology.

DMcD: Absolutely. And, you know, there are people that I have and some black people argue that I have. I mean, I have to keep doing the work that I do because I know that’s a lie. And, you know, it’s just completely cannot be further from the truth. But I think that this is what we haven’t learned. And then the importance of promoting, getting out of the way the university’s run, we always want to be doing things with other people who are working on rights, other people of color because we know this is how white supremacy succeeds in thinking, well you’re all over here and that’s where you belong. I think we have to be constantly shaking up these silos and these fiefdoms in building coalitions and in actually promoting the work of people as best we can. Because, you know, we get looked at now as mainly a unit to ratify. Will you co-sponsor this? Will you co-sponsor that? No, as black people we have to be doing things together so that it is less likely that they can peel us off. It’s it is a wily thing. Whiteness will survive. It finds ingenious ways.  

David Thorsen

David Thorsen: First off. Let me introduce myself. My name is David Thorsen. I’ll be your guide. How many of you been here before?

James Perla: Almost everyone.

DT: Yeah, almost everyone and uh, when did you arrive here today? You just get here now? Okay, great. My proposal is to find places where we can stay dry, does that sound okay? Sort of vary the traditional tour route with the weather in mind. Fair enough? Let me ask one more question. How many of you have visited the newly restored room that more fully explores the life of Sally Hemings? Anyone done that? All right. We’re going to go in there. We’re going to do that on our own privately. Okay sound good, right, great.

[Walking until 1:50]

JP: So we did get to see the fog, it’s really dramatic. Oh my gosh, normally can see for miles.

[Inaudible conversation until 2:52]

DT: What do you think? This building’s about 11 foot by 14 foot. It’s got a second-story loft up there and typically up to a dozen people would call this home. Now this structure is very typical on any plantation in Virginia. You find houses, homes like this for the enslaved community and just think about this structure compared to the great house Monticello above us. This structure is about 1/4 of the size of just the entrance hall of the great house. We’re going to talk about the Hemings family and during the time we spend together I’d really like to have a dialogue. So if you got a question, that’s why I’m here. Don’t be shy. We’re going to talk about race and we’re going to talk about entanglement, we’re going to talk about struggle, we’re going to talk about legacy. Now when I say race, is that a scientific concept?

Deborah McDowell: No

DT: It’s a social construct.

All: Yes

DT: So it does exist even though it’s not scientifically valid. When I talk about entanglement what do I mean? The lives of the people who are free here at Monticello and the lives of the people who are enslaved here at Monticello are all tangled up. And the Hemings family is particularly tangled up with the Jefferson family. And when I talk about struggle, what do I mean? The system of slavery is all about what? It’s about exploiting people, about excluding people, it’s about inequality. It’s about owning people as property.

DM: Containing their movement, containing their freedom.

DT: Containing their movement. It’s a system of real and threatened violence; physical force, psychological force. [5:00] It’s a system justified even by people like Thomas Jefferson who know it’s wrong by doing what? By rationalizing, by creating a system, by advancing the idea that the humanity of those who are enslaved can be denied to justify what? The system of slavery. But for those who are enslaved, what’s the struggle about? Retaining dignity, affirming humanity, holding on to hope that one day perhaps all those words in that Declaration of Independence might apply in the broadest possible fashion. And how about legacy? Does Thomas Jefferson leave us a legacy?

DM: He leaves us the legacy of democracy, compromise, for one thing

DT: How about the words in the Declaration of Independence?

DM: The words of the Declaration are in tension with the realities of the descendants of the enslaved and many others, but certainly since we’re talking about slavery; incompatible. Those words are incompatible with and have had a lasting effect on the lives of the descendants of the enslaved.

DT: So what I would tell you is that Jefferson leaves us a dual legacy. He wrote the words of the Declaration of Independence. How many of you have read the only book that Jefferson wrote called Notes on the State of Virginia and read query 14. What does he say in that query?

DM: Many things. I’m talking too much.

DT: I mean you’ve read it, were you disturbed by what you read if you read query 14, what’s he saying? He’s saying horrible things about human beings!

DM: And attempting to rationalize those horrible things by resorting to pseudo-scientific language.

DT: Scientific racism, which are two words, two words that don’t actually connect to each other, right? A contradiction.

DM: Which is why pseudo is much more accurate. It’s not science, it’s pseudoscience.

DT: Yes ma’am. Absolutely. So yeah, we’re going to talk about all these things. So let’s let’s talk about the Hemings family, let’s talk about how they find themselves on this Monticello Plantation. Jefferson marries in 1772. He marries Martha Wayles Skelton. He’s actually her second husband her first husband died, but she’s the daughter of John Wayles who is a slave trader and when John Wayles dies Jefferson inherits the Hemings family. Elizabeth Hemings is the matriarch of the family. And so she has 12 children over the course of her lifetime. And what’s unusual in some ways about the Hemings family when John Wayles dies is that family arrives here intact, they’re not sold off and broken up. So that is one of the keys to our knowledge about the Hemings family is the survival of that family as an intact family when Elizabeth hemings arrives here. Twelve children; six of those children are the children of John Wayles, one of those children Sally Hemings. What does that mean? Jefferson’s wife… Sally hemings. They’re half sisters. Now thats what am I talking about when I say entangled from the very beginning. So now imagine owning members of your family has property. And the Hemings family, we know more about this family than we know probably about any other enslaved family in the United States because of the rich oral tradition that they pass on to us and because of Jefferson’s writings in the writings of others regarding Monticello. They’re the largest enslaved family here. Over the course of his lifetime Jefferson owned over 80 members of the Hemings family and when he died one third of the people enslaved at Monticello were members of the Hemings family. Jefferson owned over his entire lifetime, he owned 607 human beings. How many people did he free?

All: Five

DT: Ah,  I’m gonna give you a different answer. I’m gonna say ten: five in his lifetime, five in his will. Of course all ten people are members of the Hemings family. That’s it.

JP: So I do have a question because in the video, um, when there’s talk about slavery at Monticello it says that there are 143 enslaved peoples? So I’m wondering about that discrepancy.

DT: Sure, that’s a great question. So let’s talk about the difference between lifetime ownership and then the number of enslaved people here at any given time. And 140-150 is a pretty good number at any at any given time. So you can think about roughly 175 people total on the plantation, two-thirds [10:00] of those people are the enslaved African Americans who are working the plantation, who are building the great house. And one of the other things to think about during our time together, um, I always ask myself the question who is trying to control the narrative? Does that make any sense to you?

DM: Oh, yeah.

DT: Yeah. So let’s take an example of then. John and Priscilla Hemings. John Hemings, thats Sally hemings younger brother. He’s the master woodworker here. His wife Priscilla Hemings is the nanny to Jefferson’s own grandchildren, but they’re not owned by Thomas Jefferson. He owns John Hemings, his son-in-law Thomas Mann Randolph owns Priscilla Hemings. So imagine a husband and wife owned by different people. Is that a problem? It’s certainly a problem when the Randolph’s are at Edgehill across the Rivanna River and this husband and wife are physically separated from each other until 1809 when the Randolph family moves to Monticello. If you read the memories of the Randolph children, Thomas Jefferson’s grandchildren, about John and Priscilla Hemings the story you here I would tell you is one of Moonlight and Magnolias. What are they telling us? What do they call John and Priscilla Hemings, do they call Priscilla Hemings? Priscilla? They called her mammy. What do they call John Hemings? Daddy. Right? So there’s this familiarity being created but is it two ways or one way?I cannot tell you what John and Priscilla Hemings thought about the world in which they lived because they never revealed their true feelings. So the Narrative of their story is being controlled by others. But imagine Priscilla Hemmings despite those grandkids saying things remembering her thousand little kindnesses. What’s the possibility she could be inherited by one of those grandkids taken away, who knows where separated from her husband forever? That’s some of the reality. All right. Let’s go have a look at that new exhibit dedicated to the life of Sally Hemings.

…..

[Enter Sally Hemings exhibit, ends at 21:15]

DT: I had a great question: why did we pick that room? Thomas Jefferson’s grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, pointed out to one of Jefferson’s biographers. They were walking around here at Monticello and he pointed that direction at those two rooms right there and said that that is where Sally Hemings lived. So it’s one of those two rooms we don’t know which so we chose one. What do we do with the room right next door? That is dedicated to a project began 25 years ago called Getting Word. It’s the oral history of the descendents of those once enslaved here at Monticello. So one of those two rooms we had to pick was occupied by Sally Hemings. So a great question. What else what do you think? Are you unpacking what we saw? So you know who, where those words come? From her son, Madison Hemings, 1873 when he was interviewed. There’s an awful lot of information in that very short period of time he’s telling us lots and lots of things, isn’t it? About the connection between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. I used the word connection. Why? What other word could I use? If I use the word relationship would that…? Would that create a sense of something that might not be happening?

DM: Yes and no. Because there are obviously lots of relationships. So in the most descriptive sense like we are in a relationship right now. We are in relation to each other. We’re in physical proximity to each other. So if we don’t attach contemporary ideological meanings to the term ‘relationship’ we can in fact use it.

DT: As long as we’re clear about what we mean. So I say connection to start off at conversation, that dialogue about trying to unpack. We know what Madison Hemings told us so that gives us some perspective. We also have the perspective of the descendants of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings and I’ll share their perspectives. Some of those descendants see a love affair between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. other descendants see something much much different than a love affair. They see the opposite. Other descendants a young woman trying to navigate the world of slavery in such a way that as her son Madison says, creates a treaty with Jefferson that allows what? Allows your children to become free. So. There’s multiple answers to this question. Which answer is right? I would tell you that no one, no one knows, no one knows so we’re left with that. What I can, I think tell you for certain is that there is always an imbalance of power between these two people. One is the master. The other is his property. So any other vision of this connection, of this relationship has to begin, I think, with that foundation of understanding [25:00]  this lifelong imbalance of power between these two people. Does that all make sense? Yeah, come on this way.

[Walking, shuffling]

JP: All right. So, now we’re walking up to the main house by kind of from the side up from what they called the dependencies. Hey good to see you. And this is an approach to the main house. Looks like we’re circling back towards the entrance. Uh, yeah.

DT: Over the course of time is really members of the Hemings family who take up positions of relative privilege on this Monticello Plantation. So Jefferson’s making choices about the people who are enslaved here. In the case of the Hemings family, he is literally aligning that family with his own family. So what do you think? Is it typical or not typical on a Virginia Plantation on any Southern plantation for the master to select one family from the enslaved community and then align that family with his own family?

[Inaudible answers]

DT: You think it’s not typical? It’s relatively common. It’s relatively common for this to occur and you’ll find that in primary source evidence when you when you look at plantation history that it’s actually not unusual for one family to be, now, is it that enslaved family’s choice? That alignment? No.

[Inaudible comment]

DT: Yeah. Yeah, so it’s the norm and that’s how the Hemings family they find themselves in that position.

DM: Well then the question is, why would they find themselves in that situation?

DT: It’s a really great question. So, why would that be? Could it be the connection to Jefferson’s wife, to her family and to the role that they played in his wife’s family that this is a long-standing alignment? I think that that’s a factor. Could it be other factors? Could it be but it even be the color of someone’s skin driving that choice. Particularly if you are going to describe the people working in the house not as your slaves, but as your servants. You can create a bit of an Illusion by doing that. So, we talked about Sally Hemings. I want to talk about four other members of the Hemings family real quick before we step into the house. I want to talk about Sally Hemings older brothers Martin, Robert and James Hemings and about her nephew Burwell Colbert. So when you stop and think about it, when the Hemings family is inherited by Thomas Jefferson, there are members of the Hemings family literally at his side all the way up to the point of his death. In the job today you and I call the butler. Martin Hemings, Robert Hemings, James Hemings, Burwell Colbert; all served in these capacities. These three brothers, Martin, Robert, and James, at some point in time all three of them defy Thomas Jefferson. So can you imagine that? Imagine an enslaved person defying their master? Martin Hemings in 1792 has some sort of an argument, a falling out with Thomas Jefferson such that Martin Hemings says sell me to anyone. [30:00] Anyone other than you. What’s going on there? I don’t know. We do not know what happened to Martin Hemings. There is no record of sale. There is no record of Martin Hemings running away. The very last reference to Martin Hemings is in January of 1795 three years after this incident. And in that time Martin Hemings has been, hid the problem of Martin Hemings has been handed off to Jefferson son-in-law Thomas Mann Randolph, and we literally don’t know what happened to Martin. So it’s speculation. Some people think that he might have died or that that he ran without pursuit or that perhaps Thomas Mann Randolph simply allowed him to disappear. It’s a mystery. We do know what happened to Robert and James Hemings. Robert Hemings now becomes the butler and then his younger brother, James takes on that role. Robert and James Hemings are both legally freed by Thomas Jefferson, right? A letter of manumission recorded in the courthouse. Legal freedom. Robert Hemings gains his freedom in 1794, James Hemings in 1796. Robert Hemings, he’s in Philadelphia as a 14 year-old teenager. And what’s his job? He’s Jefferson’s butler in Philadelphia in 1776, but when Jefferson goes to France, 1784 to 1789, he doesn’t take Robert with him. He takes James to France to do what? To have him trained to be a French chef. That means Roberts back here being rented out. He was rented out to a doctor. Dr. Frederick Stross. Dr. Stross owned a woman named Dolly. Well Robert Hemings in Dolly fell in love with each other, but then Dr. Stross and Robert Hemings come up with an idea that if Jefferson can be convinced to free Robert Hemings at the price that he would have bought at an auction that Dr.Stross will allow Robert Hemings to work off, like he was an indentured servant, and then both he and his wife Dolly would become free. What do you think Jefferson thought about that idea? Woohoo? He accused Robert of disloyalty and he accused Dr. Stross of Jefferson’s words: debauching. What does that mean? He’s gonna be, he’s being stolen. But he does free Robert Hemings. And I want to tell you the story of James Hemings’ freedom a bit later. So we’ve got these three cases of people who defy Jefferson, but how about the case of Burwell Colbert? What… if you’re navigating the world of slavery, what choices do you have? Do you have any choices? You have very few, but you do have some choices. Burwell Colbert has the example of his brothers, but he come takes a completely different approach. He aligns himself with the entire Jefferson family in such a way that he becomes indispensable to them. You’ll even find letters where they’re talking about their inability, they can’t, they don’t know how to make coffee without Burwell Colbert. If Burwell Colbert is at Poplar Forest, 90 miles from here, and the rest of the family’s here, they’re all complaining about what? That Jefferson is gone? No! That Burwell Colbert is gone and the house is falling apart. The other thing to think about when you look at the house, when people come up here and look at the house, you know, obviously they think of Thomas Jefferson because he is the self-taught architect. He designed the house, he designed the grounds, the lawn, the range of the University of Virginia, designed the state capitol in Richmond. He’s the architect but I would stop and think about something else. Who built that house? The lawn, the range of the University of Virginia?

DM: Captives.

DT: Right, people held in bondage against their will. Yeah, there’s a small group of white craftsman, but the vast majority of people building this great house are members of Monticello enslaved community. So when you look at this house, think of the craftsmanship, think of the level of effort [35:00] erecting those stone columns, right? All this amazing architecture inspired by the temples of Rome. Jefferson’s the architect but whose executing those ideas? So in a lot of ways this house is a testament to Monticello’s enslaved community. It reflects their efforts, but who gets the credit? Jefferson.

JP:I wonder if you could talk a bit more about, you mentioned families and how families were kind of used at Monticello. I wonder if you can talk about kind of the role of like family structures in the plantation system?

DT: Sure, let’s do that. So when you stop and think about it, you know, the very first institution re-established by those brought here in bondage against their will from West Africa was the institution of family. So family bonds become critical and those family bonds can also be manipulated by the master. The fear of separation, the fear of sale, the fear of a husband and wife that their child might be given away as a gift or a present taken to to Tennessee or Kentucky or Florida. Right? But family is crucial in many ways to the survival of members of the enslaved community because that’s where safety is that’s where knowledge is passed on. And what kind of knowledge am I talking about? Perhaps the knowledge of how to navigate the system, perhaps the knowledge to read and to write with or without the approval of the master.

JP: And so how did Jefferson use family structures to manipulate them?

DT: Yeah. Let’s think about that too. What does Jefferson do, you know when at the very beginning here in Monticello um men and women enslaved people were kept in barracks, but he went to what we call nuclear family, single family housing. Why would he do that? Well, these relationships formed between people; husbands and wives. And if you’re in your own home, what’s the likelihood what’s going to happen? Children? Which means what to Jefferson? More property? So there is some manipulate, you know, there is a bit of manipulation going on there. So Jefferson, very clearly recognizes the role in the importance of family and how that can be used by him.

JP: And keeping families together? Is that seen as something to make them…

DT: Keeping families together, you know, when he buys he’s not a slave trader, but he generally would buy to unite or reunite a family but he’s going to sell those very same families as his lifestyle dictates, so he sees that importance of family and and you know family is important to all of us, right? But if but if you’re part of an intact family, are you more or less likely to run away? You’re not going to run away from your responsibilities from your loved ones. So there’s a two-way street here. I mean family’s invaluable, but it can be used to control, right?

[Walking, other tour guide speaking]

DT: The audio obviously is fine but when we go in the house itself, we don’t own everything so there’s no photography in the house. So, what’s on your mind? What else? I’ve been doing all the talking here and I can’t be that fascinating.

Josh St. Hill: So I guess one of my questions would be um, as far as like Thomas Jefferson and like how he chose to buy and sell slaves I know a lot of the like a lot of those slaves were acquired because of like his like recurrent debt that he had. He wasn’t like able to make good business decisions and I would say did that like really like affect his decisions to on like what slaves am I getting? Who am I freeing? Or like how

DT: His debt, his constant problem of debt is a tremendous influence on who he’s choosing to to sell. So he’s making a calculation. On a person’s relative value.

JP: So do you have any specific examples of that? [40:00]

[Pause for tour group]

JP: Yeah, it’s there a specific example of say when he sold to recoup or to make good on his debts?

DT: Sure, when he, when he is, when he’s in France as minister, ambassador to France is when he realizes just how heavily in debt he is and so he’s making calculations about who’s going to give him the the most value. A woman named Dinah who was a was a cook has tremendous value. So he’s making a very specific set of offers trying to sell Dinah to maximize.

JP: So was not the best businessman?

DT: He had a lifestyle problem. That’s the end of the, at the end of the day, look at this place.

DM: He had a bad fiscal manager. As we say, these days, he had a champagne taste on a beer pocket, but he didn’t exactly have to be a pocketbook. But he always live beyond his means.

DT: So take a look around the room. What do you think’s going on? Jefferson, a man of the Age of Enlightenment, knowledge is power. He’s got knowledge on display all around us. Have a look at the clock above the door. Jefferson designed the clock. It was made for him in Philadelphia in 1804. This clock was installed in that position by John Hemings and by an Irishman named James Dinsmore. Burwell Colbert probably watched this clock go up. You think Burwell Colbert had any idea what he’d be doing every Sunday for the next 25 years? Winding that clock. That’s the ladder used to wind the clock. Those are cannonball weights. They weigh 18 pounds a piece and the calendar system of the clock is right here as well. So it’s Tuesday afternoon. That’s what the top weight tells us. But if you take a look you’ll see that Jefferson had a problem, ran out of wall. That’s why Saturday’s under the house, why the weights travel right through the holes in the floorboards and on Sunday mornings around 6 a.m. it takes around 12 to 15 minutes apiece to crank all those weights up. So when you see all these Native American objects, what do you think? Who do you think of? Two men exploring the West leading a journey, Lewis and Clark? I think of Sacagawea? Does anyone think of York? Owned by William Clark makes that 8,000 mile round trip Journey, saves William Clark’s life. He’s important, essential, an indispensable member of that Lewis and Clark expedition; York. Can you imagine York here in 1806 talking to Burwell Colbert about what he’d experienced and what he’d seen? Can you imagine the conversation might have taken place as they compare notes on their experiences? And the other thing that we notice in this room is Jefferson’s never-ending search and thirst for knowledge, natural History lesson. That’s why the horns and antlers are there the fossils found on the banks of the Ohio river in 1807 by William Clark. He’s a man of the Enlightenment; knowledge is power. He’s also going back to Greek and Roman history as the Cradle of Western Civilization as a resource and as an inspiration. He’s tracing himself and his present day as what? The descendant of the Greeks and Romans and the civilization in created but if you read notes on the state of Virginia, what does Jefferson say about his interest in African culture and history? Does express any desire to know about Mali, about Timbuktu about the empires of Africa? He completely ignores any evidence of black culture and achievement and says he’s going to deal with the blacks he observes them where they are. Where are they in Virginia? What is he observed? People who are enslaved, not their cultures. So, you know in Timbuktu was a was a huge capital of 50,000 people as its population, London’s a backwater, but Jefferson’s not interested in that. A man of the Enlightenment. What’s he doing? Is he rejecting knowledge? Because it doesn’t fit the narrative?

JP: Can you talk a bit about how his study um of the natural world like intersects with his ideas about race and maybe cultural…

DT:  When you think about the Age of Enlightenment, when knowledge and ideas are competing and exploding all around Jefferson, he draws the conclusion that the American mastodon is extinct. Based on the knowledge [45:00] that he’s assembled. He’s in a competition with a Frenchman named the Comte de Buffon. The Comte de Buffon advances the idea that not only animals but human beings in North America, because of North America’s temperature, climate, and geography, will degrade over time and become shorter and less intelligent than Europeans. And what does Jefferson do to disprove that idea? He collects all these horns and antlers, he sends animal specimens to Buffon to show him these creatures are as big or bigger than the ones in Europe and advances the idea that the Native American population is a version of the Western European population needing only education and to be assimilated. But what are his conclusions about blacks? The exact opposite. Why? Does he own Native Americans? He owns human beings; African-Americans. So the enlightenment is turned inside out. He’s claiming he’s using science. But as we said it’s pseudoscience.

JP: Yeah, that’s so that’s so interesting. So he’s out there comparing who’s groundhog is bigger.

DT: Exactly right weighing these creatures exactly what he’s doing.

DT: You may well be familiar with this image. Anyone seen this image before?

JP: Wikipedia Commons.

DT: So John Trumbull’s ingra… the portrait Asher Duran’s engraving. Jefferson, what’s he doing? Turning in his homework project. But we were talking earlier. Just think about this in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania who is fetching pen and paper and ink for Jefferson?

That’s Robert Hemings and he’s just 14 years old. So imagine Jefferson writing, “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal” and 14 year old Robert Hemings is in the very same room. Do those words apply to him? 20% of the population of what is going to be the United States are held in bondage when Jefferson writes those very words. So there’s a contrast. Come on in. I want to talk more about family.

DM: Who were the individuals flanking the hallway?

DT: Oh the buses here?

DM: No, no. No the people.

DT: Oh they’re my fellow guides. Oh, he’s getting ready to go out and do a tour. She’s in waiting to go out and do a tour. Well, so yeah. Sorry about. A tour goes through the house.

JP: Every five minutes?

DT: Yeah

JP: Wow, yeah. As you said there’s good acoustics in this room.

DT: So we were just really kind of getting into a discussion talking about family dynamics and the role and so let’s let’s kind of break that down a little more. I wanted to maybe we should talk about house and field that make any sense when I say house and field what am I talking about?

JSH: House slaves and field slaves.

DT: Yeah. So let me ask you this: Is it better to be in the house or better to be in the field?

JSH: I’d say it depends on the perspective.

DT: Okay. So yeah, let’s unpack that.

JSH: Um, so of course, like if you’re working in the field, it’s a lot tougher on your body. I guess the physical conditions but as far as being like a house slave as far as being like an African-American and knowing like your self-identity and your self-worth that can deteriorate depending on the psychological issues that you face living in the house. Um, and of course, you can be a victim of sexual abuse because you’re a house slave, you know house slaves are fairly lighter, um better complexion as far as like from Caucasian perspective or slave master perspective. Um, whereas field plays of course are going through a lot of that physical torture that house slaves don’t have to face.

DT: Yeah. So proximity can be perilous even though you’re better fed, better dressed. You’re always under the eye of the master and his family. You may be more liable to exploit physical exploitation, of course out in the field you’ve got that overseer. So there’s that physical violence, but then again, there’s only one overseer, but if you’re in the house, I mean, there’s, it’s not only Jefferson. There’s two dozen members of his family in this house. So, who are you taking orders from? Anybody who has a [50:00] demand and of course generally speaking those working outside working in the field when the Sun goes down. The day is over and the time is your own until the sun rises again. So there’s there’s a relatively large block of time that you can call your own as opposed to being in the great house where in any time of day demands could be placed on you. So I really appreciate that because you know often times when you ask people who haven’t reflected haven’t thought through they think what a wonderful thing to be in the house and they don’t break down the the very unpleasant possibilities that could attend being in the house. So I never think it’s better or worse, but it certainly different. Although let me ask you this. So from the perspective of an individual working 14 hours a day, or sunrise to sunset, hard labor in the fields and seeing in this case because of the size of the Hemings family could be Hemings family members in the fields knowing that their cousins or brothers or sisters or aunts were in the house. What would your attitude be? Jealousy? Because because you believe that where they are is more advantageous? Jefferson’s grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph said that the position of the Hemings family at Monticello in his words was a source of bitter jealousy among the rest of the enslaved population, but then I kind of think through this a little more and asked myself the question: If you are trying to create divisions within the enslaved community, if you’re trying to create a hierarchy as another means of control, that’s a pretty good way to do them right to create division, disunity within that population of people and how could you do that? How about the color of skin? Could that be used as a way to manipulate people because Jefferson we know from visitors coming to Monticello that virtually every single person enslaved person Hemings family member or not chosen to work in the house was lighter in color.

DM: And some were indistinguishable from whites.

DT: Oh indeed. Some mistaken or not mistaken for Jefferson’s own children.

DM: And his political opponents made that very clear.

JP: Yeah. I wonder if you can talk about more to about that moment when um, and this kind of combines family and business, of when uh of when the um, I guess it was Isaac Jefferson observes, maybe after Jefferson’s death observes families being sold away to kind of pay back his um his debts. I wonder if you can speak about that a little bit.

DT: Oh sure. I will. Maybe we’ll wait for a little when we talk about following Jefferson’s death. What happens to Monticello’s enslaved family? There’s some pretty compelling stories. This is Jefferson’s private suite. These are three rooms all connected together. So Jefferson’s interests are on display his love of learning through the books, architecture, a regulator; that clock ought to be in an observatory not a private home all these scientific instruments and of course you probably recognize this. One of the original blueprint drawings of the Lawn the range of the University of Virginia. So Jefferson believes that knowledge is power, safety and happiness. Tells his friend James Madison preach a crusade against ignorance. Education he believes is an absolute necessity to the survival of the new nation. Does Jefferson theories and ideas and faith and education extend to the enslaved community?

DM: Did they you’re asking?

DT: Yeah did they? Did Jefferson build a school here to educate those he enslaved? No, never. Monticello’s enslaved community in some cases are remarkably well trained, but is there a difference between training and education? If you are trained you are trained to do something. [55:00]  If you are educated, it’s about thinking critically thinking on your own. So there’s a real distinction and you know, Jefferson’s words and Notes on the State of Virginia I always contrast with with what he had to observe that’s completely opposite from the words that he wrote. Just talk about John Hemings. Jefferson said I advance as a suspicion that the blacks are inferior to the whites in the endowments of body and mind but it’s John Hemings building. This is pretty cool this elliptical arch but who do you think with that keystone in it? So this is from Jefferson’s blueprints. But who made this? That’s John Hemings and James Dinsmore. Does that look like the result of someone who is limited in the endowments of body and mind? He’s got to read those blueprints translate those blueprints into reality from nothing. What? From just raw lumber. Jefferson said that he observed that these are his words the griefs of blacks are transient. What does he mean? He means that if a parent is separated from from their children in a couple days, they’ll forget completely about. But John Hemings could read and could write and he’s helping he’s building Poplar Forest down in Bedford County. He’s writing letters to Jefferson. He’s almost always asking in those letters if he can come home for just a little while for what reason? To see his wife Priscilla. He’s grieving for his wife.

DM: Just point out one thing through to the students. James have all the students seeing the prison drawings?

JP: Uh, some have.

HC: I have.

JP: Hahna knows them quite well.

DM: Well we should circulate them. If we could just go over right here I don’t want to usurp your duties but I’m really struck by the resemblance between, I mean not point for point and line for line, but if you just do a quick look at that drawing and a quick look at the prison drawings, you’ll immediately see a kind of cursory resemblance. And so I’d just like the students to keep that floating around in their minds and when Angela Davis was at UVA she observed that the rooms on flanking the lawn were very carceral in nature. She says they’re carceral like so it’s just an observation. I want the students to see the similarities. Um, you know, not one to one, point by point, but the kind of superficial, um, visual similarities between.

JP: Do you have any thoughts Hahna?

HC: Yeah. And just like how the open space at the gardens are the are what resemble like the separation of the cells in the prison drawing. Which I find very interesting.

JP: Can you describe the drawing?

HC: Well the prison, it was just like I think like maybe six to eight separate cells and they were separated by both race and gender and then right at the top where the Rotunda would be was a solitary confinement cell. But yeah, I agree. It was very similarly laid out.

DT: So rather disturbing parallels to institutions. Both begun for what we’re supposed to be progressive and benign reasons.

DM: We get so little attention to this aspect of Jefferson’s architectural genius and that although those drawings were never executed, the prison drawings, which are in the Massachusetts Historical Society, Jefferson was himself in close contact with the leading prison architects of the day. So those drawings meant to be the blueprint for what would have been the first penitentiary in Virginia were not executed but what was executed was definitely executed with the involvement of Jefferson directly and indirectly.

JP: Is that fair to say Hahna? Our prison expert from your research here?

HC: Yeah. I think that’s fair to say and I think Jefferson wrote himself that Latrobe who ended up designing the penitentiary like may not have followed it like directly in design. But like in I guess what Professor McDowell was saying like in it’s like like theory and application and then he went on to provide the designs for two prisons in Virginia later.

JP: Jefferson.

HC: Jefferson did.

DM: So, Jefferson is to put it succinctly as the architect and exponent of the Enlightenment. Jefferson is present at the birth of the prison and though we can’t possibly talk about prison in the 18th century in the same way we talk about it now, as we really imagine the genealogy [1:00:00] of incarceration we have to, Jefferson has to be in the mix. So sorry sir for interrupting.

DT: No, it’s a great conversation because it does it does take us back to this whole notion of a dual legacy being left behind by Jefferson because he really certainly in America is I mean, I would advance the idea that he is the first person in the history of the United States who is trying to create a scientific in his mind pseudo-scientific in our mind justification for racism as a means to justify the treatment of people by, he’s creating an other and if you create an other that allows you to do what? Other than me right? To do terrible things to people. So we trace mass incarceration today, do you go all the way back to the prison drawings as another example of this duel legacy that stands in contrast to religious freedom and the Declaration of Independence? You gotta wrestle with this difficult knowledge anytime you talk about Thomas Jefferson. Let’s talk about violence is violence part of the plantation system is there violence here at Monticello? You contrast the case of Burwell Colbert who Jefferson’s longest serving overseers, Edmund Bacon said Jefferson told Edmund Bacon that Burwell Colbert was to be absolutely accepted from the whip. But how about other members of the Hemings family? Certainly many other people on the Monticello Plantation, talk about Jamie Hemings, Burwell Colbert’s cousin. Jamie Hemings was being trained to be a woodworker by a man named James Oldham. He’s free. He’s white. Jamie Hemings got really sick excused from work, but who encounters Jamie Hemings not working? A man named Gabriel Lily hired by Jefferson as the head overseer despite Lily’s reputation for violence. And Lily beats Jamie Hemings three times in one day with a whip to the point where he can’t defend himself. He almost takes his life in the process of a beating of a teenager who’s sick. James Oldham writes a letter to Jefferson about this incident. He says Lily is frequently drunk, prone to violence, probably stealing from you. And this is not the first but the most recent incident that Lily’s cruelty. Jefferson didn’t fire Gabriel Lily. Lily did leave over wages wanted more money than Jefferson was willing to pay Jefferson needing a new head overseer wrote his son-in-law Thomas Mann Randolph I can never get a man who fulfills my purpose better than Lily does. So was Jefferson aware of the foundation of slavery based on violence? Certainly he is. What do you think Jamie Hemings did after that beating? He ran away and this is very rare Jefferson actually allowed Jamie Hemings to run. That’s not typical. That’s very unusual. So we talk about these five people freed in Jefferson’s life time. Jamie Hemings, not legally but informally freed, plus Robert and James, and you may recall from Madison Hemings’ recollections that his brother and sister Beverly and Harriet were allowed to disappear as well. So those are the five people in Jefferson’s lifetime that we talked about. What do you think Jefferson’s attitude was about about freed blacks? Positive or negative? Negative? You know what he said? He says free blacks are pests upon society. But he’s also come up with this solution. Right? What’s his solution?

JP: You’re using air quotes.

DT: To have the enslaved population freed at some future date, but freed on the condition that they either be transported to the West Indies or to West Africa again. The whole American Colonization Society in Liberia, his solution because what does he believe that that people can live in freedom together? No. Why not?

DM: He talks about the memories. The boisterous passions that have developed between [1:05:00] masters and slaves. That would never prevent, uh permit them to live in harmony or reconciliation.

DT: So what do you think?

DM: I think it’s interesting that he also uses the term boisterous passions especially in this context. Jefferson for one of the most interesting things to me about him rhetorically is what he reveals and the implications of what he reveals on many occasions. Whether in word choice or syntax that perhaps he did not intend to.

DT: One does find themselves saying do you realize just how ironic what he said or how contradictory or or the conclusions that modern-day audiences make about this? So you really do it really does beg the question for us today what’s Jefferson saying? I mean should we be about proving Jefferson wrong that that conclusion was 100% wrong that in fact people can if they choose to do so tear down the barriers that they themselves erected? These are all human institutions, right? That’s part of the struggle that we deal with today is is this whole system of slavery and the Legacy that leaves us. If you believe that this is the case are your actions going to reinforce that idea? So you have to ask that question too. And you see you have the case of you know, you ever heard of someone called Gideon Granger? There’s a homework project. Gideon Granger was the Postmaster General of the United States appointed by Thomas Jefferson. You know what Gideon Granger’s first action was as Postmaster General? To fire every free black riding for the u.s. Postal system. Why did he do that? Jefferson’s giving him permission to do that he wrote a letter about it. I’m not going to quote the whole thing. I’ll give you the very end. He said and this because these free blacks are literate and they’re riding, delivering the mail he said they will learn that a man’s rights do not depend on his color. How’s that for a justification to fire someone? Because they’re going to learn that those rights apply to everyone regardless of the color of their skin?

DM: And that won’t be the first time that a person who represents a state fires blacks from federal positions.

DT: Certainly, we’ve got the case of Woodrow Wilson.

DM: Woodrow Wilson is one of the most famous cases of such. And again you then think about what work in the government does to help lay the groundwork for an upwardly mobile class?

JP: So quick question while we have the benefit of being in the bedroom. I wonder if you could maybe just describe what we’re seeing here and one question I had with a poor segue with boisterous passions is that the relationship between Jefferson and Sally Hemings was clandestine. But like how did this work? Like did he sneak off and like do this whole thing?

DT: So first of all, where are? We’re in Jefferson’s bedchamber. So this is probably part of this three room private suite of Jefferson. His great Library, his office, he called that his cabinet with all these devices like the polygraph machine that makes a copy of every letter that Jefferson writes. We don’t know where Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson met each other where these pregnancies or these conceptions took place, but I will tell you this: There are seven independent ways in and out of this private Suite of rooms. Seven independent ways to get in and out of this set of rooms. Does that tell you something about Thomas Jefferson?

JP: Can we see some of the those?

[Other tour group speaking]

DM: The music room.

JP: Mhm. Are you okay on time?

DM: I’m not, I’m going to ask him. I need to be leaving by 2. You don’t have to interrupt the tour. I just need you to tell me when I should probably get back to get the bus. So as to be back by 2. Okay, thank you. 2:05 at the latest.

DT: So first off just take a look if you’ve been in the house, did you see these doors? Did you see how these doors operate? So let’s have another look but [1:10:00] can you imagine how many times Burwell Colbert closed these doors but he’s closing these doors into what I mean this really is a salon in Paris. That’s what it is. Jefferson’s recreating the Parisian Salon, a place of Music, a place of games, a place of art to spark conversation. He’s creating a whole world for himself because think about how strongly Jefferson and his family are influenced by the culture, the ideas, the food, the wine, of France. Then also Imagine who else is being influenced by France. James and Sally Hemings they’re there as well. And you recall from Madison Hemings recollections that that both James and Sally Hemings had they chosen to do so could have sued to become free legally free in France and yet both come back to America. Madison Hemings tells us it’s the treaty between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. We don’t know what James Hemings’ rationale was to to return perhaps it was an arrangement as well with Jefferson for some future freedom. And then the other thing I’m reminded of is that when Jefferson’s returning to the United States at 1789 which means what that the French Revolution has begun and staying in France as a free black at the beginning of the Revolution might have some downside because as we know later on Napoleon does do what? Reinstitutes the institution of slavery. So this is a very tumultuous a very risky fragile time. Question?

JP: Oh, um not at the moment. I mean a comment that that as a young person, uh, James and Sally Hemings, the assumption that one would just go out to free oneself to go to the local courthouse is a little bit. Yeah, you know in terms of saying, oh, well, they could have just wandered up to the courthouse and you know gained their freedom.

DT: That’s presuming that they had that knowledge. Madison says they did have that knowledge. But also to have gained freedom in France means freedom in France. It doesn’t mean freedom in the United States. It doesn’t mean you’re going to come free. What it also means if you stay in France, are you ever going to see your mom again? Are you ever going to see your family again? Are you ever going to see Virginia again? Even though you might be enslaved you can become attached to a physical place and think that it is home regardless of your circumstances. So I agree there’s a lot more to unpack than what today we can just well why didn’t they do that? They could have been free. It’s complicated when you start to break down all the parts of what Freedom meant in that sense as being free in Paris, but never being able to return in freedom to the United States.

[Group movement]

JP: Ah, the kitchen. The yellow right? It’s a really it’s just almost like glowing and it’s not even a sunny day. It’s quite overcast today.

[Overlapping conversation]

JP: Oh we need a picture. If only we could take a picture.

DT: Since you brought up the wall color, you want to talk about the wall color? Let’s do that.This is chrome yellow. It’s the first scientifically created paint pigment. So what’s Jefferson doing? This is not just fashion. This is science on display in a paint color. And of course, it does even on this cloudy rainy day make this room an inviting, bright place. It’s the dining room of Monticello, the food ways that Monticello became famous in Jefferson’s lifetime and that people write about even to the today talking about Jefferson is the first foodie in America. Let’s stop and think about that. Wait a minute who’s cooking the food? Who’s bringing the ideas? And combining the ideas of French, Virginia and West African food? It’s James Hemings. He’s combining all these three cultures into the food served at Monticello. He’s passing that knowledge on to his brother Peter Hemings and other people [1:15:00] Edith Fossett, I mentioned her name because she’s the wife of Joseph Fossett who’s also a member of the Hemings family. So the Hemings family in many ways are the pioneers of the food that Monticello becomes so famous for. There’s a restaurant here in Charlottesville called Fossetts. Who’s it named after Edith Fossett, Monticello’s cook in Jefferson’s retirement. Edith Fossett who is taught to be a French chef in the White House. James Hemings gains his freedom when he comes back to the United States. Of course, the capital is moving from New York to Philadelphia eventually to Washington DC but it was in Philadelphia when Jefferson served as Secretary of State and then resigned. James Hemings was there with him that entire time that Pennsylvania had outlawed slavery. So James Hemings, he could have stayed in Pennsylvania and been free back in the United States. He and Jefferson come to an agreement, a written document exists this agreement between James Hemings and Thomas Jefferson that if James Hemings will teach his skills the other members of the enslaved community that he will be legally freed and he is three years later after that agreement and then think about what happens. James Hemings he travels widely. That’s the family story that the even some people say he went back to France for a while. Eventually settled in Baltimore, Maryland. Jefferson becomes the president in 1801. He invites James Hemings to come to Washington to be the chef in the White House. But let’s talk about how that invitation is extended. Jefferson doesn’t go to Baltimore. Well, he’s the president he could understand that. He does send a third party to tell James Hemings to come to Washington to serve as the cook in the White House. James Hemings sends a message back to Thomas Jefferson his messages is this tell Mr. Jefferson I would like a few lines of engagement in his own handwriting. What’s James Hemings doing when he makes that statement? What’s he asking for?

DM: Respect.

DT: Respect. He’s free, he’s asking to be treated as a fellow human being, as an equal and also I think about this, who needs who? Who has the need? James Hemings or Thomas Jefferson? You know that Jefferson never wrote a letter back to James Hemings? He never extended that engagement in his own handwriting. James Hemings is back here, though in the summer of 1801 cooking at Monticello. Why would he come here but not go to the White House? He can see his family and was this an opportunity for James Hemings to see if he and Jefferson could in fact deal with one another on a basis of equality and mutual respect? Maybe so. And unfortunately, the next we know of James Hemings is a brief line from Jefferson. Jefferson went back to Washington, James Hemings went back to Baltimore around the holiday time of 1801. Jefferson writes a brief note that says he’s learned that James Hemings has committed an act of suicide at the age of 35. A French chef, a man who speaks and writes two languages, apparently takes his own life having just come home and seem his family. Do we know that he committed suicide? We don’t. Other things might have happened. But when I think about James Hemings and his journey, it does remind me that freedom in and of itself does not mean equality. How is he being treated even though he’s free?

[Group movement]

JP: We didn’t get to hear about the dumbwaiters, but that’s okay. Sorry.

[Group movement/chatter]

DT: Okay. All right. Let’s go through [1:20:00].

JP: We’re going through the back staircase here.

DT: Most people never get the opportunity to do this.

JP: It’s kind of a winding, cool corridor. Yeah. So this is one of the secret passageways? All right. Well this looks, yeah. Yeah, I guess so. Looks like it’s for staff. Yeah. Yeah, it smells it smells like someone’s cooking.

DT: Probably some of my colleagues enjoying lunch.

JP: Yeah, it’s that time.

DT: Yeah, let’s just sit down. Let me close these doors for a little privacy. Jefferson dies, when?

HC: July 4th, 1826.

JP: Nice. July 4th, 1826?

DT:  Which is… July 4th, 1826 is the 50th Independence Day. He dies $107,000 in debt. That works out to a kind of a low-end estimate is 4.3 million dollars. What does that that mean to Monticello’s enslaved community?

[Murmured answers]

DT: It means, that’s the auction block. I mean that’s a that’s that’s a dreaded possibility The auction block. Jefferson does free five people in his will so let’s talk about who he frees. He frees Burwell Colbert, Jefferson’s butler. He frees John Hemings, the master craftsman. He frees Joseph Fossett, Monticello’s blacksmith, the husband of Edith Fossett. And he frees Madison and Eston Hemings. Those are his sons with Sally Hemings. So between the five people in his lifetime and the five people in his will, ten total people are given their freedom. About six months after Jefferson’s death on a cold January day the 15th of January 1827, almost all the furniture of the Fine Art taken out of the house and 130 human beings are on the very same Auction Block with that furniture right on the west lawn of Monticello. So think of Joseph Fossett watching his pregnant wife and children sold before his eyes. Think about all the families. Are they being sold intact? In many cases they’re being broken up and sold to different owners owners who are going to take them out of Virginia. Separating these families potentially forever. So this whole world that Jefferson creates at Monticello comes crashing down. And for the enslaved community at Monticello this means that these families that had struggled to maintain themselves as intact families for so long and some cases well over 50 years are now facing a very unpleasant future. Where husbands and wives are separated, where children are sold from their parents with no recourse whatsoever. That’s the reality of the world that existed at Monticello that really ends for everyone. It ends for Jefferson’s daughter Martha as well, right? This whole world comes crashing down for everyone on the Monticello Plantation not the least of which is that enslaved community who had worked all their lives, who built the house, struggled in the fields, worked along Mulberry Row, find themselves on an auction block with the exception of those five people.

JP: You said they were with the furniture?

DT: Furniture and fine art on the very same auction block. So just think about that and think about auctioneer’s appraising human beings alongside a table and a chair. Setting a dollar value on the life of a human being [1:25:00] and people bidding on the lives of human beings and bidding on furniture the very same time. Let’s talk about what happened to some of the descendants of those once enslaved here at Monticello. I’m going to point out this portrait, but I’ll describe the individuals in the portrait and can you do you have a good visual? Can you see the images there? Let’s talk about the descendants of Madison and Eston Hemings. So again, these are, these the two sons, right? Oh Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson who are legally freed in Jefferson’s will. when Sally Hemings dies in 1835 Madison and Eston Hemings had families by that time. They had married they lived in the city of Charlottesville and then they decided to leave Charlottesville, because their mom’s dead right? What what reason do they have to leave to stay? And so they moved to Ohio. They moved to Chillicothe in the case of Eston Hemings and to Ross Pike County, Ohio in the case of Madison Hemings. And if you know your geography you’ve got Cincinnati and then Chillicothe and Ross Pike County there to the east. So this is there’s a huge Community from Cincinnati through Ross Pike County and Chillicothe of free people of color, right? They’re migrating across the Ohio River because Ohio’s are free state, right? So there’s huge community that gathers there and Madison and Eston Hemings become part of that Community. They’re both skilled woodworkers and the case of Eston Hemings, he’s a remarkably talented musician and traveled all over the State Ohio hired by free people of color by whites as well because of the how famous his band was. Eston Hemings left, Ohio in 1852. He moved to Madison, Wisconsin and changed his name from Hemings to Jefferson and he started to tell people that he was the son of Thomas Jefferson.

JP: And at this point was he passing?

DT: He’s passing when he goes to Madison, Wisconsin. He passes as white. So he made that choice. He brought his whole family to Ohio where they then passed as white. So is that an easy decision to make or a hard decision to make? What do you think? If you have to reinvent yourself and then deny who you were but also live in fear that someone might recognize who you were, right? Of course not everyone can make that choice. Eston Hemings can make that choice, but how about his brother Madison? Madison really can’t make that choice. Why? Because of the color of his skin and features.

JP: And you would have also had to be separated from your family kind of indefinitely if you’re passing for white and the rest of your family cannot do that.

DT: Absolutely. So just think about how hard a decision that must be I mean, you’re gaining advantages I suppose in your perception, but you’re leaving entire world behind in the process and that has consequences, right? You’re Reinventing yourself, but you’re Reinventing Yourself by destroying break burning all those relationships and bridges behind you. And they actually, both sides of the family, Madison Hemings descendants and Eston Hemings descendants as a result of that they completely lose touch with each other, right? They don’t, I mean they’re at the point where they don’t even know that the other family exists when you come down to the modern day. Uh, the gentleman in the lower left corner wearing the uniform of a colonel in the Union Army is John Wayles Jefferson. He is the grandson of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. He’s the commanding officer of the 8th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment. What does that mean? He is an African-American passing as white [1:30:00] commanding a white Infantry Regiment in the Civil War. What if he gets caught? Good idea, bad idea? Like way bad. One of his friends that he knew in Ohio before his father changed the name from Hemings to Jefferson sees him in the Civil War wearing that uniform. He’s been, he’s a successful Commander. He was wounded at Vicksburg, wounded it Corinth. he’s a decorated officer, loved, respected by his men and now this person from out of the past sees and recognizes him for who he really is. And that individual, this friend from from Chillicothe says that he won’t reveal the truth, allows him to continue. And he actually, John Wayles Jefferson actually said that he wasn’t afraid of any Confederate but he was afraid of what? Being discovered. So his secret is safe. In the middle right of that collage the gentleman on the left is Beverly Jefferson. So he’s the younger brother of John Wayles Jefferson. So he’s a grandson of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings as well. And three of his children are those young men to his right. Beverly Jefferson becomes a highly respected member of the community in Madison, Wisconsin. He owns two hotels owns a transportation business. Um, his sons and grandsons all become very successful doctors, lawyers, inventors living in the Upper Midwest, Madison, Wisconsin, Chicago and over the course of time the story of the family changes and changes and changes and changes and changes to where it’s almost completely erased. They mean, they keep that last name Jefferson, but they start they don’t even know by the 1960s and 70s that there’s any connection between Thomas Jefferson and their family and certainly the connection with Sally Hemings have been completely, right, lost over time until one descendant becomes interested in genealogy and then starts to make discoveries and then books are published. There’s a book by Fawn Brodie published in the 1970s and then Annette Gordon-Reed’s groundbreaking books about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings and the Hemings family and this descendant her name is Julia Westernen (?) suddenly realizes wait, there’s a whole story no one has told us and her brother is the person who provided a DNA sample in 1998. That did what? Scientifically connected these two families with each other. The woman in the lower right is Ellen Wayles Roberts. She is the granddaughter of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings and other descendants of Madison Hemings are in the middle left portrait and the top-left portrait is an image of the great grandson of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. His name is Frederick Madison Roberts. So go anybody here shout out if you’ve heard of Frederick Madison Roberts. Well, let’s talk about him. He’s a pretty remarkable person. He goes to Colorado State, graduates from college, he’s a star athlete. He is the Headmaster, administrator of a school in Mississippi, but his family actually was from Los Angeles, California, and he went back home to Los Angeles to take over the family business along with his brother, but both of these gentlemen left the family business after a period of time. Frederick Madison Roberts in 1918 became the first African-American elected to the California state legislature. He’s a pioneer in America’s Civil Rights Movement. So this is the period of who people like W.E.B. Dubois, right? Booker T. Washington [1:35:00]. And he also plays a key role in the creation of a college out in California. He sponsors legislation, cosponsors legislation in 1919 to create a school in California. So we all think of Thomas Jefferson and the University of Virginia. Frederick Madison Roberts, the school that he helped to found every year California State Assembly offers a full scholarship in his name, a scholarship to a person of color. Who then attends for free UCLA. UCLA. He’s an amazing, amazing person Frederick Madison Roberts. So when we talk about legacy here at Monticello, you can trace that legacy all the way down to people like Frederick Madison Roberts and the descendants who were alive right there the photograph here of all these people. So when you take a look at that photograph, do you see African Americans? Do you see white people? Do you see people you can’t tell if they’re African-American and Hispanic or where they came from in the past? Who their ancestors were? Is that a portrait of what it’s like to be living in a diverse country called the United States? When you see all those people? All those people are related to each other. They’re all descendants. Every person is a Hemings descendant and Jefferson descendants as well. What do you think? All right, so we just we just unpacked the whole bunch of stuff. We’ve got kind of into the deep end of the swimming pool on some issues. And if you like, I’m more than happy to talk a little more anything on your mind. What else would you like to talk about? That you’d like to know more about or are you shellshocked or are you tired? Well now you I’m going to ask you questions.

JP: I do have a question ummm about uh the video. Um, the Sally hemings exhibit that a lot of the text was taken from Madison’s um correspondence and writing and if you could talk a bit about like the role of literacy and the fact that you know, um, we don’t have documents pertaining to Sally Hemings’ life, but Madison is that kind of critical link and and maybe how he learned how to write and and just the importance of literacy more generally?

DT: The words that we saw in the newly-opened exhibit dedicated to the life of Sally Hemings, uh are extracted from Madison Hemings’ interview, and that was done in 1873 for the Pike County Republican newspaper. That was the name of the newspaper. And so the editor, he actually interviewed many members of of the free black community who’d once been enslaved at Monticello. So Madison Hemings’ interview is not the only interview. He also interviewed um, Peter Fossett who was the son of Joseph Fossett and Edith Fossett at that time recording their memories, um and Israel Gillette as well another member of the enslaved community. And so the value of literacy and learning is certainly not lost on the members of the enslaved community here at Monticello or anyone else because they certainly, you know, Jefferson he’s not the only one here who understands that knowledge is power and that literacy and education becomes critical to people advancing themselves. And you know remember what is it the that Gideon Granger, what’s he say when he’s firing all those free blacks from the post office? They will learn that a man’s rights do not depend on his color. Even he recognizes the value of education, of course he wants if to not happen, right? [1:40:00] So there is a critical role seeing through the African American community, the free people of color and you know, the whole idea behind what when the NAACP is founded, what’s the whole idea behind it? What’s the main goal? Is to enable people to have access to an education and so that becomes and that really is ingrained in, I mean every parent wants their kid to get an education, right? Have any of you ever heard that from your moms and dads anything about, right? This is important. This is the way to get ahead. So I mean it’s ingrained in the culture, even though there’s sort of a counter-narrative too that discounts the value of education. So that’s a strange thing isn’t it? How these two things can be valued and then devalued at the very same time. I’m in favor of education myself because I think it’s a good thing. So I have trouble understanding those instances when when when it’s devalued. Have you ever had someone criticize you because you’re getting an education? Have you ever encounter that or is it just not something that you that you’ve experienced? Help me out here. I know it’s a tough question, isn’t it?

JP: Yeah are there any other questions? Um, Josh was your question about business kind of answered? You felt like that was good?

JSH: Yeah, and like, you know correlating that to just like so where do you like in your own words think like heavy confliction that Jefferson like has throughout history comes from like he knowingly knows what he’s doing is wrong, but he decides to go through with it. And I mean, there’s like certain examples where it’s kind of clear like debt or like it’s his own family but like it’s like, um this recurrence that’s kind of like confusing in a way that you don’t really understand like how he…?

DT: He’s a really difficult person to understand. I mean, you know I come up, I work here I mean, I’m here almost all the time. I talk about Jefferson all the time. I’ve read all the books, biographies, I’ve read all his writings. I’ve read people who are you know, thinking he’s the most wonderful thing and people are things most terrible thing. So all these various perspectives and where you wind up in my case anyway, is that Thomas Jefferson is genuinely a difficult person to understand. He’s very complex. He’s very conflicted. He is a person with a vision for the future who is very much living within his own time and in some ways you think about words of the Declaration of Independence used by others used by Abraham Lincoln, by Dr. Martin Luther King by Frederick Douglass, right? I mean his words do genuinely inspire people to go out and do wonderful great things and yet he’s the same person who wrote in Notes on the State of Virginia, and those words are actually used by people to continue to try to rationalize inequality. So he’s really, I mean he really is a difficult person. He’s so complex. He is contradictory. I agree. Um, I would I would say that and this is just my opinion. I think Jefferson is one of those people who compartmentalizes things, right? He doesn’t synthesize and work through the contradiction. He just puts these little, right? He’s compartmentalizing these worlds that that he creates. He sees the, he knows the evil of slavery because he’s seen it. But whose, but is he benefiting from the system? I mean he is a bit, right? So so I sometimes tell people this: [1:45:00] principle and practice self-interest and self-sacrifice. Those are choices, right? They’re different things principle and practice. Sometimes your principles in your practice can be coincident. But sometimes what you say and what you do can be totally opposite, right? You hear someone say something and it’s wonderful and then you go out and you see that very same person do the opposite of what they just said; that’s Jefferson. And if he chose self-sacrifice over self-interest would this house exist? Maybe not. So yeah, I, it’s a really good question. Have you do you have any thoughts on how you reconcile Jefferson? Or do you just sort of say eh?

JSH: Yeah

DT: No, I’m with you because yeah, I mean I had that sort of textbook answer for you say oh here’s how it all works out, but I don’t because he’s, I think at least in my case I always find myself wanting Jefferson to be a better person than he is. He’s a really flawed human being. I mean he does really great things. I mean the whole idea of religious freedom. That’s, you know, they have to give Jefferson credit for that. I mean Jefferson you know, he talks about this wall of separation between church and state and what look at the arguments that are going on right now about church and state anybody see the Attorney General the other day Jeff Sessions? This whole task force he’s forming for for for what religious freedom? When I heard his words it didn’t sound to me like he was talking about religious freedom. What? And then you know, I mean think about the world in which we live in today. All right? Think you know, guess what? You know, what is it tomorrow is going to be the first of August. What’s going to happen on the 12th of August here in Charlottesville? Or at Lafayette Square outside the White House? I don’t know. I hope is not a repeat of last year, but were any of you here last year? Did you expect that was going to happen in Charlottesville? Which has its own history, it’s not always pleasant, but I didn’t think I’d see that happen. I live in Charlottesville. So, you know, this is happening in my city. And I see, I recognize people. That’s pretty scary. I didn’t feel very good that day. Did you feel good that day? Did you start to wonder what the heck is going on? So, is that a legacy? Tell me do we track all that back to the world of slavery? Yeah, I mean, I think it’s part of what we struggle with and some of it comes down to how many people have the moral courage to prove Jefferson wrong about his idea that whites and blacks could not exist together in freedom.

[1:49:03]

Melody Barnes

Interviewee:

Interviewer(s): Deborah E. McDowell; James Perla

Interview date:

Interview Summary:

Keywords:

Transcription:

Introductions

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: You are going to be… I need to understand this. So, you’re the vice president of Monticello?

MELODY BARNES: I’m the Vice Chair of the Board. 

DEBORAH MCDOWELL:  Vice Chair of the Board. And then… that… you move from there to the chair of the board… Yes. And so, what is the work of the chair of the board? 

 MELODY BARNES: Well, the board is comprised of a number of really interesting people from all over the country. As you can imagine, a number are Virginians, but there are people from Texas and New York and the rest of the country and the board chair works very closely with Leslie Bowman who is the president of the foundation and her staff and the committee chairs as we think about everything from the grounds, to Jefferson scholarship, to the work that we are doing with the descendants of those who were enslaved at Monticello, thinking about new programming and executing on our strategic plan, which is to focus on what happened on the mountain but also to take that work off the mountain. So, for example, the big exhibit that Monticello did in D.C. a few years ago on the enslaved families and plans to take that abroad as well. 

Jefferson for our times

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: Wonderful. Okay. Yeah, this is exactly in keeping with what we at least one of our objectives and that is to make Jefferson live for our times, really. Which involves really detaching ourselves from the reverence that has surrounded Jefferson but not for purposes of desecration or demonization. We just want to say obviously this was a revolutionary thinker and we want to know what his revolutionary thinking means for us today and how we can make it live again. It’s something of an axiom both from especially for Jefferson scholars that he’s a revolutionary thinker but obviously one who could not bring himself to realize and extend forward those possibilities contained in that vision. So, that’s the long preamble just trying to let you settle in to ask: to what extent does he remain an important figure for us today? And what do we need to do to ensure that he remains an important figure and a touchable figure?  

MELODY BARNES: Right. One, I love that question. And for many reasons, that is the reason why I joined the board at Monticello because I think that Jefferson is critical for us and our understanding of Jefferson for us today because he represents both the challenge and the big thinking that I think is reflective of the country and the bold experiment that is the country. And many of the challenges that we are struggling with today. They are foundational. You could argue that they are part of our DNA, but that might reflect the fact that we think that they’re unchangeable or you could believe that they are…. They sit in the bone structure and we need to try and reshape the bone structure or the architecture of our founding ideals or the execution of our founding ideals. But I think if you look at Jefferson of, you know, the 17… the late 1800s early 1900s, you also then see the same challenges, the same problems, but also the same curiosity that exists in America today. 

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: Oh, I just love that response and as a literary scholar I love the metaphors. The bone structure we’’re accustomed to hearing about the DNA but that it is in the bone structure. And if I heard you correctly then perhaps the bone structure may be more amenable to correction. 

MELODY BARNES: Yes, we can reset the bones. 

 DEBORAH MCDOWELL: So what…  

JAMES PERLA: A facelift maybe? 

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: So, what would resetting the bones… what would resetting the bone consist?  

MELODY BARNES: Well, I think the first thing that’s critical and again, this is why I think Monticello is important, why the study of Jefferson is important is because we have to understand the truth and all of it. wWe can no longer rely on symbols or myth and fantasy about what America was. And as a result of that, what America is today. My husband always cringes when I use this example, but I say if you really love… When you really love someone you don’t just think they are perfect. They may be perfect for you. But you understand their vulnerabilities, you understand their insecurities, you understand their flaws. So, I think for America, for the understanding of a constitutional republic, of liberal democracy, then the first thing we have to do is to get to the truth because ultimately then if we understand the truth and that history isn’t just something that’s dusty and old, but then we connect the dots through history to today, then we can understand what’s foundational to the challenges we face today and what has to be unearthed. And I also think that’s important because it’s critical to how we relate to one another as individuals, but also how we understand what’s systemic and what’s institutional. 

systematic vs. institutional change

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: Wonderful. So, what is… many people conflate those two: systemic and institutional. So, I’m curious how would you distinguish between them?  

MELODY BARNES: Well, I think about systems change. Well, one I think about institutions as some of the significant institutions that shape our polity. That shape our country, our society. Everything from the institutions of government and how they were formed and the rules and norms that shape and govern them, to the way that we think about our criminal justice system and that in those institutions and education institutions. And then I think about systems as the connective tissue among them. And if we can get into the system or the bloodstream that with our changes and our way forward, then we can start to, at scale, make larger changes and reforms to our democracy.  

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: This is all just utterly fascinating I could hear you go on forever. So, I need to be… I need to be aware that we have a limited timeframe. But as I listen to you just now, I’m reminded of the fact that seldom do we acknowledge that the formation of this republic that there were changes going on all the time as this thing was forming and trying to come into being and yet we want to talk about it as if it is this rigid thing… Does not admit of any alteration, but alteration is actually its foundation too.  

MELODY BARNES: I completely agree with you and it I think it’s part of the beauty that is our constitutional republic and to your point people have to remember and understand this: the founders didn’t think that they were creating something that should be static or that was perfect. And their letters I think between Adams and Jefferson around the framing of the Constitution and the ratification of the Constitution and they were talking about the amendment process and you know and said, “If future generations see that we’ve got something wrong then change it they must.” And that’s what’s incumbent upon us and we’ve done that in significant ways and when it comes to issues of race, obviously the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendment, you know, the Nineteenth Amendment that we’ll celebrate next year, the hundredth anniversary with regard to women. But then how we continue to execute on that whether it be through our laws, and policies, our practices, our norms, all of those things require us to think about how we meet the aspirations of the ideal.

to be of both Jefferson and Hemings

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: I somehow wish we could be broadcasting this in all directions. Yes. So, to get a little bit then more specific though, I think will be returning to these issues throughout. We are preparing the second in this series of what will be six podcasts six episodes and we’re working on the Sally Hemings one. And when Ian Baucom was a candidate for the Dean of the College, I was on the search committee and he made a statement again and again during the interview process and since that we must become… not just be the University of Jefferson, we must become the University of Sally Hemings. And so, we’ve been asking other people variations on that question. What would that mean? What would that mean to have to consider both these two figures together, to think them together? To think them as inseparable? To think them as… that no accounting would be complete without trying to wrestle with Sally Hemings. However little we know about her as a figure, right? In fact, it is perhaps the fact that we know so little and she is shrouded in mystery and mystification and everybody’s representations, you know. Since if that’s all we have, how do we work with that? To think these two figures together, right?  

MELODY BARNES: I love this question and through the lens of Monticello, we think it’s so important and the opening of what we believed probably was her room. There were two rooms that we narrowed it down to and one of them that we thought okay, this could be it and the exhibit that opened to make sure that when people come to Monticello, yes, it was Jefferson’s home. But Jefferson did not live there alone nor was he able to do the good and the bad that happened there alone that there were over 600 enslaved men, women and children who were there. Sally Hemings being one of them. And A. literally the leveling of that mountain, the building of that house, the keeping and building of the farm, the plantation, all of that was because of all of the other people who were in labor there as slaves. Mixed with the ideas that Jefferson had about what he wanted to create and the ideas that he brought back there from all parts of the world. But to require us to understand that it wasn’t this one quote “great man”, but it was the intelligence and the ingenuity and the innovation of others who were of African descent who live there, requires us to understand that these are people who were three dimensional, that just as with today all of us, all of those stories are present and required. Which is also why when people say… some people say, “I don’t even understand why Monticello exists.” And my… in part my reaction to that is, “And so, you want to erase the Hemings family and the Graingers and the Faucets and the Herns?” And all of their stories which are also stories… They’re obviously stories of pain and hard labor and beatings and all the things that went into that but there are also stories about how men and women loved one another and took care of their children. The enslaved men who would walk miles every week to go visit the woman, the women that they consider to be their wives, even though the law didn’t, and to maintain and build those relationships. So, I think it’s critical to understand and Sally Hemings and in some ways she’s… I’m using her as a representation of all of those individuals, to understand the fulsomeness of American life… of African American family life to dispel and push back on the caricature of those individuals that even still exist today. So, it must be Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson if we’re going to wrap our arms around all of who we are as a culture and society.  

DEBORAH MCDOWELL:  I love that answer. It’s… it is absolutely the case and I want to return to the question of why does Monticello exist and should we just raze it to the ground? Because we are witnessing… Indeed, we are in the throes of that very impulse now and I am… I say something of a contrarian people look at me and are just scandalized by my saying, you know, “You can take these statues down. You can take all of these Confederate statue is down. You can change the name of every highway bearing the name of a confederate general, change the building of every racist university campus.” But you have to contend with the history, nonetheless. You simply cannot erase things. You simply cannot say now this is gone and we move on. This may be gone but we still live…. Alice Walker has wonderful line in a story. The dialogue is between two characters and one of them is from the North and one of them is from the South, so that schematic to begin with because a lot of racism happened in the North and so… But the character says well, you know what happened when you all took all the signs down? And the character says nothing happened. She says nothing happened. She says no. The signs had already done their work. The signs had already done their work. And so yes, it would be completely misguided to think that you could simply raze Monticello to the ground and that that even that would constitute some measure of justice for someone because we will still live with the residue of that hist… it is in our bone structure. That is absolutely the case. I don’t know if you are on Twitter…. are you on Twitter? 

Interpretive caricatures of the enslaved experience

MELODY BARNES: I am. 

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: Okay. There was the most wonderful exchange between a friend of mine who is an historian and at Princeton, Tera Hunter and Nicole Hannah Jones this week. And, you know, one of these multi-thread things. So, it’s… so Hannah Jones… And Nicole Hannah Jones kicked it off by referring to enslaved people as commodities and property exclusively. That they were not in the eyes of slave holders human beings they were simply chattel. And so, Tera Hunter comes back with an equally lengthy, but deeply thoughtful and measured response. “No, these people were not just chattel. These people, whether the slaveholders wrote about them in this way, they valued enslave people for their skills, they valued them for their human sensibilities. After all, a lot of these people were entrusted with bringing up their own children.” So, you’re absolutely right. But all of this is to say we have kind of accommodated ourselves whether consciously or not to really caricatures… interpretive caricatures, you know, we are accustomed to saying under U.S. chattel slavery, they were just property. But there are so many more dimensions to the story than that. Whether or not those other dimensions are told to the extent that yes, they are there.  

MELODY BARNES: I completely agree with you and part of the archaeological work that’s taken place at Monticello tells us more and more and more about how the enslaved men, women and children lived. That there were marbles, there were… There’s evidence of how they might play. There was fiddling, there was musical talent and musical genius there. The work ethic that taking care of family and children, you know, the oral history that’s been handed down. I think part of the problem with trying to hold these individuals in a one dimensional plane is that it then connects dots to the one dimensional plane that society or some in society try to hold people of color in today. And to understand how these individuals lived and thought helps us to understand the fulsomeness. And I think one of the interesting things and this isn’t necessarily a Monticello story, but one of the interesting things that we know about those who were enslaved in parts of America is one of the first things that many of them did when they left the plantation was that they open savings accounts. Savings accounts and just A. the thinking that goes into that but it is also a reflection of hopefulness, of planning and then we see what happened, you know, post-Civil War and the leadership positions in communities and state legislatures…. Federal… So, we know that these were multi-dimensional, hard-working, thoughtful, deeply innovative people. So, let’s connect the dots as far as we can to understand that story and to tell that story which I think is critical not only for our all of our children to understand today, but for all of us to understand today from whence we came no matter who you are as a matter of race or ethnicity. 

DEBORAH MCDOWELL:  Absolutely. 

The life of sally hemings exhibit at Monticello

JAMES PERLA: I have a question to follow up briefly about the Hemings exhibit, maybe two questions. But first, I just want to get a little bit of context about the process of setting up the exhibit. We talked to Niya Bates also at Monticello and I just wanted maybe you to meditate a bit on what that process was like and why was it that you… that Monticello in particular chose to represent Hemings in the way that you did in that exhibit?  

MELODY BARNES: Sure. Well the evolution of the exhibit at Monticello… the exhibit about Sally Hemings’ life was a long one. And in some ways it has its roots in the response that was received to the restoration of Mulberry Row. The row of places where the enslaved families lived. And watching some people… Visitors walk in and look around and say, “Oh, well this wasn’t so bad,” which you know sends chills, you know through your body. So, one we wanted to think about how do we tell the story? Based on what we know and we don’t know a lot. There are no pictures that we can find. We can find written descriptions. And what we also had was the oral history and interview that one of her sons had done in an Ohio newspaper. So, using that, because we felt as though that gave us a lot of factual information that was firsthand and what we had from the records, we decided that the representation of Sally Hemings shouldn’t be an attempt at period restoration because we didn’t want the,”Oh, well this wasn’t so bad.”

JAMES PERLA: And by period restoration you mean like a reproduction of her room? 

MELODY BARNES:  Right, You know, sometimes, you know, you go to a historic home or you go to… Well, a historic home would be the best example and they try to recreate the bed or the pallet that the slaves slept in. That we didn’t want to do that. That we wanted to use the words of her son to tell that story. And that we wanted to create something that was deeply meditative for people with that information and we went back and forth and back and forth with a company that worked with us to help tell that story in that way. And for those who I hope will go to Monticello and see this.  I’m being careful. I don’t want to… I want them to respond. I want people to respond to what they see but I think it is done very simply. But I think it is also done very very powerfully. And I know the reaction I had when I first saw it before it opened. And I was with my husband and two other friends and literally tears were in all of our eyes when we left that room. And being there the day that it opened and watching people come out, you know, in silence people needed a place to just be and to think and to contemplate what they had witnessed and what they had read through… in those words. I feel it it ultimately was the powerful representation and the most honest and truthful interpretation of her life that we could possibly give.   

JAMES PERLA: For someone who might not… We’ve been. It’s fantastic but maybe for someone who might not be familiar with what the exhibit is. I think it’s notable that, you know, you walk into this, you know, there’s a buzz of activity going on around, you know, in the grounds and then you walk into this kind of quiet dark room. And so, could you maybe just describe… Maybe even your personal experience going through that and what that was like maybe on first viewing? 

MELODY BARNES: Sure. So, you… To visit you walk into a room that is one of the two rooms that we believe that she lived in and that’s as far as we could narrow it down. And when the door is closed you are in darkness as she would have been but for candlelight or, you know, fire at night and there is the words of her son as told through an interview that he did with the newspaper are projected and then an outline of her kind of… in silhouette again, because we don’t know what she looked like we don’t we have a basic description from the oral history. But we don’t have any pictures so we didn’t want to pretend like we knew or even that we know what Sally Hemings looks like. So, there’s a silhouette that takes you through her history when she first came as a child when she was in France and with Jefferson, which is… she was there to help take care of one of Jefferson’s daughter’s. The fact that she came back and she was pregnant. The exchange that she had with Jefferson about what her life would look like if she came back because at first she was not going to come back. Her brother was living in France and in France there was the opportunity for freedom, but ultimately did come back. And then the life that she had going forward there. Again, all through the words of her son projected on the wall. And I think also that when I describe her in silhouette, even that changes as you go through the different… the arc of her life as she was at Monticello. 

representation without information

JAMES PERLA: Sorry, final question at this point because we’re, you know, the notion of literary scholars I think is important and the role of representation because there’s so little information about Hemings herself. I wanted to ask… The sort of choice to make this sort of like a found poetry type of representation that is almost like a turn towards sort of a more abstract register to almost get to sort of the true story of Hemings the need to go through some type of representation that’s not necessarily a historical through and through a period piece or yeah. Does that question make sense? 

MELODY BARNES: I feel your question in my bones, but I might need… 

JAMES PERLA: I think another around this is the other day, Titus Kaphar gave a lecture at UVA Special Collections Library, and he hinted… I don’t know if this is officially, we’re supposed to say it… but he hinted at the possibility of showing some of his paintings at Monticello. Recently, there was a lot of buzz about a musical performance that you all did on the grounds of Monticello. And so, the role of sort of to animate and to show the humanity of enslaved peoples for whom we have very little information. The need to turn to the sort of gaps in the history and to sort of make that history have a sort of affective or emotional truth that is not represented in sort of historical information from the archives, which is obviously controlled by the sort of the…  

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: “The lions write history.” And so, the work of the lions is in the archives. Yeah, people who leave papers people who leave writings? Yes, if maybe if I’m understanding you… are you asking what do we gain? What do we lose? With having recourse only to representation? Is that?

JAMES PERLA: Yeah, I think so and the possibilities of because they’re so little information this choice to make it sort of this meditative, as you describe, this feeling where, you know, you don’t get the, “Oh, that’s not so bad.” You get the… the sort of feeling of what that was like and again that’s sort of because of the lack of information. So, I think yeah that yeah sort of helps … 

MELODY BARNES: It is and it’s a rich question there so many facets to it. I think one it forces us to wrestle with and look in the eye of the fact that we don’t have a lot of information. And that’s particularly interesting in this instance because it is Monticello and it is Jefferson and Jefferson wrote down everything. Everything. So, he leaves lots of detailed notes and the register of those who were enslaved there. There’s all of that. That he had the power, he could control that but for those who were enslaved they didn’t have that. So, what we have left behind are artifacts that have been uncovered as a result of archaeology and we have oral history and interviews by the descendants. And the oral history that we still have that we are still collecting at Monticello today of descendants. And so, that requires us, I think, to be very careful, to be thoughtful and to be responsible with… and accountable for how we are treating all of that information. Not making…  letting people interpret it to make and draw their assumptions. To put it in an historical context. When people go they will see a sign outside of her room about the issue of rape, recognizing the lack of agency that enslaved women had at that time, the fact that she was owned by someone. And at the same time, we want people to understand the humanity of those who were enslaved there. And that comes through, I believe, when you go on the tour because everyone has been trained to talk about the multidimensionality of those individuals. I know, I have friends… I went to Monticello as a kid and, you know, people either we didn’t talk about the slaves or we talked about them as servants or so there are euphemisms and now there’s very plain spoken language. These were enslaved people. This is what happened. This was the labor that burdened them. This is the way some of them died. This is the way many of them… Some of them tried to escape. This is what happened to some of them who tried to escape. And included in that is the representation of Sally Hemings’ life in a way that we hope people do feel deeply and we’re not trying to shape or impress a set of feelings upon people but we’re trying to give you as much as we possibly can as accurately as we can so that people walk away with an understanding of what this woman’s life was about and the facts that we have about her life and the lives of hundreds of others who lived there for… With good reason we talk a lot about Sally Hemings, but there were hundreds of others who live there and we have their  oral history and as much as the of the archaeological material as we possibly can to tell their stories as well.  

The spectrum of love

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: I’m thinking there’s just so much resonance and what you’re saying. I want to go back to a few minutes ago. Well, no, I’ll come back to that later because I want to confront the question of rape and maybe then connect it to Sally Hemings in France because it’s so complicated from our contemporary perspective. Sally Hemings is fourteen. So, fourteen for us now is not the age of consent, but it would be anachronistic to say Sally Hemings was an underage girl that Jefferson raped and sexually exploited because fourteen-year-olds could be married in the 18th century. So, we are working with very different conceptions of childhood. In fact, indeed the reality that childhood as a category of human development is a very late phenomenon in human history. And so, we can’t say she was underage and yet we want to be able to capture that whether underage or not in the terms that the 18th century understood it, something happened to her and to her body that was wrong. So, we wrestle with the particularities of history, what history allows us to say if we’re being responsible, but it’s that… but what has to almost override it are the questions of morality because, you know, I’m reminded of, you know, Martin Luther King often made the distinction between man-made laws and moral laws, right? And so, this is analogous to that and so I was taken with the fact that both in the press, I read the review in the New York Times of the exhibition, and there on-site the the concept of rape is invoked, you know, unapologetically, right? And so, help us think about what brought you to that point even knowing that, well, how do you say it was rape? How do you know since so little is known about what passed between these people? How can you have conviction about whether that is the terminology you want to use?   

MELODY BARNES: Well, throughout the building of that exhibit and I even every time I use the word exhibit I cringe a little bit because it sounds…. It doesn’t hold the import of what this is. So, as we were thinking about how to share and represent the story of her life based on what we knew, we spend a lot of time with historians who are Jefferson-Hemings historians, like Annette Gordon-Reed, to help us work through all of the issues and what we knew, but I think what was most important to us was A. identifying the lack of agency that she… Sally Hemings had. Simply by virtue of being born into slavery. She could not control her own body, her destiny, her decision. She… by what we know of what happened in France, she was able to have a back-and-forth of some sort with Jefferson to try and shape what her life would look like and the life of her children when she returned, if she returned, when she returned to Monticello, but she couldn’t wake up and say, “You know what? I ain’t doing that.” She didn’t have those choices that we have today and because that includes control over her body, we felt that it was absolutely necessary. It would be irresponsible not to call that question and not to require those who visit that exhibit to look in the eye of what it would be like to have been Sally Hemings and that period of time and literally one of the most powerful men in the country owns you and what happens as a result of that. And the, you know, six children. I may be a little bit off right now that she carried and bore. We have to understand that as a country and I think it is also important in the same way people similarly as they walked through Mulberry Row and said, “Oh this wasn’t so bad.” We want people to understand just what it would mean to be an enslaved woman at that point in time. Also understanding and bringing in as much of the facts, and as you say the context, as we possibly could. 

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: It is vitally important and I think to impress that upon people is critical and yet there is always an “and yet” for speculative thinkers. And this is the “and yet” for me and it’s inspired by an account of another enslaved woman that literary historians have done lots of work to verify, to ascertain and that’s Harriet Jacobs who was owned by Dr. Flint in South Carolina. And she enters into a relationship with another white propertied man. He doesn’t own her but he’s a part of that class and she describes in the book: It is better to choose if you are going to enter into a relationship with someone who has overwhelming power over you. It is important to be able to choose that person. So, with Harriet Jacobs, whether we think it makes sense or not, in her mind, she’s making a choice. She’s making a choice to enter into a relationship with a white man to bear him two children, alright? So, I want to then go back to what you said much earlier about people who travel for miles and miles and miles to see their loved ones which establishes the fact that these were deeply feeling people who form deeply human, feeling, sustaining attachments, right? Toni Morrison writes about a character in Beloved, Sixo, who is in love with “the 30-Mile Woman” and he will walk 30 miles back and forth to be with that woman. So, that’s the depth of the love. So, then it brings us to the question, these are feeling people and feelings have a way of not yielding to human and social constructs. This is a long-winded preamble. I’m aware, but I’m intentionally being long-winded. So, Thomas Jefferson owns this woman. She has no agency. Certainly not under the law. Absolutely not. She can’t say, “I’m not doing this,” right?  But she bore him six children. It’s impossible in the discourse for us to think of that relationship as possibly admitting of love between these two people. When people want to say… I was once at my own dinner table in a conversation with Mia Bay and Mia Bay says, “Deborah. That’s impossible. You just can’t say that. It is just it is an insult to Sally Hemings and to all the other enslaved women.” And I said, “That’s not what I’m doing here.” I’m simply asking why has that been such an unthinkable proposition? Why is it impossible to enter the conversation? Because you can’t know what happened you simply cannot know. We don’t know. And so, people on both sides of the ideological divide, whether they are diehard Jeffersonians or defenders of Sally Hemings, say you can’t even broach the question of love in this situation. They just don’t. I can’t. Leave that away. Leave that alone. What can’t we broach that question?   

MELODY BARNES: Because of the horror that was slavery. Because of the genocide that was slavery. Because it was destructive in the most fundamental sense of the word that I believe it is hard to imagine that there is something loving that could have emanated from that and that’s why I believe it is so difficult, virtually impossible, to wrap your arms or your mind or your heart around that. Because it also I think it requires individuals to think someone that would buy and sell people, someone that would rip families apart, someone that would allow individuals to be beaten within an inch of their life, if not taking their life, someone who would see a person try to flee to freedom and send out slave catchers or an overseer to capture them and bring them back, how could that person also be in love with an enslaved person? Because if you love them wouldn’t you let them be free? So, that’s why I think it’s, you know, that idea kind of hits the mind and slides right off. 

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: You know, I love that answer too and I especially love the thinking and the heart. You say, you know, in your thinking and in your heart you can’t admit of this. And I want to… James has heard me mentioned this many many times because, you know, I’m just I’m asking a different kind of question that may not always register as I intended and that’s in a failure of my own articulation, but I’m asking why can’t we think of this? Because children for example, who are abused, love the parents who abuse them. You know? That power in relationships is fundamental to relationships. I always joke and say people talk about how helpless infants have no power. Well, yeah in certain ways of understanding power, but if an infant is screaming to the top of that infant’s lung power at 3 a.m and will only stop if you walk back and forth rocking them, that infant has had the power to murder your sleep. So, this is all… and James has heard me use this analogy because, you know, as a person of my generation and my training so many of my references are literary references. And so, it’s so… Faulkner has this wonderful story in Go Down Moses and it’s a fictional character Ike McCaslin is in the commissary going over the ledgers much like Jefferson’s farm books. Everything is written down. So, gets to this point in the ledger where it says, and this is his grandfather, “Gave Eunice $1,000 upon the birth of her son.” So, Ike the grandson is saying, “What? He gave a slave woman $1000? There must have been some kind of love. Or something like love? She wasn’t just some afternoon spittoon?” But he doesn’t know what it is. But he’s saying there is something else that has to define this relationship. I don’t know what it is. Is it love? He’s not saying it is. And then Annette Gordon-Reed really kind of opens that door and then there are a lot of legal scholars Adrienne Davis is one of them. And Adrienne Davis has written and unearthed lots of instances of slaveholders, men of the planter class, who had long-term relationships with slave women. Some of them acknowledge those relationships, some of them… Yes. Some of them were common-law marriages. Some of them really left, bequeathed to these children property and such. And that the only time these men would be prosecuted for violating anti-miscegenation laws was when it could be determined that these were not fly-by-night relationships. That this is somebody I live with, I sleep with. I don’t just go through the back door and after two hours leave. So, we have all that evidence too. And I want to be… to make it clear. I’m with you. I understand people who do not want to say, “No, you couldn’t possibly love people when you do this to them. When you separate them from children, you… No. None of that is in the universe of love,” right? But the question is always… What do we lose when we can’t enter that conversation, even if we conclude well, this is not the kind of love I would want. This is a messed up, distorted, you know, abusive kind of love, so I don’t want any parts of it. But something… Something that had to be going on with these people that it lasted for as long as it did. Not just… he wasn’t making his way among the other women that he would have had access to. It was this woman. It was her.  

MELODY BARNES: Yeah, I think that those questions and so many others are inherent to our struggle in America to talk about and to wrestle with what we know about slavery and that period of American history and also how it shapes our conceptions of blackness and whiteness and the society that we live in today. I mean well…. It is just, you know, I don’t know the third rail or whatever, you know, we… Taking what we know, taking what we feel, taking who we are today and putting that all together to have a conversation and to engage in that and to let the mind wrap around that is something that I think is it is so difficult for us and that’s why I think we struggle to ask ourselves the questions that you’ve posed. 

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: I get it. I completely get it. I understand why many people would greet such a question as offensive as misguided as, you know, what kind of monster are you to even formulate this question. I mean, really? 

MELODY BARNES: Are you trying to make it, make this better than it was?

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: Not about making it better because again, I was so glad to hear you, this is slight a slight departure, but I’ll circle back, you know, well slavery wasn’t so bad. I mean that’s one of the criticisms I have had of many universities that are seeking to interrogate their slave past. There’s always some figure that’s been legendary in the recovery… For UVA, it’s the Henry the bell ringer. For William and Mary, it’s Lemon… Lemon the slave named “Lemon” and I say well, you know, this recovery process and this coming to terms with your own foundations and slavery and the profits that ensued there from, it’s as if well, these are all triumphalist stories. No matter what, Henry’s a slave, he rang the bell every day. He never missed a day of ringing the bell like, oh really? So, when I was asked to read at the dedication of Henry the bell ringer and I am like, “Mrs. Otis regrets that she’s unable to read today.” And I just resisted the explanation but the explanation was that. Because slavery was an institution that broke people, that undid people and that brokenness has been passed down from generation to generation to generation. But also with that brokenness, is the humanity you’re talking about. So, if these people have the capacity to love, the capacity to love is the capacity to love. It’s… I love the arguments people make in defense of members of the LGBTQ community. Love if you have that experience, you are among the fortunate of humanity. You can’t say you can love here but you can’t love there. 

Sexual Power Dynamics

JAMES PERLA: “Love Is Love.” 

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: “Love Is Love,” right? And so, it’s not about wanting to romanticize because even love is something that lives in history. We reduce love to the kind of, again, very modern phenomenon of romantic love, right? And I try to say that, you know, it’s yeah, romantic love no, I wouldn’t want to say… But something would explain why… Because it can’t be just sexual release. Rape is power. Rape isn’t even about sex. But you go to this same woman and you get six children with this woman. 

MELODY BARNES: One of the other reasons that people when hearing that still push back on it is that and this comes from the oral history as well, her son says that Jefferson didn’t… Essentially Jefferson didn’t treat us any differently than any other of the enslaved children. And so, if there had been more, why?… What I hear when I read that is why weren’t we treated differently, if we were his children? Why weren’t we treated better? And I just think that it is hard to… Impossible to imagine love as we conceive of it being a part of that relationship. I don’t know. I think that it requires us… What we can take and this is what we try to do was what we know of the time, what we know of her story as articulated by her son, understand the horror of that period and understand… Try to better understand what her life looked like. And, yeah. 

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: I completely get it and it’s not speaking out of both sides of my mouth to say though that to the extent that we can’t broach this as the question then we really are wittingly or not basically continuing to perpetuate division. That hasn’t come out exactly as I want. And it would take me too long to interpret myself and you’ve already… We’re over the time you’ve allotted us. Yeah, we didn’t even ask most of the questions, but your answers were so fertile that I wanted to follow up on what you were saying. And again, as we wind down I think about Gayle Jones’s novel, Corrigedora. And it is about slavery in Brazil and Corrigedora is the name of the slaveholder and again the grandmother of the central character in the novel has passed down the stories about slavery and at one point the central character asks her mother who had asked her mother, you know, “What did you feel about Corregidora?” And she answers, “What I was taught to feel.” And that is very different. What I was taught to feel. What I was schooled to feel, right? So, we have all undergone a form of cultural tutelage and that tutelage has obligated us to a set of responses and reflexes and interpretations that we don’t want to let go of and it’s easy in one sense to keep them, “Oh, that? I know what that is. Let’s move on. That? Oh, yeah. I know what that. Let’s move on.” Mhm. And I think where the evidence is so thin, where so little is known, it seems to me when you open the door to speculation, you can open the door to speculation on a broad scale. Because you can say at one and the same time that something was going on that we don’t quite understand. And it was going on in the midst of brutality, in the midst of exploitation. I mean and that is the nature of life. I remember being also chastised when Marion Barry was convicted, you know, in the sting. And so, people well, they’re bringing down all our elected officials and they put black men under the greatest forms of surveillance. And I said, that’s true. But it is also true that he went into the Vista Hotel and smoked the crack pipe. Both of these things are true. [laughter] 

The Responsibility of Historically Violent Spaces

JAMES PERLA: Well, you have been very generous with your time and possibly, you know, final questions, you know, pending thoughts? Anything you want to say? Yes, I’m thinking to you know about this progressivist narrative and I’m not sure if we’ve had the opportunity to ask the question of, you know, what responsibility does an institution like UVA or other such institutions have if any to sort of these histories of violence? And to addressing these histories? During our interview with Niya Bates, she mentioned this great line during… from the president of the Ford Foundation who said that, you know, institutions, and this is paraphrasing, but institutions sort of have to be willing to give up certain, you know, things in order to for sort of the moral and human like realities of what it takes to address those legacies of violence and history. And so, yeah, wherever you find your way into that. What are our institutions willing to give up willing not to give up or what responsibilities do institutions such as these have to that history? 

MELODY BARNES: I think with with the University of Virginia and Monticello and in a different way, some ways the same, some ways different… If you’re in the education business, then you have to educate and that requires at its base telling as much of the truth as we know. To put as many of the facts that we have on the table and reverence, symbols…. They aren’t… They don’t help us in the long run. In fact, they are they are harmful because they allow us to perpetuate narratives that aren’t true. That it is possible and not only possible, it is necessary to tell the truth and to extract the positive from that. You know, Jefferson was founder to a university based on the idea that a democracy, a constitutional republic had to have an educated citizenry. Now, who he defined as who is a citizen and the treatment of those individuals is the ugly horrible part of the story that we also have to rectify but we can’t do that unless we tell all of the story and that is part of the education process. That’s part of what it requires to be in the education business and I believe that Monticello similarly has moved forward in ways that I think are so critically important. It’s why I joined the Board and could join the Board to help continue that work of telling the truth. And you can both talk about Jefferson and religious freedom, Jefferson as a deeply curious person, Jefferson as scientist. All of those things and also talk about what it means that Jefferson was a slaveholder and the contradiction in those things which I think is the contradiction that we still hold today. And it is important for us to tell the story of everyone who was there. Jefferson, his daughters, his wife who died young, and Sally Hemings, and all of those who are enslaved there if we’re going to understand all of that and what really happened. And that these things just didn’t kind of pop up like, “Oh, Monticello just appeared, you know, food it just appeared.” You know, I remember going in a house tour in Charleston, South Carolina and the tour guide said, described, you know, there were six slaves who lived here and then she described the architecture of the building and said, “But we don’t know how that happened.” What do you mean you don’t know how that happened? Of course, we know how that happened. So, it requires telling the entire set of… Putting all the facts on the table and I believe for the work that we are doing now and that I’m co-directing with the Democracy Initiative, that it is part and parcel of that. That for a public university that seeks to not only educate those who come here but to put information into the world that will improve not only our society but a global society, that it is important for us to take leadership, to take the helm of doing that at and to interrogate our assumptions. To interrogate what we know, the things we think we know and try to move forward with what is actually the truth and to share that in a way that people can understand and absorb it and that ultimately we can make our… Not only are our society here, but our global community better and stronger as a result of doing that work. 

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: That’s a wonderful point, perhaps on which to end. Unless you have something else you might want to add. Yeah. This is really been wonderful. As I said I could just listen to you forever.

MELODY BARNES: I’ve so enjoyed this conversation which I’ve been wanting to have for the longest time. I remember when they did the new faculty dinner, whatever that was and I saw you across the room and then the dinner ended and since then I’ve been thinking I’ve got to reach out because I wanted to get together.

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 I guess we’re interested about was kind of thinking about the project of ways to think about Jefferson in broader, more complicated or just complicated ways. Trying to complicate his legacy a little bit. And the moment that sticks out for us that you might have some connections to is the moment of the shrouding of the statue [the Jefferson statue] in the fall of what was that September 2017? Were you there during that event?

Lisa Woolfork: Yes, I was there. It was in the evening. I remember it was raining and students had climbed up to put a black shroud over the statue. And there was also a sign that said “Black Lives Matter.” And this was an action that was, I believe, led by the Graduate Student Alliance, which works in support of [1:00] EVASU, but also lots of community members came out. A lot of faculty from Religious Studies and other departments came to support the students. Some who had been absent because they were either out of town for the action on August 11th or there but not there. So, there were a lot of people coming out to lend support.

JP: Solidarity of sorts. So, can you describe the scene?

LW: I believe it was a two-pronged approach. Students had been assembled at the President’s house. Then they walked from the house across, down grounds, down that part of the grounds, the arts grounds, and across the street to assemble in front of the statue. In the meantime, some of the faculty, students, community members, came from the lawn side, came up over the Rotunda. In some ways, following a similar path that the white supremacists had followed to get to, to surround the statue. So, we [2:00] kind of met up and converged. Some came from the Chapel area. So, it really was a nice kind of convergence of support with students, graduate students, faculty, community members, there were people there who are not affiliated with UVA at all who were there to support the students and to really, I think, resist this narrative that the white supremacists had laid down there a month earlier.

JP: Yeah. And so what was… How many people would you say were there?

LW: I can’t remember. I can’t remember but it was quite a few. It was more than quite a few. I’m sorry, I can’t say what the exact numbers were.

JP: Yeah, not that crowd size matters…

Deborah McDowell: Only some people are concerned with crowd size… People with small hands.

JP: What was the feeling like?

[3:00]

LW: It was really… To be standing out in the dark and in the rain, it was still a very empowering and affirming moment to kind of place yourself in the same place where students have been made vulnerable and attacked. Some students, some staff, faculty who had been harmed during that time and to kind of reclaim that space and to be willing to stand out there, I thought was just a testament to the resolve that we as Charlottesville people want to write their own story. They want to rewrite it. They want to actually close the gap between the promises of this nation and the practices of this nation and it seems like that moment was an example of that.

James Perla: It must have been so raw still I mean, what was that? So, that was September?

LW: It was September 11th. I think it was exactly one month after and so that was chronologically one month distant, but I know for some people it didn’t [4:00] feel like much time had elapsed last at all. And so, I think that it’s really difficult to underestimate the weight of that event once you’ve been in the middle of it or once you’ve been a witness to it or once you’ve been a failed witness as a colleague has described.

JP: What do you mean by that?

LW: I mean, a colleague has written this really great piece that appeared pretty much maybe a week or two after the events of August 11th, and he was standing at the church on the outside of the church when the white supremacists marched up and he saw everything. But he didn’t go over because the training that people had gotten was to not intervene, was to protect the church, etc. etc. And so, it was a very morally complicated time and actually the piece that he wrote is called “Moral Trauma.” For someone who is an ethicist or someone who [5:00] is… who wants to do the right thing about how challenging it is to kind of believe that you’re taking a stand in faith and in resolve that also might leave others vulnerable. And so, I think there’s a lot of people who are still working through those types of decisions, people that I know who wish they had done more or weren’t present but wish that they had been. It makes you think about what the place of the university is, what the task of the university is, what the work of the university is, and what it means to be in community. And so, there’s lots of people who have been thinking about this for much longer than I have in this way. I mean for me before, community involvement was being the president of my child’s PTO at the elementary school. Those were the things that I was very comfortable with doing, I do those all the time, but this type of resistance was [6:00] new to me and like many people I was galvanized by the 2016 presidential election and just felt like I could not be silent.

Origins of A11 and A12, 2017 in Blue Ribbon Commission

JP: Yeah, and you were involved in some of the monument debates around the Blue Ribbon Commission as well. That is that fair to say?

LW: Yes. Yes. I believe that a lot of people… I think it was interesting that the Blue Ribbon Commission which had been impaneled by City Council to study the monuments and their place in the city had been impaneled for a little while. I think it might have been impaneled maybe in March or February. And the meetings had gone on with a lot… with not very much public commentary, but after November when Trump was elected, people started showing up to those meetings and it was really funny because you’d have these older white folks who have been coming to every one so that they could talk about their conservative, you know, I’m sorry not conservative, Confederate, great grandfather who [7:00] served in the war and how they were so proud of their legacy were stunned at people coming to talk about these monuments as racist. And where have these… I think one woman actually said, “Where did these people come from? I’ve been coming to these meetings since March and no one has complained about the monuments being bad and now all of a sudden, here they come saying that they’re about racism. That’s nonsense.” And I think that a lot of people were shaking out of this melees or apathy or whatever when Trump won and it changed people’s approach to politics beyond just the measures of voting.

JP: Yeah, you know, that is so true. And so, returning to that moment of I guess I mean because I’m thinking too I mean like we always… We were all observing and sort of like reluctant and compromised kind of onlookers. I know that night I was with a group before they went, some of the organizers before [8:00] they went to the statue and I went home because I had plans to to be out on, you know, on the day and I was like, I’m gonna go to sleep. I need to be ready for this and so to go home and kind of go to sleep while all this is happening, you know, so I think everyone has those sort of moments of wondering like what one might have done.

LW: I think that’s absolutely true. I remember I was at the church and I was actually doing an interview with a couple of outlets. I think one was The Guardian and the other one was Sojourners, I believe. And Cornel West and me and these two reporters were having this conversation about white supremacy and memorialization and all of these things and it was, you know, pretty exciting. And then someone rushed in and said the Klan is outside with fire stay here. And it was really just a staggering moment. Like, “What do you what do you mean?” I [9:00] don’t understand… It was hard to process like what was happening and as we tried to wrap up the conversations and I think I had thought up until that point that the work that I did as… That I do as a scholar and cultural critic and professor was to tell the story, was to make sure that the media represented the story in a powerful way and didn’t underestimate white supremacy, that they didn’t make false equivalencies. That was what I thought primarily was what the work was about. And I had been, you know, thinking of course in other ways. I was there for the Klan rally in July. So, you know, but I think that was more like a spectacle, carnival. The Klan was kind of in this little tiny box in the court square and the police were surrounding them actually facing us. They had [10:00] their backs to the Klan and their guns and bodies and stuff facing the crowd but like, everybody was there, you know, elementary school kids, high school kids, you know, they were… It was a lot of people who were there and we think about those moments of what you might consider a lapse after that event, after the Klan rally, I thought it was over. We had followed the Klan to this parking garage and then they the police had started to push into the crowd. And they had not yet I think declared it unlawful, but they were pushing and pushing and pushing and someone fell down and we had to kind of get them up and then they said… And then so thought… And then the Klan kind of drove away and I was like, “Okay, I think this is finished.” So, me and Ben, my husband, we leave and then we get a call like four minutes later that the state police have shot off tear gas, two [11:00] canisters of tear gas into the crowd and I was like, I don’t understand how that went so sideways so fast and we turned right around and went back and when we got back and parked the car and got out there were still people with stuff streaming down their faces. You could still like smell this tart mist in the air. And so, these moments of like, I don’t know it just… It was something like I had not experienced or had expected to experience, you know, as a matter of being a person in that location, which should have been a good indication for the events of August 11 and 12. But even as I knew that cognitively, I didn’t know it physically.

the role of a scholar or public intellectual during times of crisis

JP: Yeah, to pick up on a thread of, you know, you mentioned that your role as a scholar, a critic. I mean, how do you… What do you think of that one’s role? I [12:00] mean in light of events such as these a year on have you meditated on that rule and how you fit within within the larger context?

LW: I mean, I think for me, I think some people say, “Oh, you’re an activist” and I still don’t think of myself that way. I do organize with Black Lives Matter, I’m involved with several other community groups, I seem to go to a lot of meetings and I go to City Council a lot but I don’t necessarily see that as an activist as much as just someone who wants the world to be better for her children than it is right this minute. And we know that this kind of social change is not inevitable. That it is the product of labor. And I see myself as putting in that labor on the front end so that my kids don’t have to do it later. And so, maybe that’s just too pat. And so, people would obviously say you are an organizer therefore you are an activist or whatever, but I don’t [13:00] necessarily see it that way and I also do think a lot about narrative. I think about that a lot when I read the paper when I read about how the paper places things and frames things. All of that is about how a story gets presented. And that is part of the larger work of cultural criticism is to kind of understand the place and power of individuals within a larger context and I’m just doing my best to kind of, to take that seriously and whenever I can, whenever I have an opportunity, to amplify certain stories about Charlottesville I do them either by going to City Council meetings, by writing emails, by helping to advance or develop certain campaigns around issues. You know, that to me just seems an important part of making Charlottesville the place that [14:00] it already thinks it is.

JP: It’s interesting that it seems like you’re avoiding the term activist, right? Or not, maybe not avoiding but like why like thinking about the tradition and of protest and how protest these days has been seen as something that’s like, you know, like I’m just doing that like things… Like what’s the role? I mean, I think it’s interesting that like, you know, at this moment, you know, I think as scholars or as people who may be associated with the university, it’s like, oh, I’m not like this part of this group. I’m just like helping out or like I don’t know if that if that’s fair to say.

LW: I don’t know if my reluctance is that I find the term would be stigmatized. I don’t… I’m not concerned about stigma I think for me maybe it’s because the word activist has a really high bar. It’s someone who has dedicated like 100% of [15:00] their life to this particular cause and so for me, I don’t see activists as something that I would like to avoid or feel like no, no, don’t say that about me. I think I see it the opposite way. And I feel like for me, I realized I have, although I’m an African-American woman, I have a lot of privilege in the way that Charlottesville operates. There’s a lot of things that I can do that a lot of other African-American women and men can’t do. And so for me, it’s part of kind of recognizing that my privilege allows me to have a job where I get to write and to teach and to talk about things, right? Like that’s really a quite… And so I’m not saying that no one who is a professor could be an activist. I mean that that seems nonsensical. But I think one of the reasons that I might avoid it to describe myself, even though I might have been described that [16:00] way about other people, is because I think I have a really high bar. And maybe it’s a bar that nobody actually can meet.

DMcD: And that brings me to a question that’s only tangentially connected to, or maybe not tangentially, but as I listen to you and you say this is a high bar and you think about people who laid everything on the line, we study them, people who gave lives and limbs and absolutely, but I’m very interested in the ways in which well after let’s say, choosing randomly, the height of the Civil Rights Movement, many of those activists who gave it all began to talk about the need for respite. That this is a long-term struggle. This is a struggle the end of which nobody can anticipate so therefore everybody in it has to know when they need to pause. When they need to rest. When a [17:00] respite might be called for so that they can live to fight another day. So that the absence of a person at a particular rally may not necessarily say anything about the degree of their commitments, but that in all social struggle, effective outcomes have to be considered in relation to preservation, preserving yourself, preserving your communities, Long-winded more statement than question.

LW: No, I think I would agree with that. I think I would absolutely agree with that and that there is and that there’s a variety of roles that people play in order for movements and causes to advance successfully. That’s what people describe as diversity of tactics, that there’s different ways, there’s different organizational strategies, there’s some people who are comfortable doing, you know, one form of organizing and one form of action, you [18:00] know, nonviolent direct action, violent direct action, mass arrests. There’s people who provide support to those people who are willing to do those things there people there that run media and help to document all these things. So, and I think that it’s I think you’re absolutely right. It’s not it’s not worth it to me to kind of start passing out like, you know, “Woker than thou” badges, you know, or, you know, things that say, you know, well you’ve done this but you haven’t done that. I think that that’s such a dangerous… And I think that a lot of movements have that problem and I think you know, although we idealize aspects of the Civil Rights Movement I think that they had those same problems. And so, I think it’s worth… that we can kind of benefit from that history. We can benefit from that lesson to say that we all want to get to the same place but we’re not going to do it in the exact same way all at [19:00] the exact same time that it’s just not it’s not practical.

the role of protest in the nation's history

JP: Because this project is about Jefferson, thinking about the role of protest and the role of taking action and that’s kind of where I was leading in the question about… I’m trying to avoid the term activist like why shouldn’t we talk about protest? Why should we have to qualify the fact that we’re out protesting things? And so, thinking about sort of this tradition of protests at our nation’s very foundations.

LW: Absolutely. No, I think that’s absolutely excellent. And I think it’s so interesting to me the way that people who are critical of movements like Black Lives Matter, for example, want to claim somehow an inherent passivity and resignation to America. I mean, if you peel back the thinnest layer of American history, you get a revolution. How do they think that happened? That did not [20:00] happen because people politely wrote to the king and said, “Hey, you know, if you don’t mind, we’d like to get our freedom right now.” That didn’t happen. Instead they rose up. And they declared, they had a list of demands, they had a list of grievances. And so, I find it very interesting particularly since the way that people tend to read Jefferson like they read the Bible, right? Very selectively and self-servingly. They they don’t kind of they don’t go as far as you know, of course, you know Article 14 [query] in Notes on the State of Virginia, but they’ll even get all the way to all the grievances in the Declaration of Independence and there are two that I really like and that have found that if you read them in a really interesting, allegorical way, is when, one in [21:00] particular one of my favorites, is a great foundation for resistance that is paralleled to what we’re living through right now. So, one of the grievances that the colonists made against the king was the enforcement of taxes. And so, Chris Hayes has a great book about this that’s called A Colony in a Nation. And in it he says that you know, when we think about taxes today, we think about, you know, you file your W-2 with the IRS and you have to file all these different paper works and then you send in your bill, you get a refund. But before that was the case, the police, the Redcoats would be used as tax enforcers. They could come to your house, kick your door, take your stuff to get you to pay your taxes. And so, one of the grievances that the colonists had was about that system, about basically being over-policed. And there’s a line in the [22:00] Declaration and it says

“he has sent swarms of officers among us to harass our people and eat out their substance.”

And for me, if that doesn’t describe Ferguson, Missouri, if that doesn’t describe the life of under this hyper criminalized gaze of policing in the lives of black people not just the actual state, right? With the police shooting black people, pulling guns on black women at the beach or all of these things, but just regular things. Like going to a store and using the wrong coupon or too many coupons or a coupon that a white manager doesn’t recognize therefore I’m going to call the police for this $17.99 item, right? That seems to me, the same basis for revolution that helped to found this country. There are still people who have those grievances [23:00] today and they’re black people. And so, it becomes really important to kind of think about Jefferson and his paradoxes and to kind of fight this idea that people like to say when you want to critique Jefferson, you say, “Oh, well, he was a man of his time and, you know, he didn’t know any better” and that is completely false because we know people also of his time critiqued him during his time and after his time, you know? It’s not like everyone thought that slavery or the foundations of liberty were going to be secure, you know, if slavery existed. This is something that Jefferson himself critiqued himself in his time. So, this notion to somehow preserve Jefferson as a saint to kind of be engaged in this kind of retrospective hagiography, right? Is so… I’m not sure where it comes from. [24:00] But it seems like there are elements of Jefferson, the revolutionary aspects, that really do speak to the moment we have now.

DMcD: Very important point to make. We don’t tend to think of Jefferson… We think of him as a revolutionary, but often in the abstract. But to point to that article just as you’ve done and to say that there is in that article strong and direct implication for what black people in cities like Ferguson are coming up with. The second article you mentioned is your favorite one. What’s the second one?

LW: I’m trying to remember it right now. I’m not sure if I can even remember it, but I know… I love that one about: “He has sent swarms of officers among us to harass our people, eat out their substance.”

JP: Is there one about seizing property?

[25:00]

LW: Is it the property one or is it?

JP: The one about um, immigrate, uh immigration?

LW: Yeah, but that one is my favorite. I’m sorry. I think I missed… I think, I know I have two that I really like but the harassment one. The idea of like law enforcement harassment going all the way back to the founding of this nation and yet people can’t understand why this is a problem. I think it was in, it might have been the one about the Castle Doctrine. The Castle Doctrine and this was a doctrine that England had I think it is the one about unlawful search and seizure. And so, England had this doctrine called the Castle Doctrine and so, even if a man’s home be as humble as a hovel or as elaborate as a castle, it doesn’t matter, you know, he has the right to bar anybody from entry. And the British violated that when they were coming [26:00] to seize the property that they believed that the king was owed and so they were resisting that as well.

Teaching Jefferson in UVA's new curriculum

DMcD: Switching subject slightly, as a participant in the new curriculum, the engagement series, and teaching Jefferson within the context of that series, what do you most want to impart to your students? What do you think our students most need to know about Jefferson, to release about Jefferson, to expand?

LW: I think that one of the things I try to impart to students is that all of this is their legacy and their inheritance. Not just the Jefferson that, you know, who has his house on the back of the nickel or at least he used to, not just the Jefferson that the university idolizes and idealizes. But that the flaws of [27:00] the institution are also something that attracted them or resulted in a place that drew them here. And so, when we started the semester last year, this was pretty soon after the events of August 11 and 12 and I talked about how two of the organizers for this event, Jason Kessler and Richard Spencer, were alums of the University of Virginia just like you will be. And so, you need to think about what does that mean for you? What does that mean for what you have chose to participate in and to advance… and turning the question back to them. You know, what, is it about the place that you feel needs… what kind of story does the University needs to tell about itself in order to be held accountable for that past as well as to be held accountable for missteps in the present? And they took that very seriously and so they embarked on projects [28:00] that allowed them to look at the relationships between the university and the city. The entire curriculum studied the Rockfish Gap report, which was I think the 1818 citing of the university and why it ended up in this area as opposed to, I believe, Stanton was an option and Lexington might have been an option. They ended up, the Board of Governors at the time, ended up installing it here because this was where the most white people in the state lived. And so, then we get to think about like, what does that mean that this place exists here as opposed to anywhere else in the state simply because of a geographic work that linked it to whiteness. And so, these are some of the things that we talked about and in addition to looking at Ta-Nehisi Coates and talking about [29:00] Coates in the context of some of the articles, on the Notes on the State of Virginia, we talked about eugenics and biology, we talked about lots of different things. It was a short course. These are seven week courses that meet twice a week. And so they, there’s, you know, this, we have to be really kind of focused and direct in what we did. But the topic of the course that I’m referring to now was called, “Race, Racism, Colony and Nation” and in it we talked a lot about racism and where it comes from and the varieties of expressions. We talked about, you know, their own contributions in terms of what it means to them to make an intellectual contribution to this conversation. What had they learned and how do they unlearn? And so, I think that if anything, I think this seems really kind of pat but it’s kind of, for me, a useful thing to [30:00] consider that just because you love something does it mean you can’t critique it at the same time and I think it becomes really important to ask difficult questions of… that love does not require compliance. And that you can’t go into a place like this and expect not to have to deal with difficult things particularly at the time in which they were coming to school. They were coming as what was called the bicentennial class, but their orientation in some way had been on CNN when they got to see white supremacist marching through campus and then the next day, fights in the streets in the town that was soon to be theirs. And so, there are a lot of people who are interested in developing more relationships with the community and I really believe that UVA has not done a sufficient job, despite some structural elements to do so, of repairing this [31:00] town-gown divide, of thinking about how the policies of the university and it’s encroaching through the city has driven down wages, has made a housing crisis, has done all of these things. And yet, turning its back in some way by making people who live here feel as if they are outsiders or dependents.

the University as a community in need of engagement and repair

DMcD: Very interesting point and we cannot have enough discussions about the town-gown relations, but I think if there’s one thing that that August 11th and 12th unearthed for me, is the importance of expanding our understanding of community because the University of Virginia is itself a community. And so, how do we take many of your insights here and apply them to an analysis of this [32:00] community of students, of faculty, from various backgrounds demographics, what needs to be repaired internally?

LW: Goodness, I don’t think this show is long enough for me to talk about all that needs to be repaired internally. And I’ve only been here 18 years so I don’t even know where all the bodies are buried. But it seems to me that I think accountability is the first step, you know, being accountable for things in the past and figuring out how to make actual, material healing and repairs of these things. I think institutions, the job of an institution is to serve and protect the institution. That seems to be what it is. It doesn’t… and that means that you’re not willing to be vulnerable, not willing to admit fault, or to admit wrong because that makes you culpable rather than accountable, [33:00] right? Open to lawsuits or whatever. But I do think that, you know, there’s a lot of power relationships, a lot of things that some would see as window dressing that don’t have a lot of material effect. There is also a lot of complicity both in how the university is telling parts of its story even as its still causing harm and people are being harmed. So, one quick example, recently The Daily Progress, this might have been three or four weeks ago, talked about the admissions rate for new first-year students and they talked about how this was a great class of diversity that might have even been the headline and what we were supposed to gain from this was that, “See? The events of August 11th and 12th they didn’t hurt us,” you know, it was really all fine. But when you read the article and started to look at what they were saying counted as diversity, they were thinking about [34:00] socio-economic diversity. And in fact, the numbers of black students who applied for early decision, which is an early indicator of people who… black folks who will come to UVA, that had gone down. And so, they’re claiming diversity, but they don’t mean racial diversity or they don’t mean black people at least and this… and that black student admissions at least from when I was here when I started 18 years ago, there were far more black students than there are today. And that’s something… how do we repair that? And again, this is nothing against the people who are doing difficult work at admissions and working with the college guides program and doing all of these things to kind of reach out and to include more black students, but I think it requires more institutional will to hire black faculty, to attract and fund and retain black [35:00] students, to acknowledge at least the emotional labor that a lot of black faculty do, all of these things are material things that we could do but seem not to. So, that’s just one example.

Jefferson's paradoxes: ideals and realities

DMcD: So, when I say Jefferson, whether in this context or in his writings, when I say Jefferson, give me five words that come to mind.

LW: And we’re talking about Thomas Jefferson not George Jefferson?

DMcD: Sorry, James. You told me I can’t laugh.

JP: No, you can you can definitely laugh! I don’t run that tight of a ship here.

DMcD: I have a lot of external commentaries so James has me on a leash. Yes, George, not George Jefferson.

LW: Well, that cuts down on all the positive things, or many of the positive things that I might say. But I think, when I think about Jefferson, I think [36:00] about idealism, I think about the distance between practice and ideals, I think about the paradox at the heart of American democracy and the paradox at the heart of this university. I think about someone who wrote about liberty and justice and equality and believed in that, but only to a point. Someone who also believed in a certain form of scientific racism and eugenics. That this is someone who represented the best and the worst of what America could be. And now that we are trying to tell a fuller story, and I know Monticello has been doing a lot of hard work in that for many years, now that we’re trying to tell a fuller story, we can say these things. We can say these things. We can tell the whole truth and not just the part that makes Jefferson into this deity. That we [37:00] can admit that there are fundamental flaws in the American experiment and these flaws are still having profound implications for how the rest of the world works and how in particular, justice works in the lives of black people in this city and in this university.

JP: To bring it sort of full circle to where we started, shrouding the statue?

LW: So, the shrouding of the statue was, I thought, a very powerful moment of students, claiming a certain desire to tell a larger story about Jefferson. Now, this was not the first time the statue was shrouded. It was shrouded I think back in the ’20s, after some election that the students didn’t like the outcome of and so they shrouded the statue in grief. What the shrouding of the [38:00] statue, even beyond what the students intentions might have been, was the fallout. The consequences. And you might recall there were two letters that President Sullivan released about the statute and the shrouding. The one that she released to alums kind of… said that… used the word, actually used the worddesecrate.” And so, she, in speaking to alums, she was imagining that the people she was writing to, who were probably just the funders not alums of color, but to those who had funded the university, they consider Jefferson sacred and someone who should not be covered or somehow hidden in any way or questioned or challenged. The one she wrote to us, to the university community, was a bit more flexible and fluid about Jefferson as a slave holder, etc, etc, [39:00] etc. And now we have a new building that we named after a black woman and look what we have done. And so again, the instincts of an institution is to protect the institution and both letters did that but one of them did it at the expense of students and calling what they’d done sacrilege as if somehow we are at a monastery and not an institution where we’re meant to ask difficult questions.

Anniversary Events for August 11 and 12, 2017

DMcD: So, again, speaking of where we are almost at an anniversary year, weeks away and we can see the preparation for… that’s been underway to again reassure another entering class and their anxious parents that all is well inside the [40:00] Academical Village. So, I was quite taken by the letter that Dean Risa Goluboff sent to the university summarizing and wrapping up the work of the Dean’s Commission. And that committee was appointed in the immediate aftermath as you know to formulate a variety of institutional responses to those events. So, I was taken with the wording in that letter: “We have healed on an individual and a collective… at an individual and collective level.” So, had I, and I will try to carve out a space and see if she can give me a space to have her elaborate on that, how would you talk about our investments as an institution in that this too is a part of preserving an institutional image. [41:00] This investment in healing and resolution and a declaration of resolution almost as if that say, reconciliation and healing can be conjured through verbal fiat.

LW: It really is quite disturbing and problematic to have the dean of an institution tell the rest of the institution that the community is all fine. That we have healed on an individual and a collective level. I don’t think that anyone should presume to make that type of assessment and to whom is that being addressed? Who needs to be told and reassured that we’re all right? And who benefits from that? And so, I think that once you answer that question, then you… [42:00] it helps to give a better answer as to what the stakes are here. And what… and I find it very distressing that the that the notions of healing and resolution and forward-thinking have become co-opted really just to get most people to shut the hell up and keep quiet so we can just go about as we were. And it seems to me that the events for example that the university is planning, there’s one on healing and restitution, not restitution, that’s absolutely not what they’re interested in. On healing and repair. Nope. Nope. Not repair, not repair, not repair.

DMcD: Its reconciliation. It’s a law school conference.

LW: Not that one. There’s another one. There’s another one that is going to happen on, I believe, on August 11th, and they’re now collecting tickets by lottery. You might be able to win a lottery ticket where you can come and be reconciled.

DMcD: And bring all your effects in a plastic bag and you cannot get through the [43:00] metal detectors without the plastic bag.

JP: Talk about search and seizure.

LW: That’s right. Those stadium procedures that we have to have now with these clear backpacks to make sure you’re reconciled. Well, this is interesting because downtown for the same weekend, there’s a whole list of prohibited items that you are not allowed to bring. Police will be scanning to kind of take away things that look like weapons, but you’re fine with a gun. You can bring a gun but you can’t bring, you know, a can of hairspray or something like that, but I digress.

DMcD: We need to get at that.

LW: Wait, first I have to talk about I have to talk about this University event that is coming up. And again, this seems to me another example of how one might, I don’t know. I’m not sure exactly what is the goal of this event. I think it’s [44:00] hard to say is this public relations? Is it community relations? Is it… like what the overall objective is? But it does seem to me to be about, you know, about basically holding a space in some ways for the mishaps of the past, but I don’t see how… The one thing about universities that it’s really big and while one hand is trying to reconcile, the other hand is undoing. And so, you asked about like what lessons in resistance and activism we might see within our own community, I have been really taken in observing this hiring of the Trump administrator at the Miller Center. And the Miller Center scholars are pretty upset about this. There was no… there was no transparency, there was no general process. And the Miller Center is a bipartisan center where left and right and [45:00] Democrats and conservatives all get together all the time. So, it’s not like they don’t want to hear from the other side. It’s that person represents, as Nicole Hemmer said, who’s a professor at the Miller Center, not the difference between Democrat and Republican or between conservative and liberal but between liberal and illiberalism. And that this is not… we don’t have to kind of hire this person to teach this concept when you could have it… She said, “I don’t object to him coming to here and give a speech but to hire him and to give him a public Ivy parachute is the danger.” And so, to do this one year after Trump said there are many good many fine people on both sides and this person supports that policy and support child separations at the border and all of these things, [46:00] these are not intellectual exercises. These are acts of white supremacy that don’t border on fascism but are fascist lite, you know? To have the university kind of be doing both at the same time, seems like, I’m not sure if they’re playing both sides against the middle, I’m not sure if they’re hedging? And I believe that this community does need healing and repair. But it also needs honesty and vulnerability for that to happen. And that there a lot of people here that are still wounded and hurting and the institution has yet to do more than say we have healed and we’re okay.

Healing and Civility

DM: Indeed. I don’t know. In fact, I doubt that it will make its way into a formal finished podcast, but I feel the need to say that it is evident to my eyes and it is evident to my sensibilities that you are still very injured from [47:00] this event. It is quite evident. I’ve known you for 19 years. This has deeply affected you. And I think seeing you, hearing you, looking into your eyes, it is evident to me that you as but one person are an example of the dangers if not, the irresponsibilities of suggesting that time has passed, we’ve moved on, nothing to see here, because it is evident to me that you are still living with the effects of that weekend.

LW: Absolutely, absolutely. And I think the community is as well. And I think that what we see at the university level is also paralleled at the level of the city. And so, there’s a lot of conversation about civility these days in [48:00] Charlottesville. “Let’s make Charlottesville civil again.” Or there’s a wonderful story in the New York Times and part of it included a comment from a downtown business owner who said, you know, “I’ve been in this community for 28 years and I’ve never heard anyone complain about these statues until those outside agitators came in.” And I thought, “Have I time travelled to like 1961? Like really?” And it’s like well, of course when you only talk to other business owners and you don’t know any black people, it makes perfect sense that this would be… this would seem like a completely irregular experience to you. But these are the types of folks who are calling for politeness and civility and I really have been urging people to be careful about not allowing fascists to harness our civic virtues and these institutions. So, in the same way that [49:00] they’ve harnessed the courts and the, you know, you have someone like Kessler suing an activist for yelling at him in public and winning five dollars. Just like, you know, the same people that beat up DeAndre Harris in the parking garage, pressed charges against him for assault. Like, these are dangerous things and dangerous people, but they are using the courts, they are using notions of… that we value like civility and politeness to kind of you know normalize white supremacy and that is something that I think that everyone should be alarmed about.

DM: Everyone. I was talking to somebody the other day because back to Jefferson, Jefferson could not be more civil in Notes on [the State of] Virginia. That even in those queries where he’s making the most outlandish claims that are [50:00] racist and racialist, he’s calm. His prose conforms to what most people would consider impersonality, detachment, objectivity. There is civility aplenty on the surface, or few would quarrel, but the idea or the demand for civility is, I would agree with you, is coextensive at this moment with a demand and albeit unspoken to let us do what we want to do, without your complaining and again, this won’t be anything that could make its way into an interview, but the one time Al Sharpton ran for president and people were interviewing him, “Well, Reverend Sharpton. Why are you so angry? Why are you constantly protesting?” And he says, “Well, I’ll tell you what, if you’re pouring piss on my head, I’m not [51:00] gonna call it rain.” And so, we are expected to call things rain and that, you know, someone is beating you and then you’re supposed to say kick me, beat me, make me write bad checks. It is this idea that the demand for civility is coextensive with some of the most repressive, oppressive and violent actions being taken at the same time. And so, civility is one of these terms that has to be considered not in the abstract. It has to be considered in relation in historical time. Audience, speaker, who’s calling for civility?

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 at the time, so say the docents, and, you know, Jefferson will be entertaining and then he would open this door and then food would come out of this closet and he would put in the dirty dishes would go down and then you would close it and basically it’s a dumb waiter and the food is being transported through the floor into the basement where there is a kitchen that must be at all times more than 110 degrees with the fires and all of those things that are running but it hides the means of its production and just like Jefferson and Monticello and [53:00] UVA, hide their slavery in favor of beauty. And so, it’s just like what [Toni] Morrison was saying in Beloved right when Sethe looks at Sweet Home, she says it’s beautiful, but there was not a leaf or a blade a blade of grass on that place that did not make her want to scream and it made her wonder if Hell was a pretty place too. And so, if you look at Monticello, you look at UVA you see how beautiful it is a lot of that is structured by slavery and it was, and he was, Jefferson was a great host. And so, this notion of hospitality, civility, all of these things cloak and conceal white supremacy in its basest forms and today I believe the calls for civility and politeness, to not raise your voice, to not protest, to not complain, is an extension of that.

Sally Hemings exhibit at Monticello and question of terminology: is 'rape' an appropriate term?

DM: Very much so. The exhibition that’s up now at Monticello is, we can’t [54:00] wait to see it and we’re going to take our student interns to see it, and it’s focused on Sally Hemings. But yeah, so you didn’t know about it?

LW: I heard of it, but I’ve not seen it myself. I’ve not been to see it.

DM: We are going and it’s what I’m calling, without having seen it, a non exhibition exhibition in that there is very little, in the material form, that can be a part of the exhibition. I mean, even we don’t have an absolutely definitive image of Hemings and so a shadow has to be projected on the wall to stand in the place where something else might stand. So, when one of the curators talked about the exhibition to the New York Times, she used the term rape. That we should now finally talk about rape at Monticello. And so, I’ve [55:00] wanted to ask as many people as we can, what do you think about that terminology even given all of the ways in which we can de-idealize Jefferson and should. What about the analytical terminology? What terms are appropriate to summon when talking about Jefferson? Is rape useful?

LW: I think that I think the word is absolutely useful. I mean, what other word would you use to have sex with someone who cannot consent to have sex with you? This was Jefferson having sex with a teenager that he owned in body and in spirit. This is someone who he owned, this person and any shadow she might cast. And so to me, even though I believe that there are folks who, people do this a lot less of course than they used to, want to romanticize this as some forbidden [56:00] love or whatever. There’s… it seems significant me that he never freed her. And that there was something about her captivity that was essential to the relationship. And so, I don’t know if you call it compromised consent? I don’t know how it’s even possible to to make that determination. But when someone cannot consent, it’s like having sex with someone who is asleep. Is that rape? I’d say so. You know, this person, you know, her yes, or her no didn’t really matter. And if he wanted it all to work out and be a relationship, then he could have freed her and then courted her and married her and then, you know, he was a former president and rich. He could do whatever he wanted. This was someone who helped to free the nation. Surely he could free one teenager.

[57:00]

JP: What if an interesting about that is that I guess, it’s sort of an… you’re using that as sort of an analogy. So, like what do we have in our contemporary lexicon that can be equivalent to or comparable to that idea of what was happening at that time? So, using using the force of the concept of rape perhaps not the legal sense of what constitutes rape but in terms of an analogy of what that situation might have been like if that’s fair to say.

LW: Yeah. I know maybe the word rape is… it conjures in the minds of some people what maybe the word activist conjures for me. Not that these are both, you know, one is terrible and one is not terrible, but that these are terms that are highly charged and very fraught and very weighted. For some people, you can’t be raped by someone you know. For some people you can’t be raped by someone you’re married to. For some people you can’t be raped if you’re a sex worker. For some people [58:00] you can’t be raped if you’ve had sex with this person before. For some people you can’t be raped unless you conceive. I mean there’s all of these like rules that people want to put on rape that make it as narrow as possible. It’s almost like asking the average white person what is racism? There are no racists to be found anywhere in America apparently except for the KKK, you know, you have to have insignia and a pointed white hood to be a racist these days. But it seems to me that… and I appreciate the kind of challenge of vocabulary, but for me, the system of slavery itself was so corrosive and deeply corrupt that any possibilities, I would say, of mutually, constitutive, sexual relationships are kind of hard to create in that kind of environment. Like I [59:00] think that we have a difficult time kind of imagining that working at all. Maybe one example might be, I think, the Joan Little case from the 1970s? This was a woman who was raped by a prison guard, you know, so like could she even have consented in this case? This person had… she was a kid. She was a teenager. She was a kid. This person had power over her, like I don’t know. It just seems like the system, the structure of the society, the structure of the relationship, was already so tainted and corrupt that how can you have sex with a person you own, a person who has no means or power or volition that’s legally recognizable to their yes, or to their no? And so, for me, rape does work even if you want to think about rape as, you know, I don’t know. It just seems, it’s [60:00] compromised. It’s incredibly compromised.

Keywords for Jefferson

JP: That’s wonderful and I’m thinking too back to your… to your class how you gave an assignment to create a dictionary.

LW: A glossary.

JP: Yeah, can you just talk a bit about that just really briefly because I’m just saying in a sort of or sort of sidebar way that we may adapt that.

LW: Everyone’s copying my idea. There’s a lot of people in the college fellows program, I’m not going to name names because I’m friends with some of these people, but they have copied a lot of my ideas and one of them was to have the students do a glossary. And so, we went through the course for seven weeks, each week we had a theme and each theme had a reading and two keywords attached to them. And for the keywords, they had to write definitions of those keywords and see how they appeared in the reading and how they applied to the context of the class. So that… I gave them all these little bound stitched notebooks and they [61:00] would, you know, fill them out throughout the semester. I mean, it was really useful. So like one week we had them… I had them look at the trailer to I Am Not Your Negro, we read “What to The Slave was the Fourth of July,” and I think we might have watched the Kendrick Lamar video and the two words for that week were independence and freedom. And so, they had to think about those two words. I had them look up… we spent a good amount of time looking at the word “cuck.” And which is… or it started from cuck-servative. This is an alt-right term to describe basically traitors to the white race, you know, usually from back in the day and the you know, 16th, 15th, 17th centuries, a cuck was basically a bird that laid its eggs in another bird’s nest and it meant later on [62:00] when a man was cheated on by his wife.

DM: So that’s where cuckolding comes from.

LW: That’s where cuckolding comes from. And a cuck now is used within the alt-right and white supremacist movement to talk about basically white people who are traitors to the white race. I had them look up Black Lives Matter and talk about that. So, there was a lot of different things that that they did every week and it was that was a really fruitful project. We did eugenics. It was a ton of great terms that students looked up and thought about and came prepared to discuss in class.

JP: What would be your… what would be your keyword for Jefferson?

LW: Oh, that is that was sneaky question, James. The keyword for Jefferson. Well, they did get two and so I’m gonna hedge. Yeah, they got two words. I [63:00] think I might just say liberalism and illiberalism. Like what does it mean to put freedom and bondage at the same time in one person. Someone who espoused the ideas of freedom for some based in the bondage of others.

Niya Bates

Transcript (text only)

Interviewee: Niya Bates, Public Historian of African-American Life and Culture at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello

Interviewer(s): Deborah E. McDowell; James Perla

Interview date: 2018-07-29

Interview Summary: Interview with Niya Bates, Public Historian of African-American Life and Culture at Monticello. The interview took place at Monticello. In it, Bates discussed an exhibit on Sally Hemings, the physical environment of Monticello, Jefferson and Hemings’ relationship, Hemings family history, and the role of institutions today.

Keywords: Thomas Jefferson, Sally Hemings, Monticello, built environment, slavery, African American History

Transcription: Hahna Cho

Introductions

James Perla: Do you want to maybe describe where we are right now and the purpose for our visit here to Monticello.

Deborah McDowell: We are in the splendid landscape of Monticello having taken the path through beautiful gardens, listening to [0:30] the birds, awaiting Niya Bates’s arrival to talk about, among other things, the current exhibition of Sally Hemings, the Getting Word Project and various and sundry other activities of Monticello. Niya Bates I think I see approaching us here, is an expert on all things [1:00] slavery and particularly on Sally Hemings and whatever relationship she had with Thomas Jefferson.

JP: Wonderful. Yeah. We’re kind of sitting out in front. Uh, really just parallel. To um, I guess the back of the home. Yeah, back of the Jefferson’s home. Had some nice classical architecture, those columns. It’s really just very [1:30] symmetrical.

DM: And the order of the environment even with all of the curvature, the house is very rectilinear. Everything is rectilinear. But surrounding it is all of these wonderful rolling serpentine designs replicated on the grounds of the University.

JP: Yeah. Hi. Yeah to meet you. Thanks for coming out.

(Overlapping introductions) [2:00]

DM: Thank you now. So you’re in capable hands and you’re incapable hands. So I’m gonna vacate the premises. Give my best to Carmenita. I will thank you.

JP: And I hope you don’t mind we moved things around just slightly to get two seats here.

Niya Bates: No, that’s fine. You’d be surprised. These benches go all over the mountain path. Oh yeah, I mean people [2:30] picnic out here.

DM: Oh, is that allowed?

NB: You know… “Allowed.”

JP: I was gonna say I’m like I’m using my white privilege for good here to like rearrange the things but I guess that people do that anyways.

NB: Yeah, I mean that says a lot about our average visitor.

Different Levels of Engagement at Monticello

DM: Haha, touche. Touche. What’s it like then if that’s your average visitor?

NB: Um, you know, sometimes it’s pushing a rock [3:00] uphill especially when you’re having more complicated discussions about race and identity and colorism and rape and consent, uh, it can be very difficult sometimes for people who are not necessarily open or primed for those conversations, uh even more so when we have guides who are very excellent interpreters, they’re good at telling stories but not everyone has the same level of comfort with these topics. So, I mean you can get wide-ranging [3:30] conversations from very complex theoretical, you know professor-like conversations about these issues and then you can also have people who are just coming to it for the first time and or maybe resistant.

JP: And you have to plan around that those different levels of engagement.

NB: We do have to plan around those different levels of engagement. So that’s the challenge of seeing almost half a million visitors a year.

JP: Wow. That’s yeah. Yeah, that’s amazing.

NB: Right? I mean you’re here on [4:00] peak season and I’m sure our listeners can’t see what’s going on. But you can and there are a lot of people here today and we’re running tours every five minutes and it’s that’s what a peak day looks like at Monticello.

JP: Wonderful. Yeah. Well, would you like to just describe the scene a little bit? Um, Although our listeners can’t see that you know, it’s uh, I’m sure they’ll be able to maybe picture certain elements. What are we looking at? Where are we? How are you feeling?

DM: Sure. We’re basically in Jefferson’s backyard. We’re at the West Lawn at Monticello sitting at the very back [4:30] of the garden. You can see near us some serpentine flower beds, to our left is one of the oldest trees on the mountain top. Actually on the other side of the green tree that you’re all looking at is maybe one tree that we think, cedar, we think it was here when Jefferson and the enslaved community were here. Uh, just down the hill to our right.

JP: Is it just that tree right there to the left?

NB: Yeah. It’s just behind that tree. We could actually see it from a different angle, but there is a cedar tucked in between that growth and just [5:00] all the way to our right down the hill is Mulberry Row, which is the plantation main street of Monticello. There are a few reconstructed buildings there and then of course, uh, you’re looking at the terraces left and right up the house. Uh, so to the left of the house is the South Terrace and under that would have been the carriage bays and to the right of the house is the North Terrace. I’m sorry, is the South Terrance and under the South Terrace would have been The Life of Sally Hemings exhibit, Getting Word, and the Granger Hemings kitchen some of these spaces we’re interpreting. [5:30]

JP: Wonderful. Um, yeah. So, uh, I’m glad that we’re just jumping right into it here, um, a few just like comments for I guess, um, uh sort of this interview. I’ve noticed since I’ve been sitting here that there might be some planes that are going by from time to time if there is a very obvious plane going overhead I might just kind of put my hand up and ask you to sort of pause. But yeah apart from that like we said in our email just kind of a free-flowing conversation. We have a few prepared questions that will follow up with from that [6:00] initial email that we sent you. Um, and yeah from there I’m just hoping that we can have kind of a free-flowing conversation. And so um, I guess just to start if you might just um, say your name and title and what you do here just just that we have it on.

NB: Sure. My name is Niya Bates and I’m a Public Historian of Slavery and African-American life at Monticello. I am also Director of the Getting Word African-American Oral History Project.

JP: Thanks. Um and so you were a UVA [6:30] graduate, correct? At the Carter G. Woodson Institute.

NB: That’s right. Yeah. I’m a “double Hoo.” I have a bachelor’s in African and African American Studies and a graduate degree in Architectural History and Historic Preservation.

JP: Excellent. Um, you’ve been in these parts for quite some time. Has your thoughts about Jefferson changed over time?

NB: Oh, certainly. I mean sure I was a student at the University but I also grew up in Charlottesville. This is my hometown and I don’t remember a single school year where [7:00] I didn’t come up to Monticello on a field trip and some of my earliest memories, probably when I was about nine or ten on a field trip, we’re asking a guide who Sally Hemings is and the response was “Oh, we don’t talk about her.” Um, so that was kind of my first impression of Monticello and that’s been like 20 years, of course, but um, uh, Monticello has changed a lot since then and I think um, the more that I study Jefferson the more I get to know some of the intricacies of life here at Monticello for the enslaved community, [7:30] the more complicated my opinions of him become.

DM: And would you say something about what the nature of some of those complications are say, if you had to say whatever the three top ways in which your understanding of Jefferson have been complicated since your arrival.

Jefferson's Contradictions and Writing on Race in Notes on the State of Virginia

NB: Certainly. So, my graduate degree is in African — I mean, sorry my graduate degrees in architectural history. And of course Jefferson was a brilliant architect and a great designer and he contributed so much to our kind of iconic [8:00] American architecture – bricks, columns, neo-colonial or neo-classicist architecture. Um, brought this Italianate Renaissance style to Virginia and to an early America and that’s something that I really applaud. He’s a great designer. But some of the things that are really flawed about his life are the ways that he writes about interacting with people of African descent. He writes in his only book, Notes on the State of Virginia, about racial hierarchy. [8:30] He writes about sort of pseudo-scientific racist beliefs that black people are inferior. That they are not capable of love, not capable of emotion, not capable of being a writer like Phyllis Wheatley. I mean that’s one of the people he discredited. Uh, and you look at his life and everything he did is provided by black people. I mean someone is dressing him, someone is stoking the fires in his room, someone is likely passing and paper, all of his meals are prepared by black enslaved people and all of his wealth [9:00] is tied to the institution of slavery. So that makes it very complex to understand him. You want to wait till they… 

JP: Probably wait till the tour passes, but I do I do have a question since you mentioned about Jeffersonian architecture that I’d like you to uh expand a bit since since we’re here, um, in this sort of like whatever he called the Lawn, you know, the um, case study in architecture. I forget the exact language that UVA’s Lawn um, but yeah, maybe we’ll just be patient here [9:30] as the tour passes and we maybe we can have some idle chatter too.

DM: Yeah, and maybe I don’t well, you can’t can’t pick her up. But I was gonna say if we could turn the mic and case.

JP: We could yeah, we can maybe see what we can do.

NB: Sure and some context on the tour we’re overhearing, this is a garden tour. So, it starts just there by the fish pond to the right side of the house. Um, and so you’re going to get a lot of history about the plants about Wormely Hughes, the enslaved gardener who really [10:00] sort of led the work with the gardens. You’ll also get a little bit about Jefferson’s beliefs about plants, trying out different types of things.

JP: He liked to experiment.

NB: He did uh, some of the memoirs from the enslaved community say that he liked to tinker in the garden himself, but we always have to remind people that majority of work is done by enslaved people.

JP: Yeah, I think tinker is a keyword. I don’t know I feel like that’s come up a lot like you. He’s always tinkering, right? [10:30]

NB: Always tinkering, uh, some people think of him as an inventor. I would call him someone who just experimented with a lot of different things, an early adapter I would say of new technology.

JP: A DIY, maybe?

NB: A DIY, maybe. That’s a good way…

JP: Um, you have some interesting thoughts about Jefferson and plants. Oh man.

DM: Well, I just have to go back through the the notes. I’ve taught it lots times and haven’t thought it through completely but uh, I have I should go back to my earlier lecture [11:00] notes where when Jefferson is talking about plants and nature and botanical matters. When he’s talking about hybridizing, for example, the language of the text just become so much more excitable and in many cases, it’s my students would think it was just the imaginings of a mad middle-aged school teacher, but I would say that the language became [11:30] even slightly eroticized at those moments when he is talking about hybridizing. It’s in the botanical world, but it’s clearly extrapolable or can be generalized to at least think about other things.

JP: So, in his language, in the, in the prose, it almost gets and hybridizing? So, this is like when you join plants together, sort of tinkering in the garden.

DM: Yeah. It’s it’s um at those moments where he’s talking about [12:00] hybridity in the botanical world. Again, this is all interpretive. This is when people sometimes scoff at literary scholars because it’s not anything you can prove. This is all interpretation.

JP: But it has some insights into perhaps his… Yeah. His worldview and experiences?

DM: Yes. Because there are always ways when people are writing where language exceeds our own grasp. Language, exceeds our intentions. [12:30] We know what we want to say, right? We know how we want to say it even but somehow there is an inevitable slip between what we want and imagine and what actually appears.

NB: Right, and for him he’s also thinking about his legacy. So it’s more about how people remember it or how people perceive his language. I mean….

JP: Yeah, and he said she mentioned such a measured writer. So, for those moments where it’s almost like there’s less, um, the stakes are a little bit less high? [13:00] You know, there’s not as much stakes in talking about plants and grafting like, you know, um, botanical things together and so maybe that’s a little part of it where those, that is the slippage? Maybe? I don’t know.

DM: Well, that’s that’s the only thing I’m suggesting it’s not anything I would labor over but as we think about Jefferson in all of the ways he’s actually trying to conceal so much about the beastly inhuman, uh, [13:30] monstrosity that was slavery. I mean that the lens to which he’s going all the time not just in his writing, in the architecture to conceal the workings of this design and these experiments that, uh, whatever one has to work so hard to contain, is gonna erupt. I hesitate to incorporate Freud here and I don’t worship at his shrine, but [14:00] he got some things right. The repressed will return.

Monticello's Design and Hiding the Labor of Enslaved Peoples

JP: That’s for sure and on that topic, um, not Freud but of concealing. I wanted to pick up on a conversation you were kind of alluding to just a moment ago about Jefferson’s architecture, you know his contributions and in the classical sense, um, but also the way that he hides labor, he hides the means of production and you know in terms of being a lesson in architecture, um, Monticello more than other [14:30] places. I mean we’re sitting on the top of the mountain and I don’t see much. I wonder if you could maybe meditate on that a bit and then also talk about the place we are now in kind of what we can see and what we can’t see.

NB: Sure. So we’re sitting on the West Lawn and you cannot see Mulberry Row from here. Um, and I think for a lot of people under first examination, it would seem that perhaps Jefferson is trying to hide the labor of enslaved people but the reality of 18th and 19th century living is that you can’t hide the labor of [15:00] enslaved people. They’re doing everything. they are everywhere on the mountain top. They’re in the house, they are on Mulberry Row, they’re out in the fields and mind you, this is a large plantation. Monticello sits at the center of a 5,000 acre plantation. At any given time, there are 120 to 140 enslaved people here. It is a large plantation and the activity of the enslaved community is everywhere. Uh, so in the architecture, I would say Jefferson is not necessarily hiding but minimizing the presence of enslaved people [15:30] through techniques like, uh locating the service activities things like the kitchen, the laundry, the deli. I mean, the deli, haha. The dairy, uh, the kitchen, the laundry, the dairy is putting those in the wings that are underground here. So, what you see here are just the tops of these terraces, but there are work spaces below those railings that are built into the side of the mountain top and there are passageways from those south wings that lead to the house. So, as an enslaved person, say you are James [16:00] Hemings or Edith Fossett and you’ve prepared a meal in the kitchen. Uh, you can take that through that subterranean service passage under the house and up into the dining room. And in the dining room, there’s a dumbwaiter so you can set that food on the dumbwaiter and leave. It minimizes the amount of enslaved people that have to be serving a meal and I would say that’s really the core of Jefferson’s architectural design. He uses the same techniques at the University of Virginia. If you look at [16:30] The Pavilions on the Lawn, they’re the center of his Academical Village and as much as he wanted to minimize students bringing their own enslaved people, I think there was some awareness that professors and students would do that anyway. So, you have the spaces under the pavilions that became workspaces and that shift to either allow more functionality or to allow more light. The designs are very thoughtful in that respect to how they organize work. So, here at Monticello, there’s a great big spatialized [17:00] landscape of labor. So, you have the house where you have more domestic workers, people who are taking care of the china, people who are cleaning the house. Priscilla Hemings who would have been the nursemaid, who would have been working in the nursery on the third floor. And then you have your spaces that I just described that are out in the wings underground and then the next level is Mulberry Row. And Mulberry Row is really the industrial hub. That’s where things are converted from the raw materials collected out in the field into objects. So, that’s where your carpenter [17:30] shop, your joinery, the tinsmith, the metalsmith, those kind of things are taking place and then at distance you have the quarter farms and that’s really where the agricultural production is taking place. So, there is a really specialized hierarchy of labor.

JP: Um, just a quick follow-up. I mean, so you’re suggesting and I might have just misunderstood a little bit but you’re suggesting that you know, the function of the dumbwaiters in these underground passages were more about efficiency or is there an element too of Jefferson [18:00] not wanting to see or be seen particularly when he’s entertaining guests of them not wanting to see the enslaved workforce or is that kind of a misnomer?

Thomas Jefferson's Relationship with Sally Hemings is contentious as early as 1802.

NB: I’m suggesting both. Uh, there’s a lot of efficiency happening here. There’s a lot of mechanization of work, uh, which is perhaps a different, is different than a lot of plantations actually. When you look at most plantations where we’re sitting would probably be where the outbuildings are. And instead this is a garden. This is a reflective space, a private space for the family [18:30] and the work is not visible here. It is located down on Mulberry Row. Uh, so what Jefferson is doing is basically turning this into a big machine. But the second part of that is that when he’s entertaining because he is very cognizant of the fact that people are visiting. I think his granddaughters write in their diaries that people used to just drive up to Monticello, press their face against glass and hope to be invited in. So, there were lots of times that people would just be up here and there’d be large dinner parties. And for those events [19:00] he is minimizing the presence of enslaved people, especially when it becomes kind of contentious and what I’m speaking of is like early 1800s when he’s running for political office people start noticing that there are a lot of lighter-skinned enslaved people here at Monticello and that uh, they are describing those people to look like Thomas Jefferson, right? So, it serves him to keep fewer people around that dinner table if you go inside.

JP: Wow, can you just I mean like what?

NB: Yeah, you know so Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings [19:30] is contentious as early as 1802. James Callender smears him basically in a newspaper and he says, you know, he has children with, as Callender described her “Black Sal” or uh, “Dusky Sally” and uh, the kids look just like Thomas Jefferson and of course, they’re using that against him as a political tool, but they’re also calling out a relationship with an enslaved woman.

JP: Which at the time was common so who needs DNA evidence? Right?

NB: Well, I think the DNA evidence really gave credence [20:00] to the oral history of these families. I mean these enslaved families never forgot their oral history and they carried that through 200 years. Um, but I think what was overlooked because they were African-Americans, because they had been enslaved, historians were not taking their oral histories Seriously. and one of the arguments that uh, Sally Hemings scholar, Annette Gordon-Reed, makes is that for all this time, they intentionally overlooked the narratives of the enslaved community because there were lots of stereotypes [20:30] and misconceptions about African-American intelligence about the reliability of the information from their oral history. So, uh, the DNA really backed that up, but honestly, uh these families never doubted their connection to Thomas Jefferson.

DNA Evidence

DM: It’s so interesting to think about the DNA. This is gonna be a pretty long preamble. So, bear with me, uh, it’s interesting to think about the DNA because when it is convenient for people who worship at the shrine of science to say, well, we don’t trust oral history because [21:00] we can’t prove it, that we need the unimpeachable evidence that science provides. Now I was at uh, Kenwood the afternoon the announcement was made that, um, by Dr. Foster. now, Dr. Foster was this retired pathologist this avuncular man, and he made the very modest statement that if the man reported to be Thomas Jefferson’s father was in fact [21:30] his father, then we can ascertain, the DNA can ascertain for us that Jefferson fathered at least one of Sally Hemings’s children. So, this was a completely modest proposition. Now there were people that afternoon prepared to introduce into the conversation the speculation well that perhaps Thomas Jefferson’s father was not his father. That’s so unimaginable, was it, that that science [22:00] had now verified this for us? All right. So, there’s this there is that that when it is convenient to incorporate science into the conversation, let’s have science but when science gives you what you think you must have, then science can be suddenly questioned or at least we can demure a bit. If not reject science we can say well maybe the man reported to be his daddy was not his daddy [22:30]. As black people, say mama’s baby, papa’s maybe. I guess I don’t really want to know.

NB: Right. Well and then look at the other theories that have arisen since the DNA testing, uh, most of the people who continue to deny Jefferson’s paternity of Sally Hemings’s children like to offer alternatives. Well clearly it was his brother. Clearly because now it has to be another male Jefferson. And at first it was oh it was the Carr nephews. Well when the DNA said no, there’s no possibility then it’s like, oh we have to find [23:00] somebody else who who it could be and people are jumping through hoops to find other theories, but basically if you compare the DNA, the oral history, all of the evidence of who was here at Monticello and who was not nine months before all of Sally Hemings’s children. It could not have been anyone but Thomas Jefferson.

JP: Yeah. Um, yeah, that’s incredible. So, uh, I have a brief follow-up because we’re here and, you know, you hear some car sounds, you hear some other sounds [23:30] and, um, just a brief way of closing the loop on the architectural conversation. Um sound uh, that was one thing that you know, because we always talk about sight lines, but what might Jefferson and the people visiting Monticello hear on an average day? I mean, uh, you’re up in an elevated space, could they hear, um Mulberry Row? The activity?

NB: Oh absolutely. 18th century living was notoriously disgusting. Like there was nothing pleasant about being [24:00] in eighteenth-century, Virginia and you’re at the top of a mountain, Jefferson and his family and the enslaved community always struggled with water issues here. So, you would have heard lots of carts probably from people going down to the Rivanna River and bringing water back up. Uh, you would have heard chopping wood. Uh, we’re not too far from where the coal sheds are. They would have been just down the hill behind us. So, you would have heard that. You would have smelled smoke, you would have, there would have been animals here, lots of chickens on Mulberry Row. Uh, so you would have heard some clucking [24:30] um, and you would have heard work, honestly. I mean, uh, you heard activities from the kitchen. Um, I’m not good at describing these kind of sonic presences here, but it would have been a very noisy place.

JP: Yeah. So, the claim that in some ways Jefferson was trying to hide labor, it’s like how much can you really hide?

NB: Right? How much can you really hide? The truth is not much, uh the house that you see now is extremely curated but it never would have been this clean. It never would have been this pretty. There was certainly a lot going on here. [25:00]

Complicating Hemings and Jefferson: Rape, Agency, and Consent

DM: Back to the question of Sally Hemings, Jefferson, the children, rape, trying to segue into the exhibition, uh, and perhaps by way of Annette Gordon-Reed. Uh, obviously she’s done the world a great service since she did these books on Jefferson and Hemings and she’s inclined to claim for that relationship, [25:30] a dimension that other historians and lay people are not. In other words, She seems not to want to say categorically nothing could have obtained between Jefferson and Hemings. Uh, that was anything but reducible to rape, to exploitation, uh, brutality, etc. She seems not to want to go that far. [26:00] She seems to want more inclined to want to say something could have passed between these people despite what we know about consent and such. Where… talk to us a little bit about that.

NB: Sure. Yeah, in Annette’s work, she puts out the possibility that it could have been a romantic relationship and I think that uh, her approach there is that if we just call it rape, [26:30] then we remove any possibility that Sally Hemings had any agency in the relationship. Uh, we can all imagine even in contemporary America, situations where a relationship may have been consensual and then wasn’t or started as rape and then became consensual. So, there’s a spectrum of where this relationship could have fallen, but I think the things that are critical to point out about the relationship, the sexual relationship at least, between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings is that there is a gross [27:00] power imbalance. Uh, he is 30 years her senior, he’s her owner, she does not have the ability or the power to say no in this situation. Um, she is second generation biracial so that means her mother had children by a white man and her grandmother did the same. Uh, so there are lots of things that are at play. Uh, this could have been something or a strategy for her to achieve more privilege for her children, right? [27:30] Uh, we know from her son Madison that in negotiating with Thomas Jefferson, she negotiated extraordinary privilege for herself and freedom for their four children who survived. So, they have six children together; two die as infants and four live to be adult and they’re all freed. They are the only nuclear family at Monticello for that to happen. Uh, so we can’t rule out the possibility that Sally Hemings, even at the young age of 16, had the foresight to negotiate some power in the situation for herself, which is I think why [28:00] we have to give it, uh space to not just be rape and to not just be consent. Perhaps there is more there.

JP: Yeah, um just a brief clarifying questions about the freeing uh, Jefferson and Sally Hemings’ children. Um, we spoke with Mia Bay a few weeks ago, the historian, and um, she suggested that um, and it’s been quite some years but since she’s done this research, so it was, you know, very tentative at best, but she suggested [28:30] that you know, Jefferson didn’t free them until they turned 21 and so, um making the the implication that like maybe they had earned their value quote-unquote in that system. And so just to complicate maybe the benevolence of freeing Sally Hemings’ children? I wonder if you can just clarify that for us just so that we have another perspective on that.

Hemings descendants passing for white in VA

NB: Right, and I think the easiest way to do that is to say he owned 607 people and in his lifetime he only freed 10. Um, [29:00] I think that removes any benevolent factor of someone being able to work hard enough to earn their freedom. He freed Sally Hemings’ children because they made an agreement and as Madison says he upheld that; a verbal agreement with an enslaved woman. He does the same with her older brother who he also freed because James Hemings while in Paris negotiated his own freedom at the sake of his brother, which is an interesting family dynamic but, um, you know, I think we have to look at Jefferson’s racial beliefs to really get to the core [29:30] of understanding what happened with his children. Uh, he writes in Notes on the State of Virginia and it’s law at the time basically that anyone who is 7/8ths white is white. And his children with Sally Hemings are 7/8ths white. They are light enough to pass. So, he allows Beverly and Harriet the two oldest, uh, Beverly being his oldest son and Harriet being their only daughter together, uh frees them and they pass into white society and we never hear from them again. Um, when he dies, Eston [30:00] and Madison are freed in the will and they go to live in Charlottesville where in 1830 they’re both listed as free white along with their mother Sally Hemings, which is interesting. They’re listed as free white, but then Virginia gets very strict after the Nat Turner rebellion, and they’re required to register for free and when they do so they register as black and they’re required to leave the state of Virginia.

So, they move to Southern Ohio and from there one of them chooses to remain African-American and that’s Madison and his brother Eston decides [30:30] to move one more time to Wisconsin changes his name from Eston Hemings to E.H. Jefferson and his descendants go on believing that they are Irish immigrants, which is a really interesting story. that’s passed down in the oral history. So, um, it’s complicated but I think the core of their racial identity is really why Jefferson frees them.

JP: That’s fascinating.

DM: Fascinating, enlightening in the whole range of other things we could add here. [31:00] Uh, I’m not going to keep sticking to this one note but to go back just once more to the idea of Sally Hemings and what power and agency she may or may not have had. As a literary scholar, of course, I’m inclined to have many references to literature and especially to the literature of enslaved people. So, I think when I think about Sally Hemings, about Harriet Jacobs [31:30] for example and Harriet Jacobs while she fends herself against the unwanted sexual aggressions of her owner, Dr. Flint, uh, she does enter willingly into a relationship with uh, another white plantation owner. He’s not her owner, um, but he is a part of the system and she talks about it explicitly as a choice on her part. [32:00] It is better to give oneself is what she’s saying in essence. I’m paraphrasing her, uh, than, you know, in other words to choose your own love object then to have somebody force himself upon you. So, she and her children are also vulnerable to and victims of the system, but she enters into that, uh consciously, willingly. Uh, she too is young and I think in addition to thinking [32:30] about race and racial identity in this conversation, we also have to think about for the historical record the fact that separate stages of childhood that we honor and assume at our historical moment did not obtain in this era so that childhood as this period of a separate stage, a separate and protected stage of development, is fairly late in human history [33:00] and is not obtaining people at the age of 14 could be married at the time. This is not to erase any of the complications you have introduced into the conversation but to say that this is so bedeviling because we have to consider all of these issues in space and time.

Complicating Hemings through the perspective of childhood

NB: Right, Exactly. And I think that’s a really good point you make because I actually should have mentioned what the age of consent in Virginia was at that time and it’s 10. It’s 10 years old. Um, [33:30] Sally Hemings is not considered a child at 16. In fact many white women at the time are not considered children either. Uh, so this is really as a scholar who’s here currently on fellowship, her name is Montia Gardner. She’s been doing some research on reproductive resistance of enslaved women and she suggests that it’s a gender issue and not a racial one. It really is that Sally Hemings is considered a woman by the time she’s 16, and some more background on what children are doing here. I mean by the age of five you have a job [34:00] and from 5 to 10, you’re doing things like babysitting other children, carrying water to people who are working. This is not a world where you get to hold onto childhood until you’re 18. It’s just not how that was. And I think um, you know, Deborah is right to point out that you don’t have a childhood in the modern sense.

Challenges of creating the Sally Hemings exhibit at Monticello

JP: Yeah, and so the exhibit I mean what were some challenges in making this exhibit? I mean you point out this really rich actual amount of historical detail about [34:30] the Hemings family, but I know that Deborah’s pointed out that there’s no sort of authoritative image of Sally Hemings herself and so I don’t know. I wonder if you can maybe just speak a bit about the unique challenges of mounting this exhibit.

NB: Right, you know, in working on this exhibit one of the first things we became aware of is that while Sally Hemings has always been one of the most famous or one of the most recognizable enslaved women in the U.S. by her story, we actually don’t know a ton about her private life. Uh, we don’t have any [35:00] photographs of her. Uh, so we weren’t willing to make leaps in the exhibit about her complexion or about how straight is “long, straight, dark hair?” Uh, how long is long hair? Um, she’s described as being a very handsome which is pretty but like what do those features mean? So, rather than guess at what she looked like we decided to represent her the same way that we were going to represent Martha. If we’re going to do Martha Jefferson, then uh and in her space put a dress and give her a [35:30] physical presence then we had to do the same for Sally Hemings. Um, so that was our first decision is she has to have a presence in the room. Uh, the second thing is putting her voice there and because we don’t have any writings from her and we assumed that perhaps she was literate, her brother was literate in both French and English. Um, you know, we’re making a little bit of a leap, but there are no papers from her. You know the nature of slavery is that there are rarely our papers from enslaved people. [36:00] So, uh, since we didn’t have her words the closest we could get was having her son Madison and having his testimony that he gave to a newspaper in Southern Ohio in 1873. Um, fortunately for us we were working with a firm out of Canada and they saw almost immediately that you could take Madison Hemings words and turn it into poetry. So, that’s what we decided to do in this space to make it as beautiful as possible and to allow people to have a most [36:30] intimate conversation with Sally Hemings and we did that with Madison’s words. So, the room itself is very simple. There’s no furniture we decided because there is the cook’s room in the same part of the house that you could already see what a slave quarter would have looked like so there was no need to reproduce another period room where we put a bed, furniture, and textiles there was no need for all that. So, the room is very simple you walk in and then there’s a multimedia presentation and that’s [37:00] narrated exclusively by Madison with some background sounds to illuminate the activities.

JP: Yeah. Um, it looks like it’s starting to maybe drizzle which should be Okay, as long as it doesn’t start pouring down. um, the the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences talks about needing to have the University of Virginia be a university of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. And so, I wonder if you can either speak on that [37:30] or are meditate on what sort of a Monticello by or for Sally Hemings may look like?

NB: you know, I think Monticello and the University of Virginia are both grappling with the same issue. And in many ways the city of Charlottesville after the August 12th white supremacist rally in 2017. Um, everyone has come up with an idea of the American founding and for a lot of people, uh, the founding is predominantly male and white. And while the people who are framing early [38:00] America are male and white and for the most part wealthy, uh, there are millions of other people here, most of them enslaved. Um, there are also Native Americans. This land that we are on is stolen so there are lots of layers to this history and we would be telling an incomplete story if you came here and you got a story about Thomas Jefferson, one dead white guy on a plantation of hundreds of other people. [38:30] Uh, that wouldn’t do it justice and it’s not enough just to talk about the enslaved community either because Jefferson was here and his family was here. Uh, so you have to talk about the women, you have to talk about the children, you have to talk about, uh, the hired workman who were here who were free white workman who lived in close proximity to enslaved people; you have to talk about that dynamic as well. Because that cuts at every subsection of the American population. That is our American story. That is something we can all see ourselves in. And as Monticello is telling the story we’re looking for a story that all Americans [39:00] can take in and can identify where they fit into this story. It also can’t be one that’s exclusively sad. It can’t be slavery was horrible all the time because it was, slavery was a terrible. It was demeaning it dehumanized people. Um, but it also um, you know slavery was the foundation of our new country and this is going to sound really harsh but America would have never become the world power that it is without the institution of slavery [39:30] and that is not glorify slavery, but it’s to acknowledge that it is the economic base of early America and we can’t tell a story about a president, about someone who served in political power who went abroad and represented this country without talking about the institution of slavery and the people who were here.

JP: Wonderful. Um, so yeah I wonder if we start maybe wandering to uh, you know to the enclosure but yeah, I mean, this is just a wonderful conversation.

DM: Really, I mean just so so rich, I’m just wondering if we get out of the rain. [40:00] You’re still free for lunch?

NB: Yeah. I’m still free for lunch. Uh, I can do lunch until two o’clock.

JP: Okay, great, great. Well, yeah we can kind of wander and I’m fine to kind of..

DM: And maybe would you mind if we turn the recorder on again because it’s just wonderfully rich..

NB: Yeah, no that’s fine.

JP: And I can kind of keep it, you know, yeah rolling a little bit.

DM: Yes, just amazing, exactly what we’re after here.

JP: Yeah. And luckily it’s not too much. [40:30]

DM: But really thinking about, uh, all exhibitions are involved in leaps of interpretation and leaps of imagination. Uh, but I can imagine people taking exception to the kind of exhibition you have mounted and not then having the generosity of spirit or for that matter [41:00], uh, the wealth of knowledge to say well all exhibitions involve interpretive leaps, right choices, certain choices, avoid other choices. Uh, and so how would you defend your exhibition against the skeptics unable to have that kind of intellectual elasticity?

NB: You know, [41:30] I don’t know that we necessarily have to defend it. Uh, we’ve presented all of the information outside of the room on text panels. And the reality of museum exhibitions is that not everybody’s going to like it. And for people who are not ready for these stories perhaps this is too bold of a statement, to give her a space, to give her story of space, to do something like you know give her that physical presence and to use [42:00] Madison’s memoir. A lot of people will say, “Well that’s not fact, that’s oral history. That’s the way he remembered it.” Well, we’re able to take Thomas Jefferson’s words and say that that’s fact. We’re happy to use his family’s words and say that that’s fact. It’s really only when it comes to these African-American perspectives where people are less willing to be generous in the information that they can conceive. So, yeah. [42:30]

JP: Pick a souvenir?

DM: Well, I don’t recognize this plant. I’m a gardener, too.

NB: Oh, they normally have plates that say what they are.

DM: Oh good and I wanted to take a picture, but I didn’t want to interrupt the… and uh..

NB: Joseph’s Coat Amaranths Tri-color.

DM: Joseph’s Coat.

NB: 1786.

DM: Because I yes, it obviously thrives here. Oh good, James, get it. Because I want this in my garden. [43:00] I don’t recognize it and I recognize every other plant along this this uh, path but I just didn’t recognize it.

(Conversation about plants)

Now when I said defend, I meant that kind of only in the loosest sense because I would agree with you that it does not need defending but that people will be prepared to accept, as you say, any other leaps of imagination [43:30] or any other representations of historical reality, right? If the descendants of Jefferson, if their words can be accepted and if they have a certain amount or provide historical record of a certain amount of veracity, why can’t, exactly. Yeah, I would completely agree and I think we’re bringing our students interns here on Tuesday [44:00] to see the exhibition. But I think one of the things we will definitely want to stress with them is that um, this is thinking of museums, we shouldn’t limit our thoughts to hard fact, is or isn’t.

NB: Sometimes you have to draw from the gray space. Oh, yeah, I mean you need so much about her [unintelligible] and you have to [44:30] quantify it in some way to put it into an exhibit.

DM: Exactly.

NB: And I think some of the things are, in my opinion, brilliant.

DM: I think the very idea of the exhibition is brilliant.

NB: Yeah, and I think you know the Canadian designers were excellent for seeing that early on. And for bringing us along with it.

DM: How did you settle on them? How did you settle on actually inviting people in to help you imagine the exhibition

NB: We kind of did it like you would do any process; [45:00]put out a call essentially. We sought out designers who we thought would have the right type of background, people who worked in theatre. We knew we wanted to do something more um involved. So, we went with a designer who had a lot of theater design and set design experience. And they ended up being the best pick.

DM: And what’s so interesting about that is we do not think about museological work [45:30] as in any way in the universe [unintelligible] in consultation with people whose domain is performance.

NB: Exactly, and for people outside of the U.S. who had like no preconceived Notions of American slavery, right? [46:00] Which is great because they saw the voids that most of our average visitors have because they don’t study this all the time.

Not so bad? Reconciling the beauty of Monticello with its history of violence

DM: Do you see, and what I love about that oh look at this. Look at this.

NB: This makes my job hard.

JP: What do you mean?

NB: This view is so pretty. Monticello is gorgeous, even though it’s a place where a lot of people experienced violence and inequality and just like a lot of pain. Uh, even Jefferson’s family. I mean his wife lost a couple children, She died in childbirth [46:30] after their sixth. I mean, there’s a lot of uh, very difficult emotions here and yet people come inevitably and they get this great view to the east they’re like, oh it’s not that bad, which is something we actually have to fight. We put a sign in one of the reconstructed quarters that says not so bad question mark, because we had a lot of people going in there and saying, “Oh this is kind of nice, it’s not that bad.” Uh, so we had to remind them that it you know, people could be sold and that’s the reality. [47:00]

DM: I like that you have adjusted the signage to reflect responses from the public. I find that in itself, because the idea that even the commitment to reinterpreting this history can itself continue to evolve, can continue to remain dynamic. It’s never frozen.

NB: And we’re thankful for that, right? I mean the interpretation here 25 years ago is nowhere what you get today, right?

DM: Nowhere near. [47:30] But on that question of not so bad, I’m reminded of uh, I don’t know if you were attended the second, um universities and slavery conference last October, but I’ve been asked to chair the panel and I had some ambivalence about joining the panel which featured um heads of institutions like Monticello, the person for Montpelier was there, and/or college presidents, who were all confronting their [48:00] slave pasts and that they had all chosen to highlight Henry the bell ringer or the Lemon Project at William and Mary and I said, well, what if we imagine as we are retelling this history or what if we had to consider that we may be contributing to sanitizing this history that if Henry got up every morning no matter what and faithfully rang the bell, why can’t we also find the space, even if we don’t have the documentary [48:30] evidence in the form of a figure like Henry the bell ringer or Lemon, that this was a brutal institution and people were undone by this institution? And so even in trying to imagine it in a way or reimagine it by saying well, despite it all whether you intend that or not, well you focus on the people who rang the bell every day, what you are saying inadvertently [49:00] is it wasn’t so bad. So, when I did say that the person from Monticello who was representing Monticello did say that they had had to consider that and I’m now glad to see that he did it. Because otherwise you do inadvertently create the sense that people endure, people survive. And that’s important. That’s an important part of the narrative, but it’s not the only part of the narrative so that even as we [49:30] say to go back to your earlier and very important point there was joy, there was tragedy, pain, there was joy, there was um, people sustaining family relations to the extent that they could uh, and that holding these things together simultaneously, uh is so important, uh, but for me, refusing to let slavery be incorporated into [50:00] a general tendency in this country to see everything in progressivist terms. We are getting better and better and better and better. I think it should be possible to say there was some people who did not survive this institution. Some people were undone by this institution and that undone-ness, they bequeathed to the generations that came after them and yes, we have to acknowledge that at the same time.

Limitations of a progressivist view of history

NB: I think for us and you’re pointing to the danger of having a singular narrative, [50:30] of having a history that goes from bad to better to best and we’re not there. We’ve never been that country and that’s kind of like the failure of the American Dream. It’s the failure of American exceptionalism. That we can never actually be a perfect country and we never have been and that our history instead of being this arc that goes from low to high is actually been more kind of hilly, you know, uh, uh, it’s more cyclical than we previously [51:00] thought.

DM: And the valleys have been low. And we’re in pretty low valley right now.

NB: And within those stories there are different highs and lows for each moment, but like even telling the story of James Hemings, it’s like yes, he was an exceptional, had an exceptional life; traveled to Paris, he was more or better traveled than most white Americans at the time. He went to Paris twice. We think he went there after he gained his freedom. He gained his freedom and he navigated this space from free to enslaved to free again. Um, but ultimately he committed [51:30] suicide and we have to acknowledge that he lived in a country that was not free and he couldn’t be free and his family couldn’t be free and that resulted in him taking his own life. Um, and these are the realities of slavery. So, how do we bring back something that can never be returned to a place? Obviously, we’re not going to take the road of doing reenactments of slavery, of people being beaten, people being punished, of people having everything taken from them, [52:00] having their children sold, we’re never going to recreate that atmosphere here, but we do have to complicate it for our visitor who often only thinks of the carceral punishment and not the psychological, not the type of trauma that is intergenerational, not the type of trauma that has survived to the present. You know? I may never know where my ancestors lived and worked uh fortunately for the families here, we had a great deal of records and we can give that back to them and we have a responsibility to do so, um, but it is hard. It’s challenging to do [52:30] both at the same time.

DM: Speaking of reenactments. I mean, I could just talk to you forever and ever and ever. Speaking of reenactments, what do you think of those environments that do go that route and more specific than that, what do you think of the Slave Dwelling Project? I think that’s the term where people are sleeping out, what do you make of that as a way of responding to the historical past?

NB: You know, I think there’s value in both of those experiences. I don’t know that Monticello will ever be the setting [53:00] uh, where we do reenactments. We do have people come during the Heritage Harvest Festival. We have storytellers along while Mulberry Row, We have basket weavers, people who are showing skills that enslaved people had – we have cooking demonstrations. But Monticello is just not an institution where we do costumed interpretation, and I don’t think there’s anything really negative about that. I think if it’s done, well, it’s a good way for people to be immersed in a time and period that they may not understand. [53:30] The Slave Dwelling Project though I think opens a new realm for connecting with the history. I don’t know if I’m as open to it outside of the descendant community as we’ve only done it with descendants here and what’s been special is that because we have so many good records. I can put the Hemings family in the Hemings cabin. I can put descendants of Isaac Granger in the storehouse for iron where he was a blacksmith. I can put um, the Hearn and Fossett descendants in the kitchen and they’re able to really spend time here when it’s quiet [54:00], when there are no visitors, when there’s no one else here, no lighting, and connect with their ancestors in that way and for some people that’s really valuable. It’s been really restorative for some. There are descendants of the Gillette family in particular who have mentioned having a lot of resentment and having a lot of anger and distrust for this institution and for Thomas Jefferson who after this Slave Dwelling Project feel more connected with their ancestors, feel more pride and I think that is a beneficial tool. [54:30]

NB: Very nuanced response. Is it time?

JP: Oh, yeah, we should be mindful of the time that you have.

NB: Yeah it’s 11:55.

JP: It’s almost 12.

DM: Yeah… Should… The tour is going to start at 12 and then go to lunch?

JP: Yeah, I think that’d be great.

NB: Do you want to maybe walk down and see the “Not so bad?” There’s gonna be a slavery tour starting in five minutes, but you may want to catch some audio from that.

DM: I’m so glad to hear you say that and to have the context for his remarks, I’m forgetting his name. Is there a Gary?

NB: Yes, Gary Sandling. [55:00] He’s our VP of education.

DM: Yeah, that’s who it was because that was his response to my question. That we cannot just simply say despite it all people managed because some people did not.

NB: Yeah, some people didn’t survive.

DM: No, they did not, they did not.

NB: And some people are still struggling.

DM: Right!

NB: You know, that’s like there is a lot of hurt that took place in the era of slavery that [55:30] has not been resolved.

DM: That this is intergenerational that um, I’ve been, well not recently but once did some work with these two anthropologists. Um, um, the Kleinmans Arthur and unfortunately not remembering her name, but the work is called “How Bodies Remember,” uh, and that what people pass on to each other bodily, psychically, from generation to generation, uh, his subjects [56:00] are the descendants of the Chinese Revolution, but the insights that or the questions he raised in the insights he provides I think are useful for us to consider when thinking about slavery, uh that this, what this institution did and was lives within us in ways that we don’t know, some ways we do know, um, and we have to keep acknowledging that [56:30] because institutions, uh, Monticello, the University of Virginia, William and Mary, Brown. You name it, they’re in the business of preserving an image of themselves and that for many of them the so-called return to considering their slave past, uh has to be conducted within the context of their overarching commitment.

NB: Oh, why don’t we wait while people step out.

DM: Their overarching commitment to preserve constructing [57:00] and preserving an image of themselves exactly as they wish to be seen.

NB: Right, exactly. And you know what? I don’t know if you were here for uh, June 16th when we opened the new exhibit.

DM: No, I was at a conference.

NB: Okay, great. Well, so that day we had a panel in which the president of the Ford Foundation was here, Darren Walker. And he had this fantastic quote about philanthropy, but I think it also relates to um, acknowledging our painful history, our contested past [57:30]. Uh, he said, it’s not about what you’re giving back, it’s about what you’re willing to give up and I think for these institutions, they really have to re-evaluate what what we’re doing. Um, it’s not enough just to talk about black people who were here. You have to really be able to shake up the interpretation and you have to give up your comfort level with talking about decorative arts and having a singular narrative about Thomas Jefferson. You have to really be willing to potentially [58:00] lose donors to lose, uh, visitors you have to really uh, take some risks with telling the story because not everyone’s ready for it. But it’s a conversation that needs to happen in our country if we ever hope to move forward.

DM: Yeah, that is exactly the point to be made. I’ve said again and again even around how we’re responding to August 11 and 12 knowing as important as it is to know the roots of the [58:30] University of Virginia and the town of Charlottesville in white supremacy, simply knowing is not enough. that that knowing then has to be translated into something much more disruptive. We don’t know for the sake of knowing, we know for the sake of doing better.

NB: And you know here we’re rethinking our tours we’re trying to link our main house tour experience with the slavery tour, which you’re seeing for our listeners, we’re standing outside of the reconstructed Hemings quarter and there’s a large tour group gathering. [59:00] We run these slavery tours every 30 minutes from 10:00 to 4:00. Um, and the groups are getting bigger and bigger which is great. But we’d like to make these one experience.

JP: So, you’re talking about the principle of splitting, there’s a house tour and a separate slavery tour.

NB: Currently, there’s a house tour and then you can opt into taking the slavery tour and we’re working on a way to not make that optional, to make it a main part of our experience.

DM: Because otherwise you do create [59:30] the sense that these are separable, that what are inseparable experiences can be separated because obviously people not wanting to confront the quote-unquote painful past will opt out.

(Moving for tour group)

DM: So, where would we see the sign.

NB: Just left through the door. [1:00:00]

The role of family during slavery

(Entering the slave cabin) [1:00:30]

JP: Can you maybe tell us what we’re looking at here?

NB: Sure. So, we’re standing inside of the Hemings cabin, which we’ve interpreted for John and Priscilla Hemings and we’re looking at that “Not so bad?” plaque that I mentioned earlier. Uh, so this cabin is about 10 by 14. It’s a really nice restoration or recreation of what would have been here. It’s a log building, there’s a loft upstairs. We’re standing on a dirt floor, [1:01:00] but it’s pretty clean because it’s a restoration. Um, actually it’s a recreation it was not here to restore. Um, so it’s necessarily overbuilt and probably a lot nicer materially than a slave quarter would have been. Now, we restored this using the same methods, same construction, practice, same types of trees. Um, but again, it’s a museum and we clean things daily because we have to prepare for all these visitors to see it. Um, so it is nicer [1:01:30] than probably enslaved people would have known so we had to put a sign here that basically addresses that says that enslaved people as property could always be sold and separated and the one thing they had was their families. That is the ultimate tool for controlling enslaved people is the threat of selling away their children or even any family member, really.

JP: You just reminded me and this maybe can be our final question. But you just reminded me of kind of a critical question that I’ve had [1:02:00] in the past and it’s come up in past interviews and maybe two-part questions. I’ll start with the first one which is if you can maybe talk a little bit about how Jefferson used the family structure on the plantation. So, you mentioned like keeping the Hemings family together more or less but maybe meditating on that a bit as Jefferson as sort of the father of Monticello or like in this weird, so if you can comment on that and then I’ll do my follow-up.

NB: Yes, so slavery is a very patriarchal institution. Uh, it’s one where a lot of slave owners rationalized [1:02:30] their participation in what was a very cruel and violent institution and we’ll step over here so we don’t get as much sound from outside but was a very cruel, violent institution and corrected people. Uh, they justified it by saying that uh, you couldn’t free these enslaved Africans who were not considered people because they couldn’t take care of themselves because they were like children. So, it’s a very patriarchal way to think of your role in society. So, [1:03:00] Jefferson as father of Monticello to everyone here and he’s very exacting even with his own white family members. Like his daughters have to live their lives based on a schedule that he said, you know, they have to spend a certain amount of time practicing the piano practicing the violin, studying different topics because he said so. And for the enslaved people that means they have to work sunup to sundown because he said so uh, so that is a very, um, I don’t know, it’s interesting to consider. But [1:03:30] then when you think about the way that he thinks about enslaved families, I mean, he writes that enslaved people aren’t capable of having these feelings, but then also recognizes that they are and uses that to control, its leverage basically, um, when Monticello first became a plantation, when he first builds this property and this is through the 1760s-1770s, enslaved people were living in more barracks style housing slightly larger than the building we’re in. All men would have lived together, all women. But then as plantation society [1:04:00] is becoming more established there’s a there’s really good book actually called Advice Among Masters. So, slaveholders start talking to each other and they’re like, hmm let’s set a list of best practices and basically they realize that enslaved people really value their families and the best way to incentivize them to work harder is to keep the families together, but that also means that the worst punishment is to break up a family and to sell someone. And so what that looks like is individual [1:04:30] housing for family units. Um, you know, these houses especially these log buildings moved with the work, not along Mulberry Row but certainly out of the quarter fields, uh quarter farms. So, at the quarter farms, they move based on where the harvest is going, but the family stays together for the most part. Um, there are instances where children are sent to Poplar Forest or to uh, sent us gifts as dowry to other members of the Randolph family. Um, so there are instances [1:05:00] where people are separated but you know the method that he’s using to manage this plantation is to keep families together.

Family separation as a tool of control

JP: And then there’s that moment, so just to follow up, so keeping families together is sort of a way of making them more productive laborers? Is that fair to say?

NB: Yeah, that’s what he’s hoping.

JP: And there’s a moment. Um, I guess upon I guess was it Isaac Jefferson recounting the moment of selling off families. I wonder if you can talk about that briefly [1:05:30] and that might have been you can correct me if I’m wrong but following Jefferson’s death?

NB: That’s after Jefferson’s death, yes. So, after Jefferson dies, he dies deeply in debt. His son-in-law becomes the executor, sorry, his grandson becomes the executor of his will, um, and he’s tasked with selling everybody. So, in 1827, 130 people are offered for sale and for Isaac, I believe Madison and Israel both mentioned in their memoirs, this is a moment of great uncertainty for these families because they’re not sure whether they get to stay together. [1:06:00] And for many of them, they don’t. They’re purchased by neighbors, they’re purchased by other members of Jefferson’s family, they’re purchased by professors at the University of Virginia. And in many cases, they are separated. And now behind the scenes, uh, some of the enslaved men who are living and working along Mulberry Row and I’m talking your tradesmen, so the carpenters, the joiners, the blacksmiths, people who have a little bit wider network have negotiated purchases to keep their families together. Uh, so that shows that the enslaved community is aware [1:06:30] of this as well and that they are strategizing to keep their families together and that they’re resisting separation, which I think is a really important element.

JP: I’m so glad we got to ask that question.

DM: Yes, I am.

JP: Family separation is really prominent these days.

DM: And to bring this conversation full circle and reiterate what you just said, contrary to what Jefferson is arguing in Query 14, uh, “their griefs are transient,” “they don’t love,” I’m paraphrasing here [1:07:00] to the extent that other humans love that he is clearly aware that there, it is just the opposite and that he can exploit that for his own purposes. And we can see that even in the aftermath of slavery, I have always found it incredibly moving that among the first things newly free people did was to roam the countryside looking for their lost relatives, placing ads in religious newspapers. [1:07:30] They are telling that these are people whose effective lives are deep and rich whose family ties are strong. And have been ruptured and so yeah, we can, now I’m sermonizing.

NB: Can I just add, because I really like, because you can see that people are remembering family members they lost a long time ago. It’s like, you know my mother, I was separated from her at age three, she’s in Virginia. I’m in Louisiana and I’m placing an ad in hopes that someone [1:08:00] has seen her or can reconnect us.

DM: Absolutely. That’s that’s one of the moving parts too about Paul D in Beloved, uh or sick soul in Beloved called in the novel The 30 Mile Man. That the distances people would walk and travel for some connection, however friable, to a loved one. Douglass writes about it in the 1845 narrative. His mother traveling from another [1:08:30] plantation. So, it is indisputable that enslaved people were deeply and emotionally connected to their loved ones and to suggest otherwise.

DM: I had to censor myself.

JP: Yeah, right it’s nonsense.

Robert Fatton, Jr.

Transcript (text only)

Interviewee: Robert Fatton, Jr., Julia A. Cooper Professor of Government and Foreign Affairs in the Department of Politics at the University of Virginia

Interviewer(s): Deborah E. McDowell; James Perla

Interview date: 2018-06-15

Interview Summary: This interview with Robert Fatton Jr.,the Julia A. Cooper Professor of Government and Foreign Affairs in the Department of Politics at the University of Virginia, delves into Jefferson’s controversial view on the country of Haiti. Fatton discusses the relationship between Haiti and the U.S. since the Haitian Revolution and the ways in which Jefferson’s language describing Haiti as a “republic of cannibals” has reemerged in the present discourse.

Keywords: Haiti, Haitian Revolution, Toussaint Louverture, France, Sally Hemings

Transcription: Hahna Cho

Sally Hemings Exhibition at Monticello

Deborah McDowell: Yeah, you know I’m just thinking about… my mind is roving over a whole range of things. I haven’t yet seen the new exhibition at Monticello. 

Robert Fatton, Jr.: Oh!

DM: That’s supposedly devoted to Sally Hemings. 

RF: That’s interesting. 

DM: Yes, and oh, yes I want to see it in different lights. I want to see it. As a private person, I want to see it in with a group of friends, and then I want to take a group of students there because it is all based on the imagination. Or an imaginary Sally Hemings because there, you know, maybe there was one photograph maybe and that photograph bore a strong resemblance to Martha Washington because they were half sisters but it’s an exhibition that is imagining a Sally Hemings down to her space in the big house, as it were. And so we, it makes me think that here we are now, for however long we will be I don’t know, at a moment where at least Monticello, which is the caretaker of, in part, of Jefferson’s memory, his legacy, especially as an icon. That that narrative seems to be changing. That people seem to be open to changing the narrative about Thomas Jefferson if only by acknowledging that Sally Hemings existed. She existed as someone in possibly a long-term relationship with him and someone in a relationship with him that resulted in the birth of children and yet it all has to be imagined and there is an element of speculation about everything, right? That we don’t know… this is where we think she slept, right? And all of that. So, thinking about the absence of the kind of iconic figure, the face of which is beaming from every poster, billboard, or lunch counter, if you will. That that’s absent in Cuba but still is very much alive here. So, this is not so much a question but a kind of long-winded preamble to try to have us just… into it. But what I found interesting is that there are two interpretations warring not violently with each other even with this new Jefferson that we’re trying to imagine. Because in the New York Times’ review of the exhibition, the young people who are responsible for setting up the exhibition, who want to invoke the issue of rape basically want to say on the museum or the exhibition placards, “Jefferson raped Sally Hemings.” And yet there are other historians now retired from Monticello who are obviously taking umbrage, but they don’t want to say that in so many words. So, someone for example like Cinder Stanton says “Well, how do you talk about a person raping another person for thirty plus years?” That that’s unimaginable. We don’t think of that as rape. If there are sexual relations between people over the span of thirty-five years, we aren’t inclined to view that as rape. And so all of that is a long way into saying that these narratives die hard even when people think that they are open to rethinking them.

RF: Yeah.

Interpretations of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings' Relationship

DM: The iconic figure of Jefferson dies hard. Not only that, and I must say myself as not a person who is not worshipping at the shrine of Jefferson, I too kind of bristle at the thought that Jefferson is being represented as having raped Sally Hemings and it all got me thinking about the extreme interpretations that all of us have been, in a way, in the grip of for quite a while. That there is [5:00] not much room for nuance. Either he raped her or he didn’t.

RF: The thing though is that because of the racism, extreme racism of the period because of slavery, whatever Jefferson did to a slave could not be rape because it was a thing. So, the idea even if he did in fact rape her, in his eyes, it’s not rape because it’s a thing that is out there, it’s an object, it’s not a full human being. And when you read Jefferson’s writings about the sexual desires of black men and black women it is absolutely horrific. In The Notes on Virginia [sic], I mean when he talks about, you know, the orangutan, it’s really, it’s terrorizing for someone who is not white and not a slave owner because that’s the way he sees it. So, in his eyes, whatever he did to any slave couldn’t be seen as some sort of relation between two different human beings because one was not quite a human being. 

DM: Yeah two different orders of species, right?

RF: And Jefferson went back and forth because he does say at some points that maybe they are inferior. But other points he doesn’t seem to say so. He was conflicted about whether there was a real biological difference that would essentially say that one race was completely superior over the other. At other points he does seem to say so and that’s very clear.

DM: And he equivocates. He constantly equivocates.

A Republic of Cannibals

RF: Yeah, absolutely. And at that period, Jefferson was probably one of the most reactionary individuals who had read about the Enlightenment among whites. You know, there are plenty of whites who were abolitionists and his relation with Haiti it’s very clear that he comes, well, he called, you know, the Haitians the republic of cannibals. So, that is the way he saw it. But on the other hand, at certain moments because of geopolitical and economic interest he would curb his racism because you wanted to weaken, on the one hand, the French which meant that you could, you know, in a very duplicitous way allow American merchants to give weapons to the Haitian Revolution, the slave revolutionaries, and you could continue commerce that was good for the merchant and the bankers of the United States, but on the other hand you would tell the French, “No we are with you and we are going to starve Toussaint.” So, for a while the US’s merchant relationship, economic relationship with Haiti and it probably would have continued if Adams had stayed in power. But once the revolution is over, once Haiti becomes independent, then there’s a complete change of policy. It is an embargo, he doesn’t want to have anything to do with Haiti, Haitians, the Haitian leader at the time, Dessalines, sent him a letter telling him “I’m not going to do anything in terms of exporting my revolution, but we need to have relations” and he never answers. 

DM: So, everything for Jefferson is expedient from your description. Everything is expedient. 

RF: Well, yes, and no. Because there is the issue of race, which is always in the background because when he’s talking about Haiti under Toussaint [L’Ouverture] which was kind of an autonomous state not yet independent, this is also the potential to give independence to Haiti, so Haiti could be a colony for black people. Send them there. But he says at the same time it has to be contained. And he says, when he uses the word, the pest has to be contained on the island. So, that’s kind of a colony for black people, to export black people from the United States. So, he has at one moment the idea the independence might not be such a bad thing provided on the other hand that Haitians would not have a navy and would not have any weapons. So, he wanted a completely pacified island for his colonial purposes. 

DM: I’m really interested in the last few minutes you’ve made reference to Jefferson’s [10:00] description of Haiti as “a republic of cannibals” and then Haitian people are pests. This language of, you’re right, it’s not, it does not place Haitian citizens in the realm of humanity, right? 

RF: But on the other hand, he looked at Toussaint as somewhat, “what a weird guy,” you know? He’s defying some of the things I’m thinking about black people but he’s still…

DM: He’s still a pest.

Haitian Independence versus U.S. Independence

RF: Yeah, he’s still a pest. And he looks also at Haiti as… and it’s not just Jefferson. Madison says the same thing that they need a despot at the head of Haiti because that’s the only way you can contain people who were slaves who’ve become free. There is a vision that if you give freedom to the slaves, that is going to be horrific because they are going to kill, kill, and kill. So, there is that vision. Now, I’ve just read an article, which is kind of peculiar article, saying that Jefferson when he talked about Haiti as the republic of cannibals, he was not really referring to Haitians, per se, he was referring to the Jacobins. The French Jacobins. But that is kind of a weird thing. A lot of the American leaders at the time thought that the French Revolution went too far in terms of the killings under Robespierre. But, I read the letter that where he uses Haiti as the republic of cannibals, a letter to Aaron Burr, and I don’t see how you can explain that expression without looking at the direct connection to Haiti. But there is that thing that in fact he may have also wanted to talk about the Jacobins. But we know that Jefferson was a Francophile and he was more sympathetic to the revolution than Adams, I mean they were really terrified about the excesses of the revolution. So, I think that that description is still the one that should hold. That he sees that and when he talks about the pests contained, that’s also about Haiti. So, and he wants to embargo and he wants to quarantine the island if it gets independent and when it got its independence, that’s exactly what he did.

James Perla: So, the comment about that a despot should rule over Haiti, that comes after independence?

RF: That comes before and after. That if there is to be independence, in any case it’s going to be a despot because that’s the only way those people can be ruled. They are not yet ready for our kind of democracy, as it were, but that’s part also of the way American leaders are the vision of America’s exceptional place in the world because when you look at the United States it was hardly a democracy. First, you had slavery obviously, but most people didn’t have the vote. It’s about 5% of the population which had the vote and they were all whites who owned property and all male. So, the idea there was a democracy is really a far-fetched idea. It’s kind of, you know, the building of founding, foundational myth about democracy because there was no democracy at the time even though that you talk about, you know, the equality of people, etc, etc. But there was no such thing even in terms of the French eyes. So, and this is, all countries do the same thing among the Haitians when they created Haiti. You know, whether it be [Jean-Jacques] Dessalines or Toussaint, the other vision of Haiti was exceptional, the most radical revolution of all places, which it was actually at that time, but they were despots all of them without exception. When they took power they ran the show like messianic leaders and you can you know Toussaint was declared governor for life in his own Constitution, Dessalines became the first leader of Haiti after independence in 1804 and in the very first speech he gives he says you people you’d better watch out and you should never disobey me. He says that. And that’s the way they ran the show and they became emperors, so you have that kind of vision that we are doing something completely new, very different but the structures of inequality, the structures of domination are all there. And those are founding myths and this is very difficult. I don’t want American or Haitian to look at it and say well they were, those people were really despots.

JP: So, you’re saying the two were almost competing… 

RF: They’re kind of two competing for, obviously the United States is much more powerful. So, therefore [15:00] the exception is of the United States does matter not just what United States but for the rest of the world because the exceptional idea of the United States is that this is “the city on the hill” and that it’s exporting democracy all over and that if you don’t follow our way, well, it’s going to be our way or else. Especially if you’re in the Caribbean. Whereas Haiti could say whatever they wanted, but it had no impact because we didn’t have the power. And essentially Haiti relinquishes any revolutionary vision the very day that it becomes independent because they are fearful that if they spread the revolution elsewhere, I mean in terms of slaves getting their freedom, that they will be destroyed and they would have been destroyed by the United States or by the French or by the British or a combination of all of them. So, there is a difference between exceptionalism that is for national consumption, but has no real power and one that is for not only national consumption, but that is for also international consumption backed by the power of the most powerful nations. So, those are different kinds of exceptionalism, but the myths are very similar.

DM: One is much more rhetorical, and one is rhetorical with a lot of back, of force of ammunition.

RF: Of force of power. Absolutely. And that’s very clear.

DM: You know, it’s been a while since I read C.L.R. James’, The Black Jacobins. Does he talk at all about Jefferson in Haiti? 

Who is French? The Black and French Jacobins

RF: He doesn’t talk much about it because he looks obviously the title of the book is The Black Jacobins. So, it’s much more vision of the Haitian revolutionaries as espousing, if you wish, the bourgeois democratic revolution of 1789 than the American Revolution. So, it’s a continuity between the Jacobins and… the French Jacobins and the so-called Black Jacobin. And Toussaint was a Francophile. So, it was very clear and he used to send letters to the French leaders, especially to Napoleon saying “du premier de noir au premier de blanc”, “to the first white from the first black.” That’s the way he saw himself. And he was a Francophile and he was in some ways very radical in other ways very conservative and I think the idea of France and the French Revolution, even when Napoleon became the main leader in France, led him to trust the French. And he was, you know, trapped in Haiti and he was captured and sent to France and he died in France and the letters that he writes, a letter saying “What are you doing to me? I’m a French general.” And “what about my family? I can’t see them. How can you treat the French general, someone who’s been…” and Napoleon doesn’t even bother to answer it.1

DM: So, there is French and there is French? Who’s French? 

RF: Yeah that and this is one of the things with after, Toussaint, once he is sent into exile in jail in France, Dessalines decides we are not going to have anything to do with the French, we’re going to kill them. And he says this very clearly, you know, and he takes the French flag and the white part of the French flag he destroys. And he puts the red and the blue which is the Haitian flag. So, that is also very… Dessalines is not a Francophile. I mean, he hates the French. He doesn’t trust them, he thinks they are slave owners and that they are killing slaves. There is no place for friends and he doesn’t want them and the first constitution says no single inch of the Haitian territory can be owned by whites and he really means the French. 

DM: It’s very interesting when you start looking at people who are apostles of freedom, who are freedom fighters, who give their lives for the cause of freedom and for many people that means some kind of unqualified investment in the countries they seek to liberate, right? That, this is an imperfect analogy, but as you were just talking about, Toussaint as Francophile, I was thinking about [Frederick] Douglass because my niece and nephew went to the museum and came back with lots of questions about Douglass and you know Douglass is one of the leading abolitionists. He’s clearly the premiere [20:00] speaker on the abolition circuit throughout the 19th century. And yeah, he was really quite identified with interests that many people would consider quite conservative and at the end of his life, is very much somebody who was a supplicant on the day of [Abraham] Lincoln’s second election or inauguration…. [cough] he’s… no, it wouldn’t have been [his second inauguration]….  I need to verify this, in any case, he has become something of a supplicant: “Don’t you know who I am? I am Frederick Douglass” And everybody’s saying well, you may think that means something but it doesn’t mean anything to us. So, he becomes very much a person who was trying to claim his own black exceptionalism before people who, I mean even if Lincoln is going to sign the Emancipation Proclamation, we know all the complications of that. That it’s black people who really fought for and rested their own freedom, that Lincoln was not their great emancipator, but it is Douglass who keeps thinking that he can somehow mediate between black people and those in power and that those in power could actually find him a more palatable black person to deal with.

RF: The thing with Toussaint is that, as you know, Toussaint was a slave then he became a slave owner and then he became someone who fought against slavery and he was not one of the first ones. But then he became the leader because he was truly a military genius. But he… during the, there were several powers in Haiti: the Spaniards, the British, the French, and he was in the mid-1790s, he was with the Spaniards. But the French Assembly declared that slavery was abolished and there was a French commissioner who was a Jacobin and an abolitionist and he introduced a proclamation in Haiti in 1794, I think, or 1793, I would need to check on that but saying that the slaves were freed in the north of the country in particular there was some ambiguity. So, once he heard that, he shifted and he trusted the French because he thought that the Jacobin, and this is again to go back to James’ book, that is why he had the conviction “well the French are different, maybe” because they are abolishing slavery. “The Jacobins are different people.” They are not like, you know, the Spaniards they are doing it and they are proclaiming it, this a real break with the past. So, there is that kind of affinity with the Jacobin but Toussaint was a conservative guy. And it was also a conservatism that was brought about by the Haitian economy.

Code Noir: France's Regulation of Slave Trade

RF: The Haitian economy functioned on slavery and on sugar. So, once you abolish slavery, you had a real problem because how are you going to get the economy going when it’s completely dependent on sugar? So, what all the Haitian leaders, not just Toussaint, up until the 1820s, they impose really a nasty what is called a “Code Noir” and it’s essentially forced labor on the plantations. It’s not slavery, but it is forced labor and it’s really very a tough thing, even kids are involved. So, the idea was that the only way that Haiti could survive is by having flourishing plantations. The only way that the plantation economy at that particular time could be beneficial was if you had forced labor, not necessary slavery, but forced labor. And there is even some writings of Toussaint saying well, we may even import some slaves from Africa to do the dirty work. So, it was a complicated period after 1804, slavery is abolished but the Code Noir, Toussaint wants, [Alexandre] Pétion wants it, but I mean all of the successive leaders, [Henri] Christophe wants it, because that’s the only way you can survive. The problem though is that the slaves would have none of it. I mean, they fought for slavery and they were essentially people, as we say in Haiti, they were involved in marronage continuously. The state could say something that we would evade and we would get a little plot of land and that would be that so they could never impose [25:00] the Code Noir effectively. And the other problem was that there was, the United States was not in the business of doing business with Haiti, which was the real problem and the French were not in that business either. So, once Haiti gets its independence, it is kind of cordoned off as kind of a rogue state.

JP: And so what’s “marronage?”

RF: Marronage is essentially the idea that slaves would escape slavery and do their own thing. But it’s a much more complicated issue. But in Haiti and in Jamaica marronage became a significant phenomenon, whereby slaves would escape and create their communities outside of the plantations and there was some compromise between the leaders of the maroons and the slave owners. So, it’s a complicated…

JP: And it enters into the language as a term of resisting?

RF: It’s kind of resisting by escaping, moving around the issues, you know, the government tells you to do something, you say yes, but you do the opposite.

DM: It’s associated with the former fugitivity. You see, unlike escape say for blacks escaping from slavery on various plantations on the US mainland, because when you escaped from slavery under those conditions, you are escaping that plantation, you were removing yourself from that environment, from that land. But maroons are living in contiguous physical relationship to the country. Just separate and apart. In a different social universe.

RF: Yes, in a different community. And there were tensions at the beginning of the Haitian Revolution between maroons and slaves because they were not necessarily on the same side. They have different interests and then you have the conflict also between the slaves who had just arrived, which were called in Haiti, boussole.  And the slaves who had been in Haiti for a long time who were born in Haiti. The significant number of the slaves who were born in Haiti were the leaders of you see of the revolution and that created a stratification between the local indigenous, if you wish, population and those who have just arrived. And the term boussole in Creole means that you’re kind of inferior. So, that remains as something, you know, that you’re not quite educated etc., etc. So, but there was a tension and then you have obviously in Haiti you at the racial tension between the mulattoes and the blacks and that was a real, I mean, there were civil wars between the different camps here.

Suppressing the Spread of Revolutionary Ideals

DM: So if you were, Robert, to talk to any general community of readers and generally educated people about Jefferson’s relationship to Haiti, what would it be? What would be the philosophical takeaways? What would be the political takeaways when we think about Jefferson and Haiti? 

RF: Well, he clearly, his sympathies were not with the slaves and with the slaves who had revolted. Once they revolted on the same geopolitical and economic interest, you could reach a compromise which they, which he did. In spite of his racist convictions. But once Haiti became independent, that was a different matter because one of the things that Jefferson was really concerned about was the spread of the ideas of the Haitian Revolution and this is a very important phenomenon. I mean this is, you can sense it, you read it, it’s there. There is a very famous Haitian anthropologist by the name of [Michel] Rolph Trouillot who said that Haiti was not thinkable. That is wrong. That is simply wrong. Haiti was so thinkable. That’s why they were so terrified about Haiti. And even before the Revolution, the French were thinking about the possibility of a slave revolution. During, obviously, it was there and when you read this stuff that they write about Haiti, it’s not that it was not thinkable, it was too thinkable. They were terrified and once Haiti becomes independent, then you want, you don’t want to talk about it. So, if you wanted silence. But it’s the silence [30:00] that exists because you are so terrified about the existence of the very phenomenon that you are denying. 

DM: And clearly when you read other aspects of Jefferson’s writings, I mean that is a completely imaginable claim in proposition because he is saying pretty much if there is the emancipation of slaves in the US, then these people who were formerly enslaved must be sent off shore. You need to get these people out of here. And you need to get them out of here because the tensions that have arisen and been allowed to flourish for generations will create, he talks about these “boisterous passions,” so he has even imagined this himself.

RF: But there’s a debate about the so-called the Toussaint Clause. This is about Toussaint L’Ouverture and that’s under Adams and it’s called the Toussaint Clause because it was to impose an economic embargo on France except essentially on Haiti which was in the hands Toussaint at that point. And the debate is very clear. I mean even people who are abolitionists, they are terrified of Haiti. I mean I just read some of the debate, there is a fellow Albert Gallatin who was Swiss-born statesman from the United States who was a Congressman and a statesman and abolitionist and he goes on and on about Haiti and how terrifying it would be if they got their independence because they would spread disease elsewhere and he’s an abolitionist. So, this is very present in their mind, but there is the geopolitical interests of the United States. They want the French armies to be weakened. And when Napoleon comes to power it’s even more of a problem than the Haiti problem or the black slavery revolution because they see Napoleon as using Haiti, crushing the revolution in Haiti, and going to Louisiana and controlling the western part of what is now the United States. And one of the ironies of the whole thing is that it’s precisely because Napoleon’s armies were defeated in Haiti that Napoleon came to the negotiating table with Jefferson for the Louisiana Purchase. So, in a weird way, the irony that black slaves revolting, defeating Napoleon allow the negotiations and allow Jefferson to accomplish what some people think is one of the biggest things of his presidency, the expansion of the United States, doubling essentially the territory of the United States. That to a large degree, not all of it, but to a large degree is a consequence of Napoleon’s defeat in Haiti. Because Napoleon sent 50,000 people and he thought “We’re just going to stop there. We crushed the, you know, the slaves then we send them to the western parts.” Louisiana, exactly. That was, Jefferson knows that. Not only Jefferson but all of the statesmen in the United States. And this is why they are plotting so that you can weaken the French while you say at the same time, “We are going to starve Toussaint, we’re going to starve…” what they were doing, they were very duplicitous.

JP: So, at that time, the US was plotting to….

RF: Covertly, not the government, but merchants, bankers, it was kind of piratry. They were sending weapons, they were sending, exchanging goods, they didn’t want the French to win. It would it would be a problem for them. They were terrified of Napoleon’s imperialism in what is now the United States, the western part of the United States.

DM: Well you see this is what I meant a few minutes ago. When I asked, you know, whether Jefferson is ultimately expedient where these calculations I mean we know these calculations are entirely for his own benefit. And the benefit of…

RF:  Yeah, there’s a very complex game there. But but on the other hand, I think, you know, if he was not worried above all about the model of Haiti after independence, he could have had a much more relaxed policy. Not to say even recognized but tolerated. Now, he doesn’t want, he wants an embargo. And that’s immediately after in spite of the Haitians begging ultimately, it’s not begging but saying we are not going to send anything on Jamaica or the other islands, don’t worry about it. This is just Haiti. Let’s talk. Let’s re-establish good… No, he doesn’t answer that. [35:00] And Haiti recognized the idea only in 1862, I think.

Reverberations of Haiti and the United States' History

DM: So, in what ways are we really dealing with the reverberations of that history?

RF: Well, I think the relation between the United States and Haiti is still very much part of that past. The existing relations, not only that but then United States occupies Haiti too, you know, from 1915 to 1934. And then you know it occupies Haiti again, you know, on a shorter basis but in the ‘90s and in 2004, which is the bicentennial of the Haitian Revolution. Then the UN replaces them. So, you have a story that has a certain amount of continuity because clearly the occupation from the nineteen teens to 1934 is full of racism. I mean, the language is absolutely horrible. I mean the way they look at Haitians. And it’s part of that past that Haitians are savages essentially they can’t run their show. We are going to run it for them and we are going to do it whether they like it or not. And if we have to occupy the country we’ll do so and they did. And if we have to suppress the areas we will and they did. So, that is the story. And even in 2004 you have those kind of that legacy of looking at Haitians as weird, maybe not quite savages but almost savages, practicing voodoo and being incomprehensible and we don’t know how to deal with them, but we should impose something on them. I mean there were reports in 2004 about some Christian leaders in the United States saying that the problem of Haiti was voodoo and that they are savages. That’s basically what they said and we can’t deal with them until voodoo has disappeared. Voodoo is part of the Haitian culture, you’re not going to do anything but really nurture it if you attack it. So, you have that then the vision of Haitians are different. Trump! I mean recently. What does he say? 

DM: Haiti is a shithole country. 

RF: Yeah. So, it’s no longer the cannibals but they are the shithole country. So. It’s very much part of that that history and Haitians on the other hand, they have love and hate for the United States because Haitians want to come to the United States because the situation in Haiti is so bad, but on the other hand, they resent the United States because the United States is you know, the big power that tells them what to do. And comes in whenever they feel like it, tell them who should be their president, etc. etc. So, you have that tension that has not disappeared but we have probably two million Haitians in the United States, Haitian Americans. And without them the country would fall apart because the remittances are actually much more significant in terms of quantity, amount of money than foreign assistance. So, without them, Haiti would be in deep deep trouble. So, and also, the United States has a way of solving some of the political problems in Haiti because Haitians exit. Former president [René] Préval in 2010 said very bluntly in Creole: “sais nager pour une sortie”, if you want to survive. And that means essentially you have to swim which means you have to cross the sea and go to the United States if you want to survive. So, there’s an acknowledgement of that dependence and that economic necessity of exiting the country. 

DM: Exiting the country to keep the country alive. 

RF: Yeah, going to the United States because that’s where the money is. Or go to Canada. So, you have that… but the whole story really starts with the Haitian Revolution and that the tension exists but on the other hand you have many even whites in the United States at the time of the Revolution who admired Toussaint and who admired what slaves could do and it was proof in their view that slavery in the United States should be abolished which also means that it was a great danger to people like Jefferson. Because if whites could, and this is one of the things, Jefferson was not [40:00] just like all the whites. That’s not true. You know, your abolitionists, there were people even when they had slaves, when they died they freed them. Jefferson never did that. And Jefferson would, I just read something about Jefferson saying when he was young that it was for the elder statesmen to decide the issue of slavery. When he becomes a statesmen he said it’s a new generation that should deal with slavery. So, there’s equivocation at all times. It’s complex. Ultimately I think he knew that it was wrong, but he could not…

DM: He couldn’t disentangle himself from it. And he couldn’t disentangle himself from it for a variety of reasons including those deeply personal. I mean, there’s a good bit of self-interest here in the fact slaves were sold to take care of his debts. 

RF: Yep absolutely. I mean slaves were capital. And it was a huge amount in the American economy. So, the idea that slavery was just racism is also wrong. There’s a lot of economic interest behind slavery. Slavery was capital.

DM: Yeah, and it’s so it actually that history is now or historiography is coming to not so much settle in this place but to basically in the last eight to ten years in particular to focus on capitalism and slavery. It’s not that it had not been a topic broached before because it had but in recent years with Sven Beckert’s and a whole range of other recent books talking about slavery and capitalism. It’s just an unavoidable conversation.

Slavery, Abolitionism, and the Birth of Liberalism

RF: The two arms join at birth. And liberalism is also born with slavery because you know in a fundamental way liberalism was very exclusionary. The idea of liberalism embrace, that’s nonsense. Liberalism was really part of this history of slavery too.

DM: And it remains. 

RF: Yes, and the people from the Enlightenment which supposedly were so visionary, they couldn’t deal with slavery. Either they were silent on it or they would be very much like Jefferson; equivocate. I mean [John] Locke was against slavery, but he was a member of the I think one of the major trading companies in slavery. [G.W.F.] Hegel, you know he can’t deal with slavery either. Slavery is bad, but we have to keep it. The Africans are not inferior but yes, they are inferior. There is a complete confusion whether it’s intentional, whether it’s related to economic interest, but it’s there that the Enlightenment has a deep problem when it addresses slavery. It doesn’t resolve it. It pushes it, postponed the day of reckoning, a lot of gymnastics around the problem and many of the great philosophers are fundamentally racist.

DM: That is among the most indisputable points that could be raised and even people I mean in the course of this conversation, we’ve been talking about abolitionism and who is an abolitionist and where abolitionists come down, really. It’s clear where they come down on slavery but where they come down on slavery is logically inconsistent with where they come down on race. Where they come down on slavery is it’s a moral wrong. We need to get rid of it. The Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society is among the most prominent of anti-slavery societies and why should we get rid of it? All kinds of apparatus, all kinds of arguments about slavery is a moral wrong, it completely disrespects the fundamental unit of humanity that being the family, separating mothers from their children, fathers from their children, fathers i.e. slaveholders selling their children for their own gains that all of this is morally reprehensible. But that did not lead them to the next logical step that these people who are being held captive are like us, they are humans just like us. Abolitionists didn’t believe that for a moment. [45:00] No, we can get rid of slavery, but people whom we have held captive are not like us, they are not equal to us, and we are not compelled to think of them as being equal to us.

JP: Which is why I think it’s truncation example that if you give is very instructive in the sense of abolitionists actually being advocates for censuring and sort of closing off trade with Haiti for that exact reason. So, what are a few… 

RF: They are essentially afraid of the consequences of their beliefs because they can’t go to the logical conclusion. And I think it’s deeply related to the kind of visceral racism that existed and economic interests. The two are deeply connected. One reinforces the other. Because if you’re going to put people into slavery, you need to dehumanize them to such an extent that you come to be convinced that they are inferior, that they are not quite human beings. So, then you can put them in the position where you can exploit their labor and you feel, you don’t feel bad about it. And clearly many of those people didn’t feel bad about it because the punishments that were given to slaves were absolutely horrific. I mean, it’s mind-boggling to think about what went on during slavery. As examples, cutting hands, cutting legs, you know, there are even stories of putting people in holes and putting honey on their heads and letting them be eaten by ants. And there were even worse stories about where you put dynamite in a slave etc. So, it’s a horrible story and the only way you can do that is I think by believing that they are not full human beings that they’re actually not human beings. And anyone who defied that stereotype became a problem and how do you deal with people? How do you deal with someone like Toussaint? Clearly a genius, and it’s a complicated thing, but then there were some Jacobins who were prepared to deal as equal and this is one of the reasons that Toussaint abandons the Spanish because [Léger-Félicité] Sonthonax is more than an abolitionist. He’s convinced that there is ultimately maybe equality between the two but how do you generate the end of slavery? It’s a complicated economic interest, you know, you have to deal with franchise. So, it’s problematic but not all abolitionists are the same either.

JP: In thinking about the Haitian Revolution as a critique and counter to some American ideals about freedom or independence, but I wonder if you can talk more about to what extent against challenge about the added component of, you know, the equation of slavery and race in a predominantly black country. I wonder if you could speak more about kind of competing dynamics between American freedom and this revolutionary ideals and what was going on in Haiti at the time as a potential critique or alternative to America?

RF: Yeah, well the Haitian Revolution probably is the logical conclusion of a conjuncture of events. First, you have the French Revolution which opens in Saint Domingue the possibility of thinking about abolishing slavery. But you can’t think about abolishing slavery if you don’t have slaves in the process of revolting. And that is quite important because I don’t think you needed to tell the slaves that there was the French Revolution and that slavery had to be abolished. I think they knew that. But the French opens up, you know, a window because there is a moment where the French say that slavery should be abandoned and there’s a proclamation in 1794 that is the end of slavery. So, it becomes legitimate and the Haitians seize it. The slaves seize that opportunity to violently overthrow slavery. But it’s not a gift of friends of 1789. It’s something that had to be conquered by the slaves themselves, but on the other hand, there’s a conjuncture that allows for that movement to crystallize because if it had not happened, if 1789 that not happened, the rebellion initiative would have been completely crushed. And its because the French gave that opening that the slaves could seize it and by the time they want to reestablish slavery under Napoleon, it’s too late. The slaves are not going [50:00] to put up with it. So, in some ways the French Revolution is the ultimate bourgeois liberal revolution. The American Revolution is the… really the first bourgeois conquest of creation of a nation out of imperialism, the British imperialism. But it’s not a radical break in terms of establishing equality. That revolution is not about really equality, it’s about property. And property means also slavery. The French Revolution is a little bit more radical. And the Haitian Revolution is more radical in the sense that race is part… that race should not be part of exclusions. So, you have… but all of those revolutions have their limits. I mean the Haitian Revolution led to old forms of authoritarian leadership. You know Haitians like the Americans they like to think, “Well, we created that republic where everyone was equal.” That is nonsensical. It’s really a myth. There is no equality in Haiti, there’s no equality in the United States, and clearly there is no equality in France either. It’s really the kind of stuff that you invent in some ways to build a nation. You create something that becomes a very powerful myth. But it is not reality, but it doesn’t matter that it’s not reality because even the people who are within that community believe in the myth, even if they are not equal, but they believe in it. I mean, I’m always puzzled when I said… How can you say that, you know, you had equality? Five percent of the people who voted and then you had slavery, women were excluded, a lot of white men were excluded, the vast majority of the population was excluded from power. How can you talk about democracy? Makes no sense. Same thing in France, Napoleon is restored and it’s over. In Haiti, you have that revolution but the former slaves, they are forced into course labor. They have to escape again that thing. And the leaders are messianic authoritarian figures. There is no equality there. But those are very powerful things that I think people transmit from one generation to the other in terms of educational systems, etc, etc. And then you come to believe in it. And if you say no then people look at you as if you must be crazy. But the reality is that those myths are just that. They are myths. Important to create a nation but nonetheless the idea that those revolutions generated what you learn in the books is nonsensical.

Mythologizing Jefferson

JP: Yeah. I wonder… It’s suggested that its not all about Jefferson in really important ways which I think is important for our project to think about his cross cultural contexts and his broader implications but I think bringing it, slightly if I may, back to Jefferson briefly I wonder if you could reflect maybe personally about this particular history and maybe thinking of places to enter into that?

RF: Well, it’s, I have an anecdote actually. I arrived here in 1981 and I went to a lecture on Jefferson and there was, I forget his name, he was at the time the biographer of Jefferson. What’s his name? 

DM: Dumas Malone? 

RF: Exactly, and I’m listening to him and I’m just an assistant professor, but he was saying all kinds of things that wouldn’t even add up, some of them true. But then someone asked him the question would Jefferson have a relation with a slave? He said, “No, because he was a man of honor.” So, I was so puzzled. I wasn’t even angry because to me that made no sense. I mean coming from Haiti, I’m a descendent of precisely that very kind of union between you know, slave owners and slaves. So, how can you say that? I literally said, “How can you say that that didn’t happen?” Slaves were objects. So, if the master wanted that object for his sexual satisfaction, that was that! It was not a moral question even for…because it was an object. And he looked at me really like this man is crazy. And he didn’t answer it. They said well Jefferson was an honorable man [55:00] so that told me that it was a very bizarre story and then eventually we realized that through scientific things obviously… what was obvious to me started to become obvious to many people. 

JP: But that also tells you something about the States. So, was that your first experience in the States or just as an assistant professor?

RF: No, in that setting about Jefferson and…because I never really thought about the matter because coming from Haiti, we knew that slaves had relations, sexual relations with the slave owners. I mean, this was taken, it was not even an object of discussion. It was part of the reality of slavery. So, to tell me that didn’t happen made no sense. I could not, and I think it’s part of the mythical vision that people came to accept, even people who studied and they denied it. Even when you see it black and white, you’re going to deny it. And for a long time they denied it and even people with the DNA, some people still deny it.

DM: Oh you know, I was at… it wasn’t Monticello but the building down the hill. I’m not going to remember the exact name of that building but it’s where a lot of the educational programming comes out of pertaining to Monticello. And so it was at that that place where the avuncular Dr. [Eugene] Foster first revealed what were ultimately modest conclusions in the scientific sense and I sat in the room. It was a Sunday afternoon. Maybe I’d say 40-50 people were there, half of them journalists and the…Dr. Foster said if the man alleged to be Jefferson’s father was his father, then science can verify that Jefferson fathered at least one of Sally Hemings’ children. So, it’s a very modest proposition. He is letting the scientific data, he’s letting the DNA lead him where he needs to go. He isn’t even claiming that he’s the father of all the children. I found it utterly fascinating that there were people in that room who were really prepared to suggest, “Well, maybe the man who was said to be Jefferson’s father wasn’t his father. Maybe Jefferson’s mother was over here cavorting and carrying on.” That it was so utterly unthinkable that the honorable Thomas Jefferson could have fathered children with a slave woman despite what, as you say, despite what we know this is completely ordinary in the period in which Jefferson lived. But people were better prepared to suggest or to speculate that perhaps Jefferson’s father was not his father in order to deny that he could have fathered children with Sally Hemings and the whole question of honor, and the whole question of basically when you talk about the mythologization of democracy, the mythologization of Jefferson is as this person who because he is associated with the Enlightenment, because he is associated with the egalitarianism, because he is associated with the idea of independence and democracy, that everything else that follows from that, including in his personal life, is logically consistent with all of that and it is not. It is absolutely not. And that is ideological. That has to do, because if you can imagine that Thomas Jefferson not only had sexual relations with Sally Hemings, that is not hard to imagine, because Jefferson was a slaveholder and she was his property. So, if you have trouble imagining that though let’s say Jefferson may have had sexual relationships with her, but he could not have been emotionally connected to her, then you can reinforce this age old fiction or reinforce this age old idea that these people who were being held captive are less than human because if they are less than human than they are outside the domain of all those things that make us human, including the capacity to love. And so this is the thing that is so unimaginable [1:00:00] that Jefferson could actually love a person who was his property because if Jefferson could love a person who was his property, then Jefferson could regard her as something other than a sexual object, that she could be something else for him and it is that something else that people find unimaginable and they find it unimaginable whether they are die hard Jeffersonians or whether they are die hard supporters of Sally Hemings. It’s something on both sides of this ideological divide that makes it unthinkable, alright? Unimaginable that anything could have obtained between a slaveholder and his property. Anything that could have could have obtained that would even get us close to thinking about an emotional connection that it could only be physical even if we imagine that he did this thing, physical, as an honorable man. Well if he could do that, that’s all he was doing. That is all he was doing. He could not have cared for her. It was Garry Wills in the great debate after the DNA findings who said well, okay. So, let’s imagine that Jefferson did sleep with her. Let us imagine that he had sex with her with some frequency, but he could not love her. He did not love her. I think, so, how do you know that Garry Wills? We don’t know what obtained between these two people that much of what people say about that relationship is highly speculative.

RF: No, we can’t know.

DM: We really simply don’t know and so if we consider that we can’t know, then why are people so invested in reproducing a narrative that says there could not have been anything that obtained between these two people that would lead us to the conclusion that to him, she was human and to her, he was human even though he was her slave owner. So, these complications about emotional connections I find so so deeply fascinating that no side can imagine that we can talk about, which may kind of bring our… return us to the initial… the launch of the conversation, that this contemporary exhibition wants to invoke the terminology of rape, right? Because it wants to invoke the terminology of rape as some means of vindicating Sally Hemings. That Sally Hemings was simply an object, Sally Hemings was simply a victim, that it is a refusal that Sally Hemings could have been engaged in that which many women were engaged in in the institution of slavery. If we only want to talk about it as being expedient, if I have a relationship of whatever kind with the person who owns me, then I may have some leverage here. 

Negotiating Agency within an Imbalanced System

RF: Yeah, there is agency. 

DM: Yeah, there is leverage, there is agency, and we clearly have precedents for this. The same people who teach say for example, The Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, where Harriet Jacobs whose genealogy and biography has been documented has been traced to South Carolina that when she is saying, “I consider it the better part of freedom and independence to be able to choose the person with whom I will enter into a sexual relationship.” So, rather than submit to the unwanted advances of the person who owns her, she does submit to another white man. Why does she submit to another white man? Because she says this is her choice. This is her choice. And I think Robert… Walter Johnson rather has given us all kinds of reasons to complicate the idea of the agency of enslaved people. But even given that, I think however tentative we have to be able to suggest that even under conditions of enslavement, there may not have been agency in the term that the law recognizes agency, right? But there is in the minds of some of these people, agency nonetheless. So, these are as you say very very complicated relationships very complicated entanglements and I don’t think we do ourselves any good to remain locked in these ideological positions [1:05:00] that make the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings so neat and bifurcated as owner to property, as slaveholder to slave, as dominator to victim, that there is a lot more nuance. 

RF: There are negotiations going on.

DM: There are negotiations… and we have to believe, when I talk to my students all the time, “Well, he had all the power.” I go, “in what relationship have you ever known, can you think of any relationship in which there are not power asymmetries?” I submit to you that if you are the parent of a newborn baby and at three o’clock in the morning that baby won’t stop screaming and you have to get up out of your bed and walk the floor with that baby, that baby has in these moments some power over you, your movements, your choices, your sleep. So, if we then suggest that power asymmetries in that relationship render it an impossibility, then we’re saying no relationships are possible even in the most loving relationships there are power asymmetries. And so I think that it again it is this investment in ideology, it is investment in particular positions about race, on all sides of the divide where as long as we can see Jefferson as ipso facto a person who dominated and raped Sally Hemings, then there is no other discussion we need to have, right? That he then allows us to condemn this god-awful institution. We can condemn this god-awful institution while at the same time we can leave open the possibility because again, I want to constantly say we don’t know what passed between these people. We simply don’t know. We don’t know. Everything is speculation. This is not truth. This cannot be verified. There is no archive at least not now. Nothing that we have extant to tell us what happened between these people. Nothing.

What's Love Got To Do With It?

RF: The difference though, it must have been a peculiar form of love if it did exist. Because slavery is not just relation of asymmetrical parts. It’s really an absolute relation of differences of power.

DM: Theoretically.

RF: So, the interesting question is if in spite of that, you can have love even if it’s complicated by the existence of slavery. Then that to some extent gives us a lot of hope because slavery is such an awful institution and that you could transcend it in very imperfect ways, but you could transcend it and you could stop loving someone, that indicates the artificiality to some extent of the institution itself because there is a bond of humanity that transcends the most awful institution. So, but, on the other hand that bond…slavery can also deform that. When you see people, the separation from their families, white master has a kid and you can’t stay on the plantation he has to be sent somewhere else, and sometimes sent anywhere and other times sent with some money and some protection wherever he goes. So, so, it’s a complicated thing but it’s like any love story. 

DM: Like any love story, it’s complicated. That is absolutely the case. And yes, slavery deformed all relationships. By definition it deformed them. So, to me, I’m pretty pretty clear on this. I am also not inclined necessarily to want to talk about say even a love relationship in the terms that we think about love today because love is something that lives in history. Our ideas about love live in history. Romantic love is a recent construct. Romantic love is in the historical spectrum rather new and so I’m not talking about ideas of romantic love. I’m thinking of something that is just much more complex than simply this is the person who owns me and therefore my only emotional response to this person is hate, alright? My only response [1:10:00] to this person is rejection, right? And then that works conversely, alright? This is my property and thus my only relationship to this property is one of exploitation. This is just someone I can say, “Here. Come.” You know [William] Faulkner has this wonderful moment in Go Down Moses, I’ve written about it. In Go Down Moses, in the long novella in that collection called, The Bear, the central character, Ike McCaslin, is in the commissary going over his grandfather’s ledger’s because, this is one thing that I’ve always found so utterly fascinating about slaveholders, the meticulous records they kept. Spent this money for this. So, Ike McCaslin comes across his grandfather having indicated that he gave $1,000 to Eunice, his slave, on the birth of her child. And so Ike is sitting in the commissary with these ledger’s going, “Huh? Must have been love. Must have been some kind of love. Maybe something akin to love?”, I’m paraphrasing here, but I’m not paraphrasing when he gets to the point where he says “not just some afternoon spittoon, right?” that for my grandfather to have given this woman $1,000 upon the birth of her child, right? Something had to obtain between these two people that is far more complex than merely slave owner and slave and that he doesn’t know what it is so it’s, everything is in the realm of the interrogative in that scene in the book: must have been, could it have been, it’s all speculative. But he is speculating. Why else? Is the implication. Why else would he have given her $1,000?

JP: I mean with Jefferson, just a brief comment before maybe one final question, is that he was very attentive too to the power of love in family structures as a way of controlling labor. So, on the plantation he kept families together because it made them a more productive worker unit. And so again to presume that Jefferson is in some ways not able to think about love in a productive sense, what it would mean for workers, I think is an important detail that he’s obviously capable of seeing slaves loving one another in terms of family structures and so, you know, that relationship to Hemings adds a potential to be involved in that, in some way, as the sort of master, because you know he liked to say he was the father of Monticello or whatever. And so in many ways if he’s this great fatherly leader of this plantation that is ultimately a big family unit. That is some kind of love.

DM: That is such an important point, James. And especially the notion that Jefferson understood that to keep enslaved people together on the same plantation actually facilitated and enabled their work as laborers. Again, it’s a kind of deformed…it’s a recognition of love being manipulated for self-interested purposes. 

RF: Economic interest.

DM: Yeah, self-interest and economic interest, yeah. 

JP: But I wonder, we’ve been asking everyone – oh sorry.

RF: But the idea of the father is obviously something that is pervasive in the creation of all nations. And it’s not just love but it’s also punishment because the father does both. And in every country you have so far, they are all males and they are all father…the founding fathers. Not just the United States. It’s everywhere. You have a founding father and it’s both to inspire love but it’s to inspire fear because the father can punish and he has the authority to punish. So, it is a combination of fear, love, loyalty, the family unit, but obviously the father at the head of the family unit so he can control the family unit. So, it’s a metaphor that is extremely powerful, not just on the plantation, but for the nation itself. And in the United States, the founding fathers: Jefferson, [George] Washington, all of them [1:15:00]

DM: [James] Madison.

RF: You know, they are both power, love, loyalty and also hierarchy. So, it’s a complicated metaphor. 

DM: Absolutely. And I think that’s a really useful way to think and from which to extrapolate an understanding of relationships in general. That we tend to want to think of the father figure, think of the patriarch, and even for that matter, the mother in some one-dimensional way in that these are largely sentimental characterizations, right? But you’re absolutely right it is impossible to talk about a father, particularly a founding father, without talking about a person who inspires perhaps more fear than love. 

Engaging Critically with Jefferson

JP: So, we’ve been briefly asking everyone that we’re speaking with if they teach Jefferson and how they might use Jefferson in the classroom?

RF: I don’t really teach Jefferson. On the other hand, I’ve learned a lot about Jefferson simply because I’m at the University of Virginia. You cannot escape Jefferson.

DM: Not even if you wanted to. 

RF: Yeah, but Jefferson is fascinating because we’ve been talking about him critically, but he’s also, in a fundamental way, a genius. I mean the vision that he has is a compelling vision. Now what he does with it is a different matter, but the Declaration of Independence is an extraordinary document and it’s something that anyone reading it should really say, “My goodness, those people were really onto something fundamental.” A historical rupture with a certain past. So, that is quite important. But where I’m critical is that you read the document and then you take the document as if it didn’t exist with the contradictions of the time. It’s as if you abstract it. You know, it’s a beautiful vision, it’s a beautiful commitment, but it’s one that even in its own terms has yet to be accomplished after more than 200 years. But it’s an important document. No one can deny that the Declaration of Independence and the founding of the United States is a massive event and a progressive event in spite of all the deformities of the event. It’s the same thing with the French Revolution of 1789, same thing with the Haitian Revolution. They are really fundamental historical moments but once you say that, you need to look at them critically because they have not fulfilled the promises that they contain. And this is where they have to be taken to task. Not to idealize what has been created because it’s not yet there. It gives you a guide on how you may want to continue but the historical rupture… It would be too easy to say, “Well, that’s it.” We need to engage those texts, those father figures, if you wish, critically without necessarily saying that they were all evil or they were all self-interested, they are complicated people like any other human being. You look at Toussaint, you know, you look at Jefferson, you look at Washington, you look at Hamilton, you look at Robespierre. I mean those were real historical figures. And clearly there were deformities in the project. The vision may have been compelling but the vision has yet to materialize and this is one of the things that we need to really study, I think, as intellectuals to look at the contradictions of those important figures and those important moments in history.

DM: The contradictions and our investments in really wanting to preserve…because that I doubt that there are very few people even at the university who would not freely acknowledge that Jefferson is fraught with contradictions. He is fraught with contradictions as a person, there are deep and explicit contradictions in his work and yet at the same time we keep returning as it were to the… I’m not getting the term I want. We keep returning to the idea as if you know, you know [Sigmund] Freud talked about the repetition compulsion. And in part of what [1:20:00 ] is underneath the repetition compulsion is you want to keep replaying something, often in relationships, that has not worked because you think okay I’ll try it this way this time and this time I’ll get it right. It’s in part, of course this is a bastardization of a complex theory, but that is it fundamentally the idea of the repetition compulsion. So, I find it interesting that last year the BOV [Board of Visitors] allocated literally millions of dollars to the university, to the College, in particular, for something called the Democracy Project. That’s a lucrative phenomenon for departments and scholars. One department received 2.3 million dollars to do what? I don’t know. But it’s all under the umbrella of the Democracy Project. So, we are still invested despite what we know to be the flaws, despite what we know to be the imperfections, what we know to be the deformities. It’s as if we will come at it and if we know, if we study, if we look at it from this angle, this angle, this angle, and this angle, perhaps we will get it right. And so I find it deeply ironic that at this moment in the university’s history, we have allocated all this money to study democracy. What are your thoughts about that?

The Pursuit of Democracy

RF: Well, I think it’s cyclical. I mean, you know, and it depends on the historical moment because in the ‘60’s you had the same thing with the Cold War. I think in the late ‘80’s, early 1990’s you had an explosion about democracy. It was going to flourish everywhere and anywhere. You just needed to send people who could write good liberal constitutions and the trick was done. Or you would need to send what I would call missionaries literally and their vision of democracy was fundamental in American democracy and export it and people should like it, love it because there is nothing better than that. And that’s part also of the American myth. The problem is that American democracy is very unique. It’s a very incomplete form of democracy and the fundamental problem for those we see on the receiving end is that they don’t quite see it the same way because they see it as an imposition and in many ways as full of hypocrisy. That this is in the interest of the United States, we’re going to give you a democracy, but if it doesn’t work, if we like someone, that person is going to be the democrat. People who are opposed to the person we support is automatically anti-democratic and you can see that in what happened in Russia after the Cold War. Initially, it was [Boris] Yeltsin who was going to be the greatest democrat which was a joke. Then when [Vladimir] Putin came into power he was supposed to be that great young man and [George] Bush saying, “I’ve looked at him in his eyes, and he’s a great guy” and now he’s evil, everything he does is evil and the world is much more complicated than that. You can’t impose on a big country like Russia American democracy. That is not going to work. You can’t do that even in small countries like Haiti. It’s not going to work because there are too many contradictions. If you don’t like the result of democracy, then it becomes anti-democratic. If someone is elected, who has the different vision than that espoused by the United States, it can’t be a democracy. It’s a real problem because it’s a very narrow definition of what is democratic. And the election doesn’t make a democracy. 

DM: No, no. 

RF: And there are so many other issues related to the kind of democracy even in the United States about the level of inequalities, who votes, who has the capacity to actually be a candidate, and who controls the candidates, the amount of money that is spent on any election in the United States now is really so incredibly high that it’s difficult to see that as an exercise in real democracy. If you have money, you can probably be elected. You get the money, you get the ads, you control the message etc. So, it’s a very interesting thing that we are talking about democracy. I think it comes [1:25:00] because in Europe there is a crisis. I think there is a crisis also in the United States. And that leads to some sort of questioning about whether democracy is sustainable, whatever that means, because it’s not clear what we mean by democracy either but the idea that elections and whomever is elected is legitimate, those things have come under fire now. And we are trying to recover some sort of commitment to democracy because it seems that the population has lost it. And Jefferson talked about democracy so what better thing to do at University of Virginia then go back to Jefferson and try to invent some new thing to have a notion of democracy? But I think it’s a project that is very complicated because it’s a project that is confined, to a large degree, to Americans and their view about democracy. There is no real exchange between different cultures, different parts of the world about what democracy means. When you have elections in many Latin American countries or African countries, even when they are more or less legitimate. We’re not talking about structures of power, structures of inequality, etc. We are talking about a figurehead who becomes president and who is very dependent on the West, and in many ways in the, on the United States and that’s what democracy is in election, but that doesn’t change relations of power. Those things have to be talked about, the question of economic privilege, economic inequality, and obviously the issues about ethnicity, race, gender that are part of an emancipatory kind of project and that is complicated and I don’t know if they’re going to get democracy by going back in history and looking again at the key Western philosophers and extracting from that something new which I don’t think you can get. Or if you’re going to try to have a much more comprehensive view of democracy by talking to so many different intellectual heritages. I mean whether it be in China, in Latin America, in Africa, wherever. We seem to think that democracy is something that only we have in the United States and we can teach it and that’s very problematic. 

DM: We can teach it and we can export it despite its own failings here in the United States. And one of the other things I find just really deliciously suggestive is that at the same time that we are mounting this huge overview or exploration of democracy and allowing people to compete for lucrative sums of money in order to pursue these explorations, we are at the same time investing in understanding slavery and understanding our slave past. So, as near as I can tell, these questions of inequality and race and ethnicity don’t seem to be front and center of this whole new Democracy Project. But race is taken up on the slavery side of things. So, we have these two pillars certainly central to the former administration of President [Teresa] Sullivan’s in bridging into the incoming administration with [James] Ryan. Ryan was not the architect of this Democracy Project. But supposedly, it is his administration that is going to be in large part helping to oversee or implement it. So, democracy, it well, it’s a new, a project very much in its infancy. 

The Rise of the Right Wing

RF: Yeah, it may also be I think it it’s also the product, inevitable product of what happened last August that the university was really in the middle of a very nasty historical moment in terms of race, in terms of neo-Nazis, in terms of the recognition that slavery was really a significant event in the creation of American democracy. So, those things came all together and Charlottesville became kind of the center of that maelstrom, if you wish, and I think that led the university to start thinking [1:30:00] about race again, start thinking about slavery, start thinking about democracy. When you have a bunch of neo-Nazis walking on the Lawn and, to some extent, claiming that the Lawn is theirs and that is connected to the heritage of this university, then that creates a problem for the university and the problem has to be dealt with in the beginning of the 21st century, which supposedly was no longer existing. I mean we’re supposed to be in a post-racial society and democracy inside of the United States had already been resolved. So, those problems come back with a vengeance and at the core of the University of Virginia which is Jefferson’s creation. So, issues of democracy, slavery, and race come back and the university has to deal with it. And I think this is why we have so much talk about slavery about talking about race, about healing, etc. because it’s the legacy.

DM: But you know, it’s interesting that in terms of the actual chronology, this project on democracy was underway before August 11th and 12th. It was actually underway beforehand. In fact, some of the first projects were funded in the late fall and early new year, which meant the project had been there and applications had been made in advance, but that does not alter the fact that August 11th forced a crisis about race into our eyes once again. I mean, much like, I don’t know why Freud is on my mind this evening, but you know much like the return of the repressed, because in a way we really have the idea that we’re in a post-racial society. That is something that people thought that they could achieve through verbal fiat. We just keep saying it and it will be so. It will be a reality that we create through the force of repetition. We’re in a post-racial society, we’re in a post-racial society. If we say it enough we’ll believe it. You know, I’m not afraid of the dark, I’m not afraid of the dark, we’re in a post-racial society, we’re in a post-racial society, and yet last summer, it was clear, made really abundantly and violently clear that not only are we not in a post-racial society that actually we have trained the very people who have given the lie or the very people who reinforce the point that we are not in a post-racial society. We trained them here.

RF: And you’re right about democracy because I think the issue of democracy came to the fore again after the 1990’s because the 1990’s were supposed to be the moment when history had ended. As [Francis] Fukuyama said, where liberal democracy was going, was going to be all over the map. And by the end of the 1990’s, it’s very clear that that’s not the case and by the mid 2000’s, even in Europe, you have really the growth of extreme right-wing groups. And you have now in Italy, in Austria, in Hungary, you have essentially neo-fascist governments who have been elected and I think this generates a crisis of democracy. And there is a fear that this is spreading all over. That liberalism, as it were, is under assault and that the dreams of the ‘90s entertained by many liberals… those dreams have ended. The Brexit is a phenomenon that most liberals can’t stomach and it is something that is interesting because I think it’s part of the problems of globalization. It’s part of the problem of the spread of neoliberalism which create, you know, a world market but the world market which is so unequal, whether it be in what used to be called the third world or the industrialized world, that people are really fed up with that system, but there is no alternative. The alternative that is provided are neo-fascist alternatives. And there is very little else and whenever you elect a government, it does essentially the same thing where it’s the right, the left so why not vote for the right, the extreme right? Maybe they’ll do something differently? And it’s the same thing [1:35:00] with Brexit. So, I think there are losers and I would venture to say the majority of people are losers in the process of globalization. But there is an elite which is very cosmopolitan which believes that it has transcended nationalism, race, class, which is really a myth because when you look at the inequalities that have been created, those things are very much part of the global structure, but there is that vision that, you know, we are cosmopolitan and that’s that. And we know that this is not the case because when you look at the crisis with immigration, cosmopolitanism ends at the frontiers.

DM: Or we should say at particular frontiers. It doesn’t end at all the frontiers. 

RF: Well, in Europe its ending at many frontiers. In the United States, its ending at the Southern frontier and at the same time it’s open to people who have degrees and money. Because you can buy, you literally can buy your visa into any of those countries if you’re a millionaire or if you are you’re educated and they need that particular type of educated individual. So, it’s a very exclusionary form of cosmopolitanism. 

DM: Absolutely. At the very time that Donald Trump is decrying birthright citizenship, Apparently people, women are coming in to give birth in his hotels and giving birth to US citizens. If you have money you have money you can do it. And his objection to immigration, as you say, seems to be an objection to immigration at the Southern border of the United States.

RF: People who are not educated and who are poor, he doesn’t want them.

DM: But his wives, he never had a wife who wasn’t an immigrant. His mother was an immigrant. So, yeah.

RF: Again the contradictions of… 

DM: Yeah, yeah. I mean that that just goes, It goes without saying. I suspect James, I don’t know, I think maybe we have exhausted. 

JP: We’re getting a little off topic.

DM: Yeah. Yeah, that’s alright.

Haiti is Very Thinkable

DM: And somewhere in there as a bridge or just another layer of the discussion, you know Haiti as unthinkable, but Haiti is very thinkable. Haiti is only unthinkable in some kind of wishful thinking.

RF: Yeah, it’s always there.

DM: It’s really always there. 

RF: You know, it’s like the slaves, you know, they are, that you build walls around them, the architecture of Monticello. They are hidden in order to see them but they’re always there and they’re essential. It’s not that they are unthinkable, they are too thinkable so you want to try to erase them. 

DM: Yeah, all too thinkable. All too thinkable. And I mean somehow we didn’t really elaborate, but maybe there will be a space if only just briefly in a future conversation to talk about the kind of discourse of disease in humanity. Independence as a disease. The idea of cannibals and pests because.

JP: And the idea of, Jefferson’s conversation about degeneracy.

DM: Yeah, exactly.

The U.S. Abolitionist Movement

JP: Or the abolitionist rhetoric of slaves being unable to understand morals and guides. The question of the humanity…

RF: Yeah, they are not quite. 

JP: Yeah, the question of their ability to fathom certain things.

DM: Yeah and you know In the U.S. abolitionist movement, which was really, had many many layers which included instructing children, you know, school manuals and all and so there would be like [1:45:00] these kind of primers with questions: What must the abolitionist do? Think for the slave. Because the slave obviously can’t think for themselves.

JP: Our conversations about schooling and sort of that Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison debate about literacy. Capacities of even slaves advocating for abolition as in some ways unable to claim equal footing and be on the same playing field as white abolitionists.

DM: No, they’re not because that is the reason as I’ve discussed with you lots of times to that is why Garrison and Douglass came to a parting of the ways because Douglass was too educated for Garrison and Douglass is this kind of rock star on the abolitionist circuit in Garrison wants to contain him. You know, “if you keep speaking like this who is going to ever believe that you were a slave, you need to restore some of the plantation to your speech.” So, when Garrison is telling him to restore some of the plantation to his speech, Garrison is actually in the same logic as Mrs. Auld who was the first person who attempted to teach Douglass to read and her husband came in to find her giving him instructions and he says to her, “you give a nigger an inch, he’ll take an ell.” I mean this interdiction of literacy, right? Because that’s what Garrison was engaged in. That you, what we need, what the abolitionist movement needs one thing from you Frederick Douglass and that is for you to mount the podium and at optimal moments remove your shirt, show the scars on your back, You are just a body. For the abolitionist movement, the abolition movement only needs you to tell a story it does not need you to theorize, it does not need you to think, it does not need you to analyze, and you know. And then when Jefferson fled the US and was the rock star in the British Isles, Garrison was completely apoplectic because again Douglass was not playing the role that the abolitionist movement had scripted for him. His role was, “I was worked in all weathers. I barely had enough food to eat.”

RF: Of your scars. 

DM: But to be actually be able to think about, theorize about, and analyze the institution of slavery, you know, in the domestic and world order, No, that’s not what we want you doing, and the real blow was when Douglass started his own newspaper. How dare you? 

RF: Well it’s the same thing in Haiti when the US occupied Haiti in the 1910’s and up to 1940, There is a very famous quote by the Secretary of State, think it was [William] Jennings [Bryan], he says, “Oh dear, niggers speaking French!”

DM: Yes! Right!

RF: That that is unthinkable. 

DM: You know, it’s like…

RF: That can’t be, I mean, they almost look civilized.

DB: You know and it’s like, you know, the Samuel Johnson because you know, you look at these things operating on, you know, the racial plane, the gender plane, you know, when Johnson is saying I mean the idea of a woman being a writer, I mean it’s easier to imagine a dancing dog. And you know, I have continued to maintain, people don’t understand why I feel insulted when people say, “Oh Deborah, you’re so articulate” and I go, you know, and people ask “Why are you insulted about that” and I go, “You know, I am, doggone, I am a university professor. I mean to say that I’m articulate is just like really unremarkable. If I am, if I cannot be articulate as a university professor, I should hand in my badge, I don’t find this a compliment at all, and I put it in the logic of you know, “Ah, a black person who can actually get out a simple declarative sentence without falling on her face.” Anyway, now, do you think this is something you’d be interested in doing hanging with us on, Robert?

RF: Yeah, that’s fine. Yeah, it’s interesting!