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?


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

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

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

JP: What do you mean by that?

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

Origins of A11 and A12, 2017 in Blue Ribbon Commission

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the role of protest in the nation's history

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

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

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

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

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

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

JP: Is there one about seizing property?


LW: Is it the property one or is it?

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

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

Teaching Jefferson in UVA's new curriculum

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

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

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.


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


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.