Sonya Clark


Interviewee: Sonya Clark
Interviewer(s): Deborah E. McDowell; James Perla
Interview date:
Interview Summary:
Keywords: Declaration, art, citizenship, equality
Transcription: Zhaire Roberson


Introductions

Sonya Clark: You know, and I have no idea what you’re going to ask me about. I hope you’re not going to turn, you know, turn me into historian because I’m not a historian. 

JP: No, no, no, we, yeah, really just want you to sort of talk about your piece and Inspirations for it and really just meditate on some of the themes that you brought out. So, it’s not nothing super gotcha journalism or anything too investigative. It’s really just an open and free-flowing conversation.

SC: Yeah, let’s see, let’s see. For some reason the thing I am trying to pull up is not opening. I am trying to pull up this PowerPoint. Ah ha because I have notes on my PowerPoint. 

JP: Oh wonderful. 

SC: That will keep me on track for what the last time I talked about this piece.

JP: Sure. Sure. 

SC: I was thoughtful and articulate and we’ll see if I can attempt to do that again.

JP: Yeah, I know, I understand.  

SC: They’re… And none of the images just came up. Hmm interesting. Interesting. Okay. [1:00] Well, why don’t we go ahead and get started and I’ll just… I’ll just keep clicking around. 

JP: Sure. Yeah, we keep just… Yeah, so I guess now it’s a good time to introduce you to my colleague here, Deborah McDowell and we actually had the great good fortune of going down to see your piece at The Institute for Contemporary Art a few weeks ago in Richmond. And so, Deborah McDowell is the director of the Woodson Institute here at UVA. And yeah, we’re just so glad that you could make the time to speak with us. 

SC: Yeah, it’s my pleasure. Hi Deborah. 

Deborah McDowell: Hello. I hope your weathering this rain, this dampness. 

SC: Yeah. Yeah. It’s definitely, it’s definitely odd weather. Yeah, you know, normally this time… I’m in DC and normally this time of year, it’s still hotter than hell but I’ve actually had to put a sweater on and it’s been very different.

DMcD: I know [2:00], I know and it’s the kind of weather when I most want to sleep. 

SC: Yeah, it feels like four o’clock all day. 


the bricks of empire

DMcD: Yes, indeed, indeed. Well, we thank you for making the time for us and as James said this isn’t about any gotcha journalism, but we were quite intrigued by your piece in the exhibition. In fact, it and the grouping of the lynching costumes provoked the most discussion. We were there with a colleague and we just continued to think about and meditate on your piece and especially the bricks. The… So, you made each brick by hand? 

SC: So, yes, so the piece was fabricated. So, the bricks were wet bricks that [3:00] were then hand-molded so that they could be stamped with the Declaration of Independence as you saw and also on the verso. So, on the back of each stamp and on the back of each brick, stamped with a kind of maker’s mark drawing from the kinds of maker’s marks that were used in the Roman Empire. 

DMcD: Why that connection? 

SC: Oh, so that connection is a kind of straightforward one. I spent a lot of time going back and forth in the past twelve years to Italy and I’ve realized that there is a way in which people hold up the Roman Empire as being this great empire and that empire, and I would also say, America’s empire, were built on the back [4:00] of slavery. 

DMcD: Yes. 

SC: And so, while we hold up this empire as pinnacles of culture, to realize that paradoxically while these are… These are systems that were holding up… What they were built on was the taking advantage of others, treating other human beings as less than human and America swallowed that same legacy whole. So, the parallel is there this idea of nation building, empire building, as America was looking to who it wanted to model itself after. It… one of the one of the places that it looked to was ancient Rome and here we are still with the legacy and the continuation of that legacy of a nation that lives in this paradox between liberty and enslavement [5:00].

DMcD: Well… 

JP: And the piece also riffs on that sort of SPQR. I mean the stamp itself has that, you know, at what word is etched into? I wonder if you can even just maybe describe the piece perhaps for someone who might not have seen it before. 


Edifice and mortar as an exploration of language

SC: Oh, certainly. Right. We’re on radio. So, so, the piece is imagine a little brick wall. Everybody has a sense about about how big a brick is so that’s easy to imagine. This brick wall is thirteen rows of bricks high and instead of mortar, what is in between each of the bricks is African-American hair that has been gathered from Richmond salons, African-American salons in Richmond. On the front of each brick there is… On each brick is a word from [6:00] the Declaration of Independence stamped in and stamped in a kind of script that is to be reminiscent of the handwritten version of The Declaration of Independence. On the back of each brick is something that looks like a crescent with a word that might not be familiar to people also stamped within that crescent. So, it’s a little complicated for me to describe why I picked this maker’s mark crescent and if people are not familiar with them, ancient Roman bricks often would have these crescent marks on them stamped on the back and on it. On one part of the crescent, would have the name of the person who owned the land where the clay was being gathered and then there would be [7:00] a sort of an internal ring and it would have the name of the slave owner and sometimes on the third, innermost ring of this crescent, you might have the name of the enslaved person. So, riffing off of that. So, we’ve learned a lot about ancient Rome and ancient Rome and the the institution of slavery through these crescent stamps. It’s one of the few places where you actually see the hand and the name sometimes of the enslaved person. One of the connections between, a much more straightforward connection between the idea of slavery in Italy and ancient Rome and the Americas and the United States of America and the Caribbean is that slavery can persist even in our language. [8:00] So, the stamp that I put on the back of each of these bricks is a crescent shape, but that crescent gets sort of reconfigured into an afro. So, it looks like a stylized afro like, you know, Angela Davis afro. And within the hair portion of that, afro, within the afro itself, is the Italian word, schiavo. Now, I’m going to spell that word for your listeners. It’s schiavo. Now, in Italian that’s pronounced schiavo. So, the “ch” makes it sort of “k” sound, right? But if we were in… Let’s say we were in Venice. So, Northern Italy, the Venetian accent softens it. So, it’s shiavo, right? Instead of schiavo. [9:00] Shiavo, right? And shiavo turns into the word, ciao. The greeting, hello, goodbye, ciao. Everybody knows what ciao means, you know, ciao. Well, the word schiavo means slave. So, when we are greeting each other by saying hello and goodbye, Ciao, ciao, we’re actually saying I’m in your service. I’m your slave. And that is one of those places where we see the slippage between the legacy of slavery on our very tongues. As well as embedded in the edifice and the mortar, which is the name of the piece of the foundations of this nation.  


the notion and paradox of an edifice

DMcD: So, why Edifice and Mortar? Why not the more customary brick and mortar? And I should interrupt and say that there will be moments in our conversation when [10:00] I will ask seemingly obvious questions to you such as why the Roman connection but this is mainly for the purposes of viewers who may not be as steeped in this history as you are.

SC: Oh, yeah. No worries. No worries, of course, of course. So, brick and mortar, while the pieces are obviously made out of bricks… So, to say brick and mortar would be a little bit on the nose for me. But edifice refers to something that might be made out of bricks, but the word edifice not only refers to a building, specifically a really large scale building, but also the notion of a complex system of beliefs. And so, you know, I was actually going to the dictionary definition. Though, because edifice means both a complex system of beliefs and a large and imposing building, like how did we [11:00] build the structure? How did we build the edifice of the United, what has come to be the United States of America? And how the Declaration of Independence was part of building that system of beliefs. “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.” So, therein lies the paradox that all men are created equal. Well, not all men. Even when that was written. You know? And the paradox is right there. So, that edifice, that structure was already built on a faulty notion. So, that’s why the word edifice and then of course the mortar points the viewer to well, what is the mortar? What is holding these bricks together? And then they come to see that it’s made out of hair like the hair that I grow. African American hair, hair of… Clearly from someone from the African continent or who has relatives and legacy [12:00] from the African continent. And in fact it is in a great part the enslaved… enslaved people of African descent that built this nation, built many of the buildings that we all hold dear and true. You know, I think about Thomas Jefferson and when people go to Monticello, before it sort of is reconfigured itself, there was this notion of here was this great man in our history and he lived in this great, beautiful land all by himself as if that land wasn’t being worked by all these enslaved Africans and most likely African Americans. So, it’s to point to the mortar. What’s holding this edifice a system of beliefs, the structure together?


america in abstraction

JP: Yeah, and part of that is are also the words, right? And so, thinking of Jefferson as someone whose words are very much, kind [13:00] of, etched into our national psyche as well. I wonder if you could maybe speak about that a bit and maybe even what was the process I guess of, you know, I’m picturing and this might not be fair but picturing, you know, making these bricks, you know, by hand where it’s sort of like you’re almost rebuilding word-by-word the words of that document if that makes sense. And I don’t know if thinking about Jefferson sort of in that more granular way step-by-step versus the kind of composite edifice that we have right now. I wonder if you could maybe talk a little bit about that.

SC: I have to say, you know, if I’m honest I wasn’t specifically thinking about Jefferson but the Founding Fathers as a whole, you know, and, you know, that notion of how they’re held in high esteem, but always in this complexity of knowing that the wealth of this nation was built on enslavement of other people, chattel slavery. And [14:00] knowing that Richmond, Virginia was one of those major slave ports. It was one of Richmond, Virginia’s major industries. So, to just sort of point to all of those things. You know, I’ve realized that one of the things that I neglected to share with your viewers, as I was, I mean, one of the things that I neglected to share with your listeners was that the piece is thirteen bricks high because it refers to the thirteen stripes of the flag and against that brick wall, low brick wall is a blue piece of glass at an angle that sits on the bottom left. So, the whole piece from the front looks like a kind of upside down American flag in abstraction. And that blue angled mirror reflects the viewer back at themselves. So, when you’re thinking, “we hold these truths to be self-evident,” who is [15:00] we? That all men are created equal, who was all men? Who was all? So, to invite people into the piece by seeing themselves reflected in the work. And I say that because at some point when I first conceived the work, I thought that I might bring people together to help me hand stamp all of the bricks but none of that is what it ended up being. That’s not how the piece got made. You know, it’s… But it was in part thinking about what it would mean for the audience themselves to be part of the process of building this edifice.

DMcD: And yet…

SC: I’m not sure if I answered your question, but… 

DMcD: Yes, I’m thinking too about edifice, an edifice as a structure and what that… What that all suggests generally [16:00] speaking but then I’m reimagining the position of your piece there in the museum space. So, it is a portion of a wall. I mean, there is something about the piece that is necessarily an unfinished edifice. We… There are no structures supporting it, no adjoining walls, no adjoining brick walls. Then thinking about the fact that the wall there is has been constructed brick by brick, single entity by single entity. And so, at the same time that there is a suggestion of sturdiness and foundationalism. There is simultaneously a suggestion of fragility. Would that be fair to say? At least as the piece, as your piece suggests itself to [17:00] mean? And I find that very intriguing because as much as we know this country stands on this particular ideological foundation, it stands on the backs and bodies of particular people. There is something about the piece itself that is edifice and mortar that suggests something more fragile.

SC: Right. So, the… fragile is… I appreciate this reading, you know, again, there is something sort of diminutive about the piece. You know, because 13 thirteen high is not very high. Again, making reference to the flag. That’s why it’s the scale and size that it is. It’s based on the size of a brick. Iknew that I wanted it [18:00] to be thirteen bricks high to refer to the thirteen stripes of the American flag, of the United States of America’s flag. And it’s, you know, proportionally the size of a flag that, you know, so all of that is set. It is diminutive in this way that even as the founding fathers were writing these words, on composing these words, there is something inherently and its own undoing and here we are in 2018 still… still dealing with the legacy of the injustice that this nation was built on. Here we are. So many years later still dealing with that legacy. So, if that’s fragility then I would claim, yes, that there is something something in the building that was awry. And you might use the word fragility for that. But certainly [19:00] there’s something again about this paradox of injustice that I hope to imply in the piece.

DMcD: Sure. In fact, I might be inclined to take back the term fragility, it came first to mind, but substitute for it instability. 

SC: Oh, yes. Yes. I like that reading even better. I like that word even more.


Stability, instability and materiality

DMcD: Yes, instability. That’s what I was trying to grasp for and fragility came out but it’s more instability and the ways in which the sturdiness with which or the associations of sturdiness that attach to bricks and brick-making after we saw your piece, for example, to interject, we were having a discussion over dinner about my formative years in the segregated South and what it meant to, in terms of one’s own [20:00] class mobility, to graduate from living in a wooden house to living in a brick house. And a brick house suggested upward mobility, it suggested something more sturdy and yet the very first brick subdivision, the subdivision consisting of brick houses, was built on a floodplain and so it’s this continual interplay between things suggesting stability, formidability, and instability, all at once.

SC: Right and, you know, of course when I, when I was thinking about this piece when I was first asked to be included in the Declaration show by Stephanie Smith and the team at The Institute for Contemporary Art at VCU, I… The current president was talking about building [21:00] a wall. And now there’s so many other things that are being talked about under this administration, but building a wall to keep others out which, you know, this is a nation of others. Well, I can claim no First Nations or Native American blood, at least that I’m aware of, but we’re a nation of outsiders and even that kind of imperialism that formed this nation is, you know, curious in this context of building a wall to keep others out or even maybe get those of us who are perceived of as being others that they sort of white supremacist notions to, you know, we’re no longer useful. No longer useful, you know, when we were chattel slaves we were useful. And when there was land that could be taken from Native Americans that’s, you know, a kind of use. All of these kinds of histories, when we look them squarely in the [22:00] eye are… They’re painful legacies of the United States of America that we continue to not look at squarely and continue to plague us. Histories of injustice and histories of inequity. But again, those are the histories that the nation is built on. So, when I’m thinking about this idea of stability and instability, someone asked me at the exhibition about that blue glass that leans against the wall… Against this low wall and they weren’t quite understanding the reading as an abstracted U.S. flag. And what they said was, their reading of it was it looks like you’ve got this very this piece of glass like this fragile, to use your word, Deborah, this fragile piece of glass that that’s what’s holding up the wall, but glass can’t hold it brick, you know. And yet [23:00] it’s the glass that reflects the people back in the work and it is true that we are the ones who are here to challenge those words. To uphold them. The parts that should be upheld and the parts that need to be challenged. It’s our responsibility. In fact, that’s the way that this nation was built is that the people are to push back at the government when the government gets off-kilter.


the power of joy in undoing hatred

JP: This conversation is reminding me, a few months ago, we hosted a symposium in honor of Tera Hunter, the historian… Princeton historian, if I’m not mistaken, her work. It was an anniversary of sorts of To Joy My Freedom, which is a book about African-American domestic workers in Atlanta. And during that symposium, there was a comment that came out that was talking [24:00] about both the tenuousness of white supremacy, but also the tenuousness of joy and that in some ways joy and the desire to have joy and to live and to have that kind of convivial space of support and resistance, that that actually exposes the fact that these structures of white supremacy, while important to focus on, are ultimately tenuous and fragile and at risk if that kind of makes sense. And so, that just is reminding me, I mean, this conversation is reminding me of that moment during the symposium and so, I wonder if maybe you could speak briefly about joy or, you know, in some ways this space that it’s, you know, you’re collecting hair you say from places around Richmond, barber shops and other salons as you said and so if [25:00] you want, you know, to pick up on that thread if anything comes to mind there.

SC: So, I’m not quite sure if I’m understanding the reference to joy that you pointed to earlier. I’m not I’m not quite sure if I understand that the… Maybe you can, I think, draw that line a little bit more clearly between?

JP: Sure. I think it’s the idea that in a lot of this work and maybe this is another way to get at it is in this work when we focus on figures like Thomas Jefferson or we focus on the structures of white supremacy and readings that try to deconstruct or critique white supremacy, sometimes I think we get kind of buried in the focus of sort of the power of white supremacy to say that this is an all-encompassing structure and that can be, sort o,f it can reinforce its fixity in a certain way and to kind of come at it from another angle to say well [26:00], where are there moments where this is in fact not fixed or where there we can see moments of this being a bit more tenuous or a bit more fragile that through those moments, that through those spaces, one can find moments of resistance and alternatives and I think the conversation was around spaces of, you know, of mutual support and joy and community. That these spaces show the power and the limitations… The power of joy in an African-American cultural setting but then also the limitations of white supremacy that it’s not just this thing that is all-encompassing and sort of a permanent fixture or permanent edifice of our of our nation.

SC: Well, I’m not, well, I hope it’s not permanent, but it has been long lived. White supremacy [27:00], I’m talking about. Now, the power of joy can always undo hatred. I do think that that’s true. And since I don’t know the scholars work that you’re referring to, I am having a little bit of a hard time jumping onto that but I certainly do know that one of the things that is so incredible about people in this nation who have experienced great injustice, so not just African Americans or Native Americans or any people of color or people in the LGBTQ community. I just… Anybody who has experienced the kind of hatred that does exist palpably in this nation and they counteracted with their joy, their voice. And a kind of magnitude around those things. That I understand. [28:00] So, if that’s what someone was talking about, what the scholars dimension was talking about, then I certainly understand that. But I have to say, that white supremacy has been a thing that has been in this nation for a long time and it is in fact the underpinning structure of this nation. So, again with this paradox of liberty and slavery. So, what we’re still working on is to hold on to the liberty. And if that liberty means that there’s an investment in the joy for everyone, then we can undo eventually the legacy of slavery. So, you know, simple questions like when we think about… When we think about black men and women or people of color and the way they are treated, we are treated by, well, just [29:00] a police brutality against groups of people who are people of color. That you still leave your house. You still laugh with your family. You still continue on. It’s not only an example of joy, it’s an example of fortitude. It’s an example of a kind of resistance, to not being hemmed in, and I… One of the things that I love about African-American people is our resilience, but we’re also fragile and we get… we should be allowed to be fragile too because we’ve been through a lot in this nation. The legacy. And yet, when people point to American culture so much of… so much of what people point to when I travel far and wide is the music, [30:00] is our food, is, you know, things that I associate with African-American culture that is really, you know, it’s like hmm this nation couldn’t be what it is without this kind of without our legacy and yet, it’s such a problematic paradox again is paradox of liberty and enslavement. This paradox of how to celebrate with equality, how to be equal in this nation. Simply how to be equal in this nation every day, all day. Just how to be equal in this nation. The strength it takes to do that is a kind of strength and a [31:00] kind of beauty that is… I think Cornell West said this, “That African-American people are perhaps the most loving people on the planet because how else could we survive without a kind of love and fortitude.” I mean, you know, I may be joy fits in there too as well.

DMcD:  Yes. I think that the discussion attempted to focus on, yes, the spectrum of black emotion including joy and joy as a resistant response to oppression. There have been scholars of slavery, for example, whose recent work has turned to spaces, fugitive spaces, alternative geographies, outside the explicit boundaries of the plantation [32:00]. Those spaces where black people worshipped, made music, made love, etc. So, I think it’s joy, as one of spectrum of emotions available to Black Americans even in the face of centuries-long oppression in this nation. But I want to ask you as we… We don’t want to take up the rest of your afternoon, but we’ve been talking about this peculiar American story. In what ways does your Caribbean heritage inform your work or perhaps you’re… not just this work but your work more broadly?


Creating art in the global context

SC: Well, before there was a United States of America, there was a transatlantic slave trade and that’s what bought and brought my Caribbean, my Afro-Caribbean [33:00] relatives here and my Scottish Caribbean relatives to this side of the planet. And all of that was British Empire. So, the story is very connected, Of course, that I happened to be born… I’m first generation American. My parents both immigrated to the United States and became American citizens, but they’re both now ancestors and… But the so many… So many parts of that story are similar stories, you know. Jamaicans and the sugar trade, Jamaicans and the indigo trade. Not so much the cotton trade. And if you look at my family, my family lives in the United States of America, Jamaica, Trinidad, Scotland, England, and I used to have some family members that lived in Ghana. You know, now there is quite [34:00] a diaspora of us, but those were the main footholds. For the Clark side of my family in the McCarty side of my family, too. So, this looking at identity within the context of a global context is something that I think is very much part of my work and early on, I looked a lot at the connections through my father’s lineage to Nigeria and specifically through the Yoruba culture of Nigeria and Benin in earlier works and I have to admit that living in Richmond Virginia for twelve years made me really think about about the Civil War, about chattel slavery and around those histories because I was seeing Confederate flags daily. And that changed the work in one way. But I do think that, you [35:00] know, I have I have a lot of hope for America otherwise I would have moved somewhere else. And now I do think we’re in a dark place. But in one sense that the dark place that we’re in is also a place where there’s cracks of light and what I mean by that is where people were once sort of passionless about politics, they are suddenly impassioned because they understand what is at stake, you know? Sort of the negative side of American exceptionalism. Everything is not perfect here. This is how imperfect it is. There’s work to be done. How do we do it? And so, that Caribbean heritage is very much about what it means to be an American and being a first-generation American. I always think about what my parents gave up to come to this nation and it wasn’t easy for my father. He… I [36:00] grew up in Washington, D.C. because he went to Howard to get his medical degree and my mother followed him. After they courted for ten years across an ocean, it was not easy for them to get here and to make do and get an education. My father paid for his way through school, took him a long time. The sacrifices that they made for my generation and for my relatives that then came up and followed them were not small sacrifices and so that legacy of the Caribbean is very much deeply rooted in me. Through my parents first and foremost but also to that broader legacy of thinking about it was all the British empire at some point.

DMcD: Exactly. It was all the British empire at some point. Is there anything else you’d like to say to us about your work, about Thomas Jefferson, about the issue of Declaration [37:00], more broadly? Anything that may come to mind as a kind of parting part of our conversation.

SC: You know, I was thinking about the… One of the things that, I mentioned this earlier, that one of the things I had hoped but it was not possible to do was to have people help me make the bricks so that the piece… So that people would say, “That’s the brick I made.” “I made the “we.”” “I made the “whole.”” Like that sort of thing, but it couldn’t happen and yet there’s so many people that are there either because the mirror that is part of the piece captured their faces in a fleeting moment so they became part of the piece. I like to think that artwork has the power to absorb all of its viewers and to absorb all of its stories that get attached to it, all the readings that get attached to it. But then physically [38:00] in the piece are all of those ancestors, all of that genetic material, all of those people who came before us, as they are captured in each strand of the hairs of the people that were gathered up from Richmond salons and barbershops. So, there’s a presence of people in the work.  That are holding that work together, that are challenging those words and upholding those words, simultaneously. And so, that paradox is something that’s really important to me and I just liked it make sure that that’s shared with your audience. 

DMcD:  How eloquently put. Really eloquently put. Quite beautiful.

SC: I appreciate that. Thank you. Thank you. 

DMcD: Thank you so much. 

SC: Well, thank you. Thank you both for your time. Now, I get to go back to cleaning my mother’s house. [39:00] Sending a thank you page.

JP: Really appreciate you making the time, especially during this difficult time of yours and I hope it helped to discuss art and to talk about big Ideas like this and we really… We’ll keep you in the loop about how we use the materials and we’ll definitely keep you up to date as the series progresses, but this is just such a wonderful conversation and we really appreciate you for making the time to speak with us today.

SC: You’re welcome, and I appreciate you all too for the work that you’re doing. And thank you for including me in it. So, have a good day. Okay. All right until our paths cross in person. Take care now. All right, bye-bye.

Sonya Clark

Sonya Clark: You know, and I have no idea what you’re going to ask me about. I hope you’re not going to turn, you know, turn me into historian because I’m not a historian. 

JP: No, no, no, we, yeah, really just want you to sort of talk about your piece and Inspirations for it and really just meditate on some of the themes that you brought out. So, it’s not nothing super gotcha journalism or anything too investigative. It’s really just an open and free-flowing conversation.

SC: Yeah, let’s see, let’s see. For some reason the thing I am trying to pull up is not opening. I am trying to pull up this PowerPoint. Ah ha because I have notes on my PowerPoint. 

JP: Oh wonderful. 

SC: That will keep me on track for what the last time I talked about this piece.

JP: Sure. Sure. 

SC: I was thoughtful and articulate and we’ll see if I can attempt to do that again.

JP: Yeah, I know, I understand.  

SC: They’re… And none of the images just came up. Hmm interesting. Interesting. Okay. [1:00] Well, why don’t we go ahead and get started and I’ll just… I’ll just keep clicking around. 

JP: Sure. Yeah, we keep just… Yeah, so I guess now it’s a good time to introduce you to my colleague here, Deborah McDowell and we actually had the great good fortune of going down to see your piece at The Institute for Contemporary Art a few weeks ago in Richmond. And so, Deborah McDowell is the director of the Woodson Institute here at UVA. And yeah, we’re just so glad that you could make the time to speak with us. 

SC: Yeah, it’s my pleasure. Hi Deborah. 

Deborah McDowell: Hello. I hope your weathering this rain, this dampness. 

SC: Yeah. Yeah. It’s definitely, it’s definitely odd weather. Yeah, you know, normally this time… I’m in DC and normally this time of year, it’s still hotter than hell but I’ve actually had to put a sweater on and it’s been very different.

DMcD: I know [2:00], I know and it’s the kind of weather when I most want to sleep. 

SC: Yeah, it feels like four o’clock all day. 

An Empire Built on the Backs of Slavery 

DMcD: Yes, indeed, indeed. Well, we thank you for making the time for us and as James said this isn’t about any gotcha journalism, but we were quite intrigued by your piece in the exhibition. In fact, it and the grouping of the lynching costumes provoked the most discussion. We were there with a colleague and we just continued to think about and meditate on your piece and especially the bricks. The… So, you made each brick by hand? 

SC: So, yes, so the piece was fabricated. So, the bricks were wet bricks that [3:00] were then hand-molded so that they could be stamped with the Declaration of Independence as you saw and also on the verso. So, on the back of each stamp and on the back of each brick, stamped with a kind of maker’s mark drawing from the kinds of maker’s marks that were used in the Roman Empire. 

DMcD: Why that connection? 

SC: Oh, so that connection is a kind of straightforward one. I spent a lot of time going back and forth in the past twelve years to Italy and I’ve realized that there is a way in which people hold up the Roman Empire as being this great empire and that empire, and I would also say, America’s empire, were built on the back [4:00] of slavery. 

DMcD: Yes. 

SC: And so, while we hold up this empire as pinnacles of culture, to realize that paradoxically while these are… These are systems that were holding up… What they were built on was the taking advantage of others, treating other human beings as less than human and America swallowed that same legacy whole. So, the parallel is there this idea of nation building, empire building, as America was looking to who it wanted to model itself after. It… one of the one of the places that it looked to was ancient Rome and here we are still with the legacy and the continuation of that legacy of a nation that lives in this paradox between liberty and enslavement [5:00].

DMcD: Well… 

JP: And the piece also riffs on that sort of SPQR. I mean the stamp itself has that, you know, at what word is etched into? I wonder if you can even just maybe describe the piece perhaps for someone who might not have seen it before. 

The Piece Itself and the Significance of Slavery Through Language 

SC: Oh, certainly. Right. We’re on radio. So, so, the piece is imagine a little brick wall. Everybody has a sense about about how big a brick is so that’s easy to imagine. This brick wall is thirteen rows of bricks high and instead of mortar, what is in between each of the bricks is African-American hair that has been gathered from Richmond salons, African-American salons in Richmond. On the front of each brick there is… On each brick is a word from [6:00] the Declaration of Independence stamped in and stamped in a kind of script that is to be reminiscent of the handwritten version of The Declaration of Independence. On the back of each brick is something that looks like a crescent with a word that might not be familiar to people also stamped within that crescent. So, it’s a little complicated for me to describe why I picked this maker’s mark crescent and if people are not familiar with them, ancient Roman bricks often would have these crescent marks on them stamped on the back and on it. On one part of the crescent, would have the name of the person who owned the land where the clay was being gathered and then there would be [7:00] a sort of an internal ring and it would have the name of the slave owner and sometimes on the third, innermost ring of this crescent, you might have the name of the enslaved person. So, riffing off of that. So, we’ve learned a lot about ancient Rome and ancient Rome and the the institution of slavery through these crescent stamps. It’s one of the few places where you actually see the hand and the name sometimes of the enslaved person. One of the connections between, a much more straightforward connection between the idea of slavery in Italy and ancient Rome and the Americas and the United States of America and the Caribbean is that slavery can persist even in our language. [8:00] So, the stamp that I put on the back of each of these bricks is a crescent shape, but that crescent gets sort of reconfigured into an afro. So, it looks like a stylized afro like, you know, Angela Davis afro. And within the hair portion of that, afro, within the afro itself, is the Italian word, schiavo. Now, I’m going to spell that word for your listeners. It’s schiavo. Now, in Italian that’s pronounced schiavo. So, the “ch” makes it sort of “k” sound, right? But if we were in… Let’s say we were in Venice. So, Northern Italy, the Venetian accent softens it. So, it’s shiavo, right? Instead of schiavo. [9:00] Shiavo, right? And shiavo turns into the word, ciao. The greeting, hello, goodbye, ciao. Everybody knows what ciao means, you know, ciao. Well, the word schiavo means slave. So, when we are greeting each other by saying hello and goodbye, Ciao, ciao, we’re actually saying I’m in your service. I’m your slave. And that is one of those places where we see the slippage between the legacy of slavery on our very tongues. As well as embedded in the edifice and the mortar, which is the name of the piece of the foundations of this nation.  

The Paradox of Edifice and Mortar

DMcD: So, why Edifice and Mortar? Why not the more customary brick and mortar? And I should interrupt and say that there will be moments in our conversation when [10:00] I will ask seemingly obvious questions to you such as why the Roman connection but this is mainly for the purposes of viewers who may not be as steeped in this history as you are.

SC: Oh, yeah. No worries. No worries, of course, of course. So, brick and mortar, while the pieces are obviously made out of bricks… So, to say brick and mortar would be a little bit on the nose for me. But edifice refers to something that might be made out of bricks, but the word edifice not only refers to a building, specifically a really large scale building, but also the notion of a complex system of beliefs. And so, you know, I was actually going to the dictionary definition. Though, because edifice means both a complex system of beliefs and a large and imposing building, like how did we [11:00] build the structure? How did we build the edifice of the United, what has come to be the United States of America? And how the Declaration of Independence was part of building that system of beliefs. “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.” So, therein lies the paradox that all men are created equal. Well, not all men. Even when that was written. You know? And the paradox is right there. So, that edifice, that structure was already built on a faulty notion. So, that’s why the word edifice and then of course the mortar points the viewer to well, what is the mortar? What is holding these bricks together? And then they come to see that it’s made out of hair like the hair that I grow. African American hair, hair of… Clearly from someone from the African continent or who has relatives and legacy [12:00] from the African continent. And in fact it is in a great part the enslaved… enslaved people of African descent that built this nation, built many of the buildings that we all hold dear and true. You know, I think about Thomas Jefferson and when people go to Monticello, before it sort of is reconfigured itself, there was this notion of here was this great man in our history and he lived in this great, beautiful land all by himself as if that land wasn’t being worked by all these enslaved Africans and most likely African Americans. So, it’s to point to the mortar. What’s holding this edifice a system of beliefs, the structure together?

JP: Yeah, and part of that is are also the words, right? And so, thinking of Jefferson as someone whose words are very much, kind [13:00] of, etched into our national psyche as well. I wonder if you could maybe speak about that a bit and maybe even what was the process I guess of, you know, I’m picturing and this might not be fair but picturing, you know, making these bricks, you know, by hand where it’s sort of like you’re almost rebuilding word-by-word the words of that document if that makes sense. And I don’t know if thinking about Jefferson sort of in that more granular way step-by-step versus the kind of composite edifice that we have right now. I wonder if you could maybe talk a little bit about that.

SC: I have to say, you know, if I’m honest I wasn’t specifically thinking about Jefferson but the Founding Fathers as a whole, you know, and, you know, that notion of how they’re held in high esteem, but always in this complexity of knowing that the wealth of this nation was built on enslavement of other people, chattel slavery. And [14:00] knowing that Richmond, Virginia was one of those major slave ports. It was one of Richmond, Virginia’s major industries. So, to just sort of point to all of those things. You know, I’ve realized that one of the things that I neglected to share with your viewers, as I was, I mean, one of the things that I neglected to share with your listeners was that the piece is thirteen bricks high because it refers to the thirteen stripes of the flag and against that brick wall, low brick wall is a blue piece of glass at an angle that sits on the bottom left. So, the whole piece from the front looks like a kind of upside down American flag in abstraction. And that blue angled mirror reflects the viewer back at themselves. So, when you’re thinking, “we hold these truths to be self-evident,” who is [15:00] we? That all men are created equal, who was all men? Who was all? So, to invite people into the piece by seeing themselves reflected in the work. And I say that because at some point when I first conceived the work, I thought that I might bring people together to help me hand stamp all of the bricks but none of that is what it ended up being. That’s not how the piece got made. You know, it’s… But it was in part thinking about what it would mean for the audience themselves to be part of the process of building this edifice.

DMcD: And yet…

SC: I’m not sure if I answered your question, but… 

DMcD: Yes, I’m thinking too about edifice, an edifice as a structure and what that… What that all suggests generally [16:00] speaking but then I’m reimagining the position of your piece there in the museum space. So, it is a portion of a wall. I mean, there is something about the piece that is necessarily an unfinished edifice. We… There are no structures supporting it, no adjoining walls, no adjoining brick walls. Then thinking about the fact that the wall there is has been constructed brick by brick, single entity by single entity. And so, at the same time that there is a suggestion of sturdiness and foundationalism. There is simultaneously a suggestion of fragility. Would that be fair to say? At least as the piece, as your piece suggests itself to [17:00] mean? And I find that very intriguing because as much as we know this country stands on this particular ideological foundation, it stands on the backs and bodies of particular people. There is something about the piece itself that is edifice and mortar that suggests something more fragile.

SC: Right. So, the… fragile is… I appreciate this reading, you know, again, there is something sort of diminutive about the piece. You know, because 13 thirteen high is not very high. Again, making reference to the flag. That’s why it’s the scale and size that it is. It’s based on the size of a brick. Iknew that I wanted it [18:00] to be thirteen bricks high to refer to the thirteen stripes of the American flag, of the United States of America’s flag. And it’s, you know, proportionally the size of a flag that, you know, so all of that is set. It is diminutive in this way that even as the founding fathers were writing these words, on composing these words, there is something inherently and its own undoing and here we are in 2018 still… still dealing with the legacy of the injustice that this nation was built on. Here we are. So many years later still dealing with that legacy. So, if that’s fragility then I would claim, yes, that there is something something in the building that was awry. And you might use the word fragility for that. But certainly [19:00] there’s something again about this paradox of injustice that I hope to imply in the piece.

DMcD: Sure. In fact, I might be inclined to take back the term fragility, it came first to mind, but substitute for it instability. 

SC: Oh, yes. Yes. I like that reading even better. I like that word even more.

DMcD: Yes, instability. That’s what I was trying to grasp for and fragility came out but it’s more instability and the ways in which the sturdiness with which or the associations of sturdiness that attach to bricks and brick-making after we saw your piece, for example, to interject, we were having a discussion over dinner about my formative years in the segregated South and what it meant to, in terms of one’s own [20:00] class mobility, to graduate from living in a wooden house to living in a brick house. And a brick house suggested upward mobility, it suggested something more sturdy and yet the very first brick subdivision, the subdivision consisting of brick houses, was built on a floodplain and so it’s this continual interplay between things suggesting stability, formidability, and instability, all at once.

SC: Right and, you know, of course when I, when I was thinking about this piece when I was first asked to be included in the Declaration show by Stephanie Smith and the team at The Institute for Contemporary Art at VCU, I… The current president was talking about building [21:00] a wall. And now there’s so many other things that are being talked about under this administration, but building a wall to keep others out which, you know, this is a nation of others. Well, I can claim no First Nations or Native American blood, at least that I’m aware of, but we’re a nation of outsiders and even that kind of imperialism that formed this nation is, you know, curious in this context of building a wall to keep others out or even maybe get those of us who are perceived of as being others that they sort of white supremacist notions to, you know, we’re no longer useful. No longer useful, you know, when we were chattel slaves we were useful. And when there was land that could be taken from Native Americans that’s, you know, a kind of use. All of these kinds of histories, when we look them squarely in the [22:00] eye are… They’re painful legacies of the United States of America that we continue to not look at squarely and continue to plague us. Histories of injustice and histories of inequity. But again, those are the histories that the nation is built on. So, when I’m thinking about this idea of stability and instability, someone asked me at the exhibition about that blue glass that leans against the wall… Against this low wall and they weren’t quite understanding the reading as an abstracted U.S. flag. And what they said was, their reading of it was it looks like you’ve got this very this piece of glass like this fragile, to use your word, Deborah, this fragile piece of glass that that’s what’s holding up the wall, but glass can’t hold it brick, you know. And yet [23:00] it’s the glass that reflects the people back in the work and it is true that we are the ones who are here to challenge those words. To uphold them. The parts that should be upheld and the parts that need to be challenged. It’s our responsibility. In fact, that’s the way that this nation was built is that the people are to push back at the government when the government gets  off-kilter.

JP: This conversation is reminding me, a few months ago, we hosted a symposium in honor of Tera Hunter, the historian… Princeton historian, if I’m not mistaken, her work. It was an anniversary of sorts of To Joy My Freedom, which is a book about African-American domestic workers in Atlanta. And during that symposium, there was a comment that came out that was talking [24:00] about both the tenuousness of white supremacy, but also the tenuousness of joy and that in some ways joy and the desire to have joy and to live and to have that kind of convivial space of support and resistance, that that actually exposes the fact that these structures of white supremacy, while important to focus on, are ultimately tenuous and fragile and at risk if that kind of makes sense. And so, that just is reminding me, I mean, this conversation is reminding me of that moment during the symposium and so, I wonder if maybe you could speak briefly about joy or, you know, in some ways this space that it’s, you know, you’re collecting hair you say from places around Richmond, barber shops and other salons as you said and so if [25:00] you want, you know, to pick up on that thread if anything comes to mind there.

SC: So, I’m not quite sure if I’m understanding the reference to joy that you pointed to earlier. I’m not I’m not quite sure if I understand that the… Maybe you can, I think, draw that line a little bit more clearly between?

JP: Sure. I think it’s the idea that in a lot of this work and maybe this is another way to get at it is in this work when we focus on figures like Thomas Jefferson or we focus on the structures of white supremacy and readings that try to deconstruct or critique white supremacy, sometimes I think we get kind of buried in the focus of sort of the power of white supremacy to say that this is an all-encompassing structure and that can be, sort o,f it can reinforce its fixity in a certain way and to kind of come at it from another angle to say well [26:00], where are there moments where this is in fact not fixed or where there we can see moments of this being a bit more tenuous or a bit more fragile that through those moments, that through those spaces, one can find moments of resistance and alternatives and I think the conversation was around spaces of, you know, of mutual support and joy and community. That these spaces show the power and the limitations… The power of joy in an African-American cultural setting but then also the limitations of white supremacy that it’s not just this thing that is all-encompassing and sort of a permanent fixture or permanent edifice of our of our nation.

SC: Well, I’m not, well, I hope it’s not permanent, but it has been long lived. White supremacy [27:00], I’m talking about. Now, the power of joy can always undo hatred. I do think that that’s true. And since I don’t know the scholars work that you’re referring to, I am having a little bit of a hard time jumping onto that but I certainly do know that one of the things that is so incredible about people in this nation who have experienced great injustice, so not just African Americans or Native Americans or any people of color or people in the LGBTQ community. I just… Anybody who has experienced the kind of hatred that does exist palpably in this nation and they counteracted with their joy, their voice. And a kind of magnitude around those things. That I understand. [28:00] So, if that’s what someone was talking about, what the scholars dimension was talking about, then I certainly understand that. But I have to say, that white supremacy has been a thing that has been in this nation for a long time and it is in fact the underpinning structure of this nation. So, again with this paradox of liberty and slavery. So, what we’re still working on is to hold on to the liberty. And if that liberty means that there’s an investment in the joy for everyone, then we can undo eventually the legacy of slavery. So, you know, simple questions like when we think about… When we think about black men and women or people of color and the way they are treated, we are treated by, well, just [29:00] a police brutality against groups of people who are people of color. That you still leave your house. You still laugh with your family. You still continue on. It’s not only an example of joy, it’s an example of fortitude. It’s an example of a kind of resistance, to not being hemmed in, and I… One of the things that I love about African-American people is our resilience, but we’re also fragile and we get… we should be allowed to be fragile too because we’ve been through a lot in this nation. The legacy. And yet, when people point to American culture so much of… so much of what people point to when I travel far and wide is the music, [30:00] is our food, is, you know, things that I associate with African-American culture that is really, you know, it’s like hmm this nation couldn’t be what it is without this kind of without our legacy and yet, it’s such a problematic paradox again is paradox of liberty and enslavement. This paradox of how to celebrate with equality, how to be equal in this nation. Simply how to be equal in this nation every day, all day. Just how to be equal in this nation. The strength it takes to do that is a kind of strength and a [31:00] kind of beauty that is… I think Cornell West said this, “That African-American people are perhaps the most loving people on the planet because how else could we survive without a kind of love and fortitude.” I mean, you know, I may be joy fits in there too as well.

DMcD:  Yes. I think that the discussion attempted to focus on, yes, the spectrum of black emotion including joy and joy as a resistant response to oppression. There have been scholars of slavery, for example, whose recent work has turned to spaces, fugitive spaces, alternative geographies, outside the explicit boundaries of the plantation [32:00]. Those spaces where black people worshipped, made music, made love, etc. So, I think it’s joy, as one of spectrum of emotions available to Black Americans even in the face of centuries-long oppression in this nation. But I want to ask you as we… We don’t want to take up the rest of your afternoon, but we’ve been talking about this peculiar American story. In what ways does your Caribbean heritage inform your work or perhaps you’re… not just this work but your work more broadly?

SC: Well, before there was a United States of America, there was a transatlantic slave trade and that’s what bought and brought my Caribbean, my Afro-Caribbean [33:00] relatives here and my Scottish Caribbean relatives to this side of the planet. And all of that was British Empire. So, the story is very connected, Of course, that I happened to be born… I’m first generation American. My parents both immigrated to the United States and became American citizens, but they’re both now ancestors and… But the so many… So many parts of that story are similar stories, you know. Jamaicans and the sugar trade, Jamaicans and the indigo trade. Not so much the cotton trade. And if you look at my family, my family lives in the United States of America, Jamaica, Trinidad, Scotland, England, and I used to have some family members that lived in Ghana. You know, now there is quite [34:00] a diaspora of us, but those were the main footholds. For the Clark side of my family in the McCarty side of my family, too. So, this looking at identity within the context of a global context is something that I think is very much part of my work and early on, I looked a lot at the connections through my father’s lineage to Nigeria and specifically through the Yoruba culture of Nigeria and Benin in earlier works and I have to admit that living in Richmond Virginia for twelve years made me really think about about the Civil War, about chattel slavery and around those histories because I was seeing Confederate flags daily. And that changed the work in one way. But I do think that, you [35:00] know, I have I have a lot of hope for America otherwise I would have moved somewhere else. And now I do think we’re in a dark place. But in one sense that the dark place that we’re in is also a place where there’s cracks of light and what I mean by that is where people were once sort of passionless about politics, they are suddenly impassioned because they understand what is at stake, you know? Sort of the negative side of American exceptionalism. Everything is not perfect here. This is how imperfect it is. There’s work to be done. How do we do it? And so, that Caribbean heritage is very much about what it means to be an American and being a first-generation American. I always think about what my parents gave up to come to this nation and it wasn’t easy for my father. He… I [36:00] grew up in Washington, D.C. because he went to Howard to get his medical degree and my mother followed him. After they courted for ten years across an ocean, it was not easy for them to get here and to make do and get an education. My father paid for his way through school, took him a long time. The sacrifices that they made for my generation and for my relatives that then came up and followed them were not small sacrifices and so that legacy of the Caribbean is very much deeply rooted in me. Through my parents first and foremost but also to that broader legacy of thinking about it was all the British empire at some point.

DMcD: Exactly. It was all the British empire at some point. Is there anything else you’d like to say to us about your work, about Thomas Jefferson, about the issue of Declaration [37:00], more broadly? Anything that may come to mind as a kind of parting part of our conversation.

SC: You know, I was thinking about the… One of the things that, I mentioned this earlier, that one of the things I had hoped but it was not possible to do was to have people help me make the bricks so that the piece… So that people would say, “That’s the brick I made.” “I made the “we.”” “I made the “whole.”” Like that sort of thing, but it couldn’t happen and yet there’s so many people that are there either because the mirror that is part of the piece captured their faces in a fleeting moment so they became part of the piece. I like to think that artwork has the power to absorb all of its viewers and to absorb all of its stories that get attached to it, all the readings that get attached to it. But then physically [38:00] in the piece are all of those ancestors, all of that genetic material, all of those people who came before us, as they are captured in each strand of the hairs of the people that were gathered up from Richmond salons and barbershops. So, there’s a presence of people in the work.  That are holding that work together, that are challenging those words and upholding those words, simultaneously. And so, that paradox is something that’s really important to me and I just liked it make sure that that’s shared with your audience. 

DMcD:  How eloquently put. Really eloquently put. Quite beautiful.

SC: I appreciate that. Thank you. Thank you. 

DMcD: Thank you so much. 

SC: Well, thank you. Thank you both for your time. Now, I get to go back to cleaning my mother’s house. [39:00] Sending a thank you page.

JP: Really appreciate you making the time, especially during this difficult time of yours and I hope it helped to discuss art and to talk about big Ideas like this and we really… We’ll keep you in the loop about how we use the materials and we’ll definitely keep you up to date as the series progresses, but this is just such a wonderful conversation and we really appreciate you for making the time to speak with us today.

SC: You’re welcome, and I appreciate you all too for the work that you’re doing. And thank you for including me in it. So, have a good day. Okay. All right until our paths cross in person. Take care now. All right, bye-bye.

John O’Brien and Brad Pasanek Transcript

Indexed Transcript (with audio)

James Perla: We could just really begin in talking about Notes on the State. Why that’s a… still an important text. I know, John, you mention that this is still a very relevant text for us at the present moment. So, why Notes?

John O’Brien: I don’t think I have a… [1:00]

Deborah McDowell: You’re probably inhibited by…

JOB: Yeah, I don’t have a good good good introductory answer. The book covers so many different things, you know, it is Jefferson’s only book, you know, and we think of Jefferson as a writer, but we think of him as writer of basic or a drafter of things like the Declaration of Independence or letters and fragments. This is the only thing that is a book that Jefferson did but it’s a very peculiar book because it doesn’t have a narrative. It’s assembled under categories that it calls queries, which is coming from its occasion as responding to an actual questionnaire that he then expands into something bizarre and marvelous. In its own way, it’s not a friendly or readable book, you know, it has accounts of the flora, the [2:00] fauna, the native tribes, the chief exports of various regions of Virginia. It’s kind of like a narrativized gazetteer of the state of Virginia.

JP: What’s that? What’s a gazetteer?

JOB: Kind of giving you a full account of… it’s almost like a statistical summary turned into prose of the state of Virginia. It also is a was a book that I think quite deliberately puns “the state of Virginia,” the state, the entity of Virginia. But also trying to use the pages of a book to capture the state of Virginia at a particular moment. And that moment is the moment, right? I think at the cusp of nationhood. Because one of the things I think about the timing of the book is that Jefferson published the London Edition in 1787 aware that he couldn’t be at what became the Constitutional Convention. And this is in effect an attempt to respond. First of all, to something that was several years older by that point, but also to intervene in a way to kind of assert the significance of centrality of Virginia to the project. So, there are all sorts of ways in which the threads that this book and it’s a messy book with threads all over the place continue to leave traces in our world.

JP: And that’s the… that’s sort of the, you know, our project is sort of punning on the same things about thinking about what the state of our nation is, the state of the Commonwealth is, how those things interact and intersect and so I wonder if you have sort of specific examples of how Jefferson, you know, applies this in Notes. Specific examples of how he refers to Virginia as sort of emblematic or symbolic of the nation at large or, you know, what’s [4:00] happening in this text if you have.

Brad Pasanek: I got, I got one. This is this is from Jennifer Greeson now, so I’m just duly footnoted but yeah that he starts with Virginia is part of the game here. So, in the beginning there is Virginia. So, one of the commentators on the text notes that he’s the son of a mapmaker. So, the geography is important to him but the idea of locating this if it is a narrative in some way in setting the scene in Virginia is important and sort of noting that Virginia is the original colony and that as sort of the unfolding of that settler colonial history sort of proceeds, what happens is Virginia says, you know, “Oh, neighboring colony, you can have some of our land,” right? On with the notion that, right, this is the first planting. And yeah, you can go from there.

JP: And doesn’t he make Virginia when he’s… I wonder if you can talk about I read a little tidbit about how he actually maps Virginia in [5:00] the beginning of Notes on the State. The sort of geographical footprint of it. I’m not sure if you’ve heard about that anecdote, but essentially he starts and says, you know, Virginia goes from the Blue Ridge to the Appalachia and then it extends beyond, you know, these rivers and he ends up getting to New Mexico. And so very literally, you know, Virginia is the nation. Virginia becomes the sort of like the geographical scope in his mapping and I wonder if that’s intentional or if he’s just sort of, you know, waxing poetic about the beauty of the U.S.’s sort of natural resources and ends up, you know, extending Virginia’s footprint essentially the whole United States at that point.

BP: I mean I took him to be… to have a kind of creepy intelligence at all times whether it… whether it’s intentional or not. That that notion of some kind of power of liberty. [6:00] That’s his phrase, right? Yeah. It’s it’s there and he’s fixated geometrically on lines and if you look at our lawn. There’s this notion that you just keep running and you would also wind up in New Mexico. I think if you just headed down the lawn indefinitely, yeah. But that’s I mean that’s those are imperial shapes and he’s got them, yeah, they’re patterned in, coded in at the very beginning.

JOB: I’m not coming up with another anecdote that does the same kind of thing… 

BP: I’ve got another pun for you. He does say, it’s like in the early 19th centuries talking to a publisher about issuing yet another edition, and he uses the word stationary to talk about the text. That it’s not stationary like our country I think is what he says. So, that that he’s aware of the joke. It’s not just our joke or no joke, right. It’s yeah, you know, he knows that “state” is a kind of, [7:00] right, that it covers semantically statistics, as John said, “the state,” and this is a moment, right, when people are sort of first thinking through what “a state” is in this kind of national way and in the context of nations and nation-states. But yeah, so and it’s for us and I think John said this but maybe I’ll make it more explicit. It’s a text that exists in several “states” in the bibliographic sense. Yeah. So it’s, you know, first drafted in 1781 and then it’s touched up over the next year over the winter, right? The British army is marching through Virginia and he’s measuring groundhogs in the woods, right, because he wants… he’s still working on this thing. And then it is published but in this strangely private way. So, he doesn’t think of it as being published but it’s privately printed for friends and he gives away copies, two of which are here at the University of Virginia. The copy he gave to Lafayette and to Joseph Rittenhouse [8:00]. And so, that’s a state of the text and the 1787 addition that John talked about, the Stockdale addition, is another state of the text. But it was being pirated and coming out in newspapers at this time which also prompted his publication of it and it’s not I mean, it’s sort of not complete it… with world enough at time and funds, I guess. The thing doesn’t sort of come to rest until he’s done writing in his copy, his personal copy, which he’s doing all the way up until, I don’t know, very late. I don’t know. It’s hard to date his final, his final markings but…

JOB: There are some things that clearly must be past a certain point because he’s referring to books that were published as late as say 1813 to ‘14 or something like that.

BP: So, I was trying to look it up this morning but one of the details is he’s… like William Bartram’s travels is cited and he doesn’t know the name of some plant and then Bartram sort gets him some linnaean clarity he goes back to his copy and he marks, he marks that [9:00] page and puts in a citation to Bartram. But so his notes and annotations and cancellations aren’t collected until 1853 when a new edition was published in Richmond and they take his copy and they print… they print that copy… they print from that copy. And then it’s finally… it kind of comes to rest. So, I mean, insofar as it’s an historically important text or a text that’s important, that helps us think about America… Yet… So, it starts as a colonial text that passes through the federal moment and brings us right up to the kind of the doorstep of the Civil War. And so, that like the way that it’s smeared across the early history of America I think is really important. And so, that all the many threads that John referred to the sort of the early threads of America. So, they’re like political, racial, imperial, colonial like his sort of thinking about Federalism is all kind of bound up in that in that process of [10:00] revision, of this kind of restless revision of this text. I mean it’s in one sense a text of natural philosophy. But it’s also it’s a very political text, a strongly political text. The state looms large even when he’s talking about trees, plants and moose. I don’t know. The different… the different animals he’s interested in.

DMcD: Go ahead, James. I was going to say, if you would permit, all of this is quite wonderful.

JP: Yeah, and I think, yeah, and I think there’s that sense that, you know, the incompleteness but like you’re referring to the multiple states that the text actually developed through. Temporal states and actual textual, you know, sort of modification over time, over this historical time period and so I wonder thinking [11:00] about your own project, I mean is yours the most complete version of Notes on the State? You know, your digital edition with the all the work that you’ve done on the annotations and things? Is that the sort of true state of Notes on the State that the authoritative state?

JOB: I think at the moment. It’s a digital edition that aims to have as much bibliographical completeness as we can give it. The… A truly full compilation of everything, a digital edition that includes everything would also include the manuscript and the manuscript is at the Massachusetts Historical Society, which has been digitized separately and that’s quite a wonderful object in its own right. And the way that they have digitized it is a quite a wonderful thing in its own right. They’ve digitized in a way that is not… It doesn’t speak to ours. These two projects do not speak to each other in the in [12:00] a way that would allow you to navigate and see the full range of the text. I think that’s what you’re referring to is that ultimately that would be lovely to see to see that. What our addition really aimed to do was to give a reading text so that someone coming in could just simply read it. They could also see the changes that Jefferson made, the things that he… Or the additions that he made to his own copy that’s at the University of Virginia Library in Special Collections that were ultimately not part of a printed edition until 1853. We’ve also given some the digital equivalent of footnotes, explaining the things that he refers to. It’s a book that’s rich in textual reference. Jefferson drawing on his own library and a part of the goal I think is not only to assert the American nation of Virginia, but also to put it in dialogue with European writers [13:00]. You know, he’s writing partly because he wants to assert his own position as a writer in the community of letters. And so, he refers to… and so, we had notes that explain that and also have page images of the two copies the copy that’s of the 1784 Paris edition, which is this privately published edition that Brad [Pasanek] was mentioning and the copy that is in our Special Collections is the copy that he inscribed to Lafayette. And then his own his own copy of the 1787 London printing. And to include the page images including his own handwritten marginal notations and the little tips of slips of paper that he wrote longer additions to go in that we’ve included so that you can get it you can see the digital facsimile of that. And so, that’s what our package includes all of those things are included. It’s not working a hundred percent correctly. This [14:00], edit this out. It’s not working a hundred percent correctly.

JP: As with digital projects often.

JOB: As with digital projects in general is that they break and need to be we reworked and there’s some reworking that needs to be done to make it all work again.

JP: And so, just a bit of housekeeping I wonder if you can just describe sort of elevator pitch of what your digital edition is in a few words.

BP: It’s a reading copy for students that includes sort of variorum-like these two editions that as you’re reading down the right-hand margin you can see thumbnail page images. So, if there’s something there’s something that you want to investigate further, you can click on the image and bring the page up and then compare the two pages. That was that was our at least our original pitch.

JOB: Yeah, and our original pitch was I think of it as a bibliographical [15:00] text, you know, you could think about it enables students to work with digital surrogates in a bibliographical context. And it kind of grew or it had to be changed as it became this kind of web artifact rather than the initial idea was actually an iPad Edition, but long story. So…

JP: And what was some of the most surprising things that you learned in doing this project about the text or kind of a surprising anecdote or finding?

JOB: I was surprised going through and annotating and doing notes at the very very large range of books that Jefferson is referring to. It’s as if he’s went out of his way to use as much of his library as possible as reference sources, so he’s got, you know, things that… He’s [16:00] referring to text printed in Russia. German, French, Spanish authors and so I think a lot of the work that he’s doing is to kind of put American and Virginian things and to kind of measure them against the scale of other authors who have studied different phenomenon be they environmental phenomenon in a place or a cultural phenomenon in the place and to use the kind of international scale of different kinds of measurement really to rid. So, that was a kind of surprise is the breadth of things that he was trying to bring to bear in answering the questions that he’s trying to answer here.

JP: It’s a very… Well, Jefferson as a person and maybe the text as well as very aspirational, right? Is that fair to say?

JOB: Aspiration what to what you thinking about?

JP: Yeah, I mean aspirational in terms of [17:00] performing this type of internationalism and intellect and sort of responding to queries from a French diplomat… Aspirational for a nation that is just forming to develop a sense of identity. There’s this sort of like myth-making project in it. I mean is that fair to say and sort of like in the context of Jefferson as a persona?

BP: I mean some of this is… Our groundhogs are just as big as their groundhogs. [laughter] But I mean there’s another way in which, right? So, he gets a questionnaire from this diplomat [François Barbé] Marbois. But in fact, he’s answering questions that he’s imagining [Comte de] Buffon is asking him about what happens when you take a European and you transplant him into the new world? So, but I think there’s an effort on almost every page to sort of say “we’re not degenerating.” Where I’m using the white “we” [18:00], yeah, the European “we” that we’re not going to become corrupted by the airs of the new world or the soil of the new world and so in that sense, I don’t know if that’s aspirational but there’s a kind of talking back to Europe.

JP: I’m thinking as, you know, we’re sitting here talking in comparison to say something like [Hector St. John de] Crevecoeur’s “Letters from American Farmer,” which seems to me to be very much involved in a project of myth-making, you know, I mean if you read that it’s “What is an American?” and he comes up with the…. and Crevecoeur gets into a kind of fantasy of myth-making that is I think quite different from Jefferson. Crevecoeur, for example famously, he sends his narrator to Nantucket and he sees the people of Nantucket who are farming the Atlantic Ocean by hunting for whales. [19:00] But when he gives the map coordinates for Nantucket, he’s wrong. It’s the… they’re non-existent map coordinates, you know, the latitude and longitude… Jefferson would never make that mistake, if it were a mistake. I think it’s been plausibly argued that Crevecoeur is not making a mistake either that what he’s doing is he’s kind of signaling this as a kind of utopia that, you know, it is this is in effect his way of signaling this is a, a no place. The Nantucket that he’s inventing. Whether whichever one you buy, Jefferson would neither mislead the reader or come up with a joke like that for the reader to play with, nor would he allow himself to make such a mistake. He would correct any such mistake. So, I think Crevecoeur, is if you’re thinking of someone who is involved in like a task of very obvious myth-making and fiction making, that’s what Crevecoeur is doing. Jefferson is not like that. Jefferson is… his [20:00] imagination doesn’t work that way. I think he is a very literal person in a lot of ways and he wants to ground things in extremely literal categories.

BP: Yeah.

DMcD: As it’s been frequently noted, kind of scientific or pseudoscientific to give to these descriptions that kind of pseudo-scientific aura, so as to ensure their verifiability, their objectivity, their factuality. Yes.

BP: I would say the closest, this is to add on to what John saying but maybe give it a twist, the closest he comes to something like a mythic imaginative moment would be when he’s thinking about some of the indigenous people and the Native Americans. So, when when he treats like Logan’s speech or something like that, he has a fantasy about the people of America that is involved in his natural [21:00] philosophical project, but that’s when he I think he becomes most romantic. I don’t know. Where I’m using “romantic” here just over and against sort of the Enlightenment project of the text, but that’s when he seems to have some sort of phantasmagoric attachment to like the Americas and what they what they were I guess before the Europeans arrived and what they might become so that, yeah, he’s at his most, I mean he’s at his most irrational although it’s usually the motive scientific when he’s thinking about the races, the three races that he’s got triangulated in the text. I think he’s using I think the indigenous people in this way that’s, myth-making it’s involved in some kind of myth. Yeah, the people who will be replaced. So, this is why he’s digging [21:00] in mounds and this is why he’s trying to capture Logan’s speech as a kind of rhetorical set-piece that school children will have to learn, right? For generations in America.

DMcD: Well, this project is very much in formation and it’s going to be a series of podcasts and we’ve kind of for the purposes of the proposal divided the podcast into topical areas. But ultimately the goal of the project is just to find out from people from all walks of life what Jefferson still has to teach us? And not only that, how do we take the conversation about Jefferson from this very reflexive place which looks something like this, “Well, Jefferson is the architect of the Declaration of Independence, a Founding Father, a proponent of the egalitarianism, etc. and yet he owned slaves.” And so, that it seems to be that most conversations about Jefferson at least in not just in formal, in scholarly ways tend in some way to veer between these two positions are variations on them. So, that’s a long-winded kind of description of what we were doing, but to ask you to find a point of access into what he has to teach us now and how can that teaching take us beyond these reflexive polarities?

BP: We both teach this text. So, I teach a class on the late 18th century. That’s a transatlantic course about abolition and revolution. He’s in that course alongside Samuel Johnson and Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke and a number of other kind of late 18th century thinkers. So, I teach when I teach the text [24:00], I don’t teach us so much as a American text, I teach it as a transatlantic text, and I’m particularly interested in it’s kind of this the beginnings of scientific racism. I guess that’s the way I end up teaching it. And I guess teaching here at UVA is always interesting because the students come in with ideas about Jefferson often inchoate ideas about Jefferson. And if they do have an idea, I like this “he is and yet.” I think usually the way I use this in the classroom is people say that Jefferson’s a kind of paradox and I think what I want the students to, where I want them to end up as sort of this is not a paradox this way these things go together in very obvious and frightening ways.

JP: Can you say more about that?

BP: Well, so that I think that the, I don’t know. You’re not going to want to see your podcast and I shouldn’t be I should be saying this anyway, but like so I was reading [Vladimir] Lenin last week and so like his definition of “the state” is that which [25:00] comes out of and is put above a society and so that what states are for is producing a particular class which must be oppressed. That’s what I mean. One of the projects of this Notes on the State would be this kind of project or project of oppression.

DMcD: It should go in the podcast!

BP: Yeah. I don’t know if you want a Lenin quote but yeah, its fine. We’ve all internalized Lenin at this point, I guess, right? Yeah, so I think… like one of the things that I find interesting about Jefferson is his this is a particular kind of game that he’s playing always that he wants to not say what he means or he wants to not be held accountable. He’s kind of a moving target. This is the way the Notes on the State of Virginia works…. his discourse as written against Buffon in a kind of, I don’t know, I want to say like [26:00] seemingly anti-racist mode, but what he does is produce a new kind of racism. And so, that’s like that’s for me quintessentially Jeffersonian or as one of my mentors pointed out, this is a guy who sleeps in the wall, like who when you go to his house. He’s neither in his office nor in the next room. He’s always finding some liminal space and he’s going to inhabit it. And that’s… 

JP: That’s not a serpentine wall.

BP: Right, right he’s just… he will not commit. And so, yet the…like I did bring a quote just because I don’t know this is an example of it. Yeah, so he’s writing to Buffon that he’s unwilling or no no wait…where is this sorry. Yeah, “I do not mean to deny that there are varieties in the race of man distinguished by their powers both of body and mind” — and this is in the middle of an attempt to deny that there that there are kind of “races” or like in an attempt to complicate what we might mean by “races” [27:00] whether they are or not geographical, whether or not they’re speciated in some way or they belong to environment or like…. Yes, a state here would be like whether they’re product of an environment or they’re somehow in process. That you move someone from one part of the world to the other and they’ll darken like their skin will darken… the skin…. the sun will change them.

JOB: This kind of environmentalism always come from environment because you know one other term people use to race up in the point had to do with, you know, like I am of the race of the O’Briens. You know, it’s a… you’re a group ethnicity or a clan or something like that race often gets used in those ways up until this point and he’s imagining trying to fuse it with a kind of environmentalism that, you know, it is linked in some essential ways to the environment that people develop in and it’s one of the ways in which the [28:00] environmental parts of the book when he’s trying to describe the natural environment relate very much to the human parts of the book to the social environment. These very real connections to him. I teach him much the same way, you know, thinking about and it’s real revelation to, you know, one thing for the paradox is that someone said I can’t remember who it is paradoxes are just a fancy way of saying something that we’d rather not explain, you know.

DMcD: I like that.

JOB: And that, you know, you know, Jefferson really is ahead of most writers of this period in trying to come up with a way to make racial difference… have a scientific, [29:00] scientific basis for what he wants to think of as racial difference. No one… there’s really no text before Notes of the State of Virginia that I believe actually does this. It’s the beginning.

DMcD: It’s like the prototype for what will come.

JOB: There’s actually a significant time lag between that and the next articulation.

DMcD: Right, and it seems to take the discourse before anthropology, which is escaping me right now. No, no, no starts with a P though [phrenology]. It’ll come to me in a minute. Yeah, it’ll come to me but yes, you’re right. There is a tremendous gap. I want to pick… Were you finished John? To pick up on something you said because this is completely in my mind and when I have done this book in classes and students just kind of look at me. I mean like unabashedly like “really, lady?” because I have attempted to suggest in parts of the text [30:00] the ways in which when Jefferson is talking about say hybridity in the natural world, in the botanical sense that the text really takes on… that the passions of the text rise to the surface. It seems to me the language, the tempo. I mean, it’s all kind of crazy. But they and they kind of laugh at me that something happens to Jefferson when he’s talking about hybridity, when he’s talking about crossbreeding and, you know, I don’t manage to convince them of that. But in my own head, something happens involuntarily in the text when he’s talking about and that we can actually see the way the rhythms the movement of sentence. It’s like very minor, very subtle. But in my head, that [31:00] that is something that reinforces your point that in talking about the environment, he’s ever seek seeking to link it to the human and to the social.

BP: There is a strange displacement so that you have discussions of slavery go under the heading “Manners.”

DMcD: Right.

BP: Yeah, and so you expect to find all these kind of category mistakes as you read the text anyway that you get involved in these kinds of category mistakes, because those… they’re his category mistakes and I think because of his, I don’t want to call it his kind of flat, opaque sort of way of managing his public presence. You have to read him this way. So, I’m with you. He often expresses… Yeah, what feels like something erotic in a strange moment so that under the case that I teach and think about again, as a kind of like [32:00] this would be brought before the jury, I guess, is that he’s in Europe and he sees painting a Dutch painting of “Sarah and Hagar,” the sort of giving permission to sleep with the slave, right? A representation of a biblical story and he writes to Maria Cosway and he says, “this painting is delicious.” That’s his word and he’s in theory having a conversation with someone about, you know, the tradition of art history. But he actually seems to be giving himself sort of permission to sleep with his wife’s half-sister, right? Yeah. That’s, I mean, it’s like he seems to be processing these things in all the places you wouldn’t expect him to.

DMcD: Yeah. I’m glad to… is really laugh when I try to make these suggestions, but, you know, they can seem kind of flat-footed I can see when I’m talking about them. But I say, you know, well, let’s just think about it. I mean, this is a matter of [33:00] speculation. Speculation has its place. We’re not saying this is. But what if we thought about the ways in which this man of the Enlightenment, this man of “reason,” how we might think of that… those truths about Jefferson in more holistic senses, or in fuller dimension. That’s also it’s not a statement about… Because I also find him… I shared with James one of my very favorite Jefferson letters that he’s writing to Adams when Adams’s wife dies. I think it’s just one of the most amazing. It’s a letter, it’s a condolence letter but it’s the most amazing eulogy and the kind of straightforward sensitivity [34:00] to this man’s loss. I find in that letter, I don’t see that way of thinking and processing in Notes. You know, it’s almost like it’s a completely different Jefferson there. So, I…

JP: So, I was going to say I wonder, you know, just because the topic of teaching courses came up and that’s convenient sort of model. But I wonder if you if you could leave your students with sort of one thing about Jefferson that coming out of your course that they might take to think about and take with them into the world what it might be? If that’s a tough, I don’t know if that’s a stumper, but if you could only teach sort of one sort of big takeaway about Jefferson what might that might that be. And maybe there’s that conversation about what paradox means, I think that’s a really important.

BP: I’m going to quote a historian whose name I’m forgetting, but he says if the British had shot Jefferson in 1782, we would [35:00] remember him as one of the great sort of opponents of slavery, as a powerful American voice against racism but, right? That he continued to work on the Notes of the State of Virginia and sort of work out in letters his sort of perverse way of thinking about the different “peoples of the world,” hybridized in the American space. We see something else yeah. We see this legacy of slavery sort of worked out politically, ideologically, instead and, you know, detail by detail, I guess one of the things that that I like to show my students in the Notes is a page where he’s listing slaves from the classical world who contributed importantly to sort of “thought,” Western thought, and he goes back to that page at some point and he keeps adding new Greek and Roman names because he’s working, he’s trying to tip the balance against [36:00] the African-Americans that he’s surrounded by so you can so you can watch you can watch him sort of work, you know, to a darker like a like to you can watch him work his way to a stranger and stranger more pathologically racist place as if you follow him, you know, through the states of the Notes on the State of Virginia.

DMcD: Right, and seeking to justify it, you know. So, that it will not appear to be racist at all. We know that he’s working himself into that, but he’s trying, you know, indefatigably to work himself out of that, right?

JOB: He’s really giving intellectual and ultimately institutional support to an apparatus of white supremacy, you know, and I think it deserves to be said in pretty much those terms, you know.

DMcD: Yes, I think so. Absolutely. Unabashed. Unapologetic.

JOB: [34:00] And that and it’s not only in this text which is an institution of its own. It’s in the University of Virginia, which is designed and, you know, Garry Wills, made this point. I’m not inventing this, Garry Wills made this point that it’s designed to provide a training ground for the white aristocracy of the South, who will know how to operate in the system of slavery and be fully adequate to meet the challenge of the Harvard boys, who they will have to oppose in Congress and future. And also in his political economy because that’s what I ended up writing about elsewhere is that, Jefferson famously… Jefferson and Hamilton found each other on either sides of a way of thinking about a national economy. And Hamilton is thinking about it in terms of a kind of federalism where you use the institutions of banks to federalize the finances and federalize the debt. [38:00] Jefferson is thinking much more in terms of local. What would become known as “states rights” that the economies have to be built from local entities up rather than from the national entity down and very much opposing the concentration of wealth and power in corporations and banks. And that the tension between the sense of individual rights and rights based in local communities and a national power that would be institutionalized in things like banks and corporations and a federal government is one that we continue to live with and Jefferson is on… Jefferson is definitely on the side of the local and the state, rather than the national and the corporate. And, you know, I have sympathy actually for being against the corporate but it’s not [39:00] he’s not thinking of the future. But I think that the tension between these two things is… it continues to be part of the way that the political economy gets fought in this country.

DMcD: That’s really a wonderful observation. You know, Notes because it is a kind of gazette or I often think of it as a miscellany, you know that as a miscellany it really invites a lot or encourages a lot of conversation about isolated phenomena that we can’t necessarily link to whatever development there is in the book. It isn’t a narrative. It holds together in weird ways, but not in the ways we typically think of a book’s coherence. I have over the years, as one of these kind of one-off things, always been fascinated [40:00] by Jefferson’s architectural drawings and particularly his prison drawings and which are also in the Massachusetts Historical Society. So, when we organized the conference a few years back on mass incarceration here at Woodson, I used in the brochure those drawings. They were never executed. But Jefferson was himself very closely involved with all the leading prison architects of the day in creating what was, what would become the first ever penitentiary in Virginia, but he had submitted these drawings to the Commonwealth from France. He was in France and asked to imagine a prison. And so, when we think about Jefferson, we think about someone also being at [41:00] the birth of a whole lot of things that we are now contending with. Not just this tension, you’ve observed between him and Hamilton but I remember during that conference, Angela Davis was here and I was walking her down the Lawn or where the student rooms are. And it was the spring. This time it was in April and she says, “Oh, the rooms look like little cells” and so any kind of random thoughts. I don’t know why I can’t get out a question without spending the page to introduce it. 

BP: His architecture always reads for me as having lots of import. So, yeah, so just walk. I mean you’re walking these, I’m going to use the Jeffersonian word they finally got to me after all these years the grounds, right? Yeah, but walking this walking this campus. [42:00] I mean you can’t help but respond to the way in which it disciplines your body and makes you walk around and that you have access to certain things and not other things. I mean the… it’s the house… I guess so, it’s Monticello that first made me kind of like I had a meltdown of a kind when I was walking underneath the house and realized that underneath the house are what are called “the dependencies,” right? Is that right?

DMcD: Yes, that’s what they’re called.

BP: Yeah, and I thought the author of the Declaration of Independence like has structured his home like into a space that’s for the independent and another space that’s for the “dependents.” Yeah. That yes so that written into that home as it would be in any home is a very obvious distinction, right? And again, yeah, it’s race, class, space; that certain people go below [43:00] and some people belong above and yeah, and you can see that you can see that here on this campus. Maybe, maybe it’s less obvious or I don’t know. There’s something about the naming of the dependencies that just made it scream out at me.

DMcD: Yeah. I was looking for the conference brochure, I’m sure you’ve seen these drawings.

BP: No, I haven’t seen these drawings. Are they Benthemite? Do they have the 18th century structure with the surveying eye in the middle?

DMcD: No, no they don’t have that but they’re really… they’re divided racially. They are divided according to gender and he has long pages or on the back of a long section describing the materials, how many materials would be needed. I’m sure I have a copy somewhere. I thought I had one here in my office because we printed the [44:00] images in the program. In fact, when we did the conference proceedings, I know a miniature version is in the in the book, so let me get the book because you’ll see. Yeah, they’re in the Massachusetts Historical Society. So, I remember in my opening remarks for the symposium, I said, “Jefferson was present at the birth of the prison…” And I think we do have… It’s so expensive to print things but… one small version of, yeah we have them… 

[shows prison drawing in 2009 Woodson Institute Symposium on mass incarceration]

JOB: It does look a lot like the Lawn. Is that right? The central path and [45:00] then also cells on your side and then something at the top. That is really interesting… 

JP: So, maybe just describe what we’re looking at here…

DMcD: We’re looking at Jefferson’s…. one of two drawings… that are housed in the Massachusetts Historical Society that were a prison plan submitted by Jefferson for a cell for solitary confinement. And it’s in the manuscript collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society. What we don’t have here is the page on the back of this page where he’s actually describing what it would cost provisionally to build and what materials would be used, but it’s right here. And that he is as I said a few minutes ago in close touch with the leading prison architects of the day and [46:00] this is not… these drawings are not executed. But here he is thinking… “white females” on one side, “black females” on the other, “white males, black males.” I don’t have my glasses.

BP: Each to their own cell. And then there’s a there’s a separate category. So, “white male debtors,” “white female debtors,” right? There’s no of course, right? I guess this tells you a lot about what America looks like. No “black debtors,” right?

DMcD: Yes exactly, no black debtors.

JP: And why would that be?

BP: Because there’s the ability to own any kind of property. Yeah. Yeah, it’s blocked illegally.  I mean, this is a fascinating thing. I’ve never seen before. Yeah, I don’t know and it like my like structuralist instincts are working overtime just looking at [47:00] it…. I mean only because what so it’s got this “e pluribus unum” effect where there’s like a solitary cell which is not gendered, or raced, or classed. So, that if you if you won’t sort of do what you’re supposed to do. If you’re, right, the white female debtor, right? You can be promoted to the solitaries to solitary confinement. That’s the Benthamite space. So, it’s, I’m thinking of the panoptic sort of the famous image of a panoptic prison is one. It’s a kind of 18th century idea that also was sort of imagined and not executed until much later, but this idea that you create a space for people to be alone with their crimes with the memory of their crimes. 

DMcD: And there’s the imagination that this is a benevolent act because, you know, people are not out in visible spaces, you know, they’re alone to contemplate their yeah.

JOB: It’s penance.

DMcD: It’s yeah to do but that’s penitent [48:00]. Penitentiary, from the word penance, from doing penance and that this is in the prison philosophy of the day assumed to be a benevolent progressive idea about prisons and criminals.

BP: So, Jefferson’s already dividing debtors from other prisoners, which is… so that’s again a kind of modern at modernizing, Enlightenment, progressive move. But then he’s further dividing people right by race and gender but holding them all in the same place. Yeah. It’s very Jeffersonian.

DMcD: Yeah. I was just so taken by and we then ended up, we also have in the brochure the prison that was actually built. It doesn’t exist any longer but here he is involved in so many manythings. [49:00] He’s at the birth of so much that has come to define this nation for good and for ill.

JOB: So, I’m thinking about the… you mention about the house and about this and thinking about issues of like sight and what you see and surveillance in the way that, you know, as you say the Lawn. The Lawn was designed so that you could look out, but that also I think Jefferson’s imagination was that as the university grew, they just simply continued the lawn out down the hill as long as long as it needed to be. Isn’t it true that at Monticello when you stand, you know, when you’re in the house and you look out, you don’t see the slave quarters because they’re below the hill, right? And again the sense of your… that the landscape itself and the architecture very much built into the landscape is designed to promote, you know, visual patterns of even your… the eyesight encodes which is what you’re saying, it encodes [50:00] relationships of independence and dependency of power and designed from designed from the very start to do that.

DMcD: And I think lots of people have written about that idea and the way in which the architecture supports invisibilizing labor. Yeah.

BP: So, that yeah the invention of the dumbwaiter, there are ways in which the servant will not enter the dining room. Their turning shelves and dumbwaiters. Yeah, to make the food appear without a person to bring it.

DMcD: Yeah, we don’t see who’s producing the food. Things underground, all with… all of that suggests, you know the underground architecture, the nomenclature of dependency. Yes, all of this is highly racialized in ways that people have talked about it.

JP: One thing I was thinking as you were describing the Lawn perpetually extending [51:00] out for research. We just started reading this book about progress, about Jefferson and progress and the author’s discussing the way in which the conception of time around I guess the eighteenth century would or the 19th century as railroads were beginning to be developed, that time became linear sort of displayed onto the actual construction of the railroad tracks as going sort of forward in space, you know, to arrive at a station at certain point in time. And so, I mean just thinking about this as the lawn is actually a linear would be a linear continuation that this idea of progress as sort of a straight line that is going out. That as time progresses, the actual physical space is going linearly forward to… Yeah, and I don’t know I just that thought came up as you’re discussing sort of that comparison [52:00] between a circular space or like the Rotunda is like a kind of continual circle versus like the straight line going directly forward in time. And so, I just wanted to throw that out there. But yeah, I know but I’m also being… speaking of time and being mindful of time and all of your time and one thing I did again sort of a crazy thought that came to me as I was talking to a friend who does work in data science and with databases. Is Notes on the State a database? 

BP: An analogy that works.

JP: And this is sort of it without, you know, preference but, you know, thinking about the idea of a “query” that you know x equals y that I’m going to ask a query about this and get a certain return, results and sort of the statistical and sort of tallying nature of the text.

DMcD: Sort of the database of its day.

BP: [53:00] When I got here at UVA it was 2008 and I think it was shortly after that John, I may be started talking about this project, but the PMLA [the journal of the Modern Language Association] had just done an issue or a sort of discussion section on narrative and database as kind of opposites. So, in so far as the text resists narrative, right? You would assign it to the “other” category, that’s how binaries work but in that discussion, in that PMLA discussion there was this there was an effort made by several of the contributors to think about 18th century forums, dictionaries and encyclopedias as being in one way or another databases. I mean what makes it especially nice is the language of “query” but that’s we have to we have to play some sort of anachronistic game with a kind of back formation. But certainly I don’t… I usually don’t read the Notes through when I reread it these days. [54:00] I just opened it up and I look things up and to… I don’t make my students in this course read through. I assign them queries to read.

DMcD: Yeah, I think we all do. It would be a hard book to teach, to read through. Students would, you know, get horrible evaluations.

JP: You know we, I think Brad’s pointed out when like the 18th century came up with a whole lot of different ways of organizing knowledge. You know, the dictionary, the encyclopedia and these continue to… We continue to use those forms… the thesaurus. There are various kinds of statistical inventions that came out of the 18th century. The… organizing something according to “query” is a whole different way of thinking about how you would organize knowledge. That is an 18th century thing that actually hasn’t lasted that, you know, we don’t do that anymore. But you know, you know, in a “Borgesean” and universe one could imagine, you know, an alternate version where that became a way of [55:00] organizing knowledge that we continue to do. The database metaphor I guess works to a certain extent but also doesn’t work to a certain extent.

DMcD: You see echoes of this say in a text like Keywords. Raymond Williams’ Keywords.There are other, you know, with people who write in these… What am I thinking I never know how to pronounce his name when you see somebody you read his books. I’ve read several books of his C-i-o-r-a-n… but I don’t I’ve never known how to pronounce his name because I’ve never heard it pronounced. Yeah. Yeah, but anyway, but that’s I think of him organizing knowledge in some of these ways but yeah Keywords being a kind of not an analogy but kind of reminiscent of organizing knowledge in those ways.

JOB: We asked question sections of any website that [56:00] the FAQ section of websites is another that’s part of the model.

DMcD: Yeah, because while Jefferson is organizing these sections according to queries in that we know that they originate in questions. That’s where I think we leave it, right? Because it’s also a text that raises questions.

BP: It doesn’t answer the questions, at least not in the mode that Marbois would expect. He gets a questionnaire and he returns a book, that’s not, right? Yeah, that’s…

DMcD: Exactly, exactly yeah.

JOB: So, it gets associative. Like he starts off on one topic and that leads him to something else.

DMcD: It’s a very associative book.

JOB: Yeah, it leads him to something else. The logic is only clear as association rather than causality or narrativation. [57:00] And that’s where we kind of see, I guess, what we’ve been talking about a lot is the “Jeffersonian unconscious,” you know. And the books sort of has these moments I was you’re talking about the way that he gets the language gets a kind of energy when he talks about the issues of hybridity. That’s an unconsciousness coming forth. Right? But the logics are of that species rather than the logic of narrative, the logic of plot, the logic of a dictionary, the logic of cause and effect. It’s a… the vehicle enables those kinds of things to happen.

DMcD: Yes, and I think, in a way, back to one of the observations, I forget which one of you made, about the incompleteness of the book, the indefiniteness, that there’s a way in which this [58:00] block of knowledge in response to a literal or figurative query is itself something that doesn’t necessarily have to stand, it can always be amended, that the query in essence can exist in perpetuity, right? So, you know, I haven’t I’ve committed myself to this in this moment in time, but this is subject to change at any time. You know, which is a tremendous alibi, you know? I would, yeah. I love those sections too where you see him actually stepping out from behind all of this pseudo-scientific detached commentary on whatever to actually exercise a moral sensibility. We… Discussions don’t often point to that. I mean, I’m really quite taken when he says, you know, “I shudder that God does not sleep.” You know, that these things we are doing here, that “the boisterous passions” that are developing between these two groups of people one held in subjugation by the other, you know, “I shudder at” because he’s really imagining a kind of justice, really, that will await people enslaving other people. And you don’t see that very much in the work, but it’s very firm and thus stands out for that reason, you know. I shudder… a person who has an ambivalent relationship at best for religion. “I shudder that God is not asleep.” You know, that there is this force that will bring down the kind of judgment. Again, it’s an odd moment like those moments of when I imagine that the text gets very hot and bothered.

BP: Do you want the quotation? Yeah, I’ll read it out. Yeah, cause it’s powerful. Yeah? “Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just. That his justice cannot sleep forever. That considering numbers nature and natural means only a revolution of the wheel of fortune in exchange of situation is among possible events. That it may become probable by supernatural interference.” Exclamation point. yeah, but that he sees the wheel will turn. Yeah. He’s a “revolutionary.”

DMcD: Yeah. Indeed. And that’s Jefferson’s long-winded way, and talk about people being long-winded, but Jefferson’s long-winded way of saying, you know, the Martin Luther King famous quote “the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, right? And that is what he’s saying there. That the arc of the moral universe turns towards justice and then there can be a reversal of positions. Yeah, these rare moments that I think speak so much more powerfully because in tone they depart so demonstrably from what we are reading. We’re reading along and there is a kind of studious or attempt at a studious neutrality that then in a passage like that, is totally gone.

JOB: Thinking of that… it’s rare among his contemporaries, you know, that kind of language and that outburst is rare among his contemporaries, you know? Yeah, which what makes him so incredibly fascinating and vexing.

DMcD: That this kind of control, this kind of really rhetorical tightness. Well, it’s not even tightness, but the efforts at control, the efforts at containment, and that there are these moments in the text where it says if the text just breaks the bounds or he basically loses it and delivers a passage like that. Yeah. Now, you have… I had no idea you were planning to take this, but you both have given so…

JP: A lot for us is to think about a lot of topics that come up.

BP: Well, I… thinking… I really like this project and I was thinking about it. I had a conversation completely what was really to see some ways, you know, Louis Nelson who’s in the Vice Provost’s Office now to do outreach in the community. And we were talking about the way that, you know, this place needs to completely reimagine the way it talks about itself in its history, you know, and we talked about like we have a new president coming in who I think will be charged with some of that. But this kind of project is the kind of thing we need to do all over the place to start coming up with the new ways in which we can think about and both to ourselves but publicly about the university and its history and Jefferson and really I think we’re still struggling with the ways in which those stories that we have to tell about ourselves.

DMcD: I think so. That this project has its own autonomy. We applied for some of the Bicentennial money, but we see it very much as a part of a larger project we’ve been doing for about a year now called the Citizen Justice Project: Engaging Race in Digital Spaces, and I don’t know if you’ve seen James’ “Illusion of Progress,” it’s the first installment. I will send it to you. It’s a story map. And we worked with high school students and UVA students last summer and what’s so amazing about it is that it was virtually done before August 11th and 12th, and it was it was really confronting these deep roots of racism and white supremacy at UVA and Charlottesville. And again, before those events unfolded but part of the Citizen Justice Project is just this, we have to find new ways of talking about the issues that continue to control us, that continue to contain or inhibit progress and development in meaningful ways. And I’m not a proponent of, you know, the kind of ideology of progress, but there’s a way in which we all inherited a script about Jefferson particularly that is that operates here on grounds and what we are, what we really love about this project is that so much of it comes from the… not so much the dictates about the wishes of ordinary citizens in Charlottesville, because when we began the project, we just interviewed people not randomly, but people that we kind of thought we needed to talk to. What would you like to see? What would you like to see the University be doing especially… This emerged in the context of the monuments controversy. And so, we took our instructions as it were from the Blue Ribbon Commission, right? You know, that we want a fuller, more complex, more complete, more comprehensive history. And so, that’s where we started. So, although this is a different project, we constantly have to try to raise money because we have no money, but it’s very much in the spirit of the Citizen Justice Project. Making Jefferson available. We are really going to do person on the street interviews. You know, because we have a captive audience any parents bringing their children to tour here, right? You know, you wanted this afternoon. Yeah, so tell us, yeah, so we don’t know what’s going to happen, but we want to be open to what we learn and to be guided and in Jefferson’s words, “let knowledge take us where [it leads]… you know, I don’t have that quoted embedded either, but you know the one I mean around Cabell Hall. We’re going to follow knowledge where it leads us in and we hope it leads us to a reconsideration of Jefferson that neither continues to glorify and reify him, iconicize him. Nor does it seek to destroy him as an icon but really to make him touchable for our times.

JP: Yeah, so definitely keep in touch. If you have ideas of ideas pop up about topics that you suggest we should pursue and if anything comes out of this conversation that you want to follow up on just feel free to reach out. Yeah, and last bit of housekeeping. Can I just ask you to say your name and your sort of title at the university?

JOB: John O’Brien. Professor of English.

BP: Brad Pasanek. Professor of English or Associate Professor of English… I guess I messed it up saying my title correctly. Brad Pasanek. Associate Professor of English.

DMcD: Thank you. Yeah, this is so very helpful. I’d like to see all of us do much more collaborative work. You know, I really, we do things kind of in pairs typically and I’ve done some of that work, but I think this is so so wonderful to me that we three colleagues who never talk to each other.

BP: Yeah, and we all teach this. We all teach this book.

DMcD: Yeah. We do. We all teach this book. And so…

JP: There were some definite gems that came out of that conversation. So, I’ll just, I mean…

John O’Brien and Brad Pasanek

Transcript (text only)

Disclaimer: As with other podcasts, this series is produced to be heard, not read. We provide the below transcript for accessibility and archival purposes. That being said, we encourage you to listen to the audio, which contains emphasis and inflections not represented in text. The below transcript is generated using a combination of transcription programs and human transcribers. As such, it may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print. (Note: this disclaimer is adapted from “This American Life’s” format) 

Interviewee(s): John O’Brien, Professor of English Literature at the University of Virginia; Brad Pasanek, Associate Professor of English Literature at the University of Virginia

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

Interview date: 2018-05-15

Interview Summary: Interview with John O’Brien and Brad Pasanek, professors of English at UVA. The interview took place at the Carter G. Woodson Institute. In it, Professors O’Brien and Pasanek discuss Jefferson’s book Notes on the State of Virginia, its structure, style, content, and bibliographic history as well as its importance today.

Keywords: Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, bibliography, 18th Century

Transcription: Gabrielle Oliver

Introductions

James Perla: We could just really begin in talking about Notes on the State. Why that’s a… still an important text. I know, John, you mention that this is still a very relevant text for us at the present moment. So, why Notes?

John O’Brien: I don’t think I have a… [1:00]

Deborah McDowell: You’re probably inhibited by…

JOB:Yeah, I don’t have a good good good introductory answer. The book covers so many different things, you know, it is Jefferson’s only book, you know, and we think of Jefferson as a writer, but we think of him as writer of basic or a drafter of things like the Declaration of Independence or letters and fragments. This is the only thing that is a book that Jefferson did but it’s a very peculiar book because it doesn’t have a narrative. It’s assembled under categories that it calls queries, which is coming from its occasion as responding to an actual questionnaire that he then expands into something bizarre and marvelous. In its own way, it’s not a friendly or readable book, you know, it has accounts of the flora, the [2:00] fauna, the native tribes, the chief exports of various regions of Virginia. It’s kind of like a narrativized gazetteer of the state of Virginia.

JP: What’s that? What’s a gazetteer?

JOB: Kind of giving you a full account of… it’s almost like a statistical summary turned into prose of the state of Virginia. It also is a was a book that I think quite deliberately puns “the state of Virginia,” the state, the entity of Virginia. But also trying to use the pages of a book to capture the state of Virginia at a particular moment. And that moment is the moment, right? I think at the cusp of nationhood. Because one of the things I think about the timing of the book is that Jefferson published the London Edition in 1787 aware that he couldn’t be at what became the Constitutional Convention. And this is in effect an attempt to respond. First of all, to something that was several years older by that point, but also to intervene in a way to kind of assert the significance of centrality of Virginia to the project. So, there are all sorts of ways in which the threads that this book and it’s a messy book with threads all over the place continue to leave traces in our world.JP: And that’s the… that’s sort of the, you know, our project is sort of punning on the same things about thinking about what the state of our nation is, the state of the Commonwealth is, how those things interact and intersect and so I wonder if you have sort of specific examples of how Jefferson, you know, applies this in Notes. Specific examples of how he refers to Virginia as sort of emblematic or symbolic of the nation at large or, you know, what’s [4:00] happening in this text if you have.

How does Jefferson use Virginia to represent the state of the new nation?

Brad Pasanek: I got, I got one. This is this is from Jennifer Greeson now, so I’m just duly footnoted but yeah that he starts with Virginia is part of the game here. So, in the beginning there is Virginia. So, one of the commentators on the text notes that he’s the son of a mapmaker. So, the geography is important to him but the idea of locating this if it is a narrative in some way in setting the scene in Virginia is important and sort of noting that Virginia is the original colony and that as sort of the unfolding of that settler colonial history sort of proceeds, what happens is Virginia says, you know, “Oh, neighboring colony, you can have some of our land,” right? On with the notion that, right, this is the first planting. And yeah, you can go from there.

JP: And doesn’t he make Virginia when he’s… I wonder if you can talk about I read a little tidbit about how he actually maps Virginia in [5:00] the beginning of Notes on the State. The sort of geographical footprint of it. I’m not sure if you’ve heard about that anecdote, but essentially he starts and says, you know, Virginia goes from the Blue Ridge to the Appalachia and then it extends beyond, you know, these rivers and he ends up getting to New Mexico. And so very literally, you know, Virginia is the nation. Virginia becomes the sort of like the geographical scope in his mapping and I wonder if that’s intentional or if he’s just sort of, you know, waxing poetic about the beauty of the U.S.’s sort of natural resources and ends up, you know, extending Virginia’s footprint essentially the whole United States at that point.

BP: I mean I took him to be… to have a kind of creepy intelligence at all times whether it… whether it’s intentional or not. That that notion of some kind of power of liberty. [6:00] That’s his phrase, right? Yeah. It’s it’s there and he’s fixated geometrically on lines and if you look at our lawn. There’s this notion that you just keep running and you would also wind up in New Mexico. I think if you just headed down the lawn indefinitely, yeah. But that’s I mean that’s those are imperial shapes and he’s got them, yeah, they’re patterned in, coded in at the very beginning.JOB: I’m not coming up with another anecdote that does the same kind of thing…

the different 'states' of Notes on the State of Virginia

BP: I’ve got another pun for you. He does say, it’s like in the early 19th centuries talking to a publisher about issuing yet another edition, and he uses the word stationary to talk about the text. That it’s not stationary like our country I think is what he says. So, that that he’s aware of the joke. It’s not just our joke or no joke, right. It’s yeah, you know, he knows that “state” is a kind of, [7:00] right, that it covers semantically statistics, as John said, “the state,” and this is a moment, right, when people are sort of first thinking through what “a state” is in this kind of national way and in the context of nations and nation-states. But yeah, so and it’s for us and I think John said this but maybe I’ll make it more explicit. It’s a text that exists in several “states” in the bibliographic sense. Yeah. So it’s, you know, first drafted in 1781 and then it’s touched up over the next year over the winter, right? The British army is marching through Virginia and he’s measuring groundhogs in the woods, right, because he wants… he’s still working on this thing. And then it is published but in this strangely private way. So, he doesn’t think of it as being published but it’s privately printed for friends and he gives away copies, two of which are here at the University of Virginia. The copy he gave to Lafayette and to Joseph Rittenhouse [8:00]. And so, that’s a state of the text and the 1787 addition that John talked about, the Stockdale addition, is another state of the text. But it was being pirated and coming out in newspapers at this time which also prompted his publication of it and it’s not I mean, it’s sort of not complete it… with world enough at time and funds, I guess. The thing doesn’t sort of come to rest until he’s done writing in his copy, his personal copy, which he’s doing all the way up until, I don’t know, very late. I don’t know. It’s hard to date his final, his final markings but…

JOB: There are some things that clearly must be past a certain point because he’s referring to books that were published as late as say 1813 to ‘14 or something like that.

BP: So, I was trying to look it up this morning but one of the details is he’s… like William Bartram’s travels is cited and he doesn’t know the name of some plant and then Bartram sort gets him some linnaean clarity he goes back to his copy and he marks, he marks that [9:00] page and puts in a citation to Bartram. But so his notes and annotations and cancellations aren’t collected until 1853 when a new edition was published in Richmond and they take his copy and they print… they print that copy… they print from that copy. And then it’s finally… it kind of comes to rest. So, I mean, insofar as it’s an historically important text or a text that’s important, that helps us think about America… Yet… So, it starts as a colonial text that passes through the federal moment and brings us right up to the kind of the doorstep of the Civil War. And so, that like the way that it’s smeared across the early history of America I think is really important. And so, that all the many threads that John referred to the sort of the early threads of America. So, they’re like political, racial, imperial, colonial like his sort of thinking about Federalism is all kind of bound up in that in that process of [10:00] revision, of this kind of restless revision of this text. I mean it’s in one sense a text of natural philosophy. But it’s also it’s a very political text, a strongly political text. The state looms large even when he’s talking about trees, plants and moose. I don’t know. The different… the different animals he’s interested in.

Notes on the State Digital Edition

DMcD: Go ahead, James. I was going to say, if you would permit, all of this is quite wonderful.

JP: Yeah, and I think, yeah, and I think there’s that sense that, you know, the incompleteness but like you’re referring to the multiple states that the text actually developed through. Temporal states and actual textual, you know, sort of modification over time, over this historical time period and so I wonder thinking [11:00] about your own project, I mean is yours the most complete version of Notes on the State? You know, your digital edition with the all the work that you’ve done on the annotations and things? Is that the sort of true state of Notes on the State that the authoritative state?

JOB: I think at the moment. It’s a digital edition that aims to have as much bibliographical completeness as we can give it. The… A truly full compilation of everything, a digital edition that includes everything would also include the manuscript and the manuscript is at the Massachusetts Historical Society, which has been digitized separately and that’s quite a wonderful object in its own right. And the way that they have digitized it is a quite a wonderful thing in its own right. They’ve digitized in a way that is not… It doesn’t speak to ours. These two projects do not speak to each other in the in [12:00] a way that would allow you to navigate and see the full range of the text. I think that’s what you’re referring to is that ultimately that would be lovely to see to see that. What our addition really aimed to do was to give a reading text so that someone coming in could just simply read it. They could also see the changes that Jefferson made, the things that he… Or the additions that he made to his own copy that’s at the University of Virginia Library in Special Collections that were ultimately not part of a printed edition until 1853. We’ve also given some the digital equivalent of footnotes, explaining the things that he refers to. It’s a book that’s rich in textual reference. Jefferson drawing on his own library and a part of the goal I think is not only to assert the American nation of Virginia, but also to put it in dialogue with European writers [13:00]. You know, he’s writing partly because he wants to assert his own position as a writer in the community of letters. And so, he refers to… and so, we had notes that explain that and also have page images of the two copies the copy that’s of the 1784 Paris edition, which is this privately published edition that Brad [Pasanek] was mentioning and the copy that is in our Special Collections is the copy that he inscribed to Lafayette. And then his own his own copy of the 1787 London printing. And to include the page images including his own handwritten marginal notations and the little tips of slips of paper that he wrote longer additions to go in that we’ve included so that you can get it you can see the digital facsimile of that. And so, that’s what our package includes all of those things are included. It’s not working a hundred percent correctly. This [14:00], edit this out. It’s not working a hundred percent correctly.

JP: As with digital projects often.

JOB: As with digital projects in general is that they break and need to be we reworked and there’s some reworking that needs to be done to make it all work again.

JP: And so, just a bit of housekeeping I wonder if you can just describe sort of elevator pitch of what your digital edition is in a few words.

BP: It’s a reading copy for students that includes sort of variorum-like these two editions that as you’re reading down the right-hand margin you can see thumbnail page images. So, if there’s something there’s something that you want to investigate further, you can click on the image and bring the page up and then compare the two pages. That was that was our at least our original pitch.

JOB: Yeah, and our original pitch was I think of it as a bibliographical [15:00] text, you know, you could think about it enables students to work with digital surrogates in a bibliographical context. And it kind of grew or it had to be changed as it became this kind of web artifact rather than the initial idea was actually an iPad Edition, but long story. So…

JP: And what was some of the most surprising things that you learned in doing this project about the text or kind of a surprising anecdote or finding?

Jefferson's Library and his Aspirations to Measure up to Europe

JOB: I was surprised going through and annotating and doing notes at the very very large range of books that Jefferson is referring to. It’s as if he’s went out of his way to use as much of his library as possible as reference sources, so he’s got, you know, things that… He’s [16:00] referring to text printed in Russia. German, French, Spanish authors and so I think a lot of the work that he’s doing is to kind of put American and Virginian things and to kind of measure them against the scale of other authors who have studied different phenomenon be they environmental phenomenon in a place or a cultural phenomenon in the place and to use the kind of international scale of different kinds of measurement really to rid. So, that was a kind of surprise is the breadth of things that he was trying to bring to bear in answering the questions that he’s trying to answer here.

JP: It’s a very… Well, Jefferson as a person and maybe the text as well as very aspirational, right? Is that fair to say?

JOB: Aspiration what to what you thinking about?

JP: Yeah, I mean aspirational in terms of [17:00] performing this type of internationalism and intellect and sort of responding to queries from a French diplomat… Aspirational for a nation that is just forming to develop a sense of identity. There’s this sort of like myth-making project in it. I mean is that fair to say and sort of like in the context of Jefferson as a persona?

BP: I mean some of this is… Our groundhogs are just as big as their groundhogs. [laughter] But I mean there’s another way in which, right? So, he gets a questionnaire from this diplomat [François Barbé] Marbois. But in fact, he’s answering questions that he’s imagining [Comte de] Buffon is asking him about what happens when you take a European and you transplant him into the new world? So, but I think there’s an effort on almost every page to sort of say “we’re not degenerating.” Where I’m using the white “we” [18:00], yeah, the European “we” that we’re not going to become corrupted by the airs of the new world or the soil of the new world and so in that sense, I don’t know if that’s aspirational but there’s a kind of talking back to Europe.

JP: I’m thinking as, you know, we’re sitting here talking in comparison to say something like [Hector St. John de] Crevecoeur’s “Letters from American Farmer,” which seems to me to be very much involved in a project of myth-making, you know, I mean if you read that it’s “What is an American?” and he comes up with the…. and Crevecoeur gets into a kind of fantasy of myth-making that is I think quite different from Jefferson. Crevecoeur, for example famously, he sends his narrator to Nantucket and he sees the people of Nantucket who are farming the Atlantic Ocean by hunting for whales. [19:00] But when he gives the map coordinates for Nantucket, he’s wrong. It’s the… they’re non-existent map coordinates, you know, the latitude and longitude… Jefferson would never make that mistake, if it were a mistake. I think it’s been plausibly argued that Crevecoeur is not making a mistake either that what he’s doing is he’s kind of signaling this as a kind of utopia that, you know, it is this is in effect his way of signaling this is a, a no place. The Nantucket that he’s inventing. Whether whichever one you buy, Jefferson would neither mislead the reader or come up with a joke like that for the reader to play with, nor would he allow himself to make such a mistake. He would correct any such mistake. So, I think Crevecoeur, is if you’re thinking of someone who is involved in like a task of very obvious myth-making and fiction making, that’s what Crevecoeur is doing. Jefferson is not like that. Jefferson is… his [20:00] imagination doesn’t work that way. I think he is a very literal person in a lot of ways and he wants to ground things in extremely literal categories.

BP: Yeah.

DMcD: As it’s been frequently noted, kind of scientific or pseudoscientific to give to these descriptions that kind of pseudo-scientific aura, so as to ensure their verifiability, their objectivity, their factuality. Yes.

BP: I would say the closest, this is to add on to what John saying but maybe give it a twist, the closest he comes to something like a mythic imaginative moment would be when he’s thinking about some of the indigenous people and the Native Americans. So, when when he treats like Logan’s speech or something like that, he has a fantasy about the people of America that is involved in his natural [21:00] philosophical project, but that’s when he I think he becomes most romantic. I don’t know. Where I’m using “romantic” here just over and against sort of the Enlightenment project of the text, but that’s when he seems to have some sort of phantasmagoric attachment to like the Americas and what they what they were I guess before the Europeans arrived and what they might become so that, yeah, he’s at his most, I mean he’s at his most irrational although it’s usually the motive scientific when he’s thinking about the races, the three races that he’s got triangulated in the text. I think he’s using I think the indigenous people in this way that’s, myth-making it’s involved in some kind of myth. Yeah, the people who will be replaced. So, this is why he’s digging [21:00] in mounds and this is why he’s trying to capture Logan’s speech as a kind of rhetorical set-piece that school children will have to learn, right? For generations in America.

Jefferson's thoughts on Racial Difference

DMcD: Well, this project is very much in formation and it’s going to be a series of podcasts and we’ve kind of for the purposes of the proposal divided the podcast into topical areas. But ultimately the goal of the project is just to find out from people from all walks of life what Jefferson still has to teach us? And not only that, how do we take the conversation about Jefferson from this very reflexive place which looks something like this, “Well, Jefferson is the architect of the Declaration of Independence, a Founding Father, a proponent of the egalitarianism, etc. and yet he owned slaves.” And so, that it seems to be that most conversations about Jefferson at least in not just in formal, in scholarly ways tend in some way to veer between these two positions are variations on them. So, that’s a long-winded kind of description of what we were doing, but to ask you to find a point of access into what he has to teach us now and how can that teaching take us beyond these reflexive polarities?

BP: We both teach this text. So, I teach a class on the late 18th century. That’s a transatlantic course about abolition and revolution. He’s in that course alongside Samuel Johnson and Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke and a number of other kind of late 18th century thinkers. So, I teach when I teach the text [24:00], I don’t teach us so much as a American text, I teach it as a transatlantic text, and I’m particularly interested in it’s kind of this the beginnings of scientific racism. I guess that’s the way I end up teaching it. And I guess teaching here at UVA is always interesting because the students come in with ideas about Jefferson often inchoate ideas about Jefferson. And if they do have an idea, I like this “he is and yet.” I think usually the way I use this in the classroom is people say that Jefferson’s a kind of paradox and I think what I want the students to, where I want them to end up as sort of this is not a paradox this way these things go together in very obvious and frightening ways.

JP: Can you say more about that?

BP: Well, so that I think that the, I don’t know. You’re not going to want to see your podcast and I shouldn’t be I should be saying this anyway, but like so I was reading [Vladimir] Lenin last week and so like his definition of “the state” is that which [25:00] comes out of and is put above a society and so that what states are for is producing a particular class which must be oppressed. That’s what I mean. One of the projects of this Notes on the State would be this kind of project or project of oppression.

DMcD: It should go in the podcast!

BP: Yeah. I don’t know if you want a Lenin quote but yeah, its fine. We’ve all internalized Lenin at this point, I guess, right? Yeah, so I think… like one of the things that I find interesting about Jefferson is his this is a particular kind of game that he’s playing always that he wants to not say what he means or he wants to not be held accountable. He’s kind of a moving target. This is the way the Notes on the State of Virginia works…. his discourse as written against Buffon in a kind of, I don’t know, I want to say like [26:00] seemingly anti-racist mode, but what he does is produce a new kind of racism. And so, that’s like that’s for me quintessentially Jeffersonian or as one of my mentors pointed out, this is a guy who sleeps in the wall, like who when you go to his house. He’s neither in his office nor in the next room. He’s always finding some liminal space and he’s going to inhabit it. And that’s… 

JP: That’s not a serpentine wall.

BP: Right, right he’s just… he will not commit. And so, yet the…like I did bring a quote just because I don’t know this is an example of it. Yeah, so he’s writing to Buffon that he’s unwilling or no no wait…where is this sorry. Yeah, “I do not mean to deny that there are varieties in the race of man distinguished by their powers both of body and mind” — and this is in the middle of an attempt to deny that there that there are kind of “races” or like in an attempt to complicate what we might mean by “races” [27:00] whether they are or not geographical, whether or not they’re speciated in some way or they belong to environment or like…. Yes, a state here would be like whether they’re product of an environment or they’re somehow in process. That you move someone from one part of the world to the other and they’ll darken like their skin will darken… the skin…. the sun will change them.

JOB: This kind of environmentalism always come from environment because you know one other term people use to race up in the point had to do with, you know, like I am of the race of the O’Briens. You know, it’s a… you’re a group ethnicity or a clan or something like that race often gets used in those ways up until this point and he’s imagining trying to fuse it with a kind of environmentalism that, you know, it is linked in some essential ways to the environment that people develop in and it’s one of the ways in which the [28:00] environmental parts of the book when he’s trying to describe the natural environment relate very much to the human parts of the book to the social environment. These very real connections to him. I teach him much the same way, you know, thinking about and it’s real revelation to, you know, one thing for the paradox is that someone said I can’t remember who it is paradoxes are just a fancy way of saying something that we’d rather not explain, you know.

DMcD: I like that.

JOB: And that, you know, you know, Jefferson really is ahead of most writers of this period in trying to come up with a way to make racial difference… have a scientific, [29:00] scientific basis for what he wants to think of as racial difference. No one… there’s really no text before Notes of the State of Virginia that I believe actually does this. It’s the beginning.

DMcD: It’s like the prototype for what will come.

JOB: There’s actually a significant time lag between that and the next articulation.

DMcD: Right, and it seems to take the discourse before anthropology, which is escaping me right now. No, no, no starts with a P though [phrenology]. It’ll come to me in a minute. Yeah, it’ll come to me but yes, you’re right. There is a tremendous gap. I want to pick… Were you finished John? To pick up on something you said because this is completely in my mind and when I have done this book in classes and students just kind of look at me. I mean like unabashedly like “really, lady?” because I have attempted to suggest in parts of the text [30:00] the ways in which when Jefferson is talking about say hybridity in the natural world, in the botanical sense that the text really takes on… that the passions of the text rise to the surface. It seems to me the language, the tempo. I mean, it’s all kind of crazy. But they and they kind of laugh at me that something happens to Jefferson when he’s talking about hybridity, when he’s talking about crossbreeding and, you know, I don’t manage to convince them of that. But in my own head, something happens involuntarily in the text when he’s talking about and that we can actually see the way the rhythms the movement of sentence. It’s like very minor, very subtle. But in my head, that [31:00] that is something that reinforces your point that in talking about the environment, he’s ever seek seeking to link it to the human and to the social.

Displacement of slavery in Notes and elsewhere

BP: There is a strange displacement so that you have discussions of slavery go under the heading “Manners.”

DMcD: Right.

BP: Yeah, and so you expect to find all these kind of category mistakes as you read the text anyway that you get involved in these kinds of category mistakes, because those… they’re his category mistakes and I think because of his, I don’t want to call it his kind of flat, opaque sort of way of managing his public presence. You have to read him this way. So, I’m with you. He often expresses… Yeah, what feels like something erotic in a strange moment so that under the case that I teach and think about again, as a kind of like [32:00] this would be brought before the jury, I guess, is that he’s in Europe and he sees painting a Dutch painting of “Sarah and Hagar,” the sort of giving permission to sleep with the slave, right? A representation of a biblical story and he writes to Maria Cosway and he says, “this painting is delicious.” That’s his word and he’s in theory having a conversation with someone about, you know, the tradition of art history. But he actually seems to be giving himself sort of permission to sleep with his wife’s half-sister, right? Yeah. That’s, I mean, it’s like he seems to be processing these things in all the places you wouldn’t expect him to.

DMcD: Yeah. I’m glad to… is really laugh when I try to make these suggestions, but, you know, they can seem kind of flat-footed I can see when I’m talking about them. But I say, you know, well, let’s just think about it. I mean, this is a matter of [33:00] speculation. Speculation has its place. We’re not saying this is. But what if we thought about the ways in which this man of the Enlightenment, this man of “reason,” how we might think of that… those truths about Jefferson in more holistic senses, or in fuller dimension. That’s also it’s not a statement about… Because I also find him… I shared with James one of my very favorite Jefferson letters that he’s writing to Adams when Adams’s wife dies. I think it’s just one of the most amazing. It’s a letter, it’s a condolence letter but it’s the most amazing eulogy and the kind of straightforward sensitivity [34:00] to this man’s loss. I find in that letter, I don’t see that way of thinking and processing in Notes. You know, it’s almost like it’s a completely different Jefferson there. So, I…

JP: So, I was going to say I wonder, you know, just because the topic of teaching courses came up and that’s convenient sort of model. But I wonder if you if you could leave your students with sort of one thing about Jefferson that coming out of your course that they might take to think about and take with them into the world what it might be? If that’s a tough, I don’t know if that’s a stumper, but if you could only teach sort of one sort of big takeaway about Jefferson what might that might that be. And maybe there’s that conversation about what paradox means, I think that’s a really important.

BP: I’m going to quote a historian whose name I’m forgetting, but he says if the British had shot Jefferson in 1782, we would [35:00] remember him as one of the great sort of opponents of slavery, as a powerful American voice against racism but, right? That he continued to work on the Notes of the State of Virginia and sort of work out in letters his sort of perverse way of thinking about the different “peoples of the world,” hybridized in the American space. We see something else yeah. We see this legacy of slavery sort of worked out politically, ideologically, instead and, you know, detail by detail, I guess one of the things that that I like to show my students in the Notes is a page where he’s listing slaves from the classical world who contributed importantly to sort of “thought,” Western thought, and he goes back to that page at some point and he keeps adding new Greek and Roman names because he’s working, he’s trying to tip the balance against [36:00] the African-Americans that he’s surrounded by so you can so you can watch you can watch him sort of work, you know, to a darker like a like to you can watch him work his way to a stranger and stranger more pathologically racist place as if you follow him, you know, through the states of the Notes on the State of Virginia.

DMcD: Right, and seeking to justify it, you know. So, that it will not appear to be racist at all. We know that he’s working himself into that, but he’s trying, you know, indefatigably to work himself out of that, right?

JOB: He’s really giving intellectual and ultimately institutional support to an apparatus of white supremacy, you know, and I think it deserves to be said in pretty much those terms, you know.

DMcD: Yes, I think so. Absolutely. Unabashed. Unapologetic.

the University of Virginia's role in institutionalizing white supremacy

JOB: [34:00] And that and it’s not only in this text which is an institution of its own. It’s in the University of Virginia, which is designed and, you know, Garry Wills, made this point. I’m not inventing this, Garry Wills made this point that it’s designed to provide a training ground for the white aristocracy of the South, who will know how to operate in the system of slavery and be fully adequate to meet the challenge of the Harvard boys, who they will have to oppose in Congress and future. And also in his political economy because that’s what I ended up writing about elsewhere is that, Jefferson famously… Jefferson and Hamilton found each other on either sides of a way of thinking about a national economy. And Hamilton is thinking about it in terms of a kind of federalism where you use the institutions of banks to federalize the finances and federalize the debt. [38:00] Jefferson is thinking much more in terms of local. What would become known as “states rights” that the economies have to be built from local entities up rather than from the national entity down and very much opposing the concentration of wealth and power in corporations and banks. And that the tension between the sense of individual rights and rights based in local communities and a national power that would be institutionalized in things like banks and corporations and a federal government is one that we continue to live with and Jefferson is on… Jefferson is definitely on the side of the local and the state, rather than the national and the corporate. And, you know, I have sympathy actually for being against the corporate but it’s not [39:00] he’s not thinking of the future. But I think that the tension between these two things is… it continues to be part of the way that the political economy gets fought in this country.

DMcD: That’s really a wonderful observation. You know, Notes because it is a kind of gazette or I often think of it as a miscellany, you know that as a miscellany it really invites a lot or encourages a lot of conversation about isolated phenomena that we can’t necessarily link to whatever development there is in the book. It isn’t a narrative. It holds together in weird ways, but not in the ways we typically think of a book’s coherence. I have over the years, as one of these kind of one-off things, always been fascinated [40:00] by Jefferson’s architectural drawings and particularly his prison drawings and which are also in the Massachusetts Historical Society. So, when we organized the conference a few years back on mass incarceration here at Woodson, I used in the brochure those drawings. They were never executed. But Jefferson was himself very closely involved with all the leading prison architects of the day in creating what was, what would become the first ever penitentiary in Virginia, but he had submitted these drawings to the Commonwealth from France. He was in France and asked to imagine a prison. And so, when we think about Jefferson, we think about someone also being at [41:00] the birth of a whole lot of things that we are now contending with. Not just this tension, you’ve observed between him and Hamilton but I remember during that conference, Angela Davis was here and I was walking her down the Lawn or where the student rooms are. And it was the spring. This time it was in April and she says, “Oh, the rooms look like little cells” and so any kind of random thoughts. I don’t know why I can’t get out a question without spending the page to introduce it. 

BP: His architecture always reads for me as having lots of import. So, yeah, so just walk. I mean you’re walking these, I’m going to use the Jeffersonian word they finally got to me after all these years the grounds, right? Yeah, but walking this walking this campus. [42:00] I mean you can’t help but respond to the way in which it disciplines your body and makes you walk around and that you have access to certain things and not other things. I mean the… it’s the house… I guess so, it’s Monticello that first made me kind of like I had a meltdown of a kind when I was walking underneath the house and realized that underneath the house are what are called “the dependencies,” right? Is that right?

DMcD: Yes, that’s what they’re called.

BP: Yeah, and I thought the author of the Declaration of Independence like has structured his home like into a space that’s for the independent and another space that’s for the “dependents.” Yeah. That yes so that written into that home as it would be in any home is a very obvious distinction, right? And again, yeah, it’s race, class, space; that certain people go below [43:00] and some people belong above and yeah, and you can see that you can see that here on this campus. Maybe, maybe it’s less obvious or I don’t know. There’s something about the naming of the dependencies that just made it scream out at me.

DMcD: Yeah. I was looking for the conference brochure, I’m sure you’ve seen these drawings.

BP: No, I haven’t seen these drawings. Are they Benthemite? Do they have the 18th century structure with the surveying eye in the middle?

DMcD: No, no they don’t have that but they’re really… they’re divided racially. They are divided according to gender and he has long pages or on the back of a long section describing the materials, how many materials would be needed. I’m sure I have a copy somewhere. I thought I had one here in my office because we printed the [44:00] images in the program. In fact, when we did the conference proceedings, I know a miniature version is in the in the book, so let me get the book because you’ll see. Yeah, they’re in the Massachusetts Historical Society. So, I remember in my opening remarks for the symposium, I said, “Jefferson was present at the birth of the prison…” And I think we do have… It’s so expensive to print things but… one small version of, yeah we have them… 

[shows prison drawing in 2009 Woodson Institute Symposium on mass incarceration]

Jefferson's Prison Drawings

JOB: It does look a lot like the Lawn. Is that right? The central path and [45:00] then also cells on your side and then something at the top. That is really interesting… 

JP: So, maybe just describe what we’re looking at here…

DMcD: We’re looking at Jefferson’s…. one of two drawings… that are housed in the Massachusetts Historical Society that were a prison plan submitted by Jefferson for a cell for solitary confinement. And it’s in the manuscript collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society. What we don’t have here is the page on the back of this page where he’s actually describing what it would cost provisionally to build and what materials would be used, but it’s right here. And that he is as I said a few minutes ago in close touch with the leading prison architects of the day and [46:00] this is not… these drawings are not executed. But here he is thinking… “white females” on one side, “black females” on the other, “white males, black males.” I don’t have my glasses.

BP: Each to their own cell. And then there’s a there’s a separate category. So, “white male debtors,” “white female debtors,” right? There’s no of course, right? I guess this tells you a lot about what America looks like. No “black debtors,” right?

DMcD: Yes exactly, no black debtors.

JP: And why would that be?

BP: Because there’s the ability to own any kind of property. Yeah. Yeah, it’s blocked illegally.  I mean, this is a fascinating thing. I’ve never seen before. Yeah, I don’t know and it like my like structuralist instincts are working overtime just looking at [47:00] it…. I mean only because what so it’s got this “e pluribus unum” effect where there’s like a solitary cell which is not gendered, or raced, or classed. So, that if you if you won’t sort of do what you’re supposed to do. If you’re, right, the white female debtor, right? You can be promoted to the solitaries to solitary confinement. That’s the Benthamite space. So, it’s, I’m thinking of the panoptic sort of the famous image of a panoptic prison is one. It’s a kind of 18th century idea that also was sort of imagined and not executed until much later, but this idea that you create a space for people to be alone with their crimes with the memory of their crimes. 

DMcD: And there’s the imagination that this is a benevolent act because, you know, people are not out in visible spaces, you know, they’re alone to contemplate their yeah.

JOB: It’s penance.

DMcD: It’s yeah to do but that’s penitent [48:00]. Penitentiary, from the word penance, from doing penance and that this is in the prison philosophy of the day assumed to be a benevolent progressive idea about prisons and criminals.

BP: So, Jefferson’s already dividing debtors from other prisoners, which is… so that’s again a kind of modern at modernizing, Enlightenment, progressive move. But then he’s further dividing people right by race and gender but holding them all in the same place. Yeah. It’s very Jeffersonian.

DMcD: Yeah. I was just so taken by and we then ended up, we also have in the brochure the prison that was actually built. It doesn’t exist any longer but here he is involved in so many manythings. [49:00] He’s at the birth of so much that has come to define this nation for good and for ill.

Inequalities in the Landscape

JOB: So, I’m thinking about the… you mention about the house and about this and thinking about issues of like sight and what you see and surveillance in the way that, you know, as you say the Lawn. The Lawn was designed so that you could look out, but that also I think Jefferson’s imagination was that as the university grew, they just simply continued the lawn out down the hill as long as long as it needed to be. Isn’t it true that at Monticello when you stand, you know, when you’re in the house and you look out, you don’t see the slave quarters because they’re below the hill, right? And again the sense of your… that the landscape itself and the architecture very much built into the landscape is designed to promote, you know, visual patterns of even your… the eyesight encodes which is what you’re saying, it encodes [50:00] relationships of independence and dependency of power and designed from designed from the very start to do that.

DMcD: And I think lots of people have written about that idea and the way in which the architecture supports invisibilizing labor. Yeah.

BP: So, that yeah the invention of the dumbwaiter, there are ways in which the servant will not enter the dining room. Their turning shelves and dumbwaiters. Yeah, to make the food appear without a person to bring it.

DMcD: Yeah, we don’t see who’s producing the food. Things underground, all with… all of that suggests, you know the underground architecture, the nomenclature of dependency. Yes, all of this is highly racialized in ways that people have talked about it.

JP: One thing I was thinking as you were describing the Lawn perpetually extending [51:00] out for research. We just started reading this book about progress, about Jefferson and progress and the author’s discussing the way in which the conception of time around I guess the eighteenth century would or the 19th century as railroads were beginning to be developed, that time became linear sort of displayed onto the actual construction of the railroad tracks as going sort of forward in space, you know, to arrive at a station at certain point in time. And so, I mean just thinking about this as the lawn is actually a linear would be a linear continuation that this idea of progress as sort of a straight line that is going out. That as time progresses, the actual physical space is going linearly forward to… Yeah, and I don’t know I just that thought came up as you’re discussing sort of that comparison [52:00] between a circular space or like the Rotunda is like a kind of continual circle versus like the straight line going directly forward in time. And so, I just wanted to throw that out there. But yeah, I know but I’m also being… speaking of time and being mindful of time and all of your time and one thing I did again sort of a crazy thought that came to me as I was talking to a friend who does work in data science and with databases. Is Notes on the State a database?

The form of Notes on the State

BP: An analogy that works.

JP: And this is sort of it without, you know, preference but, you know, thinking about the idea of a “query” that you know x equals y that I’m going to ask a query about this and get a certain return, results and sort of the statistical and sort of tallying nature of the text.

DMcD: Sort of the database of its day.

BP: [53:00] When I got here at UVA it was 2008 and I think it was shortly after that John, I may be started talking about this project, but the PMLA [the journal of the Modern Language Association] had just done an issue or a sort of discussion section on narrative and database as kind of opposites. So, in so far as the text resists narrative, right? You would assign it to the “other” category, that’s how binaries work but in that discussion, in that PMLA discussion there was this there was an effort made by several of the contributors to think about 18th century forums, dictionaries and encyclopedias as being in one way or another databases. I mean what makes it especially nice is the language of “query” but that’s we have to we have to play some sort of anachronistic game with a kind of back formation. But certainly I don’t… I usually don’t read the Notes through when I reread it these days. [54:00] I just opened it up and I look things up and to… I don’t make my students in this course read through. I assign them queries to read.

DMcD: Yeah, I think we all do. It would be a hard book to teach, to read through. Students would, you know, get horrible evaluations.

JP: You know we, I think Brad’s pointed out when like the 18th century came up with a whole lot of different ways of organizing knowledge. You know, the dictionary, the encyclopedia and these continue to… We continue to use those forms… the thesaurus. There are various kinds of statistical inventions that came out of the 18th century. The… organizing something according to “query” is a whole different way of thinking about how you would organize knowledge. That is an 18th century thing that actually hasn’t lasted that, you know, we don’t do that anymore. But you know, you know, in a “Borgesean” and universe one could imagine, you know, an alternate version where that became a way of [55:00] organizing knowledge that we continue to do. The database metaphor I guess works to a certain extent but also doesn’t work to a certain extent.

DMcD: You see echoes of this say in a text like Keywords. Raymond Williams’ Keywords.There are other, you know, with people who write in these… What am I thinking I never know how to pronounce his name when you see somebody you read his books. I’ve read several books of his C-i-o-r-a-n… but I don’t I’ve never known how to pronounce his name because I’ve never heard it pronounced. Yeah. Yeah, but anyway, but that’s I think of him organizing knowledge in some of these ways but yeah Keywords being a kind of not an analogy but kind of reminiscent of organizing knowledge in those ways.

JOB: We asked question sections of any website that [56:00] the FAQ section of websites is another that’s part of the model.

DMcD: Yeah, because while Jefferson is organizing these sections according to queries in that we know that they originate in questions. That’s where I think we leave it, right? Because it’s also a text that raises questions.

BP: It doesn’t answer the questions, at least not in the mode that Marbois would expect. He gets a questionnaire and he returns a book, that’s not, right? Yeah, that’s…

DMcD: Exactly, exactly yeah.

JOB: So, it gets associative. Like he starts off on one topic and that leads him to something else.

DMcD: It’s a very associative book.

JOB: Yeah, it leads him to something else. The logic is only clear as association rather than causality or narrativation. [57:00] And that’s where we kind of see, I guess, what we’ve been talking about a lot is the “Jeffersonian unconscious,” you know. And the books sort of has these moments I was you’re talking about the way that he gets the language gets a kind of energy when he talks about the issues of hybridity. That’s an unconsciousness coming forth. Right? But the logics are of that species rather than the logic of narrative, the logic of plot, the logic of a dictionary, the logic of cause and effect. It’s a… the vehicle enables those kinds of things to happen.

Jefferson's outbursts

DMcD: Yes, and I think, in a way, back to one of the observations, I forget which one of you made, about the incompleteness of the book, the indefiniteness, that there’s a way in which this [58:00] block of knowledge in response to a literal or figurative query is itself something that doesn’t necessarily have to stand, it can always be amended, that the query in essence can exist in perpetuity, right? So, you know, I haven’t I’ve committed myself to this in this moment in time, but this is subject to change at any time. You know, which is a tremendous alibi, you know? I would, yeah. I love those sections too where you see him actually stepping out from behind all of this pseudo-scientific detached commentary on whatever to actually exercise a moral sensibility. We… Discussions don’t often point to that. I mean, I’m really quite taken when he says, you know, “I shudder that God does not sleep.” You know, that these things we are doing here, that “the boisterous passions” that are developing between these two groups of people one held in subjugation by the other, you know, “I shudder at” because he’s really imagining a kind of justice, really, that will await people enslaving other people. And you don’t see that very much in the work, but it’s very firm and thus stands out for that reason, you know. I shudder… a person who has an ambivalent relationship at best for religion. “I shudder that God is not asleep.” You know, that there is this force that will bring down the kind of judgment. Again, it’s an odd moment like those moments of when I imagine that the text gets very hot and bothered.

BP: Do you want the quotation? Yeah, I’ll read it out. Yeah, cause it’s powerful. Yeah? “Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just. That his justice cannot sleep forever. That considering numbers nature and natural means only a revolution of the wheel of fortune in exchange of situation is among possible events. That it may become probable by supernatural interference.” Exclamation point. yeah, but that he sees the wheel will turn. Yeah. He’s a “revolutionary.”

DMcD: Yeah. Indeed. And that’s Jefferson’s long-winded way, and talk about people being long-winded, but Jefferson’s long-winded way of saying, you know, the Martin Luther King famous quote “the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, right? And that is what he’s saying there. That the arc of the moral universe turns towards justice and then there can be a reversal of positions. Yeah, these rare moments that I think speak so much more powerfully because in tone they depart so demonstrably from what we are reading. We’re reading along and there is a kind of studious or attempt at a studious neutrality that then in a passage like that, is totally gone.

JOB: Thinking of that… it’s rare among his contemporaries, you know, that kind of language and that outburst is rare among his contemporaries, you know? Yeah, which what makes him so incredibly fascinating and vexing.

DMcD: That this kind of control, this kind of really rhetorical tightness. Well, it’s not even tightness, but the efforts at control, the efforts at containment, and that there are these moments in the text where it says if the text just breaks the bounds or he basically loses it and delivers a passage like that. Yeah. Now, you have… I had no idea you were planning to take this, but you both have given so…

JP: A lot for us is to think about a lot of topics that come up.

Importance of Notes on the State podcast project for the University at large

BP: Well, I… thinking… I really like this project and I was thinking about it. I had a conversation completely what was really to see some ways, you know, Louis Nelson who’s in the Vice Provost’s Office now to do outreach in the community. And we were talking about the way that, you know, this place needs to completely reimagine the way it talks about itself in its history, you know, and we talked about like we have a new president coming in who I think will be charged with some of that. But this kind of project is the kind of thing we need to do all over the place to start coming up with the new ways in which we can think about and both to ourselves but publicly about the university and its history and Jefferson and really I think we’re still struggling with the ways in which those stories that we have to tell about ourselves.

DMcD: I think so. That this project has its own autonomy. We applied for some of the Bicentennial money, but we see it very much as a part of a larger project we’ve been doing for about a year now called the Citizen Justice Project: Engaging Race in Digital Spaces, and I don’t know if you’ve seen James’ “Illusion of Progress,” it’s the first installment. I will send it to you. It’s a story map. And we worked with high school students and UVA students last summer and what’s so amazing about it is that it was virtually done before August 11th and 12th, and it was it was really confronting these deep roots of racism and white supremacy at UVA and Charlottesville. And again, before those events unfolded but part of the Citizen Justice Project is just this, we have to find new ways of talking about the issues that continue to control us, that continue to contain or inhibit progress and development in meaningful ways. And I’m not a proponent of, you know, the kind of ideology of progress, but there’s a way in which we all inherited a script about Jefferson particularly that is that operates here on grounds and what we are, what we really love about this project is that so much of it comes from the… not so much the dictates about the wishes of ordinary citizens in Charlottesville, because when we began the project, we just interviewed people not randomly, but people that we kind of thought we needed to talk to. What would you like to see? What would you like to see the University be doing especially… This emerged in the context of the monuments controversy. And so, we took our instructions as it were from the Blue Ribbon Commission, right? You know, that we want a fuller, more complex, more complete, more comprehensive history. And so, that’s where we started. So, although this is a different project, we constantly have to try to raise money because we have no money, but it’s very much in the spirit of the Citizen Justice Project. Making Jefferson available. We are really going to do person on the street interviews. You know, because we have a captive audience any parents bringing their children to tour here, right? You know, you wanted this afternoon. Yeah, so tell us, yeah, so we don’t know what’s going to happen, but we want to be open to what we learn and to be guided and in Jefferson’s words, “let knowledge take us where [it leads]… you know, I don’t have that quoted embedded either, but you know the one I mean around Cabell Hall. We’re going to follow knowledge where it leads us in and we hope it leads us to a reconsideration of Jefferson that neither continues to glorify and reify him, iconicize him. Nor does it seek to destroy him as an icon but really to make him touchable for our times.

JP: Yeah, so definitely keep in touch. If you have ideas of ideas pop up about topics that you suggest we should pursue and if anything comes out of this conversation that you want to follow up on just feel free to reach out. Yeah, and last bit of housekeeping. Can I just ask you to say your name and your sort of title at the university?

JOB: John O’Brien. Professor of English.

BP: Brad Pasanek. Professor of English or Associate Professor of English… I guess I messed it up saying my title correctly. Brad Pasanek. Associate Professor of English.

DMcD: Thank you. Yeah, this is so very helpful. I’d like to see all of us do much more collaborative work. You know, I really, we do things kind of in pairs typically and I’ve done some of that work, but I think this is so so wonderful to me that we three colleagues who never talk to each other.

BP: Yeah, and we all teach this. We all teach this book.

DMcD: Yeah. We do. We all teach this book. And so…

JP: There were some definite gems that came out of that conversation. So, I’ll just, I mean…

Lisa Woolfork

Transcript (text only)

Interviewee: Lisa Woolfork, Associate Professor of English Literature at the University of Virginia

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

Interview date: 2018-07-23

Interview Summary: Interview with Lisa Woolfork, Associate Professor of English at UVa. The interview took place at the Carter G. Woodson Institute. In it, Woolfork discussed the shrouding of the Thomas Jefferson statue on September 11th 2017, the responsibility of institutions during times of crisis, and Jefferson’s grievances in the Declaration of Independence.

Keywords: Thomas Jefferson, #Charlottesville, the Declaration of Independence, slavery, Sally Hemings, rape

Transcription: Hahna Cho

the Shrouding of UVA's Jefferson Statue on September 11, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

JP: Yeah, not that crowd size matters…

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

JP: What was the feeling like?

[3:00]

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

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

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

JP: What do you mean by that?

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

Origins of A11 and A12, 2017 in Blue Ribbon Commission

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the role of protest in the nation's history

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

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

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

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

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

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

JP: Is there one about seizing property?

[25:00]

LW: Is it the property one or is it?

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

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

Teaching Jefferson in UVA's new curriculum

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

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

the University as a community in need of engagement and repair

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

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

Jefferson's paradoxes: ideals and realities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anniversary Events for August 11 and 12, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

JP: Talk about search and seizure.

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

DMcD: We need to get at that.

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

Healing and Civility

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

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

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

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

LW: And if you think about this too and relevant for us in talking about Jefferson, for me, is the notion of southern hospitality. Where do people think southern hospitality came from? This is not just sweet tea and Jesus we were talking about. That is not southern hospitality. Southern hospitality, this idea [52:00] that the South where the, you know, the cotton is high in the living is easy. All of that is manufactured through forced labor and there is no place better to see that than at Monticello. And so, you have this, you know, this beautiful room in the home where they have that dumbwaiter and, you know, it was really a marvel at the time, so say the docents, and, you know, Jefferson will be entertaining and then he would open this door and then food would come out of this closet and he would put in the dirty dishes would go down and then you would close it and basically it’s a dumb waiter and the food is being transported through the floor into the basement where there is a kitchen that must be at all times more than 110 degrees with the fires and all of those things that are running but it hides the means of its production and just like Jefferson and Monticello and [53:00] UVA, hide their slavery in favor of beauty. And so, it’s just like what [Toni] Morrison was saying in Beloved right when Sethe looks at Sweet Home, she says it’s beautiful, but there was not a leaf or a blade a blade of grass on that place that did not make her want to scream and it made her wonder if Hell was a pretty place too. And so, if you look at Monticello, you look at UVA you see how beautiful it is a lot of that is structured by slavery and it was, and he was, Jefferson was a great host. And so, this notion of hospitality, civility, all of these things cloak and conceal white supremacy in its basest forms and today I believe the calls for civility and politeness, to not raise your voice, to not protest, to not complain, is an extension of that.

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

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

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

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

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

[57:00]

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

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

Keywords for Jefferson

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

LW: A glossary.

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

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

DM: So that’s where cuckolding comes from.

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

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

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