Mia Bay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JAMES PERLA: Oh and James Hemings too was there?

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

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

MIA BAY: Switching topics from cars to Thomas Jefferson.

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

JAMES PERLA: Thats for sure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JAMES PERLA: And why is that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JAMES PERLA: An anti-racist reading of…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MIA BAY: All right.

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

Melody Barnes

Interviewee:

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

Interview date:

Interview Summary:

Keywords:

Transcription:

Introductions

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

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

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

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

Jefferson for our times

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

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

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

MELODY BARNES: Yes, we can reset the bones. 

 DEBORAH MCDOWELL: So what…  

JAMES PERLA: A facelift maybe? 

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

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

systematic vs. institutional change

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

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

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

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

to be of both Jefferson and Hemings

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

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

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

Interpretive caricatures of the enslaved experience

MELODY BARNES: I am. 

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

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

DEBORAH MCDOWELL:  Absolutely. 

The life of sally hemings exhibit at Monticello

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

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

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

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

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

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

representation without information

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

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

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

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

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

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

The spectrum of love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sexual Power Dynamics

JAMES PERLA: “Love Is Love.” 

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

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

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

The Responsibility of Historically Violent Spaces

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

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

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

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

Noelle Hurd


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


(mis)quoting Jefferson

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

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

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

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


UVA in Fall 2016

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

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

JP: It was on Jefferson Park Avenue or something? 

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

JP: Thank you.  


Using Jefferson as a moral compass and a silencer

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

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

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

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


Navigating the status quo as a black academic

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

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

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

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


the role of civility in activism

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

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


interpreting Jefferson's grievances

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

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


a usable past

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

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

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


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

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

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

JP: Printed in 1819?  

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

JP: Maybe we should do that.  

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

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

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

JP: He’s “reading.”  

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


How did we get here and where do we go?

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

DMcD: I wanted to ask Noelle about… 

NH: Let me just…

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

[Whispering and overlapping conversations]

JP: That usually happens with the best of interviews…  

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

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

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


Shrouding as sacrilege

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

NH: Yes. 

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

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


Appeasing wealth and investing in the future

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

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

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

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


Move Without moving: where to place jefferson

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

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

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

JP: And who runs things.

NH: More importantly, yes.  

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

JP: Non-denominational.

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

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

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

NH: Yes. 

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

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

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

JP: A placebo?  

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

JP: It’s not nutritionally fortifying. 

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

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

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

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

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

JP: Which means…  

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

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

DMcD: Law and sentiment?  

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

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

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

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

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

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

NH: They don’t cost anything.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DMcD: Yes.  

JP: A good conversation mate.  

DMcD: Yes. Noelle.  

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

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

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

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

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

DMcD: Right. Exactly.

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

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

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.

Dennis Childs

Interviewee: Dennis Childs

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

Interview date:

Interview Summary:

Keywords: Prisons, mass incarceration, colonization movement, 13th Amendment

Transcription: Josh Gravely

Jefferson as author of the exception clause

JAMES PERLA: Settings… But yeah, so this project is for UVA’s Bicentennial. And so, at the two hundred year anniversary, we’re taking this as an opportunity to try to look a little bit more critically at Jefferson’s history and see if there’s a way to push the narrative that we usually talk about in these parts a little bit further to, you know, to deepen the way we talk about Jefferson.

DEBORAH MCDOWELL: What we don’t want to do… Well, you can imagine, I want to take a very contrarian view. But what we don’t want to do is just simply reiterate. “Well, Jefferson was a hypocrite,” you know, “what’s with all of this “all men are created equal” and then he owned slaves,” you know, we know all of that. So, we want to not necessarily lose sight of that but want to actually see what are these other things about Jefferson that we don’t know or that people refuse to see. When I presented leading historians, Jeffersonian, basic experts, not just generalist, but Jefferson. People whose careers were devoted to Jefferson. When I presented them with the prison drawings to see if they could help me, because we were doing a major symposium, most of them claimed they never had seen the prison drawings, had no comments on the prison drawings. I go, “How can this be? I’m not even a Jefferson scholar and I have done enough research to uncover these drawings.” So, basically we want to widen, deepen the narrative but also introduced aspects of Jefferson that either people don’t know about or refuse to let themselves see.  

DENNIS CHILDS: Well, if I can chime in on that and thanks for the opportunity to speak with you all about this, you know, I ran into these aspects of Jefferson’s history in researching my book Slaves of the State: Black Incarceration from the Chain Gang to the Penitentiary and the way that I specifically ran into a part of his kind of legacy that you’re talking about that doesn’t get spoken of much is with respect to the exception clause on the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. What many people don’t know is that there were many exception clauses leading up to that one and they were a part of what were called “the black laws” of Northern states and of the Northwest Territory. So, 1787 is the Northwest Ordinance and Jefferson was a part of the lead up of writing that. Much of what became the ordinance was based on his own writings with respect to what would become those new states and an exception clause was actually written into that document. Here’s how it is worded: “there shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory otherwise than in punishment of crimes whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” This is nearly the exact language that ended up in the US Constitution and the 1865 Thirteenth Amendment. That exception clause is something that was really key for me in tracing what Angela Davis in her work describes as a transition from what she calls “the prison of slavery to the slavery of prison.” And in my work I try to trace what is now called “mass incarceration” back through its genealogical roots in chattel slavery. And Jefferson is obviously a really key figure in that, you know, he was a slave owner, but also one of the leaders in the U.S. in terms of the philosophical discourse of the Enlightenment. This connection between him at one and the same time being a leader in that liberal modality of thought and philosophy and also a leader in the project of human commodification is something that really was important to me from the very beginning.  

The Northwest Ordinance and the afterlives of slavery

JP: And so, just a clarifying question, if you can maybe circle back just slightly to slow down a bit in terms of that Northwest Ordinance you’re describing that this came about through essentially through one of the clauses that were essential to the Civil War?

DC: Well, that this later when it became the Civil War, yes.  

JP: And so, I wonder if you can just maybe even, yeah, in, maybe, in other words maybe circle back to what that means?  

DC: Well, I mean what that meant was is that I know that in terms of looking back at his legacy, one of the prime ways he’s understood is as a reformer. Someone who was, even though he was a slave master, had real philosophical problems with the institution. I like to think of Jefferson’s white supremacist ideology not as exceptional to his role as reformer or Enlightenment thinker but it actually part and parcel. Instead of seeing those two things as polar opposites, seeing them… the Enlightenment or liberal discourse and the original mass incarceration or chattel slavery as mutually constitutive and that cuts against the grain of a lot of treatments of this subject matter. Either Jefferson was an arch racist or he was this grand liberal Enlightenment thinker. I’d rather see more muddiness there and see the two things as working in interplay. That allows us also to see slavery as rather than a kind of peculiar institution that was exceptional to the narrative of progress in the U.S. as actually fundamental and then we can track what’s Sadiya Hartman then calls “the afterlives of slavery” through something like imprisonment. The drawings the Dr. McDowell mentioned are incredible number one to see his hand actually forming the architecture, designing the architecture of the original Virginia Penitentiary. When you see him actually doing a kind of design along the lines of a segregationist philosophy with black prisoners being held, black men and black women, being separated from white men and white women. This is something that he knew full well how to do. I mean we have to acknowledge that if he… if we want to talk about him and what’s now called the carceral state, he knew full well what he was talking about in entering into that domain because he was in fact a kind of prison warden. The reason why black people only represented an infinitesimally small number of those in the southern U.S. who were in prisons, what became prisons in the Walnut Street example or the Auburn system, is that in the South, black people, where most black people were, Africans were, they were already imprisoned on what were called plantations. So, to answer your question in terms of the Northwest Ordinance, his role as reformer is clear. The Northwest Territory would not have slavery. That’s what I just read and neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall exist in these new states that which by the way were colonial spaces, colonized spaces where indigenous people were being dispossessed of their rightful entitlement to their land and goods and their being. But there was a catch. The exception was number one: if you were convicted of a crime, you could be put in put into a situation of in reality de facto slavery. Number two: there was also a fugitive slave clause written into the Northwest Ordinance or the land ordinance as it was called in 1784 and ultimately that was his… what he [Jefferson] penned and then ‘87, what the actual Northwest Ordinance for those territories that would become modern-day Ohio, Indiana, other states. So, the fact that that document can be considered a liberal document… We’re not going to have slavery in those territories, are going to be clean of that stain on our record as in the nation state itself in formation. Oh, but by the way, we’re also going to allow for the re-enslavement of both free and already enslaved black persons through criminalization. This is a legacy that we are living today. And that’s not to say that 1787 and 2018 are exactly the same. But if you look at the Thirteenth Amendment, when it was written and the debates in Congress that happened with people like Charles Sumner saying the Senator from Massachusetts saying look, we can’t repeat what Jefferson and others wrote into that original ordinance now because we’re trying to free four million Africans. What will happen after this is that a new system of imprisonment will just be a facsimile or a new version or what DuBois called “old wine in new bottles.” What the South will do is come up with a new way to enslave this population. He got beaten down in that debate and then he goes back to Congress in 1866 with an advertisement for the sale of black people like Richard Harris and Harriet Purdy on the steps of the Annapolis County Courthouse for crimes like thieving a half bushel of wheat. And the words in the advertisements just like the ones before slavery had been supposedly outlawed were very clear. This person will be sold as a slave by the county sheriff on the courthouse steps at twelve noon. And this is almost two years after abolition. So, when we talk about the legacy and we talk about the liberal legacy, the reformatory one, I think that we have to have a complicated or nuanced understanding from, especially from the perspective of those who were his slaves and their progeny, of what reform really meant. It’s not to say that emancipation meant nothing but it is also to say again that DuBois’ line about “old wine in new bottles” or Dr. McDowell “the changing same” in her work. These things are really important to track. I mean, just if I can, he’s a… Jefferson was a student someone that really studied the works of the Italian criminologist, Cesare Beccaria. Okay, now I saw in some of the materials having to do with the Bicentennial and the Jefferson part of that, the notion, well, Beccaria was a leading prison reformer. Yes, and this is exactly my point. What exactly was his idea of reform? Well, we’re going to move away from a feudal model of punishment to a more modern post-, you know, post-feudal, you know, liberal model or Enlightenment philosophy. Okay, but what were his words? His words in On Crimes and Punishments having to do with this idea: “If it be said that permanent penal servitude is as grievous as death and therefore as cruel, I reply that if we add up all the unhappy moments of slavery, perhaps it is even more so. But the latter are spread out over an entire life, whereas the former exerts its force at a single moment.” What is the… what is the point there? That they wanted to come up with something more grievous than death. That imprisonment, which he equates to state slavery, being to quote the Virginia court case that your listeners probably know of Ruffin vs. Commonwealth in the late 19th century, prisoners were thought of as slaves of the state. This is a very old concept going back to Roman antiquity. So, the reform here the reformatory gesture is one that is actually also a terrorizing gesture when looked at from the perspective of those who were going to be subjected to this regime of penal enslavement.  

The possibility of Reimagining prisons

JP: There’s so much there. I feel like we can even just say, All right, that’s it.” 

DMcD: Yes! I was just about to say: you see me going [nodding]. James as the recorder… I’m constantly editorializing with my voice and [laughter] since I have to edit out all of this so, please!

JP: This is the colonial project of recording, you know, it’s like no we’re just we don’t exist here. There’s just a voice coming out of this.  

DMcD: So, I’m about to jump out of my seat because I really want to be saying things.

JP: No, that was very, very good.  

DMcD: Yeah, I know. I’m trying hard not to. But again to press on this idea of reform. I mean I’m wanting to… I’m getting too far ahead of ourselves now, but one of the things I want to mention in my opening remarks this afternoon for the panel, it’s the recent report from the Vera Institute, which is called: “Reimagining Prison,” right? And James said quite interestingly the other day, It’s not abolishing prison but reimagining. So, what are the incongruities in even trying to think about reform in the context of prison or reimagining prison? Is it possible to reimagine or reform prison? 

DC: Well, that’s a… that’s a really important question. I mean I reminds me of [Angela] Davis’s book, Are Prisons Obsolete? We have got to the point in the last thirty to forty years where the civil imagination cannot conceive of a world without prisons. But if you look at the leader in the country in imprisonment of human beings, which is California, over about a hundred and thirty year, 130 year period, between the late 19th century to the mid 20th century, California only built about nine prisons. Okay? Then from 1980 to 2000, 30-plus. So, in order to imagine a world without prisons, we don’t actually have to work too hard. I mean it… relatively speaking. You have a 500% increase in the number of incarcerated people from the time Reagan took office until 2000 and we don’t want to leave Bill Clinton out of that picture. 1994 he’s passed the Crime Bill, the strikers that we’re going to talk about later. Don’t leave him off, you know, don’t let him off the hook at all because the “truth in sentencing” laws, the criminalizing of youth as adults, all of these things were a part of his regime which incarcerated more than any other previous regime ahead of him. So, it’s a real problematic ideologically for people who have been conditioned to think that a society based on incarcerating those who were living basically the predictable outcomes of a society based on gross inequities in terms of access to education, jobs, healthcare. You were speaking earlier with, you know, with post-docs and pre-docs from the Woodson Institute the way in which people with mental illness are criminalized for living again those predictable consequences. You know, the one thing that I like to do in a classroom context but also in my written work is turn that on its head and say, “Well, we would be offended were we to hear of a debate on whether reform of the slave plantation was something that could be done or not.” That we would be that would be shocking to the ear, you know, looking back at like Monticello and the slave plantations of old, but I think that hopefully I’ll say in years hence, we would be able to look back at the prison industrial complex in the same way. What the prison strikers and this instance and the ones in 2016 and the prison strikers, the hunger strikers, the 30,000 people that had the biggest hunger strike in history, or at least U.S. history in 2013 in California make clear is that the conditions are abominable but also the conditions that lead to folks being captured and taken to these places are also abominable. You have a situation where as you said earlier the prison amounts to a kind of form of human warehousing. But through social conditioning, all the infinite number of cop shows and things that are on TV, we can take a situation like the super maximum-security prison for instance. They have these things that are called control units or control units prisons and people are held in indefinite solitary confinement for over thirty plus years. Now, you can tell the average person that on the street and they may be horrified by that factoid. But the fact of the matter is that there is a kind of social acceptance of such horrific structures in society. Now, going back to Jefferson, his idea with the original Virginia prison going off the Walnut model was solitary confinement cells. But the difference was, was that the subject that he had as his ideal subject was not just black people but also white subjects who were unruly or needed to be conditioned into being proper workers or what have you. There was an ideal of reform especially vis-à-vis the white subject. But what happened when the prisons in the North started to become more and more populated by black people can also be traced to Jefferson’s Enlightenment and I would also say white supremacist philosophy. So, Notes on the State of Virginia, really important document that talks about the laws of Virginia but also around that time, and the document basically ponders whether black people are human beings of the same species, compares black people to orangutans. He also compares Roman slavery with slavery in the U.S. and he talks about a signal difference. And he says that difference between what would happen to emancipated slaves in the U.S. were to occur and what happened in Roman antiquity is this: Blackness. And so, he says among the Roman’s, emancipation required but one effort: the slave when made free might mix with without staining the blood of his master, but with us a second is necessary unknown to history when freed he must be removed beyond the reach of mixture. This notion of “negro removal” or African removal and how that even that reformatory ideal of the solitary confinement cell would be transmuted into something more horrifying than even it was. Charles Dickens talked about it being horrible when it originally happened, but when the subject was thought to be an unreformable subject. So, going from a corrective reformatory model, all these places are euphemistically called, you know, “houses of corrections.”  By the 1970s, all of that euphemism, the clothes were taken off of it. It was made very bold face, even though the names may have stuck the idea was we’re punishing those beyond the possibility of reform. So, you get a situation where people like the Angola Three held at a slave plantation, modern one in Louisiana, the State Penitentiary, held for over thirty and, in case of Harmon Wallace Owen and Albert Woodfox, forty years in solitary confinement. And there is no notion of a kind of reform of this subject because the idea is that these are expendable persons whose labor is no longer necessary. So, it’s not exactly the same as it was in the late 18th century, but we have again the legacy of this strain of thought which is to say that there is an entity among us, if it’s the capital “U,” who if when their labor is no longer needed, as Jefferson says, needs to be removed beyond the reach of reach of mixture. Now, the colonization schemes didn’t work. But we have an internal colonization scheme that is called the prison industrial complex. 

evil is in your house, evil is in your bed

JP: And just quickly, the colonization scheme? What do you mean by that?  

DC: Well, the Colonization Society of the United States the idea was that once emancipation did occur, the country of Liberia was actually founded upon this principle. Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson, and others were very open to the idea of basically the mass removal of the formerly enslaved population because of this notion that this, for them, a kind of horrifying notion of racial mixing. And here in Charlottesville, up to the very, you know, recent moment with the white supremacist rally and the violence in the streets here. And there was just a, I looked at the newspaper yesterday a piece on racial profiling by the police department here, all of these things find they’re find their genealogical roots in early philosophical systems that cannot be exceptionalized to openly crazy groups such as the KKK. We can actually look at Enlightenment thinkers and the fathers of liberal thought, Locke and Hobbes and Jefferson, to find the ideological roots for some of these dynamics that we’re living out today.

DMcD: Indeed. And many people, I should say, some people in the wake of August 11th and 12th in 2017 kept trying to make that point. When certain people, including faculty members, said: “Evil has come to our house,” some of us said: “Evil is in your house, evil is in your bed.”  Where do you think Kessler and Spencer came from? What made them think that they could do? They are products of this university. So, the idea that somehow this is some innocent liberal bastion and that what has just happened is some aberration is willful misthinking. You’re absolutely right. 

DC: And the liberal bastion, you know, in this conversation, the liberal bastion is actually inseparable from the white supremacist activity or the violence that the United States as a beacon of liberalism, political liberalism, economic liberalism, is inseparable from the project of colonial genocide, against its indigenous inhabitants. And what I would argue is also a genocidal campaign against Africans through slavery and its aftermath.

DMcD: Absolutely. This university seems really practiced at taking concepts like liberalism, taking concepts, even before you probably heard about the… what turned out to be a journalistic hoax, a young woman… There was a story in Rolling Stone [Magazine] about a young woman allegedly gang-raped in a fraternity and it was discovered to be a hoax. But, you know, there was much hand-wringing in the aftermath of that. And so, one of our university officials who shall go unnamed said, “Well, we this is… This kind of violent behavior…. We have to get at… We have to return to our founding principles of ‘honor’.” I go: “Honor!? Honor will take you right back to violence. That the genealogy of ‘honor’ is in violence! Honor is not going to save you.”

DC: No, and right here on this university campus, just like campuses like LSU and many others. Georgetown, which we found out famously, recently, those slavery bones in the closet will reveal themselves. You can’t have one without the other and then again instead of thinking of them as opposites, thinking of liberalism and white supremacy as obverse as two sides of the same coin. And, you know, I think it’s really important to think in complicated ways. It’s not simply about Jefferson was a racist. No, it’s to really take seriously his thought. But also to look at okay, he’s an Enlightenment thinker, thinks of himself as a scientist. If you look at the section that I just read from earlier in Notes on the State of Virginia. I mean, he says,”Shouldn’t we think of the reality that even the color the way in which white people blush as a marker of this difference fixed in nature? No African has ever produced what can be called poetry?” I mean, this is passing itself off as a kind of anthropological gaze, which it was. Anthropology being grounded in as we’ve been saying a kind of form of white supremacist ideology and finally saying we may be different species. This is the same person who I guess was trying to do, if you will, “field work” on this very subject matter with his own slaves like Sally Hemings. So again, the real point here is not to exceptionalize these moments in Jefferson, not to exceptionalize what happened in 2017 in Charlottesville, and also not to exceptionalize the South and places south of the Mason-Dixon line. These were debates that were happening in the halls of Congress as I said earlier. And the project of U.S empire as it unfolded under Jefferson and afterwards has always had white supremacist ideology. Again, not the form that we’re familiar with then that makes people feel comfortable. The one that actually implicates the progress narrative, the forms of Enlightenment discourse we’ve been talking about, the very foundations of the liberal capitalist nation state are again tethered from the beginning to now to what can be called genocidal practices against people of color, specifically indigenous, and also black people you think about the early 20th century and what was literally a genocidal campaign against the people of the Philippines and that colonial project. You take it all away to the Vietnam War, the killing of it’s estimated four million people in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. By what entity? The liberal democratic kind of spearhead of the globe and you take it to now with Iraq and Afghanistan and everything that the United States has in terms of culpability for what can be rightfully called crimes against humanity. What are the groundings for these practices? Is the question and I think Jefferson helps us to illuminate that.

White supremacy as structural rather than incidental

DMcD: He absolutely does. And I simply want to pull out from… among the items in your series about not exceptionalizing Jefferson, August 2017. I have met with a lot of resistance from colleagues when I say, “You all are acting as if this is the end of the world.” That when the grand history is written of white supremacy, and it’s violent manifestations, August 11th and 12th, may figure somewhere in there in eight font type in a footnote. I gave a talk back in June where I’ve tried to make this point I said, “Let’s just take the 20th century alone.” Where, I mean, any loss of life in any act of or expression of violent white supremacy should be decried. But we have to look at people literally massacred in the streets. Whole towns of people lying in the street.

DC: I’m from one of those towns, Tulsa, Oklahoma. 

DMcD: Tulsa figured in! And so, I just gave a litany and at one point I said, “And I’m only up to 1942. I could spend the rest of my time simply listing these places.” So, we need to get real here. 

DC: That’s right.

DMcD: And then we need to ask ourselves, “Why are we then exceptionalizing this moment? What work is that doing for us?” 

DC: Yes, and I think that feeds right into the conversation we’re going to have later today about the context of the prison strike in the seventeen states that had occurred in because I think that there is real work, not only in terms of erasers of history or herstory, but also continuing on the project of U.S. empire. So, for the population to accede to, not only this spectacular forms of violence that we saw on the streets of Charlottesville or back in ‘21 on the streets of Tulsa, but also the more grinding everyday processes where specifically black people, but you can talk about other people of color and now migrant folks now experiencing this, experiencing this on a daily day-to-day basis, the way in which stop-and-frisk for instance works. The way in which again, like I said earlier, lack of access to jobs, to a living wage is something that feeds what is called criminal activity. George Jackson, the really important thinker who happened to be the field marshall of the Black Panthers in the late 60s, 1970s, early 1970s and also a prisoner, a political prisoner in places like San Quentin talked about that most of the prisoners that he was encaged with were inside for some form of food-getting. Literally the lack of access to a job that could pay the bills was one of the things that was feeding the prisons. Literally feeding bodies to these facilities that were doing this horrific damage to whole communities. So, I think that that’s a really important point that you can’t, you know, I tire of the response to moments like in Charlottesville and others that we’ve been talking about where you get someone saying, “And this is happening in 2017. I can’t believe in 2018.” And I was hearing that back in 1994, in the ‘90s with Rodney, King every incident as if it’s incidental, but it’s not it’s structural.  

DMcD: It is not incidental. 

DC: Exactly. 

Challenging the progress narrative

DMcD: And I want to then, we can talk forever… I want to really tie that question the living wage. Some of us on the faculty have worked for the entirety of our time here in various ways to confront the absence of a living wage for people who work in our midst. UVA will give a standard response that many institutions give. “Well, we contract out. So, Aramark… We can’t control. What Aramark…” What do you mean you can’t control? You contract out to Aramark. Your hands are not clean here. And so, there is a refusal to acknowledge this very thing here. The outgoing president once said, “Well, what you’re asking for we already give. If you add up the benefits, one of which is a two thousand dollar tuition credit.” So, we said, “Can you take a two thousand dollar tuition credit to the landlord? Can you take Kroger?” Can you… Exactly to the grocery store? That this is insane. Further, I think the hyper-investment on the part of liberal professors or neoliberal professors at this institution, that the investment in Confederate monuments, not that that’s not important, the investment in the university’s roots in slavery, really eclipses a focus on what the attention that could be granted phenomena like this. It’s not that it’s not but these issues are not centrally a part of the conversation. We could not get faculty in the English Department, for example, to even sign a petition a few years ago for a living wage. Could not get them to do it. But it’s very easy to focus on the roots of this institution in slavery. Even when you want to ask them, “Why don’t we begin to talk about the university’s investments in private prisons?” We can’t see that and thus we don’t want to see that.  

DC: I think that’s exactly it. It’s the way in which… That this is why in my work I try, again, that DuBois phrase keeps coming up of “old wine in new bottles,” challenging the progress narrative. There’s a comfort… There’s a comforting myth when we can say that there is a historical borderline where slavery ended and everything. The United States wiped its hands. There’s another one that is really kind of periodizing move. Well, 1965 and the Civil Rights Act, that’s when everything got okay and equal. These moves, these gestures, these grandiose gestures as you talked about, the grand Narrative of emancipation, what they do is they short-circuit the ability to see the connection between then and now. And something like the lack of an ability to purchase a home, to have land after a lot of it had been stolen. Let’s just say very clear, those that were able to acquire land after slavery, a lot of that was stolen through legal maneuvers. There was also the promise of land that was never kept. We can go on and on into all of those things, meanwhile, white subjects in the United States were able to lay claim through… To indigenous peoples lands through things like the Homestead Act. You have the Federal Housing Administration loans that people got after World War II, the creation of what is called the middle class, and white flight, this story recedes from view even under Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the way in which there was a Jim Crow legal framework in terms of the way in which the GI Bill and access to those low interest home loans were divvied out. These stories are really important. But if you can say, “Oh, that stuff.” That when we’re studying slavery, we’re only studying something that’s fossilized in history, then you can remove or try to remove the culpability of the structure itself for the afterlives of chattel slavery, of Jim Crow apartheid, live through the experience of something like not being able to find a job. I know you read a piece that I just completed on Derrick Bell, one of the most important people in what’s called Critical Race Theory, a hugely important legal scholar who passed away relatively recently. He and a lot of other thinkers that I’m discussing in my work right now talk about how at one point or another and even James Baldwin writes about this in The Fire Next Time and No Name in the Street that after the migrations of black people from the South and the demographic shift that happened between World War I and 1970, and you had automation and the plants and the north, you had industrialization and the movement of equipment in the southern farms and other places. You also had importation of labor from other parts of the world. There was this notion that the labor of black people was no longer needed. The creation of what Baldwin and William Patterson and Derrick Bell and Barbara Randsby called and James Boggs, Grace Lee Boggs is really important partner in rebellion and radical thought a population of human expendables. But again, if you can treat of these… The predictable outcomes of asymmetries and wealth access, access to healthcare, access to health and education. If you can treat of these things as… That the behaviors that are the outcomes of these problems as individual acts, of pathological behavior, then you remove the ability to understand the culpability of the nation-state itself, of the legal structure, of the economic structure. And I think that what we have in the legacy of Jefferson is a way of getting underneath the myths of progress, getting underneath the myths of liberalism and the idea that each individual just has, you know, the self same individual has rights and entitlements. When you look in a complicated way at a figure like him, I think that it can be very instructive for us, those of us who are trying to again forward the momentum of something like a living wage. I mean, we know that in the last forty or some odd years adjusted for inflation that the minimum wage in the United States of America has gone down by approximately 40%. Four zero. And that’s unconscionable.  

DMcD: It is. And meanwhile, it is being touted that well there’s a strong likelihood that Trump could be reelected because of the state of the economy. You cannot get people to talk in nuanced, complex ways about the economy. What do you mean the economy? The economy for whom? All right? When you really and frankly I happen to know because most of my family members are wage workers. So, I happen to know something concrete about the working conditions of people who are wage workers and the precarity of their jobs. Actually the illegal… I’m sure if some of the things that go on in workplaces in contemporary America are probably actionable but people are fearful. My brother worked at Walmart until two years ago. The mere mention the mere innuendo or intimation of any concerns with labor organizing you could get… you could lose your job and it and so.

DC: And what is the language? Right to work? 

DMcD: Exactly. Virginia is a right to work state. Yeah. 

DC: And that that legacy of de-unionization and especially the aspect of it that has to do with the rank and file is really something really really hugely significant and a state like California. I mean, I work at a university system where none of those that are cleaning up after the students and the faculty and the staff people have union representation. They’re all contracted out and this is really really significant. But then there’s also those who never will see a job at all and what you see in the statistics around the economy doing so well and the rate of jobs versus, you know, now versus last year or the year before what there’s a really an important missing element there. Becky Petted in her work talks about this which is if you counted the number of people who are incarcerated in terms of jobs and people employed and unemployment that you see that the statistics are very skewed. In other words, those folks that and those that have been permanently removed from the labor market inclusive of prisoners then we would see that the precarity in a more clear lens than that you were speaking of.  

The shortcomings of the democracy project

DMcD: Absolutely. I want to ask you about… You can see how easily I get exercised about these things. I want you to talk a little bit about a project here. We didn’t mention this in advance, but the university just got tons of money from the Mellon Foundation for a project on democracy. And it’s really very proud as punch of itself for having gotten all this money for the Democracy Project. And in all manner of things, initiatives, lecture series, etc. are being planned in the name of the Democracy Project. I want you to talk to our listeners about Jefferson and democracy shining a critical lens as you have been throughout this interview on the concept of democracy.

DC: Well, you know, it’s interesting because we live in a republic. We don’t live in a democracy and that’s… and Jefferson would have told everyone that’s listening as much and did. There is, there was a real fear on the part of the so-called founding fathers or founding slave masters of democracy because what that would mean is, you know, if we could take it down to simple pithy language, one person one vote. They were not interested in that. I think that, you know, that makes me think of the Electoral College when we think of the lack of a one person one vote dynamic and that’s something that came up when Trump lost the popular election. Just like George Bush did at least the first time and we could talk about other shenanigans that were going on in probably the second time too. But if you look at the origins of the Electoral College as one example of the kind of what we were talking about earlier the way in which subtending the mythos of democracy is the practice of democracy. If we can allow that the United States presents itself as a democratic regime, even though it’s not, it’s a republic. That it’s a representative democracy at best. If we take it at its word that it’s a democracy, what is the product of its democratic role in both domestically and globally? As you said, we could take any date on the almanac starting before its actual inception with the U.S. revolution as a colonial property of the UK all the way to the present and see the way in which, again, there is no way of sliding a piece of paper between the grandiose rhetoric of democracy, inclusion, or to use the French version, fraternite, egalite, liberte. There is no way to slide a piece of paper between that rhetoric and the lived reality of those upon whose labor was the basis for the production of the U.S. as an empire and whose genocide again was the condition of possibility for it and still is. The genocide of indigenous people for me and indigenous radical thinkers and not even radical thinkers, people living in the open air prisons that are called reservations. Democracy for these folks means genocide and that is not political hyperbole. It is actually, you know, kind of very clearly thrown into relief by the facts of their living conditions and what has happened over the process of American empire building. That is not to say that there aren’t great institutions like the University of Virginia built upon that scaffolding, but you can’t have that tower without that scaffolding [laughter].

the pervasiveness of racism in higher education

 DMcD: You cannot. You cannot lop off… You can’t remove the scaffolding it is there. It is absolutely there. This brings me to a question about higher education more generally because we see the ways in which so much of what you have discussed also plays out in these very universities, the demographics of these universities, the structures on which they operate, their investments et cetera. So, finding any point of access of your choosing into that question. 

DC: Well, my point of access actually goes to the University of California, another bastion of the U.S. project of democracy and specifically the campus at UCSD in San Diego, we’re situated at the border between San Diego and Tijuana, but you would never know it walking around the campus looking at the demographics of the students. We had, as of 2010, a 1.3 African-American population. 1.3 percent which equated to roughly just over 200 students out of a population of over 30,000. Okay? And this is the reality that led to one of the most heinous performances of white supremacist cultural festivities in California history, which was called “the Compton Cookout” at my university in 2010, which was one of the things that was the basis for the movie [T.V. show] Dear White People. The director talked about the UCSD incident being a part of that and what the students and that example said those among the two hundred or so black students who were my students at the time period was that… because the university tried to do in a microcosm way what we’ve been talking about this whole conversation, which is to exceptionalize, just to be clear, a group of white students from a fraternity through a theme party that involved them performing their fantasy of blackness in the form of the most derogatory, stereotypical imagery of black people that they had come up with in their minds which was most horrendous in its attack on black women and I won’t… I will spare your listeners the language that came out in this invitation but you can Google it under Compton Cookout. Now, what the… what the… and I know we’ve seen it everywhere in the United States. This is not an uncommon ritual. Even Saturday Night Live you spoke of that show that has gone kind of gone down in it’s quality lately. They did skits on this years ago of these kind of racist theme parties, but the idea in California is all that’s something that happens at Auburn or other universities in the South. When this happened, the university then tried to re-exceptionalize it by saying well those students were just bad apples. But what my students did, our students did was to implicate the university structure itself. They had all taken part as specifically students who were in the Black Student Union in study after study and paper after paper about the climate on campus, about the lack of access specifically to black students, but also brown, poor students in general, people of color for year after year after year after year. That 1.3 percent number they had highlighted in their activism and also their conversations with the university. Look, if this is what the university is presenting itself as this space of diverse-thinking, this does not match it. And what they did is say you cannot exceptionalize what happened to those students. The university system itself but also the entire public education system in the United States is culpable. You have like in Chicago when one year under Rahm Emanuel how many schools were shut down in one…? Over 50 schools public schools shut down in one year. You have defunding of public education, privatization of education. You have the charter school movement, which is a part of that dynamic of finishing off what’s left of that element of the social safety net. And so, I think that along with what we were talking about earlier in terms of political economy, the political economy of education in the United States and the ideological work that is done to make it seem as if this is okay, that students can have a lack of access to education or lack of access to jobs and then turn around and get blamed for trying to make a… and this is not to absolve people of responsibility, but it is to put it into proper non-comic book context. And so, it’s really difficult for me as a university professor to live with myself under these circumstances. That’s why I joined with you in trying to hold the university’s feet to the fire. But also going into the community myself and having myself be seen and taking responsibility myself for my privilege because I think those of us who are black professors need to step from behind our desks and come out if you will and make it clear that these conditions are unacceptable.

DMcD: Absolutely, absolutely. We need to do that.

enslavement: the norm not the exception

JP: We’ve taken lots of your time but this is a fantastic conversation. And so, I’m saying the free-flowing nature of this that it’s the project’s not really about Jefferson, but we touch on we touch on it and use that as an excuse to talk about a lot of different things. 

DC: I think I caught on.

JP: Yeah, no doubt. Yeah, definitely and the prison is such a good place. I mean, I mean because I think you’re touching on so many of these different topics in which the role of incarceration in people’s lives that’s kind of the central node in which all these tentacles kind of extend. And so, it’s not, yeah, please.

DC: Just before I forget. You brought up the centrality of incarceration again, just like slavery for historians of a certain ilk. Slavery’s the exception. They would like to do the same thing now with the carceral state. Oh, that’s just an exception. Otherwise the U.S. is this brilliantly functioning democracy. I’ll give you one example right now from San Diego, from California. We have in California what is called “the gang database” and as it’s been found that as many as twenty percent of black men in Los Angeles are considered official gang members in Los Angeles right now. And this information has been coming out more and more because in San Diego, the District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis a few years back did a roundup of black people, specifically black men who were who were in this database. And they were charging according to what was called penal code I believe it’s 189.5.  It’s one of the penal codes that was attached to what was called Proposition 21 which criminalizes youths as adult. As young as fourteen could be put into adult prisons. A part of this penal code and I think I got the number wrong, but your listeners can still look this up, they were able to try and convict people for crimes that they knew full well that the individual did not commit. How did they do this? Guilt by association. If you were in this database and if the area you lived in was under what’s called a gang injunction, you could be charged with any crime that somebody in your alleged gang committed. So, there were thirty plus men that were rounded up at once and two of them fought this in court and won. The others, the other thirty-one took plea deals and are sitting in prisons right now, but as a result of the organizing that the young men that they led after in the aftermath of this and their families led including Brandon Duncan is one of them what came out of this was an audit run by one of the representatives from San Diego a black representative named Dr. Shirley Weber. And in this audit, it was found that there in this database that’s statewide, there are over a hundred babies listed as gang members of less than one year of age. And so, they have these criterion where they decide that you’re a gang member including if Dr. McDowell is my family member and I’m standing in front of her house and her house happens to be in an area that’s considered a part of this gang’s activity and I’m a youth in that and in her family, I can be considered a gang member just for literally standing there. One of the other criterion was… and they don’t have to tell any of the individuals when they’re put into this database. This is democracy in action, okay? The real democracy in action. So the babies, the over one hundred babies that were listed officially in this database as gang members were said to have been listed for the criterion which was saying to law enforcement that they are admitting to law enforcement that they were a member of the gang [laughter].

DMcD: Pre-verbal. 

JP: Wow.  

The school to prison pipeline

DC: Yes. Yes. And so, this for me is a symbol of the situation of black, brown, and poor youth in the United States as a whole and migrant youth as well whereby not only are these processes going on with tax money, you know. We know that as a conservative estimate, seventy billion dollars a year is spent on imprisoning people in supposedly the most free and democratic nation on the planet. That these things are going on. But also there is this kind of groupthink or “good German” syndrome that has taken over the population through the various ideological formations of the media. Through being bombarded with imagery in the news and in movies and such into accepting something like this happening. And then when they hear these, you know, the gangster baby story there, “Oh, that’s horrible.” But the fact of the matter is is that story is not again exceptional. It is actually the process whereby many youth and communities in California and throughout the country, Louisiana, Virginia, feel that they have more of a chance to end up in a prison cell then they do to end up in Dr. McDowell or my classroom. And that’s something that should be unconscionable but somehow it is business as usual. 

DMcD: The participation of the schools in this, in a variety of ways, you enter schools even in this sleepy town no longer really sleepy of Charlottesville, but many of the schools you enter as physical entities are proto-carceral. There are metal detectors…

DC: And police! 

DMcD: I was going to say, police called “resource officers.”  

DC: The police department that is just responsible for the youth of New York City is bigger than most major metropolitan police departments in the country. When I was working there, I saw the effects of this on a daily basis in the streets. And so, yes. Proto-carceral and actually just carceral.  

DMcD: Yes. Just carceral. Absolutely. Well, we probably should be winding down but a couple of general questions to… About… I hesitate to say, “Where do we go from here?” But… because it’s one of these overly simplistic questions. 

president obama and the idea of a post-racial society

JP: Well, maybe a part of that. Hopefully we’re still shaving about the episode might look like but a few years ago, we conducted a symposium on mass incarceration in which Angela Davis was here and it’s an interesting tidbit because I was listening back to some of those recordings from that event. And this is 2009 and there was almost a really this… a feeling of optimism of sorts after Obama was first elected president and in Angela Davis his opening remarks, she was also citing Jefferson, citing these this moment of reform, as you point out, the double-edged nature of that reform, but almost a call to action to say, in so many words, you know, we’re facing the same problem today. How do you change systems if corporal punishment then at that time seemed like and, you know, something that was at odds with the democratic ideals of our nation, you know, in quotation marks, you know, people or corporal punishment, right? 

DC: Capital punishment.

JP: Yeah, capital punishment. You know, that they made strides to change that. And so, it was almost this call to, again, with that footnote of this was at a moment of optimism in our even recent history, you know, what does it mean for, you know, again reimagining prisons? Abolishing prisons? At this moment where things are not… it’s hard to remember like that type of optimism. I wonder if you have thoughts.  

DC: Yeah. I didn’t join in optimism personally around Obama’s campaign. I know I’m, you know, some of the listeners may be outraged, especially in the context of the Trump presidency if we can call it that. I remember we had Ruth Wilson Gilmore the author of Golden Gulag, a similar kind of Symposium at UCSD around the same time, and I remember she said, you know… 

DMcD: She was here too for that symposium [in 2009].

DC: Yeah, we have one black man in the White House and nearly a million in the big house, you know, and, you know, that was her way of saying wait a minute. And what was Obama’s language all the way up, you know, until his second term? And the Trayvon Martin case put, you know, movement politics from the street, forced him to finally say something about some of these problems, these problematics that we’ve been talking about. And then all of a sudden Eric Holder’s talking about felony disenfranchisement but this was on the way out the door. What did he say when he came in the door? About the very subjects that we’ve been talking about? I mentioned Brandon Duncan and Aaron Harvey earlier who fought the gang injunctions and are still fighting that in San Diego. What was he saying about subjects like them or Shailene Graves? She’s a black woman that fairly recently was found hanging in her cell in C.I.W., a facility in Corona, California. Or Erica Roca, a Latina that was found hanging in her cell in the same prison that now has one of the highest suicide rates of any prison in the country. This is in democratic, golden, California. What was he saying? Well, what he was saying was in terms of the black population. “Stop blaming everybody else for what’s going on in your life and take an individual responsibility and basically get over it.” And that individual kind of liberal notion of individual willful rising through a kind of meritocratic mythos was something that he kept talking about any chance he got the opportunity to. This is while he was overseeing the militarization of police departments, giving funding and actually warfare machinery to local police departments. This is while he was overseeing, in terms of the international scene, horrific processes in Afghanistan and Iraq, never pulling out of Iraq as he promised. Also a proxy war against the Palestinians and all of these things going on around the time that everybody is feeling so hopeful and that’s not to mention the economic situation that we were talking about earlier. Where was the project for economic development within communities of color that have been dispossessed in the wake of the shift to the neoliberal regime? And the move away from the kind of projects that we saw bubbling through civil rights mobilizations in the 1960s and the movements notion of ending poverty? Where has that been from the Democratic party? And the answer is it has not been a part of their narrative. And so, the only, to use his campaign phraseology, “Hope,” as it always has, only lies with mass mobilizations from below. And I think that, you know, I’m in my capacity as a professor at UCSD I’m a faculty advisor for student organization called Students Against Mass Incarceration. They are now in their sixth or seventh year of existence and have passed a prison divestment bill. You spoke of private prison corporations and universities having their funds investing in some of these corporations, but we have to be clear, the prison industrial complex is not only about private prisons. Yeah, and then if you look at the California State University system where I’m from, all of the furniture that we would be sitting on right now would have been made by prison labor. Then there’s the other element of it that has nothing to do with labor that goes, that sees its products go outside the prison. The actual functioning of the prison as a kind of neo-plantation. From the bookkeeping, the delivering of the drugs to all the people that have mental illness and others inside the facilities, washing clothes, cooking. Everything that makes the plant or plantation go. But when we talk about movements from below the prison strike recently in seventeen States, the one in 2016, the hunger strike that I mentioned earlier about 30,000 prisoners, what these movements from the below the below are doing is making us be accountable for our relative freedom, if you will, out here on the streets as scholars, as thinkers, as workers, not only to a process of increasing the minimum wage but of realizing that the political system as it exists now is part and parcel of the problems that we’ve been talking about today. The so-called two-party system in my estimation has been one kind of millionaires and billionaires party for a very long time and you don’t have to look any further than the aftermath of one of the biggest economic meltdowns since the Great Depression starting in 1929. What was the aftermath in 2007? Who was appointed to Obama’s cabinet? There is a kind of way in which the economic elite in the country have grabbed ahold of those who are supposedly the representatives of us in Congress. And in the highest offices in the country and the Supreme Court. And the only way that anything is going to change, in that regard in terms of like where do we go from here, is if we understand we have number one a proper analysis of what is happening and number two organized among ourselves. Follow the prisoners examples and actually take responsibility in the way they’ve asked us to which is to say: our tax money is supporting this project of what they’re calling prison slavery. What do you going to do about? And so, that’s not a hopeful response. But it’s one that I think can be a catalyst for real action. Movement building has never been, I mean, Fannie Lou Hammer said, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.” Now, she didn’t do that kind of work with the Mississippi Freedom Democratic party with an illusion of easiness or that sick and tired feeling ever going away. She did it because it was the right thing to do and needed to be done. And the victories, small and big, that those folks achieved are real, but we also have to, in being proper stewards of their legacy, recognize that our work and their work has yet to be done. 

DMcD: Freedom is a constant struggle.

 DC: That’s right. And freedom ain’t free.  

DMcD: And freedom ain’t free. 

DMcD: And this over-investment in what Glenn Ford calls this duopoly because that really is… I have absolutely no hope. As people begin to mention Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, I just hang my head.

DC: Well, look at Cory Booker’s record. Look at Cory Booker’s record. 

DMcD: Especially around education. 

DC: And healthcare. I mean, the day that I forget what was going on on Capitol Hill, but he and other members of the Congress rightfully complained that they were forced to speak, black members, were forced to speak at the end of a meeting and they felt like they were being put in the back of the bus. This was their language. On that same day, he voted against the measure that would allow U.S. consumers access to Affordable Pharmaceuticals from Canada. Now, this is something that’s not that may not be too sexy to people’s ears, but this is the real kind of bread and butter issues for people. Obama, the same person that was for basically single-payer healthcare or real universal health care, when he was I guess he described himself as an organizer in Chicago, his own medical doctor for his family is one of the biggest proponents of healthcare for everyone that, you know, most industrial nations already have. Where did that language go after he ran for president? Well, it went into the toilet because he was funded by those who are the main players in the pharmaceutical and health industry lobby. And that’s why he gave, in other words, a kind of political softball to the Republican Party by passing a version of healthcare reform, we started by talking about reform that actually can be problematic, that actually confused people and then took a lot of their money. Now, if he would have come out with a program that took the high level of tax dollars that are available, if we could shift that focus from warfare to healthcare, then there would be plenty of money to cover such a program. But he could not speak those words because he was playing political according to what you talked about in a duopoly system.

All: [laughter]

DMcD: We gotta stop. We just have to stop. I’m now thinking that we just need to bring you back and have you on tape.

JP: A personal recordist. 

DMcD: Yeah, put you on speed dial. Just say, “Dennis, give me your thoughts on…”  

DC: I wish we could do this for a longer. Maybe, maybe later over a wine. 

DMcD: Well, you know what? I’m thinking maybe we should get this maybe James… Well, we can’t have recording at dinner. It would never work. But.

Marlene Daut Transcript

James Perla: I actually am going to start.

Deborah McDowell: Okay. All right. Okay.

James Perla: Yeah, thank you so much for being willing to speak with us today on this lovely May afternoon. The segues are infinitely entertaining.

Deborah McDowell: I’m just a gigglebox.

JP: Yeah, that’s all right. So, just to start and another way to preface this is that some of the questions we’ll ask will be quite general because, you know, the listening audience is intended [00:30] for the general public. So, you know, the questions themselves might seem a little basic but I think we’re hoping that you might help us sort of help to frame and get context for the episode.

DMcD: Yeah, we will even ask you questions, and it will sometimes appear you don’t know the answer to that but it’s in the end, you know, that we don’t know the answer. Why would you be asking something so simple? But it is in the interest of keeping a general audience informed.

James Perla: Yeah, so maybe [1:00] just to start thinking about Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with Haiti. What kind of words or ideas come to mind when you think about Jefferson and Haiti.

Marlene Daut: That’s interesting. I mean for me I would say more of ’embargo’ because of the trade embargo. Jefferson, also, as you know has some interesting writings and letters about Haiti to people like Aaron Burr. The famous, the infamous rather [1:30], “cannibals of the terrible republic” comment, which is always interesting though because it was 1799. So, what’s the terrible republic is always the question that I ask. Is the terrible republic France? Or is Jefferson already imagining that Haitian independence is inevitable and therefore sort of just kind of referring to Haiti already in a sense as independent? But as the century, as the 19th century progressed and Jefferson became older [02:00] his ideas about Haiti shifted rather dramatically. There was… there’s a letter he wrote to a man who had a colonization scheme named St. George Tucker and who was proposing that freed blacks from United States could be sent to Haiti and lots of people had sort of ideas like this but this is one of the earlier ones. And Jefferson has this very interesting phrase where he says, “If something is not done and soon done we will be the murderers of our children.” And it’s interesting [2:30] because if you read a lot of Jefferson letters, because there’s a way in which you can read that as very metaphorical like literally that the white men will be murdering their own children if a civil war were to happen or a revolution similar to what happened in Haiti were to occur but in his other… in many of his other letters, he talks about our children and conflict in general. So, he had this kind of very paternalistic way of speaking. That doesn’t mean we can’t read the metaphor and read all of the racial implications into it because I think we certainly can [3:00] but he literally knew and meant that a civil war in the United States would pit family members against one another. That it would… that the divisions were so strong that people would actually be in conflict with their own family and that’s very similar to what happened during the Haitian Revolution and to what was happening in the independent Haiti of his day where you had Haiti divided into two separate states and you had different family members living in different sides of the country who were against each other and the Sean lat [3:30] family is one of the famous Haitian families where they had one brother on one side and the other brother and possibly even additional siblings, you know, in [Henri] Christophe’s Kingdom and the others on the side on [Alexandre] Pétion’s republic. So, he very much knew that what was happening in the United States could actually divide the nation into separate states because they had seen that happen in Haiti, which at one point had three different nations on the island if you think about the eastern side.

James Perla: So, [4:00] that letter happened following the Haitian revolution that he’s saying, “Okay. Well if this were to…” So, the sort of divisions that he’s referring to just to be a little more explicit here are kind of like based in slavery? Is that fair to say?

Marlene Daut: I think they were but I actually think they were more… they ran deeper even than the issue of slavery because if you think about the factionalism that was occurring in the United States at that time [4:30] because it’s easy to think I always say, you know, when students ask me this they think the political divisions that we have right now are really strong and they think that they’re extraordinary and I always say go to the early national United States. I mean people are literally having duels with one another over these kinds of divisions as we know, right? And so, the Jeffersonian faction had a lot of opposition and they especially had opposition in the north, of course, from the Federalists who were opposing just today as people opposed the policies of one side or the other, the Republicans, the [5:00] Democrats were opposing everything that he was doing which is why when the trade embargo expires, that trade is allowed to resume. He’s not going to win that battle and effectively loses it. And so, I would say that yes that the comment about, you know, being the murderers of our own children, of course, there’s the issue of slavery and that that is the reason for the Civil War that would later happen. But it in his earlier time far before that there were also these other kinds of [5:30] political divisions that really had to do with how is this nation going to be run and where’s the seat of power going to be? And again because there were examples in the rest of the world of this power struggle in France, which is bouncing back and forth between different kinds of governance especially I mean imagining, you know, Jefferson’s reaction, which would be an interesting thing to look for in his letters to Napoleon’s escape from the island of Elba, his return during the Hundred Days period I mean, they lived in a turbulent political world and literally anything was possible. If [6:00] Napoleon can escape from an island in the middle of the sea and come back, march into Paris for 100 days and start ruling again with virtually no opposition, they live in a world in which they know that basically that lots of things are possible in a way actually that I think our imaginations today are a little bit more circumscribed like we don’t imagine that anything like that would ever happen. They didn’t have to imagine it because it was happening.

James Perla: In Haiti, I mean that was sort of… we had a wonderful conversation with [6:30] Robert [Fatton] quite some time ago, and we’re just starting this project when… the sort of refrain of that conversation was that Haiti was at once unimaginable but also so imaginable that what, you know, what are the possibilities of them imagining these radical revolutions? You reference the letter about the Haitians being described as cannibals of a terrible republic. I wonder [7:00] just if you might give a little context on that what, you know, what’s that referring to? It was to Aaron Burr preceding the Haitian Revolution.

Marlene Daut: Well, during it.

James Perla: Right, yeah, yeah. So, if you could maybe just expand on that.

Marlene Daut: I mean so 1799 was actually an interesting moment in the history of the Haitian Revolution because Toussaint L’Ouverture had ascended to a general, a French general. He became the second black man after actually Alexandre Dumas’ father to attain the rank of general in France [7:30] so he actually then is going to be a general under Napoleon when Napoleon assumes power and I think that’s really important because Toussaint L’Ouverture is then a French general and again, so Thomas Jefferson’s comments to Aaron Burr about a cannibals of the terrible republic refer to the fact that in France, it is possible to have black French generals fighting and [8:00], you know, getting rid of the British and making a treaty with Spain that causes actually in 1795 the Spanish side of the island to be seated to France and that black people are the architects of some of these treaties and this is ultimately what Napoleon fears and so it makes sense that Jefferson also would and should fear it because, you know, if this can happen in Saint-Domingue why could it not happen in the United States? [8:30] Why could it not happen in Jamaica? Why could it not happen? Why could there not be black republics scattered all throughout the Caribbean that then could actually kind of combine together and be a force? And because the other thing I think that’s interesting about 1799 is… and I always say this to students as well, we tend to think of the United States as a superpower because of its position today, but in 1799, it certainly was not and is very self conscious about its identity [9:00] and whether or not, you know, Frank Jefferson was often charged with being Francophilic, and that was a problem in the early national United States because the French Revolution was enormously unpopular in certain sectors of the population. Its certainly the Robespierre’s to the Jacobins were written about very negatively in many early national newspapers. And the reason for that is, I mean, it’s one thing to say the people want to be rid of their king which I think a lot of people in the United States, [9:30] for example, John Adams in his, you know, statements about kingly power, etc., the defense of the Constitution of the United States, but it was another thing to say that people should kill their king. That was a different… and that was actually a bridge too far in Haiti also, as you might imagine. So, one of the reasons I always say that King Henri Christophe was no Jacobin I mean obviously not because he’s a king as well, but he… they would ride against the Robespierre’s, the Jacobins and I think it was [10:00] precisely that idea because once you say that people can kill their leader, well then again anything is possible. Once you say that the people have that right if they are angry to actually get rid of their own leader. So, the cannibals of the terrible republic is also about, I think, the sort of fear of the French Revolution to a certain extent and the idea that it had been transferred over into Haiti because that was a very common understanding of French Saint-Domingue at that time was that the cause of that [10:30] conflict was actually the French Revolution.

James Perla: As if like white people are the only people capable of doing a revolutionary act. Yeah, that’s really helpful. But just really quick, Christophe? Who is that? Just for our listeners might not know that.

Marlene Daut: So, Henri Christophe was a… also would become a general and he was really key to when [11:00] Toussaint L’Ouverture sees the Leclair Expedition which Napoleon had sent to reinstate slavery not just in Saint-Domingue, but in all of the French overseas empire, Toussaint you know, sort of sees their ships on the horizon and is kind of trying to decide like what they’re doing there and once he sees the number of the ships, he very much understands that this is not a negotiation that is preparing to happen. That this is a war. And he tells Henri Christophe [11:30] to go and burn down the city of Kap Ayisyen (Haitian Creole, Cap-Haïtien; English Cape-Haiti) and what you have to know about that is that remember this is a tactic that Napoleon himself… that this is going to be his downfall in in Saint-Domingue. But also when he goes into Russia, this is how the Russians during the Napoleonic Wars will thwart him is by burning everything. So, when when Christophe burns down Kap Ayisyen for the second time. That was the second time the city had been burned down. That means there’s no stores. That [12:00] means food. That means water supply. So, they end up having to stay out at bay for a while. Of course, they do end up coming in and and for a time Christophe along with the other French generals including Toussaint L’Ouverture will defect they will sort of surrender and capitulate but I think that once it was very clear Toussaint L’Ouverture had been kidnapped and sent to France and they didn’t really even know what was going to happen. Was he going to go on trial? Both Dessalines and Christophe decided to [12:30] kind of go against the French and to rally the troops literally and to fight. So, Christophe is there at the first proclamation of independence in Haiti, which is actually November 29th, 1803 and then they revise it to a longer version on January 1st, 1804 and he’s a signatory on all of that. After Dessalines is assassinated in October of 1806, Christophe is actually elected provisory president of Haiti and a [13:00] new constitution is issued. The Constitution is done in the name of the people of Haiti and that was very different from the first Constitution, which was the emperor’s Constitution and gave all of this power to the emperor. Well Christophe did not like how the power was sort of being diffused, so he fled back to the north of Haiti to Kap Ayisyen and established his own republic initially in February of 1807, issued a new constitution for that side of Haiti, [13:30]and then in March of 1811 declares himself king and has a kingdom from 1811 until 1820 when he committed suicide in October of 1820 as a result of a stroke he’d suffered in August of that year. But also he was… people were defecting and people were leaving the government and he very much saw that a civil war was preparing within his ranks. Not just with the other side of the island.

Deborah McDowell: So, that’s the topic of [14:00] your wildly popular essay, the Wakanda… Maybe talk about that a little bit.

Marlene Daut: So, I wrote an essay for The Conversation called “Inside the Kingdom of Hayti, ‘the Wakanda of the Western Hemisphere'” and it was really kind of tongue-in-cheek and just I was fascinated by how much people like to talk about Black Panther and Wakanda and this sort of fictional black [14:30] kingdom, and I thought, well, it’s so interesting because there was a an actual black kingdom in the 19th century and just the number of people who didn’t appear to know about it was… that was interesting to me as well because one of the things that Christophe does quite controversially is, I mean, they’re making money hand over fist and this is an opulent kingdom. They have palaces and they have a citadel and the question becomes, you know, well how did Christophe build these things? Where did the money come from for these things to be built? And in the state-run newspaper, they would [15:00] publish the trade statistics. And so I always say, you know, the idea that Haiti is isolated is… that depends on your perspective of what isolation means. Certainly, the Haitian government sought recognition from the United States, recognition of their independence that is, from Great Britain, from France, from Spain. They wanted it from the world powers, but the material effects of not having it were not what we might imagine. There were Danish ships coming in and out of port, Spanish ships, British, a ton of U.S. ships. [15:30] It was highly controversial. People would stand on the floor of Congress when James Monroe was president even and talk about well, “Isn’t that to recognize their independence if we trade with them?” And those debates had started as soon as independence happened. You can trace them… people would bring it up on the floor of Congress, and except for that period of embargo in which illegal trade did still occur, you know, the United States had just decided that they were certain essentially [16:00] okay with de facto recognition and I think that was probably something that Jefferson, you know, in his own era was a mark against his legacy because he had tried very hard to cut off trade with Haiti and he essentially failed at that.

James Perla: Yeah, the market wins.

Deborah McDowell: The market always wins.

James Perla: Unfortunately. So, why did Jefferson… a little bit of… Well, two, so two minor points before I forget the things about Dessalines [16:30] again, who is that? And what was his role maybe briefly? I know… And this sort of clarifying question there is if he was kind of the imperial impetus to revise? Was it his role in the initial independence that caused Haiti to revise the declaration to be more of the people? Or, but maybe just starting first with who Dessalines is.

Marlene Daut: Yeah. So, Dessalines was a former [17:00] enslaved man from Saint-Domingue who actually worked as an enslaved person on the very plantation where Toussaint L’Ouverture would become the overseer to Toussaint L’Ouverture  would gain his freedom and pretty early on. I mean long before the revolution started on the Bréda plantation and Dessalines was an enslaved person there. So, it is the very sort of interesting kind of ties that many of the revolutionary leaders had to one another, and [17:30] he was reputed to have all of these whip marks on his back, which is one of the reasons that people said he was this actually this great soldier. So, it’s interesting because Toussaint L’Ouverture is seen as the negotiator, Dessalines is the great warrior and soldier, but Christophe is the legislator. So, the idea of who is the architect of that first proclamation, which is signed by only three men: Dessalines, another general named [Augustin] Clerveaux and Christophe and then how it ends up into the later version in [18:00] which Dessalines will be the figurehead, the one who says “indigenous army” as they called themselves, you know, “this is being done in your name.” There’s a lot of theories about how that came about some of them are that the secretaries: Boisrond-Tonnerre  and Charlotte and others were intimately involved. But those people Boisrond-Tonnerre wasn’t around when when Christophe became king and yet you see so much of an extension of those policies that it is difficult to believe, in my opinion, that he didn’t have something to do with [18:30] the way that the state was constructed under Dessalines and the idea that Dessalines makes himself an emperor and that Christophe would later make himself a king and the idea that how will power be consolidated. And so, I think that the main the main struggle in Haiti, even though it’s been codified as a racial struggle is where will power lie? And that might seem to us today like well of course power should lie lay with the people but in the 19th century that was actually a [19:00] radical… radically different idea. I want to say it was a radical idea but actually it was just that it was a radical departure from anything the world had seen and so these were actual debates that people were having. And so, it looks autocratic and it looks despotic for someone to say I’m an emperor or a king but Napoleon makes himself an emperor and that’s accepted because an emperor is in an empire is a completely valid form of government in the 19th century in a way that I think is different from today [19:30] and it’s a president that strange and the idea of sharing power supposedly in theory or not. And so, Dessalines I think because he at least is codified as this soldier and this warrior, there’s the idea that he wasn’t a good leader though. That he wasn’t a good kind of state leader and that this is what allows the fractions and I mean the interesting thing is we don’t know really who killed Dessalines. I mean we know who was [20:00] there but who’s the architect of this assassination that becomes infamous and there’s all these paintings about it because they kept shooting and missing and so… there’s all these… and they shot the horse. You know, they were just terrible shots. It’s a very interesting story like it was like the man who couldn’t be killed and evidently. I mean the story has it that someone had to basically walk up and slit his throat.

Deborah McDowell: James has me very disciplined because I’m normally [20:30] very audible in my reactions and James has me trained not to gasp and laugh. So, I’m very able to contain myself here, but shifting gears for just a minute. One of Jefferson’s most significant accomplishments, of course in his long and illustrious career is the Louisiana Purchase, doubling the size of the U.S. What’s Haiti’s role here? What ways might Haiti’s [21:00] involvement in… cast the Louisiana Purchase in a different light?

Marlene Daut: I mean it is widely understood among historians today and by that I mean not even a controversial sort of conclusion that the Louisiana Purchase happens as a direct result of the revolution in Haiti and that without possessing Saint-Domingue, Napoleon knows that Louisiana, that territory, will be far too expensive for him to hold on to and that he doesn’t really need it in [21:30] the same way and he needs money to finance his many wars. I mean talk about… I mean, it’s interesting to me when people talk about, you know, sort of despotic Haitians leaders Napoleon going into Egypt and telling them he was like Muhammad and all these things, you know, and so, you know this this idea of being a megalomaniac well, there’s your example of like the quintessential megalomaniac. But yeah, that. the Haitian revolution could have this kind of ricocheting [22:00] effect that is longitudinal meaning, I mean, we feel it today. There’s an entire part of our country that wouldn’t be a part of our country. And then the other interesting thing is that Jefferson has to figure out in terms of what we were talking about before and divisions. That is, they have to figure out how to fold Louisiana back into the nation because even in the 1830s, historians have called it the Creole-American split because the Louisiana Territory had also been Spanish. So, you had Spanish speakers there, you had French speakers there and then you had [22:30] people trying to say you have these very debates that we have English-only like we need to be English speaking and you had a lot of French people even up through the 19th century and George Washington’s cables era where he still writing about how Louisianans are determined not only to hold onto French but to Creole and Creole culture really. And so, the idea that that the Haitian revolution also creates this problem for the United States in terms of a different kind of [23:00] division as Louisiana, especially once it became a state, became the only place where they had like basically Napoleonic codes as law and there are still remnants today of that. So, we continue to feel the effects of really the kind of global world that existed in the 19th century in some sense is far more global than our own because people were much less self-conscious about it. It was just understood that that was the way the world was and you can see in the attempt to consolidate Louisiana [23:30]. Racially, also, when Jefferson appoints Governor Claiborne and Governor Claiborne also makes explicit statements about oh, well, we don’t want what happened in Saint-Domingue to happen here. So, we need to be careful with the free people of color because the understanding was that the alienation of the free people of color in French Saint-Domingue led them to join ranks with the enslaved instead of to stay on the side of the right and of their property. And so, Louisiana having that similar tripartite society racially speaking with a lot of free people of color who own [24:00] plantations and slaves, Governor Claiborne explicitly says, “I remember what happened in Saint-Domingue like let’s make sure that that doesn’t happen here.” So.

Deborah McDowell: I think you’re absolutely right. We are still feeling those effects. You know, I sometimes joke with my friend Thad [Thaddeus] Davis who’s from New Orleans, you know, well, that’s another part of the world. That’s its own country because in a sense that’s that’s how it feels even to a person who’s not a native, you know, [24:30] it’s palpable when you’re there. Maybe palpable is too strong, but you know, it’s not too strong. I think it is. So, let’s talk about Haitian independence and its significance. First, can you walk us briefly through a few key moments? Through this long long story, but maybe simply who was involved. You’ve alluded to some of it already, [25:00] and what happened specifically in 1804?

Marlene Daut: Yeah. So, the Haitian Revolution kind of formally begins in August of 1791 with a ceremony at Bois Caïman. This is the story that the enslaved get together in sort of a remote place in Haiti, in what will become Haiti, but sort of in the mountains and they decide to wage kind of large scale and rebellion and this causes… and a few plantations to be to be burned down, [25:30] and then this kind of has a ricocheting effect. There were also… there were… the idea that Haitian revolution was unthinkable is only sort of in a kind of exclamatory way like, “that’s unthinkable!” like because I don’t want that to happen. It’s not because no one ever thought that it was going to happen because you can very clearly see in the writings of the planters and the colonists and even the free people of color that they very much understand that something is underfoot [26:00] and that there’s always a seed of rebellion in the enslaved and that’s one of the reasons why slave punishments were so harsh in Saint-Domingue and that you had a high marron population already. And so, when the rebellion breaks out, it’s very easy to get those maroons who had sort of extracted themselves from the plantation economy and lived sort of a different life in the in marronage, in the mountains, for them to come together with the enslaved and eventually with the free people of color who are going [26:30] to try to appeal to the British, who are going to try to appeal to the Spanish and, you know, the British have slaves also the the Spanish have slaves also, so that made sense for some of the free people of color who were plantations owners, but then you also had the revolutionaries to contend with and Toussaint L’Ouverture himself was very adamant that he wasn’t going to construct any deal with England or Spain that didn’t keep slavery ended because the French state was forced to abolish slavery in 1794 [27:00] throughout all of its empire be as a result of the Haitian Revolution. But so when when that happens and Toussaint goes back to the side of the French he… they turn their attention to getting rid of the British who had come to see if they could maybe capture Saint-Domingue to the Spanish who were already there on the other side and so thought maybe that they could fold that part into their empire as well. And this continues throughout the 19th century. There are periods of realtive calm once Toussaint L’Ouverture kind of establishes control and actually invites [27:30] the planters back who had fled to places like Cuba and Jamaica and Louisiana and Philadelphia invites them to come back, creates labor policies. The formerly enslaved go back to work but are supposed to be compensated and have better hours and of course not be whipped and punished in this way, and Napoleon when he comes to power after overthrowing the directory, sees in L’Ouverture a rival, and he’s correct. That L’Ouverture is his rival and [28:00] sends the Leclair Expedition. They were known, the French soldiers, for their genocidal policies that really I mean, there’s a book by a man named Claude Ribbe called Le Crime de Napoléon, The Crime of Napoleon, in which he talks about Napoleon is the original creator of the gas chamber. They would put people… people of color on boats out at the bay and they would fill it with sulfur gas and then they had them in the hold and they would open it up and sink the bodies and they also did mass drownings that they got from [28:30] some of the French Revolutionary tactics actually during the terror and this is… there are visitors from the United States and merchants who happened to, because they thought things were calming down under Toussaint, go to do business in Saint-Domingue who write home to U.S. newspapers talking about how many dead bodies are floating in the bay around various… So they did this in Jérémie, then they would do it in another city, they would do it in Jacmel and one, it’s called the picture of San Domingo, [29:00] I believe talks about their eyes up turned to the sky towards the heavens and bloated faces. I mean, so they… the terror, Sarah Johnson’s book The Fear of French Negroes, you know, she means also the fear they felt as well. Not just the fear that people had of them. And so, I think all of that has to be understood as why would Dessalines then later also create this policy that has also been called genocidal, in which he said all the French colonists must leave or… [29:30] immediately on these ships, right then make then there’s you know sort of records of what were the last ships to go and some of the colonists stayed for whatever reason and he said they’ve got to be, you know, killed and part of the reason was that Toussaint, he had watched, as Toussaint L’Ouverture said, come back. We’ll create these policies. We’ll work together. You’ll have your plantations back. You’ll even have laborers on them. As long as you follow the policies in the rules. They already watched that then they watched [30:00] L’Ouverture be kidnapped, sent to France, and I always say one has to wonder even though we don’t have good records about this. What happened when the revolutionaries in Haiti found out that L’Ouverture died of starvation and pneumonia and a stroke in a cell in France. Of neglect. And there is a letter in the Gazette in I believe it’s dated November of 1805, but the letter is actually from September of 1804 and it’s about Madame [30:30] L’Ouverture, Toussaint L’Ouverture’s wife, and it appeared first in a British newspaper and then it appeared in a U.S. newspaper about how she was actually imprisoned as well and tortured and had no longer the use of one arm. And so, one has to wonder the the effect of this news for the revolutionaries. So, the Haitians don’t print it until later, but it’s in September of 1804. They have all the British newspapers. They have all the U.S. newspapers because they write letters in themselves and [31:00] they know that their stuff is being printed in those papers. And so, one really has to wonder if this is the news that you’re getting out of France, you know, I say, it’s not to justify Dessalines policy, it’s to understand it and, you know, why it happened the way that it did.

James Perla: I don’t know if you have… Thinking about the, you know, independence itself and what was in the declaration [31:30] you alluded to it a little bit… a little while ago about the role of people and people being something that was a radical departure from how society had been organized historically up to this point. And so, I wonder if maybe you could speak briefly about citizen. It was interesting the conference or that conversation last week, I think Julia Gaffield mentioned that that’s the first word in the [32:00] declaration and so, you know, thinking about, obviously, with Jefferson, you know, declarations and sort of maybe reading those two together in terms of what work is the Haitian Declaration of Independence doing that’s actually maybe even a radical departure from Jefferson, you know, the Jeffersonian Declaration that we tend to celebrate so much.

Marlene Daut: I mean it’s doing a lot. So, I mean the huge difference that, you know, we talked about last week. Actually one of the huge differences is that they Haitian Declaration of Independence comes [32:30] after the conflict is over the U.S., what will be the U.S. Declaration of Independence comes… it precedes it begins the major conflict. I mean there’s already conflict but it starts the war. The Haitian Declaration of Independence is supposed to end the war, but the big question is about declarations in general and I teach an age of revolutions class and I always talk to my students about this is that when the U.S. declares itself independent, the reason there’s a war is because England [33:00] doesn’t agree because see your declaration has to have treaty where… you have to be you have to be treaty worthy to make a treaty with another world power because I can’t make a treaty for example with a world power I don’t have the… I don’t have the authority, right? And so, under what authority did the creators of the declaration, the signers of the Declaration of Independence say that they were under whose authority? Well, they didn’t have the authority to do that which is what causes the war. So, in the case of Haiti when we think about, well maybe why were there two separate documents? [33:30] And also what those documents do? It’s, well, do the people who are creating them have the authority? Do they have the support of the people in whose name the declaration is constructed? And then the big matter, which makes it very similar to the United States, is France going to accept this or will it cause a war, another war, right? And so, when Julia Gaffield has talked about this is that Dessalines doesn’t know, nobody knows when or how France will accept this news [34:00]. They live in constant fear, the Haitians, that a French battalion or battalions is going to come back. And in fact they do and they keep trying up through the restoration of the Bourbon Monarchy in 1814. They again send commissioners in 1816. There are still French writers in the 1820s and 1830s talking about when we get Saint-Domingue back, right? So, the idea that that just because you declare yourself independent means that the world has to agree with you is and, you know, in the United States, United States had to make subsequent treaties [34:30] after the end of the war. Jay’s Treaty, for example, in which they had… took the United States had to compensate England for the loss of ships, for the loss of money, for all kinds of things. And so, it isn’t that the case of Haiti is so exceptional in that regard. I think what is more exceptional is that it lasts so long, the uncertainty and the idea that Haitians are not treaty worthy, that they don’t have treaty worthiness. lasts for so long and that when you think about, you know, England tends to be [35:00] the sort of vision of what empire is in the 19th century, but one has to imagine how powerful France had to be even during the Napoleonic Wars for the United States, England and Spain, Germany, Denmark, all Haiti’s trading partners to so fear angering France that they refuse to recognize Haitian independence because they so fear it that I mean to me is… and even… and then then on the flip side of that is when [35:30] does that shift? So, France then makes a treaty with Haiti and they recognize Haitian Independence, but the U.S. doesn’t follow suit because when you look at the debates on the floor of Congress, it’s because what will that mean for slavery in the United States if we recognize that they can be treaty worthy and that we can recognize them as a legitimate government? So again, the market is king because the merchants can just do whatever they want. The press can do whatever they want. They say the Republic of Haiti all the time. They say the kingdom of Haiti, the Empire of Haiti when Haiti has another empire under [Faustin] Soulouque but [36:00] and so they’re sort of… there’s a free press there’s a free market to a certain extent but the government itself is and their letters back and forth to one another. It’s very clear that they understand there would be a difference semantically and perhaps materially at home to recognize Haitian independence.

Deborah McDowell: And where was race in this?

Marlene Daut: Race is all over this. Race is all over this. It’s, you know, the Jefferson letters that we’ve been referencing, you know, [36:30] the cannibals of the terrible republic inflected with ideas about race. Then there is the idea of what would be done with free black people in the United States? Where can we send them? So, they’ll be a beyond the reach of mixture and so we won’t have a race war and so all of that. And then I just think that… I think that as much as it might be, you know, we’ve had a black president of the United State, so people think this is, you know, sort of a lot of progress and whatever but first [37:00] imagine how long it takes and then second the idea of the sort of opposition that Barack Obama got from people who just cannot imagine themselves being at the table having to negotiate with someone who looks like him, and I think that for people who study race that is obvious, but I think people who live their lives and try not to think about race have a hard time imagining it until it kind of happens to them comes to their table, right? That’s sort of like, “Oh, I’m fine with black people as long as you don’t try to marry my daughter or something like that,” [37:30] right? And I do think that yeah, like seeing a black man dressed up as a king not an African chief, you know, of some idea that they have of Africa, right? But as a king, as a powerful king, making treaties with them. And one of the things… one of the ways that that plays out is that Christophe will not allow ships to come into the port when they send sort of their letter, right, asking for permission if it says General Christophe so when [38:00] he’s president and then when he’s king because… and it seems like well, that’s like a small thing. Well, he’s saying you’re not recognizing me as the head of state and as, you know, so you can’t come in and this cause he confiscated American, U.S. American ships. And there were lawsuits and they continued and Christophe wrote letters to U.S. newspapers. You know Christophe was from the anglophone Caribbean. He was either most likely born in Grenada or Saint Kitts and had spent a lot of time in Saint Thomas, so he spoke English and he wrote or had his secretaries write to the United States [38:30] to explain to them why he confiscated these ships and that he was not going to give them the money back because the United States tried to sue basically and I mean, again, you can sue and you can win but how can you make another country pay, right? He said I’m not going to pay until they recognize my authority and actually the letters that you see from senators and the president at the time, Madison, James Madison say we can’t call him President. We [39:00] cannot call him king and it continues for years and they simply refuse to do it.

Deborah McDowell: And the refusal to recognize his authority is based largely in race.

Marlene Daut: It’s based in race and the idea that his power is illegitimate. So, I would say it is first on its face based on the idea that has power is illegitimate, but for the United States to not recognize that another nation another American nation would wish… or another part would wish [39:30] to be independent can only be explained by race because they had done that exact same thing. And that’s the thing when I say it is important not to make either the U.S. or Haiti exceptions because their histories are twinned and Haitians very much understood that. Because one of the things that angered Baron de Vatey about the U.S.’s lack of formal recognition was precisely that they out of any other nation should have understood and why would the United States, in his estimation side, with France and [40:00] not with another young nation of the American hemisphere, especially later when Monroe comes into the presidency and is talking about how we’re going to resist European incursions on American soil and sets up the idea of that protectionism that, you know, if Europe tries to come and conquer various places in Latin America that it declared themselves independent, for example, Gran Colombia from Spain that the U.S. would help out. Well, they would except in the case of Haiti right? There was no help from the U.S. [40:30] in the case of Haiti for that, and I do think that can only be explained by race. It can’t be politically explained because the United States was not against people declaring themselves independent from European powers, in fact quite the opposite. But they were against a former enslaved people declaring themselves free on their own without abolitionists, treaties, and emancipations and this and that and the reason we know that also again the indemnity between France and Haiti is 1825. [41:00] So why is it going to take until 1862 for the United States? How else can it be explained? They no longer have France as that obstacle to stand and they can no longer use that as an excuse. France has recognized Haitian Independence.

James Perla: So, just to clarify the dates of Haitian independence recognition from France of that independence and then recognition in the U.S.

Marlene Daut: Yes. So the Haitian formal independence is January 1st 1804. The indemnity treaty was April of 1825 [41:30] and the United States isn’t going to recognize Haitian Independence until 1862. So.

Deborah McDowell: It says everything, I mean, you just make the statement and say no more. It speaks for itself. All right, you have suggested that Haitian… the Haitian Constitution criminalized color prejudice with mean by that?

Marlene Daut: So, Dessalines’s Article 14 is really famous because in that article he says that all [42:00] Haitians have to now be known under the generic denomination of black but proceeding that… and I think it’s really important because I actually don’t think you can understand what it means because you say oh, well, that’s very racist of Dessalines to say everybody has to be black because what would be the difference of saying everyone has to be white? Well, no. Because he makes blackness normative and in Haitian Creole the word for man is nèg from the French word nèegre and that’s any man of any color. To the generic word for man, but the first sentence of [42:30] Article 14 says all… it has a very interesting French word that’s not really in use today. It says “toute acceptation.” And so, I have translated that in different ways over the years but the ones I’ve rested on… the one I’ve rested on is all distinctions. So, “acceptation,” distinctions, which is really to say the recognition of someone as being a different color must necessarily cease. Now, I mean as a person who does study race, I think that Dessalines was a man of his [43:00] era in making that and the men, the architects of the constitution, because the idea was that it was the recognition of difference that led to the hierarchical treatments. But I actually don’t think that’s true, right? I don’t think that it is necessary to never recognize that someone might be another color but it’s the value that was attached to that and they lived in a world in which they, you know, these pseudo-scientific, you know, naturalist and travel writers had created a hundreds of different categories of skin color [43:30] and they had endowed them with meaning. A person with this mixture of quote-unquote white blood and will be like this person with this mixture and so in Dessalines’s mind, the way to, I think, this is my interpretation, the way to sort of get rid of that was to say you can’t do that. You can’t use those words anymore and in some of my work I’ve talked about how I think from the U.S. side where mulatto is like maybe a word that people would think it was weird if you use but it’s not an insult, right? in the [44:00] in 19th century. Haiti “mulatto” was an insult Baron de Vatey very strongly said, “it is with these injurious epithets of mulattoes and negroes that they hope to divide us.” That that idea that I’m going to calculate your color and I’m going to say what kind of relationship to civilization you have based on that and not only that, it’s not just going to inflict how I think about you, but I’m going to make policies and laws based on that and so what Dessalines is essentially saying is you can’t make any policy or law that has anything to do with skin color or race [44:30] except then of course, it’s sort of he goes on to do that by saying oh white women, Polish people, Germans, like all kinds of other people can also be Haitian and can be can be folded into the nation. It’s really colonists, and I’ve talked about this elsewhere that the 19th century Haitians create the idea of colonialism as bad because colonialism was not bad in the 19th century. You were supposed to try to be an empire the United States, its entire problem is it wants to be an empire and [45:00] they turn côlon in French into an epithet themselves and when you look at the Declaration of Independence, actually, it talked about the colonists not French. It was only later that it talked about French colonists. It was only later that that turned into whiteness in general, white men in general before it was French and French colonists. And I think that’s really important because one wonders like sort of what happened in those negotiations that changed to that language and the idea that [45:30] whiteness itself was a political category and not actually a skin color which I think is very strongly proven by the comment about white women, Polish people, and Germans being able to get citizenship and own property and do all of these things that is supposed to be precluded if you if you take whiteness as really a literal category for any person but also any person above what shade?

Deborah McDowell: Yes, right, and of course, I’m sure you’ve read about Jefferson’s mathematical… his [46:00] arithmetics of race, and it’s just absolutely insane. But let me not go there. Why do you think Haiti is not celebrated for its explicit affirmative actions toward equality?

Marlene Daut: Oh, because I mean I think because it disrupts… it’s a very inconvenient story because what does democracy mean, right? So, if democracy means that everybody [46:30] has a say and participates, well, then probably no place like that exists on Earth to this day. When you think about voter disenfranchisement, you think of all kinds of different issues with it, but Haiti imagined a society that would be a racially equal society and by that I mean where you can say this group of people can be enslaved, this group of people can’t have that, this group of people… now with gender equality is another matter and will not come until later and be a much longer and harder struggle as it has been in most places, [47:00] but but in terms of the ideas of race and to a certain extent religion at various moments in Haitian history, I think it’s a difficult for people in the United States, specifically, to imagine that those ideas don’t… were not generated here. And that didn’t see their truest fruition here because you know constitutional scholars talk about, U.S. constitutional scholars, I mean, talk about how well, the U.S. Constitution was better than its makers even knew [47:30] because they did say all men are created equal and even though they didn’t think that black people were included in that category or whatever, they still wrote those words that could be universalizable but the problem is is whether you think that that sort of theoretical idea because literally that word men seems like a theoretical idea, but it was a literal idea to them. And so, what Haitians did was they took the theoretical out of it because I’ve talked in places about how actually if you look at the 1805 [48:00] Constitution, so Haiti’s first constitution, they define everything. They didn’t leave the door open the way that the United States did where it’s true, the U.S. Constitution doesn’t say anything about slaves. This is… it doesn’t use that word. The Haitian Constitution says here’s who’s a person, here’s who is a citizen, here’s what blackness means, here’s what whiteness means, here’s what these… how these other categories fit. Here’s how religion is going to be dealt with. The U.S. Constitution in trying not to offend anyone, to please everyone, left the door open. [48:30] Yes, for subsequent interpretations and and revisions and implementations of the policy. But it also left the door open for, I mean, how long would it take to really enfranchise the black citizens of the United States until the 1960s? And one could even say that’s a law but is it being implemented? Well, that’s another story because when we look at mass incarceration and Talitha LeFlouria’s work just, you know, red[lining]- all kinds of things.

Deborah McDowell: Oh no, [49:00] in fact racism and discrimination and disenfranchisement always survive the policies and the laws. In fact, then the country will all but reverse itself entirely by evacuating the central clause of the Voting Rights Act of ’65 and thus opening the door to all forms of disenfranchisement. It’s including and especially this is the disenfranchisement of incarcerated people, but then lots of other people [49:30] all the gerrymandering.

Marlene Daut: All the gerrymandering. And the voter ID laws.

Deborah McDowell: Yeah, absolutely. It’s so ironic that in, I mean this is a kind of side point but then not because in my home state of Alabama the… on the very day, people are celebrating the annual trek over the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, people are lamenting that section [50:00] 5 of the Voting Rights Act is gone. So, Alabama at that very moment shuts down something like 25 Department of Motor Vehicles offices because that’s where people could register to vote, right? And so, the overwhelming majority of DMV places in Selma and surrounding areas got closed. So, where people to go to register to vote? I mean, it’s just really absolutely [50:30] it’s vote… blatant voter suppression. Or in Georgia when the man who was certifying votes is also running for government. I mean, you couldn’t put any of this in a novel but it… there it is. So again, it’s really quite remarkable to think that Haiti which really offers us a kind of blueprint that one could say is truly radical, truly [51:00] anti-racist, truly anti-colonial, doesn’t get represented as such.

Marlene Daut: I mean and I think it’s also because the world did punish Haiti and Haitians for this and you know it, you know, it doesn’t take just as we were talking about the sort of timeline to recognition on the U.S. side, right? and different factors involved. It doesn’t take, you know, you don’t have to be a physicist like a like an astronomer or something. You don’t do read the stars. You don’t have to like look to the cosmos [51:30] for the answer to the question because how is it that when black people want to be free and when black people try to create policies about freedom, that the world comes to oppose them? And I think that when Christophe makes himself a king, the astonishing thing is that people in the northern part of the United States, in the northern press, support him. They think it’s a great idea and that it’s the only way to keep France away. And I think that [52:00] we have to listen more to the way that events were read in their era in order to understand their repercussions today because I think that for some of those Northern writers who were in support of Haitian Independence, sometimes because of monetary reasons, because they thought, “Oh, then the floodgates are really open for the trade,” right? “If we can do this and we can do all kinds of things and go there” and, you know, but also that, you know, having a black king. When you are a person who is not racist, there’s no problem with a black king. [52:30] A black king is a problem, and Haitian writers point this out, if you are a racist. A black republican… a republic is a problem if you are a racist because why are you opposing and making things so difficult? And, you know, the United States waits and waits and waits to have a reason to intervene in Haiti and uses the assassination of a Haitian president to… as a justification for the U.S. occupation because other presidents and other world leaders had been assassinated and where was the U.S.?

Deborah McDowell: Precisely. [53:00] Tell our audience a little bit more about the US invasion of Haiti in 1915.

Marlene Daut: Yes, so the U.S. invaded Haiti in 1915 and they stayed until 1934 and they were opposed, of course, in various moments during that long time period and led to thousands of deaths and, you know, would talk about the railroads that they built and I mean Aimé Césaire in Discourse on Colonialism references this like it doesn’t matter how many railroads you build it will never, [53:30] he says, weigh so much as one spark of human sympathy that you think lives are worth a piece of machinery on the road that can make transportation easier. And they… the United States also impounds all the Haitian government’s revenue. So, bankrupting the country a second time and this is largely seen for political theorists and for Haitians or historians of Haiti as a watershed moment, they call it. That’s the word people most often used in Haitian history because Haiti never recovers [54:00] from that from their money. Basically the gold coffers being confiscated by the United States. They never recover… debt cycles continue and are exacerbated and there’s a direct link between what happens when the U.S. leaves in 1934 and the rise of the [François] Duvalier regime and the idea again that the only way to fix all of this is an autocratic… to close Haiti off to make… to have autocratic power, the power that rests with one person. At least this is sort of the idea that is promoted to the Haitian people. [54:30] And the sad thing is, and there are other people at this university are experts on this more than I am, Robert Fatton, for example. But the sad thing is that you know life under Duvalier, if you sort of stay out of his way and don’t get disappeared is better for some people it’s always worse for some people, the people always suffer as, you know, Jean Dominique famous radio personality, and he said people always going to suffer under these this kind of and power in general, right? But [55:00] and that doesn’t help the case, right because after the overthrow of Duvalier’s son [Nicholas Duvalier] who’s called Baby Doc, the poverty that we know in Haiti today. This is the moment when that poverty is exacerbated to levels that are unlivable and inconceivable that as human beings we would inflict this kind of debt cycle and like, you know, lack of support for Haitian government [55:30]. I’m thinking the [Jean-Bertrand] Aristide coup, the first one. That we would inflict this on another nation because it’s willful really says a lot about how people in the United States especially but the Western World in quotation marks more generally thinks about black people and the worthiness of their lives because I can’t imagine any other place in the world where people would just allow this situation to occur and, you know, except that in Somalia or in Rwanda or in Ethiopia as [56:00] we have seen, but look at the back-breaking measures that Trump is willing to go for Venezuela, for example. Or that people in the name of Afghanistan or in the name of the Iraqi people and whether or not they actually care about those people are not… but it’s striking. It is striking, and Haiti has no oil and Haitians have pointed that out. They have no oil, they know that the entire policy the United States is to keep patients from coming to the United States at this point.

Deborah McDowell: Yes, which brings me… [56:30] we can’t take unlimited use of your time. But you know back to the famous shithole comment of over a year ago around which we organized a round table. You just I get, you know, reinforce that through the concept of Haiti and that that notion of the shithole country as really epitomizing and compressing the ideas you just talked [57:00] about.

James Perla: So, yeah before finishing up I… there was one sort of clarifying thing. You mentioned one article that was really important in the Constitution. But I wonder if you could speak very briefly on the article about anti-colonial, the anti-colonial nature and that’s just a sort of final detail before… Then I’ll open it up that you have other things to add.

Marlene Daut: Yes, Article 36 basically says that the emperor can never pursue any conquest and references that kind of language that was found in the [57:30] Declaration of Independence of 1804 about Haiti’s not going to become one of the legislators of the Caribbean, that it’s not their job. And actually Baron de Vatey later would say, you know, Haiti is one of the islands in this archipelago and it’s not itself the Caribbean, right? That we… and it’s interesting because abolitionists at the time and later in the 19th century read this as Haiti didn’t come and help the rest of the world. That they didn’t help the rest of the enslaved population. And you know, my interpretation [58:00] of that is that the idea that you can use human lives and another place to extend your philosophy of the world is something that Haitians were unwilling to do for pragmatic reasons. They knew that they could keep the United States or Great Britain for example from invading them if they promised not to intervene in the slave economies of those nations, but also because it extends so far and continues into the 19th century, we see that it really is a part of Haitian [58:30] kind of understandings of their political identity is that… and Haiti to this day has never invaded another country because as the work of Anne Eller, historian of the Dominican Republic, shows in We Dream of Freedom, I think it’s called? When Boyer reunites the two sides of the island, this is done with the explicit consent of the Eastern side of the Spanish side of the island, the Eastern side. It’s a treaty that they make and yes when he’s deposed by the Haitians then the now side that’s the Dominican Republic [59:00] decides to go their own way, but appeals to Haiti to help. They invite Spain back to colonize them again, and then they realize that Spain, which still has slavery in its empire, until astonishingly 1883 in Puerto Rico. For example, they realize that well if we invite Spain to come back, if Spain can bring back slavery here, appeals to the Haitians for help.  And when the Cuban Liberating Army led by Ramón Emeterio Betances wants to [59:30] liberate Cuba from Spain. Who… where do they go? They go to Haitians and say where are the people more than any other who… you must help us, you have to help us. And when the Haitian government under [Guillaume] Fabre Geffrard denies aid to Santo Domingo, the Eastern side of the island, the Haitian people do it anyway, and he has to change course. So, the Haitian people disagree with his policy of non-intervention and take it upon themselves to hide people from the Spanish side. So, from Santo Domingo and so [1:00:00] anti-colonialism in Haiti, while not always in the laws, it doesn’t appear again when their constitutions revised in the 1840s for example, stays with the Haitian people. They… in… during the U.S. occupation. In fact, W.E.B. Du Bois and James Weldon Johnson who both wrote articles just diatribes against what is the United States doing referenced the fact that Haitians had never ever tried to colonize another… that they’d never declared war against another country. And so, [1:00:30] when I think it’s Du Bois who says here are peaceful Haitian citizens. He doesn’t mean that internally in Haiti there’s no problems. He’s saying why are you, another country, them the United States going there to bother these people who he says have they ever hurt an American citizen? Have you ever touched a hair on an American citizen’s head? And so, the idea was that yes, they might have problems and they might be harming one another even and it would be one thing if it was well, let’s help them not… but you [1:01:00] don’t help people not do that by killing them and the… and I’m so that… I think that in the Haitian case of the earlier moments of not intervening, you don’t help people by saying we’re going to bring a war to you because Boisrond-Tonnerre in his… in the first full-length history like sort of immediate history, I should say, that was written after the Haitian revolution in 1805 is called Memory to Serve as the History of Haiti. He says at the end, “Dessalines has shown you the way.” So, who’s he talking to, right? That the keys to this liberty are in your hands [1:01:30] because that the idea is… and this is repeated in like Martin Delaney’s, Blake, for example, is he says we can’t look to Haiti, we have to do it. That Haiti can’t come and save you if you were enslaved here… you have hands and you have feed and you have a voice and you can do it. David Walker said the same thing.

Deborah McDowell: David Walker, in 1829 and yes, absolutely. You teach this course, The Age of Revolutions, and I’m just imagining [1:02:00] pairing documents, for example, pairing the Haitian Revolution, I mean, the Constitution with the Declaration of Independence. What would you want your students to draw from these documents?

Marlene Daut: I actually do that. They compare them. Oh, they think that the Haitian… and these are, you know, we’re at UVA. These are students who have a good education in Jefferson. Most of my students, I took a poll once, [1:02:30] almost all of them were from Virginia. They are very… they know their constitutional U.S. history. They thought the Haitian Revolution was the most radical thing they’d ever seen in… most… the vast majority said why didn’t I know about this? I can’t believe… they are in dismay and disbelief at the U.S. education system that they don’t know this and it helps to put the documents in front of them because it’s not like, oh I’m some ideologue who just wants to prop up Haitians or prop up blackness or like this not racial uplift. This is just a [01:03:00] fact of a document that sits there and you can interpret it. They could have… they’re free and we interpret them they’re to say, well I disagree with and they do they say I disagree with this and that and, you know, our students can be very socially social justice oriented maybe or the ones who take my classes, so they’re not sure that they can go with Dessalines as far as, you know, sort of April Mandate of Death or expulsion of the French, but they understand it, and especially when we read that in light of what happened to Toussaint L’Ouverture, which of course they think is… and that’s another thing. [1:03:30] I think it’s just one of the biggest tragedies in the world because this was a man, a black man, who thought that he really could sit at the table with white power for lack of a better term and negotiate with them and that they would listen. He did everything they wanted. He wrote in his constitution of 1801. We will die here free and French and they still killed him and to me that is a metaphor for the rest of the world is you can capitulate to the powers of whiteness. You could capitulate to authority all you want but at the first moment they [1:04:00] could they killed him. They took him away and they killed him and it didn’t matter that he had gone home to his plantation. was no longer opposing them.

Deborah McDowell: But he had the temerity originally and for that he had to pay. Yeah, and always you will always have to pay, absolutely. So again, this is a series about Jefferson and kind of the subtitle of the series is Jefferson Beyond Jefferson, and we take that [1:04:30] Jefferson Beyond Jefferson from Michael Hart in an article that he wrote in… he’s largely suggesting that Jefferson begins in many respects as a revolutionary, but that almost none of the revolutionary implications of his work, in writings, especially in the Declaration were ultimately fulfilled and so what we have to do with [1:05:00] Jefferson, he argues, is to take Jefferson beyond Jefferson, take his work and his writings beyond the place where he left them that it then will fall to later philosophers and thinkers to push those ideas through to their practical implementation. All right. So, here we sit and this is a long preamble. So, here we see it at the University of Virginia thinking about Jefferson [1:05:30] for a podcast on his relationship to Haiti. What should we be teaching our students then including and beyond these documents that you just alluded to? What do… What does knowing about Haiti… How does knowing about Haiti recast Jefferson in important lights?

Marlene Daut: I think that another world is possible because I actually think that that, [1:06:00] you know, when I do get pushed back in my work, it’s along the lines of those who would say, for example, the same thing about Jefferson that you just mentioned that we have to go beyond Jefferson. We have to go beyond the Haitian rulers themselves because could they implement their policies? Did they implement their policies is a different question than whether or not they imagined them. So, the world they imagined in many respects did not come to fruition in some respects it did. They created a black state [1:06:30] that had black political institutions, that had black people at the helm, you know, when Barack Obama was elected president of the United States, I was… I went to Haiti two days after that and I said, what do you think about that? And the first person said, “Barack Obama is an American problem.” Like basically like why are you asking me about that? You know, like I just assumed they cared about that and then the next person said the next person I had this conversation with said, “I’m so glad that the that Haiti that the United States has caught up to Haiti. We had a black president and a black ruler in 1804 and I’m so [1:07:00] glad that it only took you this many years to catch up to us,” right? And so, I think that we have to go beyond the United States. We have to go beyond Jefferson. We have to go beyond Haiti and we have to imagine a more egalitarian world as crazy as it sounds because of course people thought the United States was crazy. People thought the Haitians were crazy and basically all these things that they were doing but also if you would to tell someone in the 19th century that we’d be doing this right now and you’d be [1:07:30] projecting my voice into this box they’d think you were crazy. So, another world is always possible and our lack of imagination baffles me when we have microchips that do like actual magical things that I think we’ve got to come up with better laws and better egalitarian… And we have to dream big, we have to not decide this person in this group won’t agree and let them disagree but let us dream it anyway and let us put it down and paper and let us, you know, leave it for posterity.

Deborah McDowell: That could be a [01:08:00] place of we… that’s so powerful.

James Perla: That’s a wonderful place. Unless there’s anything else you’d like to add, you know, we’re being mindful of your time that it’s a lovely place to conclude this.

Deborah McDowell: It is what world can we imagine. But any burning thoughts, that is a great place end, but any burning thoughts you might have you might want to just… on any topic pertaining however loosely to Jefferson and Haiti or Haiti or Haiti’s implications [1:08:30] for thinking about democracy, egalitarianism or whatever.

Marlene Daut: No, I mean this is a great podcast and a great idea to elaborate on Jefferson’s ideas and the idea of Jefferson as it relates to sort of multiple different strands of things that were important to him in his life because I think that probably as we talked about, the Louisiana Purchase, a lot of people don’t know they know the Sally Hemings story, they probably know oh vice presidency, they know [01:09:00] presidency, they know these things, right? Or they’ve heard of them and of the Declaration of Independence, but I think Haiti is a part of that story that often gets left out even though it’s a really… it was a really important part of the story for him because he lived in the era of the Haitian Revolution and of course because it leads to the Louisiana Purchase and because it calls into question a lot of the policies in the United States. And so, I think kind of that this podcast is going to exist and elaborate on the things [1:09:30] that shaped Jefferson’s world in his life that are undoubtable, you know, Sally Hemings, for example. That it is impossible to see how he could have lived and created policies and moved through this world without thinking about all of these things that he was confronted with every day and that they couldn’t have shaped his mind and his images and since we have so many of his letters. We know that they did.

Deborah McDowell: We know that they did. I mean when he is talking about I shudder when I think that God is… I mean he clearly… the spectre [1:10:00] of Haiti, the spectre of Saint-Domingue is in his mind all the time. James, I’m sorry. I did want to ask Marlene about Sally Hemings. We worked, I think, we spent twice as long on the Sally Hemings podcast than on the first episode would you say? Would that be fair to say?

James Perla: Relative, yeah. I mean maybe in terms of intellectual energy, in terms of time commitment. [1:10:30]

Deborah McDowell: Intellectual energy, time commitment, and I’ve come to think Sally Hemings just has fought us at every step of the way. Every time we think we’re done with that episode which was going to come out in in March. She fought us every which way, every time we thought we were done and I would say, James we’re not done, we’re not done. And so, we are now not back to the full drawing board, but we are going back for one [1:11:00] last time. This time, we’re going to let it go no matter what, but we centered that episode in this exhibition at Monticello, right? And Monticello posed this really provocative question in its signage outside the exhibition. Was it rape? Was it affection? Yes, they went there. Yeah, was it affection? Was there compliance? [1:11:30] And that’s the signage, so we thought in… which is why we named the episode, Coming to Terms with Sally Hemings, that we would really try to look at the terms that people invoke in an attempt to understand that relationship.

That what can we… What language can we use that isn’t presentist? That is not anachronistic that still captures the brutality of slavery, right? So, we [1:12:00] kind of let ourselves settle into the two terms that seem to be central in any of these discussions. One is rape and one is love/affection. Love being the extreme, that that’s a bridge too far for many people. So, although I’m just wanting for my own curiosity, what I found is that the one point on which diehard defenders of Jefferson and diehard defenders [1:12:30] of Hemings will agree is on the concept of love from opposite directions. The Jeffersonians say, “Oh no, he couldn’t possibly love her. She was a slave. This was the man. He was a head of state. He was cosmopolitan that he was the most famous man in the world that he would love an enslaved woman? No.” People on the Sally Hemings side love know that its a completely inadmissible term because it denies the brutality of slavery. That the only way [1:13:00] we can talk about this relationship is she was the victim of rape. Now, this is a relationship that was… about which we know very little but we seem to know that it lasted for almost 40 years. All right. So, what are your thoughts about the resistance to imagining a possibility for talking about Sally Hemings as other than the victim, pure and simple, of unwanted sexual aggression? [1:13:00]

Marlene Daut: Oh boy, yeah. That… my understanding from Annette Gordon-Reed’s work and from hearing her speak on several occasions is that her interpretation to a certain extent is that Sally Hemings was a negotiator and she negotiated her survival in a world that was essentially constructed to kill her and I’ve talked about this in writing about Haitian women under slavery in Saint-Domingue. [1:14:00] And so, I would say that Sally Hemings is a radical regardless of how you interpret the relationship because if you survive and you ensure the survival of your children in a system of death that wants to kill them, that wants them to be below the ground. There are enslaved people below the ground at this very site, right? Then I say, I think survival is radical and so she did, in my interpretation, [1:14:30] she did what she had to do and the question of whether she could have fallen in love with him or he with her during that, I mean, I’ve talked about this actually in a different podcast and I said, I mean what is love though? And what is love in the 19th century? And I think that partly we are… and there were plenty of married people in the 19th century who were married because people told them to and there was money given here and they were betrothed or they were first cousins and let’s keep it all in the family like literally the money and whatever the inheritance. So, what is love? [1:15:00] The idea that that if she negotiated her… that she’s like a traitor or that she was… No, but she would have been a woman of her era and her ability to become a woman of her era is remarkable in the sense of deciding that this is a strategic move. That she can ensure that her children can have a better life than she had and this is, you know, the Hemings children. I believe is Eston Hemings, but I could be wrong [1:15:30] that that Gordon-Reed says, you know, wrote this document in which he very much explains. Madison Hemings wrote in which he very much explained his mother’s thoughts on the matter and that in the document, he describes them as having a family, and I think it’s really important not to discount how other people feel about their own lives because we feel so viscerally that which and not wrongly, we feel so viscerally that this is [1:16:00] so blatantly unfair that this was a choice that anyone would even be confronted with and Saidiya Hartman’s words, “you have a choice,” in quotation marks. We feel the injustice of it so strongly that we cannot imagine that someone else is feeling that the feeling that she could live and survive and have a life. And like Harriet Jacobs, Linda Brent, from The Narrative [Incidents of the Life of a Slave Girl] that maybe you feel better going with this person than with that person.

Deborah McDowell: Yes, [1:16:30] and it’s Jacob that says, “It’s better to give oneself to the person you want.” But, you know, again and we reference Annette Gordon-Reed throughout and a variety of other historians, many of them black women, who have written very very engagingly and persuasively about women under slavery in the very… and the gamut of relationships in which they were engaged, but it really continues to baffle me that despite [1:17:00] that research, despite that evidence. For example, Sally Hemings’s sister lived with, got herself purchased by another planter in Virginia and they lived together also for decades. Not as man and wife in the legal sense, because there was no recognition of slave marriages, but they cohabited, they lived together, they had children, and those children benefited with [1:17:30] the bequested property from that relationship. But there is this… It seems to me the baffling thing is that despite what we know, we don’t want to acknowledge that Sally Hemings might have had a relationship with this man who was her enslaver. That that is a possibility. Why can’t we… Why is the question so unthinkable? You’re absolutely [1:18:00] right in asking what is love in the 19th century because love is like any emotion. It’s something that lives in history. Yeah. Absolutely. When people talk about Sally Hemings as having been raped and Jefferson as having been a pedophile, the age of consent at that moment is ten. Alright. And so, it’s as if we don’t want to honor, we don’t want to listen to what we know about the history of the time. So, I just thought I would ask you that question because people [1:18:30] fight tooth and nail that it is impossible to even introduce this idea into the equation. And so, you know, I have been trying to adapt the work of people like Martha Nussbaum or Eduardo Bonilla-Silva in talking about political emotions. That people really aligning themselves, really [1:19:00] based on an idea of history and what you suffered literally or what your ancestors suffered, and that commits you to an interpretation. Yes. And that interpretation can… it trumps historical knowledge.

Marlene Daut: And I mean to people who would say that it was impossible for there to have been any kind of version of love, I would just say, “Have you ever loved a bad person?” [1:19:30]

Deborah McDowell: Yes. There is no one who can say… who has been in love… I can write the book. I say I am a card carrying member of the romantically challenged club. So, yes.

Marlene Daut: Have you ever loved a bad man? Has a woman ever loved a bad man? You can understand exactly how it could happen because think about Jefferson’s mind that… People talk about this great mind that Sally Hemings, as a feeling person, also the idea that she isn’t a sexual person [1:20:00], that she, that black women, enslaved women in particular, but actually also black women in general, do not… are not sexual beings. I think a lot of that is folded into it. But also that she couldn’t have thought that he was charismatic.

Deborah McDowell: Right! He’s the most powerful man in world at this particular time, you know. And anyway, I’ll just mention this one last thing. Or do we have time to mention one last thing.

James Perla: I don’t think… Well you said you had a meeting.

Marlene Daut: Yeah, I have to go.

James Perla: We’re already overtime. [1:20:30] But, yeah, thank you so much for… This was very helpful in thinking about two episodes now.

Marlene Daut


Interviewee: Marlene Daut, Associate Professor of African Diaspora Studies at UVA
Interviewer(s): Deborah E. McDowell; James Perla
Interview date:
Interview Summary: Interview with Marlene Daut, Associate Professor.
Keywords:
Transcription: Maggie Pollard

Introductions

James Perla: I actually am going to start.

Deborah McDowell: Okay. All right. Okay.

James Perla: Yeah, thank you so much for being willing to speak with us today on this lovely May afternoon. The segues are infinitely entertaining.

Deborah McDowell: I’m just a gigglebox.

JP: Yeah, that’s all right. So, just to start and another way to preface this is that some of the questions we’ll ask will be quite general because, you know, the listening audience is intended [00:30] for the general public. So, you know, the questions themselves might seem a little basic but I think we’re hoping that you might help us sort of help to frame and get context for the episode.

DMcD: Yeah, we will even ask you questions, and it will sometimes appear you don’t know the answer to that but it’s in the end, you know, that we don’t know the answer. Why would you be asking something so simple? But it is in the interest of keeping a general audience informed.

Haiti and Thomas Jefferson

James Perla: Yeah, so maybe [1:00] just to start thinking about Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with Haiti. What kind of words or ideas come to mind when you think about Jefferson and Haiti.

Marlene Daut: That’s interesting. I mean for me I would say more of ’embargo’ because of the trade embargo. Jefferson, also, as you know has some interesting writings and letters about Haiti to people like Aaron Burr. The famous, the infamous rather [1:30], “cannibals of the terrible republic” comment, which is always interesting though because it was 1799. So, what’s the terrible republic is always the question that I ask. Is the terrible republic France? Or is Jefferson already imagining that Haitian independence is inevitable and therefore sort of just kind of referring to Haiti already in a sense as independent? But as the century, as the 19th century progressed and Jefferson became older [02:00] his ideas about Haiti shifted rather dramatically. There was… there’s a letter he wrote to a man who had a colonization scheme named St. George Tucker and who was proposing that freed blacks from United States could be sent to Haiti and lots of people had sort of ideas like this but this is one of the earlier ones. And Jefferson has this very interesting phrase where he says, “If something is not done and soon done we will be the murderers of our children.” And it’s interesting [2:30] because if you read a lot of Jefferson letters, because there’s a way in which you can read that as very metaphorical like literally that the white men will be murdering their own children if a civil war were to happen or a revolution similar to what happened in Haiti were to occur but in his other… in many of his other letters, he talks about our children and conflict in general. So, he had this kind of very paternalistic way of speaking. That doesn’t mean we can’t read the metaphor and read all of the racial implications into it because I think we certainly can [3:00] but he literally knew and meant that a civil war in the United States would pit family members against one another. That it would… that the divisions were so strong that people would actually be in conflict with their own family and that’s very similar to what happened during the Haitian Revolution and to what was happening in the independent Haiti of his day where you had Haiti divided into two separate states and you had different family members living in different sides of the country who were against each other and the Sean lat [3:30] family is one of the famous Haitian families where they had one brother on one side and the other brother and possibly even additional siblings, you know, in [Henri] Christophe’s Kingdom and the others on the side on [Alexandre] Pétion’s republic. So, he very much knew that what was happening in the United States could actually divide the nation into separate states because they had seen that happen in Haiti, which at one point had three different nations on the island if you think about the eastern side.

Political Factionalism in the U.S. and Abroad

James Perla: So, [4:00] that letter happened following the Haitian revolution that he’s saying, “Okay. Well if this were to…” So, the sort of divisions that he’s referring to just to be a little more explicit here are kind of like based in slavery? Is that fair to say?

Marlene Daut: I think they were but I actually think they were more… they ran deeper even than the issue of slavery because if you think about the factionalism that was occurring in the United States at that time [4:30] because it’s easy to think I always say, you know, when students ask me this they think the political divisions that we have right now are really strong and they think that they’re extraordinary and I always say go to the early national United States. I mean people are literally having duels with one another over these kinds of divisions as we know, right? And so, the Jeffersonian faction had a lot of opposition and they especially had opposition in the north, of course, from the Federalists who were opposing just today as people opposed the policies of one side or the other, the Republicans, the [5:00] Democrats were opposing everything that he was doing which is why when the trade embargo expires, that trade is allowed to resume. He’s not going to win that battle and effectively loses it. And so, I would say that yes that the comment about, you know, being the murderers of our own children, of course, there’s the issue of slavery and that that is the reason for the Civil War that would later happen. But it in his earlier time far before that there were also these other kinds of [5:30] political divisions that really had to do with how is this nation going to be run and where’s the seat of power going to be? And again because there were examples in the rest of the world of this power struggle in France, which is bouncing back and forth between different kinds of governance especially I mean imagining, you know, Jefferson’s reaction, which would be an interesting thing to look for in his letters to Napoleon’s escape from the island of Elba, his return during the Hundred Days period I mean, they lived in a turbulent political world and literally anything was possible. If [6:00] Napoleon can escape from an island in the middle of the sea and come back, march into Paris for 100 days and start ruling again with virtually no opposition, they live in a world in which they know that basically that lots of things are possible in a way actually that I think our imaginations today are a little bit more circumscribed like we don’t imagine that anything like that would ever happen. They didn’t have to imagine it because it was happening.

The Cannibals of a Terrible Republic

James Perla: In Haiti, I mean that was sort of… we had a wonderful conversation with [6:30] Robert [Fatton] quite some time ago, and we’re just starting this project when… the sort of refrain of that conversation was that Haiti was at once unimaginable but also so imaginable that what, you know, what are the possibilities of them imagining these radical revolutions? You reference the letter about the Haitians being described as cannibals of a terrible republic. I wonder [7:00] just if you might give a little context on that what, you know, what’s that referring to? It was to Aaron Burr preceding the Haitian Revolution.

Marlene Daut: Well, during it.

James Perla: Right, yeah, yeah. So, if you could maybe just expand on that.

Marlene Daut: I mean so 1799 was actually an interesting moment in the history of the Haitian Revolution because Toussaint L’Ouverture had ascended to a general, a French general. He became the second black man after actually Alexandre Dumas’ father to attain the rank of general in France [7:30] so he actually then is going to be a general under Napoleon when Napoleon assumes power and I think that’s really important because Toussaint L’Ouverture is then a French general and again, so Thomas Jefferson’s comments to Aaron Burr about a cannibals of the terrible republic refer to the fact that in France, it is possible to have black French generals fighting and [8:00], you know, getting rid of the British and making a treaty with Spain that causes actually in 1795 the Spanish side of the island to be seated to France and that black people are the architects of some of these treaties and this is ultimately what Napoleon fears and so it makes sense that Jefferson also would and should fear it because, you know, if this can happen in Saint-Domingue why could it not happen in the United States? [8:30] Why could it not happen in Jamaica? Why could it not happen? Why could there not be black republics scattered all throughout the Caribbean that then could actually kind of combine together and be a force? And because the other thing I think that’s interesting about 1799 is… and I always say this to students as well, we tend to think of the United States as a superpower because of its position today, but in 1799, it certainly was not and is very self conscious about its identity [9:00] and whether or not, you know, Frank Jefferson was often charged with being Francophilic, and that was a problem in the early national United States because the French Revolution was enormously unpopular in certain sectors of the population. Its certainly the Robespierre’s to the Jacobins were written about very negatively in many early national newspapers. And the reason for that is, I mean, it’s one thing to say the people want to be rid of their king which I think a lot of people in the United States, [9:30] for example, John Adams in his, you know, statements about kingly power, etc., the defense of the Constitution of the United States, but it was another thing to say that people should kill their king. That was a different… and that was actually a bridge too far in Haiti also, as you might imagine. So, one of the reasons I always say that King Henri Christophe was no Jacobin I mean obviously not because he’s a king as well, but he… they would ride against the Robespierre’s, the Jacobins and I think it was [10:00] precisely that idea because once you say that people can kill their leader, well then again anything is possible. Once you say that the people have that right if they are angry to actually get rid of their own leader. So, the cannibals of the terrible republic is also about, I think, the sort of fear of the French Revolution to a certain extent and the idea that it had been transferred over into Haiti because that was a very common understanding of French Saint-Domingue at that time was that the cause of that [10:30] conflict was actually the French Revolution.

James Perla: As if like white people are the only people capable of doing a revolutionary act. Yeah, that’s really helpful. But just really quick, Christophe? Who is that? Just for our listeners might not know that.

The Leclair Expedition as an Engine for Empire

Marlene Daut: So, Henri Christophe was a… also would become a general and he was really key to when [11:00] Toussaint L’Ouverture sees the Leclair Expedition which Napoleon had sent to reinstate slavery not just in Saint-Domingue, but in all of the French overseas empire, Toussaint you know, sort of sees their ships on the horizon and is kind of trying to decide like what they’re doing there and once he sees the number of the ships, he very much understands that this is not a negotiation that is preparing to happen. That this is a war. And he tells Henri Christophe [11:30] to go and burn down the city of Kap Ayisyen (Haitian Creole, Cap-Haïtien; English Cape-Haiti) and what you have to know about that is that remember this is a tactic that Napoleon himself… that this is going to be his downfall in in Saint-Domingue. But also when he goes into Russia, this is how the Russians during the Napoleonic Wars will thwart him is by burning everything. So, when when Christophe burns down Kap Ayisyen for the second time. That was the second time the city had been burned down. That means there’s no stores. That [12:00] means food. That means water supply. So, they end up having to stay out at bay for a while. Of course, they do end up coming in and and for a time Christophe along with the other French generals including Toussaint L’Ouverture will defect they will sort of surrender and capitulate but I think that once it was very clear Toussaint L’Ouverture had been kidnapped and sent to France and they didn’t really even know what was going to happen. Was he going to go on trial? Both Dessalines and Christophe decided to [12:30] kind of go against the French and to rally the troops literally and to fight. So, Christophe is there at the first proclamation of independence in Haiti, which is actually November 29th, 1803 and then they revise it to a longer version on January 1st, 1804 and he’s a signatory on all of that. After Dessalines is assassinated in October of 1806, Christophe is actually elected provisory president of Haiti and a [13:00] new constitution is issued. The Constitution is done in the name of the people of Haiti and that was very different from the first Constitution, which was the emperor’s Constitution and gave all of this power to the emperor. Well Christophe did not like how the power was sort of being diffused, so he fled back to the north of Haiti to Kap Ayisyen and established his own republic initially in February of 1807, issued a new constitution for that side of Haiti, [13:30]and then in March of 1811 declares himself king and has a kingdom from 1811 until 1820 when he committed suicide in October of 1820 as a result of a stroke he’d suffered in August of that year. But also he was… people were defecting and people were leaving the government and he very much saw that a civil war was preparing within his ranks. Not just with the other side of the island.

Deborah McDowell: So, that’s the topic of [14:00] your wildly popular essay, the Wakanda… Maybe talk about that a little bit.

The Wakanda of the Western Hemisphere

Marlene Daut: So, I wrote an essay for The Conversation called “Inside the Kingdom of Hayti, ‘the Wakanda of the Western Hemisphere'” and it was really kind of tongue-in-cheek and just I was fascinated by how much people like to talk about Black Panther and Wakanda and this sort of fictional black [14:30] kingdom, and I thought, well, it’s so interesting because there was a an actual black kingdom in the 19th century and just the number of people who didn’t appear to know about it was… that was interesting to me as well because one of the things that Christophe does quite controversially is, I mean, they’re making money hand over fist and this is an opulent kingdom. They have palaces and they have a citadel and the question becomes, you know, well how did Christophe build these things? Where did the money come from for these things to be built? And in the state-run newspaper, they would [15:00] publish the trade statistics. And so I always say, you know, the idea that Haiti is isolated is… that depends on your perspective of what isolation means. Certainly, the Haitian government sought recognition from the United States, recognition of their independence that is, from Great Britain, from France, from Spain. They wanted it from the world powers, but the material effects of not having it were not what we might imagine. There were Danish ships coming in and out of port, Spanish ships, British, a ton of U.S. ships. [15:30] It was highly controversial. People would stand on the floor of Congress when James Monroe was president even and talk about well, “Isn’t that to recognize their independence if we trade with them?” And those debates had started as soon as independence happened. You can trace them… people would bring it up on the floor of Congress, and except for that period of embargo in which illegal trade did still occur, you know, the United States had just decided that they were certain essentially [16:00] okay with de facto recognition and I think that was probably something that Jefferson, you know, in his own era was a mark against his legacy because he had tried very hard to cut off trade with Haiti and he essentially failed at that.

James Perla: Yeah, the market wins.

Deborah McDowell: The market always wins.

Who is Jacques Dessalines?

James Perla: Unfortunately. So, why did Jefferson… a little bit of… Well, two, so two minor points before I forget the things about Dessalines [16:30] again, who is that? And what was his role maybe briefly? I know… And this sort of clarifying question there is if he was kind of the imperial impetus to revise? Was it his role in the initial independence that caused Haiti to revise the declaration to be more of the people? Or, but maybe just starting first with who Dessalines is.

Marlene Daut: Yeah. So, Dessalines was a former [17:00] enslaved man from Saint-Domingue who actually worked as an enslaved person on the very plantation where Toussaint L’Ouverture would become the overseer to Toussaint L’Ouverture  would gain his freedom and pretty early on. I mean long before the revolution started on the Bréda plantation and Dessalines was an enslaved person there. So, it is the very sort of interesting kind of ties that many of the revolutionary leaders had to one another, and [17:30] he was reputed to have all of these whip marks on his back, which is one of the reasons that people said he was this actually this great soldier. So, it’s interesting because Toussaint L’Ouverture is seen as the negotiator, Dessalines is the great warrior and soldier, but Christophe is the legislator. So, the idea of who is the architect of that first proclamation, which is signed by only three men: Dessalines, another general named [Augustin] Clerveaux and Christophe and then how it ends up into the later version in [18:00] which Dessalines will be the figurehead, the one who says “indigenous army” as they called themselves, you know, “this is being done in your name.” There’s a lot of theories about how that came about some of them are that the secretaries: Boisrond-Tonnerre  and Charlotte and others were intimately involved. But those people Boisrond-Tonnerre wasn’t around when when Christophe became king and yet you see so much of an extension of those policies that it is difficult to believe, in my opinion, that he didn’t have something to do with [18:30] the way that the state was constructed under Dessalines and the idea that Dessalines makes himself an emperor and that Christophe would later make himself a king and the idea that how will power be consolidated. And so, I think that the main the main struggle in Haiti, even though it’s been codified as a racial struggle is where will power lie? And that might seem to us today like well of course power should lie lay with the people but in the 19th century that was actually a [19:00] radical… radically different idea. I want to say it was a radical idea but actually it was just that it was a radical departure from anything the world had seen and so these were actual debates that people were having. And so, it looks autocratic and it looks despotic for someone to say I’m an emperor or a king but Napoleon makes himself an emperor and that’s accepted because an emperor is in an empire is a completely valid form of government in the 19th century in a way that I think is different from today [19:30] and it’s a president that strange and the idea of sharing power supposedly in theory or not. And so, Dessalines I think because he at least is codified as this soldier and this warrior, there’s the idea that he wasn’t a good leader though. That he wasn’t a good kind of state leader and that this is what allows the fractions and I mean the interesting thing is we don’t know really who killed Dessalines. I mean we know who was [20:00] there but who’s the architect of this assassination that becomes infamous and there’s all these paintings about it because they kept shooting and missing and so… there’s all these… and they shot the horse. You know, they were just terrible shots. It’s a very interesting story like it was like the man who couldn’t be killed and evidently. I mean the story has it that someone had to basically walk up and slit his throat.

Haiti's Role in the Louisiana Purchase

Deborah McDowell: James has me very disciplined because I’m normally [20:30] very audible in my reactions and James has me trained not to gasp and laugh. So, I’m very able to contain myself here, but shifting gears for just a minute. One of Jefferson’s most significant accomplishments, of course in his long and illustrious career is the Louisiana Purchase, doubling the size of the U.S. What’s Haiti’s role here? What ways might Haiti’s [21:00] involvement in… cast the Louisiana Purchase in a different light?

Marlene Daut: I mean it is widely understood among historians today and by that I mean not even a controversial sort of conclusion that the Louisiana Purchase happens as a direct result of the revolution in Haiti and that without possessing Saint-Domingue, Napoleon knows that Louisiana, that territory, will be far too expensive for him to hold on to and that he doesn’t really need it in [21:30] the same way and he needs money to finance his many wars. I mean talk about… I mean, it’s interesting to me when people talk about, you know, sort of despotic Haitians leaders Napoleon going into Egypt and telling them he was like Muhammad and all these things, you know, and so, you know this this idea of being a megalomaniac well, there’s your example of like the quintessential megalomaniac. But yeah, that. the Haitian revolution could have this kind of ricocheting [22:00] effect that is longitudinal meaning, I mean, we feel it today. There’s an entire part of our country that wouldn’t be a part of our country. And then the other interesting thing is that Jefferson has to figure out in terms of what we were talking about before and divisions. That is, they have to figure out how to fold Louisiana back into the nation because even in the 1830s, historians have called it the Creole-American split because the Louisiana Territory had also been Spanish. So, you had Spanish speakers there, you had French speakers there and then you had [22:30] people trying to say you have these very debates that we have English-only like we need to be English speaking and you had a lot of French people even up through the 19th century and George Washington’s cables era where he still writing about how Louisianans are determined not only to hold onto French but to Creole and Creole culture really. And so, the idea that that the Haitian revolution also creates this problem for the United States in terms of a different kind of [23:00] division as Louisiana, especially once it became a state, became the only place where they had like basically Napoleonic codes as law and there are still remnants today of that. So, we continue to feel the effects of really the kind of global world that existed in the 19th century in some sense is far more global than our own because people were much less self-conscious about it. It was just understood that that was the way the world was and you can see in the attempt to consolidate Louisiana [23:30]. Racially, also, when Jefferson appoints Governor Claiborne and Governor Claiborne also makes explicit statements about oh, well, we don’t want what happened in Saint-Domingue to happen here. So, we need to be careful with the free people of color because the understanding was that the alienation of the free people of color in French Saint-Domingue led them to join ranks with the enslaved instead of to stay on the side of the right and of their property. And so, Louisiana having that similar tripartite society racially speaking with a lot of free people of color who own [24:00] plantations and slaves, Governor Claiborne explicitly says, “I remember what happened in Saint-Domingue like let’s make sure that that doesn’t happen here.” So.

The Aftermath of the Haitian Revolution

Deborah McDowell: I think you’re absolutely right. We are still feeling those effects. You know, I sometimes joke with my friend Thad [Thaddeus] Davis who’s from New Orleans, you know, well, that’s another part of the world. That’s its own country because in a sense that’s that’s how it feels even to a person who’s not a native, you know, [24:30] it’s palpable when you’re there. Maybe palpable is too strong, but you know, it’s not too strong. I think it is. So, let’s talk about Haitian independence and its significance. First, can you walk us briefly through a few key moments? Through this long long story, but maybe simply who was involved. You’ve alluded to some of it already, [25:00] and what happened specifically in 1804?

Marlene Daut: Yeah. So, the Haitian Revolution kind of formally begins in August of 1791 with a ceremony at Bois Caïman. This is the story that the enslaved get together in sort of a remote place in Haiti, in what will become Haiti, but sort of in the mountains and they decide to wage kind of large scale and rebellion and this causes… and a few plantations to be to be burned down, [25:30] and then this kind of has a ricocheting effect. There were also… there were… the idea that Haitian revolution was unthinkable is only sort of in a kind of exclamatory way like, “that’s unthinkable!” like because I don’t want that to happen. It’s not because no one ever thought that it was going to happen because you can very clearly see in the writings of the planters and the colonists and even the free people of color that they very much understand that something is underfoot [26:00] and that there’s always a seed of rebellion in the enslaved and that’s one of the reasons why slave punishments were so harsh in Saint-Domingue and that you had a high marron population already. And so, when the rebellion breaks out, it’s very easy to get those maroons who had sort of extracted themselves from the plantation economy and lived sort of a different life in the in marronage, in the mountains, for them to come together with the enslaved and eventually with the free people of color who are going [26:30] to try to appeal to the British, who are going to try to appeal to the Spanish and, you know, the British have slaves also the the Spanish have slaves also, so that made sense for some of the free people of color who were plantations owners, but then you also had the revolutionaries to contend with and Toussaint L’Ouverture himself was very adamant that he wasn’t going to construct any deal with England or Spain that didn’t keep slavery ended because the French state was forced to abolish slavery in 1794 [27:00] throughout all of its empire be as a result of the Haitian Revolution. But so when when that happens and Toussaint goes back to the side of the French he… they turn their attention to getting rid of the British who had come to see if they could maybe capture Saint-Domingue to the Spanish who were already there on the other side and so thought maybe that they could fold that part into their empire as well. And this continues throughout the 19th century. There are periods of realtive calm once Toussaint L’Ouverture kind of establishes control and actually invites [27:30] the planters back who had fled to places like Cuba and Jamaica and Louisiana and Philadelphia invites them to come back, creates labor policies. The formerly enslaved go back to work but are supposed to be compensated and have better hours and of course not be whipped and punished in this way, and Napoleon when he comes to power after overthrowing the directory, sees in L’Ouverture a rival, and he’s correct. That L’Ouverture is his rival and [28:00] sends the Leclair Expedition. They were known, the French soldiers, for their genocidal policies that really I mean, there’s a book by a man named Claude Ribbe called Le Crime de Napoléon, The Crime of Napoleon, in which he talks about Napoleon is the original creator of the gas chamber. They would put people… people of color on boats out at the bay and they would fill it with sulfur gas and then they had them in the hold and they would open it up and sink the bodies and they also did mass drownings that they got from [28:30] some of the French Revolutionary tactics actually during the terror and this is… there are visitors from the United States and merchants who happened to, because they thought things were calming down under Toussaint, go to do business in Saint-Domingue who write home to U.S. newspapers talking about how many dead bodies are floating in the bay around various… So they did this in Jérémie, then they would do it in another city, they would do it in Jacmel and one, it’s called the picture of San Domingo, [29:00] I believe talks about their eyes up turned to the sky towards the heavens and bloated faces. I mean, so they… the terror, Sarah Johnson’s book The Fear of French Negroes, you know, she means also the fear they felt as well. Not just the fear that people had of them. And so, I think all of that has to be understood as why would Dessalines then later also create this policy that has also been called genocidal, in which he said all the French colonists must leave or… [29:30] immediately on these ships, right then make then there’s you know sort of records of what were the last ships to go and some of the colonists stayed for whatever reason and he said they’ve got to be, you know, killed and part of the reason was that Toussaint, he had watched, as Toussaint L’Ouverture said, come back. We’ll create these policies. We’ll work together. You’ll have your plantations back. You’ll even have laborers on them. As long as you follow the policies in the rules. They already watched that then they watched [30:00] L’Ouverture be kidnapped, sent to France, and I always say one has to wonder even though we don’t have good records about this. What happened when the revolutionaries in Haiti found out that L’Ouverture died of starvation and pneumonia and a stroke in a cell in France. Of neglect. And there is a letter in the Gazette in I believe it’s dated November of 1805, but the letter is actually from September of 1804 and it’s about Madame [30:30] L’Ouverture, Toussaint L’Ouverture’s wife, and it appeared first in a British newspaper and then it appeared in a U.S. newspaper about how she was actually imprisoned as well and tortured and had no longer the use of one arm. And so, one has to wonder the the effect of this news for the revolutionaries. So, the Haitians don’t print it until later, but it’s in September of 1804. They have all the British newspapers. They have all the U.S. newspapers because they write letters in themselves and [31:00] they know that their stuff is being printed in those papers. And so, one really has to wonder if this is the news that you’re getting out of France, you know, I say, it’s not to justify Dessalines policy, it’s to understand it and, you know, why it happened the way that it did.

The Radical Haitian Declaration of Independence

James Perla: I don’t know if you have… Thinking about the, you know, independence itself and what was in the declaration [31:30] you alluded to it a little bit… a little while ago about the role of people and people being something that was a radical departure from how society had been organized historically up to this point. And so, I wonder if maybe you could speak briefly about citizen. It was interesting the conference or that conversation last week, I think Julia Gaffield mentioned that that’s the first word in the [32:00] declaration and so, you know, thinking about, obviously, with Jefferson, you know, declarations and sort of maybe reading those two together in terms of what work is the Haitian Declaration of Independence doing that’s actually maybe even a radical departure from Jefferson, you know, the Jeffersonian Declaration that we tend to celebrate so much.

Marlene Daut: I mean it’s doing a lot. So, I mean the huge difference that, you know, we talked about last week. Actually one of the huge differences is that they Haitian Declaration of Independence comes [32:30] after the conflict is over the U.S., what will be the U.S. Declaration of Independence comes… it precedes it begins the major conflict. I mean there’s already conflict but it starts the war. The Haitian Declaration of Independence is supposed to end the war, but the big question is about declarations in general and I teach an age of revolutions class and I always talk to my students about this is that when the U.S. declares itself independent, the reason there’s a war is because England [33:00] doesn’t agree because see your declaration has to have treaty where… you have to be you have to be treaty worthy to make a treaty with another world power because I can’t make a treaty for example with a world power I don’t have the… I don’t have the authority, right? And so, under what authority did the creators of the declaration, the signers of the Declaration of Independence say that they were under whose authority? Well, they didn’t have the authority to do that which is what causes the war. So, in the case of Haiti when we think about, well maybe why were there two separate documents? [33:30] And also what those documents do? It’s, well, do the people who are creating them have the authority? Do they have the support of the people in whose name the declaration is constructed? And then the big matter, which makes it very similar to the United States, is France going to accept this or will it cause a war, another war, right? And so, when Julia Gaffield has talked about this is that Dessalines doesn’t know, nobody knows when or how France will accept this news [34:00]. They live in constant fear, the Haitians, that a French battalion or battalions is going to come back. And in fact they do and they keep trying up through the restoration of the Bourbon Monarchy in 1814. They again send commissioners in 1816. There are still French writers in the 1820s and 1830s talking about when we get Saint-Domingue back, right? So, the idea that that just because you declare yourself independent means that the world has to agree with you is and, you know, in the United States, United States had to make subsequent treaties [34:30] after the end of the war. Jay’s Treaty, for example, in which they had… took the United States had to compensate England for the loss of ships, for the loss of money, for all kinds of things. And so, it isn’t that the case of Haiti is so exceptional in that regard. I think what is more exceptional is that it lasts so long, the uncertainty and the idea that Haitians are not treaty worthy, that they don’t have treaty worthiness. lasts for so long and that when you think about, you know, England tends to be [35:00] the sort of vision of what empire is in the 19th century, but one has to imagine how powerful France had to be even during the Napoleonic Wars for the United States, England and Spain, Germany, Denmark, all Haiti’s trading partners to so fear angering France that they refuse to recognize Haitian independence because they so fear it that I mean to me is… and even… and then then on the flip side of that is when [35:30] does that shift? So, France then makes a treaty with Haiti and they recognize Haitian Independence, but the U.S. doesn’t follow suit because when you look at the debates on the floor of Congress, it’s because what will that mean for slavery in the United States if we recognize that they can be treaty worthy and that we can recognize them as a legitimate government? So again, the market is king because the merchants can just do whatever they want. The press can do whatever they want. They say the Republic of Haiti all the time. They say the kingdom of Haiti, the Empire of Haiti when Haiti has another empire under [Faustin] Soulouque but [36:00] and so they’re sort of… there’s a free press there’s a free market to a certain extent but the government itself is and their letters back and forth to one another. It’s very clear that they understand there would be a difference semantically and perhaps materially at home to recognize Haitian independence.

The Question of Race

Deborah McDowell: And where was race in this?

Marlene Daut: Race is all over this. Race is all over this. It’s, you know, the Jefferson letters that we’ve been referencing, you know, [36:30] the cannibals of the terrible republic inflected with ideas about race. Then there is the idea of what would be done with free black people in the United States? Where can we send them? So, they’ll be a beyond the reach of mixture and so we won’t have a race war and so all of that. And then I just think that… I think that as much as it might be, you know, we’ve had a black president of the United State, so people think this is, you know, sort of a lot of progress and whatever but first [37:00] imagine how long it takes and then second the idea of the sort of opposition that Barack Obama got from people who just cannot imagine themselves being at the table having to negotiate with someone who looks like him, and I think that for people who study race that is obvious, but I think people who live their lives and try not to think about race have a hard time imagining it until it kind of happens to them comes to their table, right? That’s sort of like, “Oh, I’m fine with black people as long as you don’t try to marry my daughter or something like that,” [37:30] right? And I do think that yeah, like seeing a black man dressed up as a king not an African chief, you know, of some idea that they have of Africa, right? But as a king, as a powerful king, making treaties with them. And one of the things… one of the ways that that plays out is that Christophe will not allow ships to come into the port when they send sort of their letter, right, asking for permission if it says General Christophe so when [38:00] he’s president and then when he’s king because… and it seems like well, that’s like a small thing. Well, he’s saying you’re not recognizing me as the head of state and as, you know, so you can’t come in and this cause he confiscated American, U.S. American ships. And there were lawsuits and they continued and Christophe wrote letters to U.S. newspapers. You know Christophe was from the anglophone Caribbean. He was either most likely born in Grenada or Saint Kitts and had spent a lot of time in Saint Thomas, so he spoke English and he wrote or had his secretaries write to the United States [38:30] to explain to them why he confiscated these ships and that he was not going to give them the money back because the United States tried to sue basically and I mean, again, you can sue and you can win but how can you make another country pay, right? He said I’m not going to pay until they recognize my authority and actually the letters that you see from senators and the president at the time, Madison, James Madison say we can’t call him President. We [39:00] cannot call him king and it continues for years and they simply refuse to do it.

Deborah McDowell: And the refusal to recognize his authority is based largely in race.

Marlene Daut: It’s based in race and the idea that his power is illegitimate. So, I would say it is first on its face based on the idea that has power is illegitimate, but for the United States to not recognize that another nation another American nation would wish… or another part would wish [39:30] to be independent can only be explained by race because they had done that exact same thing. And that’s the thing when I say it is important not to make either the U.S. or Haiti exceptions because their histories are twinned and Haitians very much understood that. Because one of the things that angered Baron de Vatey about the U.S.’s lack of formal recognition was precisely that they out of any other nation should have understood and why would the United States, in his estimation side, with France and [40:00] not with another young nation of the American hemisphere, especially later when Monroe comes into the presidency and is talking about how we’re going to resist European incursions on American soil and sets up the idea of that protectionism that, you know, if Europe tries to come and conquer various places in Latin America that it declared themselves independent, for example, Gran Colombia from Spain that the U.S. would help out. Well, they would except in the case of Haiti right? There was no help from the U.S. [40:30] in the case of Haiti for that, and I do think that can only be explained by race. It can’t be politically explained because the United States was not against people declaring themselves independent from European powers, in fact quite the opposite. But they were against a former enslaved people declaring themselves free on their own without abolitionists, treaties, and emancipations and this and that and the reason we know that also again the indemnity between France and Haiti is 1825. [41:00] So why is it going to take until 1862 for the United States? How else can it be explained? They no longer have France as that obstacle to stand and they can no longer use that as an excuse. France has recognized Haitian Independence.

James Perla: So, just to clarify the dates of Haitian independence recognition from France of that independence and then recognition in the U.S.

Marlene Daut: Yes. So the Haitian formal independence is January 1st 1804. The indemnity treaty was April of 1825 [41:30] and the United States isn’t going to recognize Haitian Independence until 1862. So.

Rejecting Colonialism and Normalizing Blackness

Deborah McDowell: It says everything, I mean, you just make the statement and say no more. It speaks for itself. All right, you have suggested that Haitian… the Haitian Constitution criminalized color prejudice with mean by that?

Marlene Daut: So, Dessalines’s Article 14 is really famous because in that article he says that all [42:00] Haitians have to now be known under the generic denomination of black but proceeding that… and I think it’s really important because I actually don’t think you can understand what it means because you say oh, well, that’s very racist of Dessalines to say everybody has to be black because what would be the difference of saying everyone has to be white? Well, no. Because he makes blackness normative and in Haitian Creole the word for man is nèg from the French word nèegre and that’s any man of any color. To the generic word for man, but the first sentence of [42:30] Article 14 says all… it has a very interesting French word that’s not really in use today. It says “toute acceptation.” And so, I have translated that in different ways over the years but the ones I’ve rested on… the one I’ve rested on is all distinctions. So, “acceptation,” distinctions, which is really to say the recognition of someone as being a different color must necessarily cease. Now, I mean as a person who does study race, I think that Dessalines was a man of his [43:00] era in making that and the men, the architects of the constitution, because the idea was that it was the recognition of difference that led to the hierarchical treatments. But I actually don’t think that’s true, right? I don’t think that it is necessary to never recognize that someone might be another color but it’s the value that was attached to that and they lived in a world in which they, you know, these pseudo-scientific, you know, naturalist and travel writers had created a hundreds of different categories of skin color [43:30] and they had endowed them with meaning. A person with this mixture of quote-unquote white blood and will be like this person with this mixture and so in Dessalines’s mind, the way to, I think, this is my interpretation, the way to sort of get rid of that was to say you can’t do that. You can’t use those words anymore and in some of my work I’ve talked about how I think from the U.S. side where mulatto is like maybe a word that people would think it was weird if you use but it’s not an insult, right? in the [44:00] in 19th century. Haiti “mulatto” was an insult Baron de Vatey very strongly said, “it is with these injurious epithets of mulattoes and negroes that they hope to divide us.” That that idea that I’m going to calculate your color and I’m going to say what kind of relationship to civilization you have based on that and not only that, it’s not just going to inflict how I think about you, but I’m going to make policies and laws based on that and so what Dessalines is essentially saying is you can’t make any policy or law that has anything to do with skin color or race [44:30] except then of course, it’s sort of he goes on to do that by saying oh white women, Polish people, Germans, like all kinds of other people can also be Haitian and can be can be folded into the nation. It’s really colonists, and I’ve talked about this elsewhere that the 19th century Haitians create the idea of colonialism as bad because colonialism was not bad in the 19th century. You were supposed to try to be an empire the United States, its entire problem is it wants to be an empire and [45:00] they turn côlon in French into an epithet themselves and when you look at the Declaration of Independence, actually, it talked about the colonists not French. It was only later that it talked about French colonists. It was only later that that turned into whiteness in general, white men in general before it was French and French colonists. And I think that’s really important because one wonders like sort of what happened in those negotiations that changed to that language and the idea that [45:30] whiteness itself was a political category and not actually a skin color which I think is very strongly proven by the comment about white women, Polish people, and Germans being able to get citizenship and own property and do all of these things that is supposed to be precluded if you if you take whiteness as really a literal category for any person but also any person above what shade?

Deborah McDowell: Yes, right, and of course, I’m sure you’ve read about Jefferson’s mathematical… his [46:00] arithmetics of race, and it’s just absolutely insane. But let me not go there. Why do you think Haiti is not celebrated for its explicit affirmative actions toward equality?

The Inconvenience of Democracy

Marlene Daut: Oh, because I mean I think because it disrupts… it’s a very inconvenient story because what does democracy mean, right? So, if democracy means that everybody [46:30] has a say and participates, well, then probably no place like that exists on Earth to this day. When you think about voter disenfranchisement, you think of all kinds of different issues with it, but Haiti imagined a society that would be a racially equal society and by that I mean where you can say this group of people can be enslaved, this group of people can’t have that, this group of people… now with gender equality is another matter and will not come until later and be a much longer and harder struggle as it has been in most places, [47:00] but but in terms of the ideas of race and to a certain extent religion at various moments in Haitian history, I think it’s a difficult for people in the United States, specifically, to imagine that those ideas don’t… were not generated here. And that didn’t see their truest fruition here because you know constitutional scholars talk about, U.S. constitutional scholars, I mean, talk about how well, the U.S. Constitution was better than its makers even knew [47:30] because they did say all men are created equal and even though they didn’t think that black people were included in that category or whatever, they still wrote those words that could be universalizable but the problem is is whether you think that that sort of theoretical idea because literally that word men seems like a theoretical idea, but it was a literal idea to them. And so, what Haitians did was they took the theoretical out of it because I’ve talked in places about how actually if you look at the 1805 [48:00] Constitution, so Haiti’s first constitution, they define everything. They didn’t leave the door open the way that the United States did where it’s true, the U.S. Constitution doesn’t say anything about slaves. This is… it doesn’t use that word. The Haitian Constitution says here’s who’s a person, here’s who is a citizen, here’s what blackness means, here’s what whiteness means, here’s what these… how these other categories fit. Here’s how religion is going to be dealt with. The U.S. Constitution in trying not to offend anyone, to please everyone, left the door open. [48:30] Yes, for subsequent interpretations and and revisions and implementations of the policy. But it also left the door open for, I mean, how long would it take to really enfranchise the black citizens of the United States until the 1960s? And one could even say that’s a law but is it being implemented? Well, that’s another story because when we look at mass incarceration and Talitha LeFlouria’s work just, you know, red[lining]- all kinds of things.

Deborah McDowell: Oh no, [49:00] in fact racism and discrimination and disenfranchisement always survive the policies and the laws. In fact, then the country will all but reverse itself entirely by evacuating the central clause of the Voting Rights Act of ’65 and thus opening the door to all forms of disenfranchisement. It’s including and especially this is the disenfranchisement of incarcerated people, but then lots of other people [49:30] all the gerrymandering.

Marlene Daut: All the gerrymandering. And the voter ID laws.

Deborah McDowell: Yeah, absolutely. It’s so ironic that in, I mean this is a kind of side point but then not because in my home state of Alabama the… on the very day, people are celebrating the annual trek over the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, people are lamenting that section [50:00] 5 of the Voting Rights Act is gone. So, Alabama at that very moment shuts down something like 25 Department of Motor Vehicles offices because that’s where people could register to vote, right? And so, the overwhelming majority of DMV places in Selma and surrounding areas got closed. So, where people to go to register to vote? I mean, it’s just really absolutely [50:30] it’s vote… blatant voter suppression. Or in Georgia when the man who was certifying votes is also running for government. I mean, you couldn’t put any of this in a novel but it… there it is. So again, it’s really quite remarkable to think that Haiti which really offers us a kind of blueprint that one could say is truly radical, truly [51:00] anti-racist, truly anti-colonial, doesn’t get represented as such.

Marlene Daut: I mean and I think it’s also because the world did punish Haiti and Haitians for this and you know it, you know, it doesn’t take just as we were talking about the sort of timeline to recognition on the U.S. side, right? and different factors involved. It doesn’t take, you know, you don’t have to be a physicist like a like an astronomer or something. You don’t do read the stars. You don’t have to like look to the cosmos [51:30] for the answer to the question because how is it that when black people want to be free and when black people try to create policies about freedom, that the world comes to oppose them? And I think that when Christophe makes himself a king, the astonishing thing is that people in the northern part of the United States, in the northern press, support him. They think it’s a great idea and that it’s the only way to keep France away. And I think that [52:00] we have to listen more to the way that events were read in their era in order to understand their repercussions today because I think that for some of those Northern writers who were in support of Haitian Independence, sometimes because of monetary reasons, because they thought, “Oh, then the floodgates are really open for the trade,” right? “If we can do this and we can do all kinds of things and go there” and, you know, but also that, you know, having a black king. When you are a person who is not racist, there’s no problem with a black king. [52:30] A black king is a problem, and Haitian writers point this out, if you are a racist. A black republican… a republic is a problem if you are a racist because why are you opposing and making things so difficult? And, you know, the United States waits and waits and waits to have a reason to intervene in Haiti and uses the assassination of a Haitian president to… as a justification for the U.S. occupation because other presidents and other world leaders had been assassinated and where was the U.S.?

The U.S. 1915 Invasion of Haiti

Deborah McDowell: Precisely. [53:00] Tell our audience a little bit more about the US invasion of Haiti in 1915.

Marlene Daut: Yes, so the U.S. invaded Haiti in 1915 and they stayed until 1934 and they were opposed, of course, in various moments during that long time period and led to thousands of deaths and, you know, would talk about the railroads that they built and I mean Aimé Césaire in Discourse on Colonialism references this like it doesn’t matter how many railroads you build it will never, [53:30] he says, weigh so much as one spark of human sympathy that you think lives are worth a piece of machinery on the road that can make transportation easier. And they… the United States also impounds all the Haitian government’s revenue. So, bankrupting the country a second time and this is largely seen for political theorists and for Haitians or historians of Haiti as a watershed moment, they call it. That’s the word people most often used in Haitian history because Haiti never recovers [54:00] from that from their money. Basically the gold coffers being confiscated by the United States. They never recover… debt cycles continue and are exacerbated and there’s a direct link between what happens when the U.S. leaves in 1934 and the rise of the [François] Duvalier regime and the idea again that the only way to fix all of this is an autocratic… to close Haiti off to make… to have autocratic power, the power that rests with one person. At least this is sort of the idea that is promoted to the Haitian people. [54:30] And the sad thing is, and there are other people at this university are experts on this more than I am, Robert Fatton, for example. But the sad thing is that you know life under Duvalier, if you sort of stay out of his way and don’t get disappeared is better for some people it’s always worse for some people, the people always suffer as, you know, Jean Dominique famous radio personality, and he said people always going to suffer under these this kind of and power in general, right? But [55:00] and that doesn’t help the case, right because after the overthrow of Duvalier’s son [Nicholas Duvalier] who’s called Baby Doc, the poverty that we know in Haiti today. This is the moment when that poverty is exacerbated to levels that are unlivable and inconceivable that as human beings we would inflict this kind of debt cycle and like, you know, lack of support for Haitian government [55:30]. I’m thinking the [Jean-Bertrand] Aristide coup, the first one. That we would inflict this on another nation because it’s willful really says a lot about how people in the United States especially but the Western World in quotation marks more generally thinks about black people and the worthiness of their lives because I can’t imagine any other place in the world where people would just allow this situation to occur and, you know, except that in Somalia or in Rwanda or in Ethiopia as [56:00] we have seen, but look at the back-breaking measures that Trump is willing to go for Venezuela, for example. Or that people in the name of Afghanistan or in the name of the Iraqi people and whether or not they actually care about those people are not… but it’s striking. It is striking, and Haiti has no oil and Haitians have pointed that out. They have no oil, they know that the entire policy the United States is to keep patients from coming to the United States at this point.

Deborah McDowell: Yes, which brings me… [56:30] we can’t take unlimited use of your time. But you know back to the famous shithole comment of over a year ago around which we organized a round table. You just I get, you know, reinforce that through the concept of Haiti and that that notion of the shithole country as really epitomizing and compressing the ideas you just talked [57:00] about.

Anti-Colonialism in Haiti

James Perla: So, yeah before finishing up I… there was one sort of clarifying thing. You mentioned one article that was really important in the Constitution. But I wonder if you could speak very briefly on the article about anti-colonial, the anti-colonial nature and that’s just a sort of final detail before… Then I’ll open it up that you have other things to add.

Marlene Daut: Yes, Article 36 basically says that the emperor can never pursue any conquest and references that kind of language that was found in the [57:30] Declaration of Independence of 1804 about Haiti’s not going to become one of the legislators of the Caribbean, that it’s not their job. And actually Baron de Vatey later would say, you know, Haiti is one of the islands in this archipelago and it’s not itself the Caribbean, right? That we… and it’s interesting because abolitionists at the time and later in the 19th century read this as Haiti didn’t come and help the rest of the world. That they didn’t help the rest of the enslaved population. And you know, my interpretation [58:00] of that is that the idea that you can use human lives and another place to extend your philosophy of the world is something that Haitians were unwilling to do for pragmatic reasons. They knew that they could keep the United States or Great Britain for example from invading them if they promised not to intervene in the slave economies of those nations, but also because it extends so far and continues into the 19th century, we see that it really is a part of Haitian [58:30] kind of understandings of their political identity is that… and Haiti to this day has never invaded another country because as the work of Anne Eller, historian of the Dominican Republic, shows in We Dream of Freedom, I think it’s called? When Boyer reunites the two sides of the island, this is done with the explicit consent of the Eastern side of the Spanish side of the island, the Eastern side. It’s a treaty that they make and yes when he’s deposed by the Haitians then the now side that’s the Dominican Republic [59:00] decides to go their own way, but appeals to Haiti to help. They invite Spain back to colonize them again, and then they realize that Spain, which still has slavery in its empire, until astonishingly 1883 in Puerto Rico. For example, they realize that well if we invite Spain to come back, if Spain can bring back slavery here, appeals to the Haitians for help.  And when the Cuban Liberating Army led by Ramón Emeterio Betances wants to [59:30] liberate Cuba from Spain. Who… where do they go? They go to Haitians and say where are the people more than any other who… you must help us, you have to help us. And when the Haitian government under [Guillaume] Fabre Geffrard denies aid to Santo Domingo, the Eastern side of the island, the Haitian people do it anyway, and he has to change course. So, the Haitian people disagree with his policy of non-intervention and take it upon themselves to hide people from the Spanish side. So, from Santo Domingo and so [1:00:00] anti-colonialism in Haiti, while not always in the laws, it doesn’t appear again when their constitutions revised in the 1840s for example, stays with the Haitian people. They… in… during the U.S. occupation. In fact, W.E.B. Du Bois and James Weldon Johnson who both wrote articles just diatribes against what is the United States doing referenced the fact that Haitians had never ever tried to colonize another… that they’d never declared war against another country. And so, [1:00:30] when I think it’s Du Bois who says here are peaceful Haitian citizens. He doesn’t mean that internally in Haiti there’s no problems. He’s saying why are you, another country, them the United States going there to bother these people who he says have they ever hurt an American citizen? Have you ever touched a hair on an American citizen’s head? And so, the idea was that yes, they might have problems and they might be harming one another even and it would be one thing if it was well, let’s help them not… but you [1:01:00] don’t help people not do that by killing them and the… and I’m so that… I think that in the Haitian case of the earlier moments of not intervening, you don’t help people by saying we’re going to bring a war to you because Boisrond-Tonnerre in his… in the first full-length history like sort of immediate history, I should say, that was written after the Haitian revolution in 1805 is called Memory to Serve as the History of Haiti. He says at the end, “Dessalines has shown you the way.” So, who’s he talking to, right? That the keys to this liberty are in your hands [1:01:30] because that the idea is… and this is repeated in like Martin Delaney’s, Blake, for example, is he says we can’t look to Haiti, we have to do it. That Haiti can’t come and save you if you were enslaved here… you have hands and you have feed and you have a voice and you can do it. David Walker said the same thing.

Deborah McDowell: David Walker, in 1829 and yes, absolutely. You teach this course, The Age of Revolutions, and I’m just imagining [1:02:00] pairing documents, for example, pairing the Haitian Revolution, I mean, the Constitution with the Declaration of Independence. What would you want your students to draw from these documents?

Comparing the Founding Documents

Marlene Daut: I actually do that. They compare them. Oh, they think that the Haitian… and these are, you know, we’re at UVA. These are students who have a good education in Jefferson. Most of my students, I took a poll once, [1:02:30] almost all of them were from Virginia. They are very… they know their constitutional U.S. history. They thought the Haitian Revolution was the most radical thing they’d ever seen in… most… the vast majority said why didn’t I know about this? I can’t believe… they are in dismay and disbelief at the U.S. education system that they don’t know this and it helps to put the documents in front of them because it’s not like, oh I’m some ideologue who just wants to prop up Haitians or prop up blackness or like this not racial uplift. This is just a [01:03:00] fact of a document that sits there and you can interpret it. They could have… they’re free and we interpret them they’re to say, well I disagree with and they do they say I disagree with this and that and, you know, our students can be very socially social justice oriented maybe or the ones who take my classes, so they’re not sure that they can go with Dessalines as far as, you know, sort of April Mandate of Death or expulsion of the French, but they understand it, and especially when we read that in light of what happened to Toussaint L’Ouverture, which of course they think is… and that’s another thing. [1:03:30] I think it’s just one of the biggest tragedies in the world because this was a man, a black man, who thought that he really could sit at the table with white power for lack of a better term and negotiate with them and that they would listen. He did everything they wanted. He wrote in his constitution of 1801. We will die here free and French and they still killed him and to me that is a metaphor for the rest of the world is you can capitulate to the powers of whiteness. You could capitulate to authority all you want but at the first moment they [1:04:00] could they killed him. They took him away and they killed him and it didn’t matter that he had gone home to his plantation. was no longer opposing them. 

Deborah McDowell: But he had the temerity originally and for that he had to pay. Yeah, and always you will always have to pay, absolutely. So again, this is a series about Jefferson and kind of the subtitle of the series is Jefferson Beyond Jefferson, and we take that [1:04:30] Jefferson Beyond Jefferson from Michael Hart in an article that he wrote in… he’s largely suggesting that Jefferson begins in many respects as a revolutionary, but that almost none of the revolutionary implications of his work, in writings, especially in the Declaration were ultimately fulfilled and so what we have to do with [1:05:00] Jefferson, he argues, is to take Jefferson beyond Jefferson, take his work and his writings beyond the place where he left them that it then will fall to later philosophers and thinkers to push those ideas through to their practical implementation. All right. So, here we sit and this is a long preamble. So, here we see it at the University of Virginia thinking about Jefferson [1:05:30] for a podcast on his relationship to Haiti. What should we be teaching our students then including and beyond these documents that you just alluded to? What do… What does knowing about Haiti… How does knowing about Haiti recast Jefferson in important lights?

Going Beyond Thomas Jefferson

Marlene Daut: I think that another world is possible because I actually think that that, [1:06:00] you know, when I do get pushed back in my work, it’s along the lines of those who would say, for example, the same thing about Jefferson that you just mentioned that we have to go beyond Jefferson. We have to go beyond the Haitian rulers themselves because could they implement their policies? Did they implement their policies is a different question than whether or not they imagined them. So, the world they imagined in many respects did not come to fruition in some respects it did. They created a black state [1:06:30] that had black political institutions, that had black people at the helm, you know, when Barack Obama was elected president of the United States, I was… I went to Haiti two days after that and I said, what do you think about that? And the first person said, “Barack Obama is an American problem.” Like basically like why are you asking me about that? You know, like I just assumed they cared about that and then the next person said the next person I had this conversation with said, “I’m so glad that the that Haiti that the United States has caught up to Haiti. We had a black president and a black ruler in 1804 and I’m so [1:07:00] glad that it only took you this many years to catch up to us,” right? And so, I think that we have to go beyond the United States. We have to go beyond Jefferson. We have to go beyond Haiti and we have to imagine a more egalitarian world as crazy as it sounds because of course people thought the United States was crazy. People thought the Haitians were crazy and basically all these things that they were doing but also if you would to tell someone in the 19th century that we’d be doing this right now and you’d be [1:07:30] projecting my voice into this box they’d think you were crazy. So, another world is always possible and our lack of imagination baffles me when we have microchips that do like actual magical things that I think we’ve got to come up with better laws and better egalitarian… And we have to dream big, we have to not decide this person in this group won’t agree and let them disagree but let us dream it anyway and let us put it down and paper and let us, you know, leave it for posterity.

Deborah McDowell: That could be a [01:08:00] place of we… that’s so powerful.

James Perla: That’s a wonderful place. Unless there’s anything else you’d like to add, you know, we’re being mindful of your time that it’s a lovely place to conclude this.

Deborah McDowell: It is what world can we imagine. But any burning thoughts, that is a great place end, but any burning thoughts you might have you might want to just… on any topic pertaining however loosely to Jefferson and Haiti or Haiti or Haiti’s implications [1:08:30] for thinking about democracy, egalitarianism or whatever.

Marlene Daut: No, I mean this is a great podcast and a great idea to elaborate on Jefferson’s ideas and the idea of Jefferson as it relates to sort of multiple different strands of things that were important to him in his life because I think that probably as we talked about, the Louisiana Purchase, a lot of people don’t know they know the Sally Hemings story, they probably know oh vice presidency, they know [01:09:00] presidency, they know these things, right? Or they’ve heard of them and of the Declaration of Independence, but I think Haiti is a part of that story that often gets left out even though it’s a really… it was a really important part of the story for him because he lived in the era of the Haitian Revolution and of course because it leads to the Louisiana Purchase and because it calls into question a lot of the policies in the United States. And so, I think kind of that this podcast is going to exist and elaborate on the things [1:09:30] that shaped Jefferson’s world in his life that are undoubtable, you know, Sally Hemings, for example. That it is impossible to see how he could have lived and created policies and moved through this world without thinking about all of these things that he was confronted with every day and that they couldn’t have shaped his mind and his images and since we have so many of his letters. We know that they did.

The Legacy of Sally Hemings

Deborah McDowell: We know that they did. I mean when he is talking about I shudder when I think that God is… I mean he clearly… the spectre [1:10:00] of Haiti, the spectre of Saint-Domingue is in his mind all the time. James, I’m sorry. I did want to ask Marlene about Sally Hemings. We worked, I think, we spent twice as long on the Sally Hemings podcast than on the first episode would you say? Would that be fair to say?

James Perla: Relative, yeah. I mean maybe in terms of intellectual energy, in terms of time commitment. [1:10:30]

Deborah McDowell: Intellectual energy, time commitment, and I’ve come to think Sally Hemings just has fought us at every step of the way. Every time we think we’re done with that episode which was going to come out in in March. She fought us every which way, every time we thought we were done and I would say, James we’re not done, we’re not done. And so, we are now not back to the full drawing board, but we are going back for one [1:11:00] last time. This time, we’re going to let it go no matter what, but we centered that episode in this exhibition at Monticello, right? And Monticello posed this really provocative question in its signage outside the exhibition. Was it rape? Was it affection? Yes, they went there. Yeah, was it affection? Was there compliance? [1:11:30] And that’s the signage, so we thought in… which is why we named the episode, Coming to Terms with Sally Hemings, that we would really try to look at the terms that people invoke in an attempt to understand that relationship.

That what can we… What language can we use that isn’t presentist? That is not anachronistic that still captures the brutality of slavery, right? So, we [1:12:00] kind of let ourselves settle into the two terms that seem to be central in any of these discussions. One is rape and one is love/affection. Love being the extreme, that that’s a bridge too far for many people. So, although I’m just wanting for my own curiosity, what I found is that the one point on which diehard defenders of Jefferson and diehard defenders [1:12:30] of Hemings will agree is on the concept of love from opposite directions. The Jeffersonians say, “Oh no, he couldn’t possibly love her. She was a slave. This was the man. He was a head of state. He was cosmopolitan that he was the most famous man in the world that he would love an enslaved woman? No.” People on the Sally Hemings side love know that its a completely inadmissible term because it denies the brutality of slavery. That the only way [1:13:00] we can talk about this relationship is she was the victim of rape. Now, this is a relationship that was… about which we know very little but we seem to know that it lasted for almost 40 years. All right. So, what are your thoughts about the resistance to imagining a possibility for talking about Sally Hemings as other than the victim, pure and simple, of unwanted sexual aggression? [1:13:00]

Marlene Daut: Oh boy, yeah. That… my understanding from Annette Gordon-Reed’s work and from hearing her speak on several occasions is that her interpretation to a certain extent is that Sally Hemings was a negotiator and she negotiated her survival in a world that was essentially constructed to kill her and I’ve talked about this in writing about Haitian women under slavery in Saint-Domingue. [1:14:00] And so, I would say that Sally Hemings is a radical regardless of how you interpret the relationship because if you survive and you ensure the survival of your children in a system of death that wants to kill them, that wants them to be below the ground. There are enslaved people below the ground at this very site, right? Then I say, I think survival is radical and so she did, in my interpretation, [1:14:30] she did what she had to do and the question of whether she could have fallen in love with him or he with her during that, I mean, I’ve talked about this actually in a different podcast and I said, I mean what is love though? And what is love in the 19th century? And I think that partly we are… and there were plenty of married people in the 19th century who were married because people told them to and there was money given here and they were betrothed or they were first cousins and let’s keep it all in the family like literally the money and whatever the inheritance. So, what is love? [1:15:00] The idea that that if she negotiated her… that she’s like a traitor or that she was… No, but she would have been a woman of her era and her ability to become a woman of her era is remarkable in the sense of deciding that this is a strategic move. That she can ensure that her children can have a better life than she had and this is, you know, the Hemings children. I believe is Eston Hemings, but I could be wrong [1:15:30] that that Gordon-Reed says, you know, wrote this document in which he very much explains. Madison Hemings wrote in which he very much explained his mother’s thoughts on the matter and that in the document, he describes them as having a family, and I think it’s really important not to discount how other people feel about their own lives because we feel so viscerally that which and not wrongly, we feel so viscerally that this is [1:16:00] so blatantly unfair that this was a choice that anyone would even be confronted with and Saidiya Hartman’s words, “you have a choice,” in quotation marks. We feel the injustice of it so strongly that we cannot imagine that someone else is feeling that the feeling that she could live and survive and have a life. And like Harriet Jacobs, Linda Brent, from The Narrative [Incidents of the Life of a Slave Girl] that maybe you feel better going with this person than with that person.

Deborah McDowell: Yes, [1:16:30] and it’s Jacob that says, “It’s better to give oneself to the person you want.” But, you know, again and we reference Annette Gordon-Reed throughout and a variety of other historians, many of them black women, who have written very very engagingly and persuasively about women under slavery in the very… and the gamut of relationships in which they were engaged, but it really continues to baffle me that despite [1:17:00] that research, despite that evidence. For example, Sally Hemings’s sister lived with, got herself purchased by another planter in Virginia and they lived together also for decades. Not as man and wife in the legal sense, because there was no recognition of slave marriages, but they cohabited, they lived together, they had children, and those children benefited with [1:17:30] the bequested property from that relationship. But there is this… It seems to me the baffling thing is that despite what we know, we don’t want to acknowledge that Sally Hemings might have had a relationship with this man who was her enslaver. That that is a possibility. Why can’t we… Why is the question so unthinkable? You’re absolutely [1:18:00] right in asking what is love in the 19th century because love is like any emotion. It’s something that lives in history. Yeah. Absolutely. When people talk about Sally Hemings as having been raped and Jefferson as having been a pedophile, the age of consent at that moment is ten. Alright. And so, it’s as if we don’t want to honor, we don’t want to listen to what we know about the history of the time. So, I just thought I would ask you that question because people [1:18:30] fight tooth and nail that it is impossible to even introduce this idea into the equation. And so, you know, I have been trying to adapt the work of people like Martha Nussbaum or Eduardo Bonilla-Silva in talking about political emotions. That people really aligning themselves, really [1:19:00] based on an idea of history and what you suffered literally or what your ancestors suffered, and that commits you to an interpretation. Yes. And that interpretation can… it trumps historical knowledge.

Marlene Daut: And I mean to people who would say that it was impossible for there to have been any kind of version of love, I would just say, “Have you ever loved a bad person?” [1:19:30]

Deborah McDowell: Yes. There is no one who can say… who has been in love… I can write the book. I say I am a card carrying member of the romantically challenged club. So, yes.

Marlene Daut: Have you ever loved a bad man? Has a woman ever loved a bad man? You can understand exactly how it could happen because think about Jefferson’s mind that… People talk about this great mind that Sally Hemings, as a feeling person, also the idea that she isn’t a sexual person [1:20:00], that she, that black women, enslaved women in particular, but actually also black women in general, do not… are not sexual beings. I think a lot of that is folded into it. But also that she couldn’t have thought that he was charismatic.

Deborah McDowell: Right! He’s the most powerful man in world at this particular time, you know. And anyway, I’ll just mention this one last thing. Or do we have time to mention one last thing.

James Perla: I don’t think… Well you said you had a meeting.

Marlene Daut: Yeah, I have to go.

James Perla: We’re already overtime. [1:20:30] But, yeah, thank you so much for… This was very helpful in thinking about two episodes now.

Mia Bay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JAMES PERLA: Oh and James Hemings too was there?

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

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

MIA BAY: Switching topics from cars to Thomas Jefferson.

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

JAMES PERLA: Thats for sure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JAMES PERLA: And why is that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JAMES PERLA: An anti-racist reading of…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MIA BAY: All right.

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

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.

Dean Ian Baucom

James Perla: Alright, perfect. So just to test your levels, it’s the first day of the semester. How are you feeling about 2018?

Dean Ian Baucom: I’m excited. I had the chance to welcome all of our first year students yesterday. One of my favorite events of the year. I give them their first formal lecture. So I feel invigorated about their presence and the faculty were gathered. So now lots of work ahead.

Deborah McDowell: In fact, speaking then of addressing the students we had a question about one of your first lectures to the student body as Dean where you talked about or challenged students, you to mentioned to students, we have a quote from that lecture, “Question what you need to question, follow what you need to follow, revolt against what is wrong, fight for what is right, bring all your passions your energies, your convictions, your thoughts, your individual talents, to the history and tradition of this place to conserve it and to make it new.” This is a very powerful statement and quite Jeffersonian. Could you talk a bit about the role of asking difficult questions in a conservative Institution? Or tradition, an institution steeped in tradition?

IB:  I’d be happy to. There was a piece behind that there’s a famous essay by TS Eliot called tradition and the individual talent and I was thinking about that and part of what Elliot is arguing is that any long tradition, he’s talking about a tradition of literature isn’t simply something that is inherited by subsequent generations. Um, but changed by subsequent generations, by the way, they inherit it. Um, but also by what they do that is a departure from it that throws the past into questions so that the moments that follow really need to think about themselves as engaging, wrestling, disagreeing with the past, and in some ways changing the meaning of the past, ideally. This is a place that is grounded in a sense of its traditions, its history, its time steeped. There’s Great Value in that but also places that are deeply aware of their history can sometimes be frozen in their history. can sometimes act as if history is something that we only need to review and not something that we need to contest and so the question that I wanted to ask of students that I hope that I ask of myself is what can you take from this place that will inspire and change you but acknowledging that any great historic place is also broken and is founded on moments of brokeness. And lives still broken and while I didn’t want to say to them these are the three particular challenges to take on, it was an invitation, a request, an exhortation to look around to study their history not just to revel in it and to imagine that their task is not only to learn but to cause the institution to learn something about itself by their being here.

DMcD: So in our present moment, um taken all that you’ve said, what is the responsibility of this institution to challenge that history, to try to alter that history, uh, and if need be to write what can be collectively conceded to be historical wrongs.

IB: I think it’s profound, you know, Debra is you know, there’s an notion that’s important in all of our fields of study something called standpoint epistemologies. And to me what that means is that we know the world abstractly but we have to know it more than abstractly we have to know it from the very particular place where we stand, so where do we stand? You know, we stand in Albemarle County. Um, we stand at a university that reveres its founder and and reveres Jefferson for many reasons that are inspirational, but we stand in a place whose founding was also found in violence, was found in the violence of slavery, was found in the violence of the exclusion of women, was found at the exclusion of any person who wasn’t property owner. And I think we have a particular obligation to those histories. They’re not the only ones but we have to reckon with our past. We have to study it. This is something that [5:00] Carter Woodson has been inspirational for for decades. We’re a knowledge Institution. Uh, we need to research our past. We need to study it. We need to investigate it. We need to question it and if we don’t we can’t be a living institution and we can’t live, um justly with the past that contains multiple injustices and a present that is governed and instructed by multiple injustices. It’s essential to what a university is.

DMcD:  I want to follow up on that. We are an institution like all institutions of Higher Learning in the business of reproducing knowledge. But what would you say to the assertion that at critical moments it is for some institutions simply enough to know. to delve, to create syllabi, to create courses, to invite guest lecturers, and that the knowing becomes a substitute for doing how would you answer that or would you agree with that? You may not.

IB: That’s a really important and complicated question. So I think I’d give two responses because we’re Scholars. Because we study and teach and research I do believe that knowing is a form of doing. I believe in the product of knowledge. And I know I know that I know that we share that and so I don’t I don’t think that those things are by definition opposed.

[Pause because of truck sounds]

JP: The benefit and the downside of having an office in the center of our beautiful grounds.

IB: For growing that we have a structure. So and I know I know that I know that we share that and that we don’t think that those things are opposed, that said, knowledge is also something to act on. We know for instance that the history of this place has been that it has been a, for the vast majority of its history, for the vast majority of its people, a white institution. Knowing the history that enable that, knowing the exclusions that enabled that is not enough. We have to become a different place. We have to become a place where we are a University of black faculty, of queer faculty, faculty who are Muslim and Jewish and Sikh and Buddhists and Hindus. We have to act on that knowledge. We have to know that we are an institution of enormous wealth and privilege in a city in which many of the people who work at the University are not people of enormous wealth and privilege and we have to act to ensure that the conditions of work, of possibility of real inclusion are met it’s not enough to name it. Uh we have to act on it. We know that we are an institution that was founded in its curriculum of study with a privilege and a priority for traditions of thought that are important and meaningful but that flow, have flown primarily from a Euro-American line of understanding. We have to act to ensure that we study the history of the world the cultures of the world in all of their range and then again to kind of return the question of standpoint epistemologies. To raise some of those questions as particularly important to race here. And again the work of the Carter Woodson Institute for years in knowing and acting on histories of Black Culture in the states and around the world is an example to me of the kind of work that we need to do.

DMcD: Thank you. Um, one of the questions that fascinated me or one of the points you made repeatedly when you were a candidate for dean was that this University must be the University of both Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. And the first time I heard you say it I said well look around yourself, feast on your surroundings the sounds, the sights because I suspect that assertion has killed your chances for ever being a dean. And so then you made it from that stage to the next stage to the next stage and then finally having accepted the position to the honeymoon tour where you continued to repeat that and most recently you inserted it [10:00] into a statement on the eve of August 11th and 12th. And so there are many people who have asked me do you know what the dean means by that? I say I think I do but perhaps we should ask the dean himself. So?

IB: I’d be happy to I actually want to begin though by thanking you Deborah. I think I think I was probably in a room with you. Yes, I think it was a meeting of chairs and directors when I was being interviewed where I first said that. You have been a, I mean this, important and inspirational to me and reminding me that this is something that I said and that I’ve said more than once and that words too need to have integrity and words too need to have actions that follow and I think, you know, a question that I want to keep alive in my mind is to what extent have I failed as a Dean? Have I succeeded with colleagues or failed as a Dean in trying to find ways in action to make that statement more true? What I mean by it… a couple of things. It’s an attempt to recognize our Origins. Uh to name and rename Our Moment of founding we talk a lot about our founding and our founder, but we were founded by more than a Founder. We were founded by a community in Liberty and a community in bondage. We were founded and built by people who were enslaved. Sally hemings was there at our beginning. And in some ways it’s a fairly simple attempt to recognize the plurality in the brokenness of that founding. It’s a recognition statement. I try to think of it as a, an attempt to name to whom we belong. Whose are we? Whose children are we? Whose Generations are we? and there’s something very particular about Sally Hemings and the duration of women and men, black women and men, African American women and men to whom we need to belong. There’s something, to me, symbolic about saying Sally Hemings. As a woman whose name, names many who for many years were not allowed to belong this institution. But to whom we belong, Republic. And it’s a statement of aspiration not of who we are yet, but of who we need to be. I think of it as a challenge as much to myself as anyone else. What would it mean to make that true in practice and action and not only in recognition and from that perspective, um, have we yet fully become Sally Hemings University? No, we haven’t. That work isn’t done but that’s how I that’s how I try to think that’s how I try to think of it. And and I will say that when I use those words in the message that I want to send to faculty, part of what was important to me was to put into writing for any audience that might read it that conviction so that I could be held to account.

DMcD:  Thank you for a very thorough, very nuanced star response to that question. And I want to pull one concept from it and that is the power and the necessity of the symbolic. We all recognize how important symbols are. And on our journey as an institution if I could define our stages [15:00] very schematically and for that reason very inadequately, I would say we are now at the phase of renewed symbol making. Symbol making as it attaches to a bid to rectify historical wrongs. Right? And I worry about our being frozen there because however important symbols are by their very nature they stand for things that are connected to rigidity, to fixity especially in the form of monuments, let us say. So as we busy ourselves changing the names of buildings.

I’m reminded of a line and an Alice Walker story where two characters are in conversation and one says to the other, the one posing the question was not from the Southern US, so she says to the other character, “So what happened when the signs came down, when you no longer saw ‘colored waiting room,’ ‘white waiting room,’ ‘colored water fountain,’ ‘white water fountain,’ what happened?” And the other character says, “Nothing.” She says, “What do you mean nothing?” She says “Oh, yes, there were some changes around the fringes but the signs had already done their work.” And I’ve always loved that line. So how do we ensure that we not get stuck in the symbol making, symbol marking phase of change.

IB:  I don’t know that I know. You know?I mean I can I can give you my honest thoughts but I don’t know that I know. One way to know is to actually never stop asking that question. I mean, I’ll try to answer it but but actually recognize that uh to recognize that that symbols are important. Maybe it’s thinking about symbols as a kind of writing. You and I know that the act of writing doesn’t end when the word is written on the page. The act of writing begins when someone begins to read and when they’re changed by what they read and we believe that reading does have the capacity to actually change how we act. If we put up symbols and think that they are the final act, they’re about closing the book, about concluding a reckoning, then the symbols become a kind of writing that is dead and writings got to live. I do think symbols are important. I do think that the built landscape of a place is important. I think that the signs that it gives, the invitations that it makes, the statements about have we thought about who we are? who are you? who gets to read these signs? Who sees what do you see in them? Do you see some kind of reflection of yourself? And I think those are important but they have to be invitations for us then to say well now what is to be done? And the, what is to be done? And what is to be done at a knowledge institution? What is to be done in terms of the courses? We teach in courses we haven’t taught. I really believe in teaching. What have we done in terms not only of a monument that is built but the living bodies who move through a place? Who are we? who is our body politic? does the body politic reflect those sides or does it not and if it doesn’t the sign should be a constant invitation to us that we have, we have failed. We have not yet concluded. We’ll never conclude. They have to be invitations to a program of research and study and scholarship. And, and I think it’s only if we are active readers, critical readers and the way in which reading is always a kind of an act of contestation. Right? It’s understanding and it’s kind of wrestling then we won’t be done. And so I think the signs need to be there because the signs are around us no matter what we’re surrounded by them. [20:00] Right? So we need to we need to add signs, we need complicate signs, we’ve got to, we have to respond and teach and think and act and work, you know as you’ve worked when the stories you told me the story about the young women and men from some of the Charlottesville high schools that you’re working with, the summer students who have conveyed to you that they couldn’t have imagined that this could be their University too. Those students we want, to wish to be our students so that they’re not frozen monuments, that they’re living bodies changing who we are.

DMcD:  Well our time is coming to an end. We wanted we knew we were going to hold to 30 minutes because we know how valuable your time is. But one last question, we plan to start, that could change, the series with a conversation about the fallout to August 11th and 12th. I’m thinking in particular about the shrouding of the statute. In a sense when students shrouded that statue, they were making a statement about transforming traditions and there have been different responses to protecting and not protecting to veiling to unveiling as they wrestled themselves with these with the tradition of this University as it is, it’s Jefferson as the emblem. And so wherever you’d like to take that perhaps given what you just said there are calls as you know for increased diversity at UVA everywhere particularly in the faculty ranks. And so you’ve alluded to that being one way of making change. What is this is long-winded and rambling I apologize. What do you see as the greatest impediments to that and what might need to change in our approach both to hiring faculty and in our approach to diversity in order to achieve diversity? I hope that’s clear because I got to the questions circuitously.

IB: I’ll start with wrestling and then see if I can if I can get there. So one of my favorite biblical stories, yeah is the story of Jacob wrestling.

DMcD: Wrestling with that angel, right?

IB: Wrestling with that angel. And he wrestled all night. Um his hip was thrown out of joint and it hurt and then he had a new name. He had a new name. Um, we’ve gotta wrestle, we’re going to um, we’re going to say and do and need to say and do things. That are going to be experienced as hurtful. And if and if and if we and if that doesn’t happen, then we’re not wrestling. We gotta wrestle and so it’s going to be hard. And in part I want to say that because I don’t have an easy answer, Deborah. It’s not easy. I think one of the impediments that might have stood in our way is a hesitation to wrestle, um, you know, my colleague Bill Chafe historian of civil rights, um who wrote an important book on civil rights and civility and I believe in civil conversation. I believe in all of the parts that we disagree, we contend, we debate, but we’re respectful so in that sense, I believe in civility. But part of Bill’s, as you know part of Bill’s argument, it’s that the insistence on a certain kind of civility can be a way of making people be quiet and not to allow that struggle for civil rights to be realized and so civility is one of these complicated things right that we’ve got to wrestle with. We have to be respectful. We have to be willing to listen and have our minds change but we’re going to we’re going to hurt each other. [25:00] We’re going to wrestle with each other and I think that that might have been an impediment that has stood in the way, right? The discomfort of contending in a certain kind of a common love, right? for something that we care about with each other. I think structure matters. We’ve talked about this. The acts of well-intentioned people are vital but an institution moves on from one generation of person to another and you’ve got to bed in the structure of the institution what matters. We’ve talked about why something like the notion of endowment is important and it’s not just philanthropic. Endowment means to anchor into in inalterably the life of a place, a commitment in the present to the future. I think one of the things that’s really going to take to change just to make sure that as you and colleagues hopefully with me working together move one step at a time that we find the ways to ensure that those steps can’t be walked back. I think frankly something like this podcast series open public, honest conversation. Taking scholarship into the public sphere, demonstrating to a world beyond that in Charlottesville, that we’re willing to talk and be and think difficulty with each other as important. Maybe one last thing can somebody, you know, I’ve talked about before. It’s thinking about the difference between crisis conditions and chronic conditions. August 11th and 12th, that white supremacist attack on a city, at a university, and an idea of who we need to be together was a critical moment. But when crisis repeats time and time and time again then you’re in a chronic condition. Not trying to be after, not trying to be done with, but saying that this is a chronic brokenness and challenge. If we can live that with conviction, I think faculty will want to be here to join an enduring work.

DMcD:  Thank you. I’ll I want to add one thing. Not that I was asked about. I love Jacob wrestling with the angel. But I also like the story of Nehemiah and Nehemiah has many opponents. I’ve come to learn in my life that opposition is the price of favor. And opposition, however difficult it is to confront, it’s typically a sign that you’re doing something right. And so when sanballat and Tobiah and the rest of the naysayers down below keep calling for Nehemiah to come down off the wall he says” I have a job to do, I have a job to do” and at no time does he permit their distractions which then turned into rumors which then turn into lies which then turn into paranoiac speculations to pull him off the wall and I think we have to stay on the wall. We have to stay on the wall.

JP: Wonderful. Well, thank you so much for time. Is there anything else you’d like to say before concluding? I think that was a fantastic conversation. Good, we’ll definitely be keeping stay in touch about the progress as we mentioned, we’ll share whatever clips that we plan to use and be sure to pass them all to you ahead of time.

IB: What do you want me to… I can’t remember, are you going release all at once or sequentially?

DMcD: No, no, sequentially.

JP: Hopefully month by month. We’re actually meeting with the bicentennial fund that’s what is funding this podcast series. We’re meeting with them tomorrow morning and so we’re going to nail down kind of the production and release schedule. The tentative plan was to release month by month, starting in fall, starting this fall possibly mid to late September, but if we speak with the bicentennial and realize that it’s better to release, you know closer together and you know and have more time on the front end to produce then we might go for that one as well. But obviously we want to be sure that we leave ample time for all of our collaborators and the people that we’ve interviewed to be able to review [30:00] the material before releasing.

Yeah. Thank you so much for your time.

[Idle conversation following the interview]

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