Interviewee: Robert Fatton, Jr., Julia A. Cooper Professor of Government and Foreign Affairs in the Department of Politics at the University of Virginia
Interviewer(s): Deborah E. McDowell; James Perla
Interview date: 2018-06-15
Interview Summary: This interview with Robert Fatton Jr.,the Julia A. Cooper Professor of Government and Foreign Affairs in the Department of Politics at the University of Virginia, delves into Jefferson’s controversial view on the country of Haiti. Fatton discusses the relationship between Haiti and the U.S. since the Haitian Revolution and the ways in which Jefferson’s language describing Haiti as a “republic of cannibals” has reemerged in the present discourse.
Keywords: Haiti, Haitian Revolution, Toussaint Louverture, France, Sally Hemings
Transcription: Hahna Cho
Sally Hemings Exhibition at Monticello
Deborah McDowell: Yeah, you know I’m just thinking about… my mind is roving over a whole range of things. I haven’t yet seen the new exhibition at Monticello.
Robert Fatton, Jr.: Oh!
DM: That’s supposedly devoted to Sally Hemings.
RF: That’s interesting.
DM: Yes, and oh, yes I want to see it in different lights. I want to see it. As a private person, I want to see it in with a group of friends, and then I want to take a group of students there because it is all based on the imagination. Or an imaginary Sally Hemings because there, you know, maybe there was one photograph maybe and that photograph bore a strong resemblance to Martha Washington because they were half sisters but it’s an exhibition that is imagining a Sally Hemings down to her space in the big house, as it were. And so we, it makes me think that here we are now, for however long we will be I don’t know, at a moment where at least Monticello, which is the caretaker of, in part, of Jefferson’s memory, his legacy, especially as an icon. That that narrative seems to be changing. That people seem to be open to changing the narrative about Thomas Jefferson if only by acknowledging that Sally Hemings existed. She existed as someone in possibly a long-term relationship with him and someone in a relationship with him that resulted in the birth of children and yet it all has to be imagined and there is an element of speculation about everything, right? That we don’t know… this is where we think she slept, right? And all of that. So, thinking about the absence of the kind of iconic figure, the face of which is beaming from every poster, billboard, or lunch counter, if you will. That that’s absent in Cuba but still is very much alive here. So, this is not so much a question but a kind of long-winded preamble to try to have us just… into it. But what I found interesting is that there are two interpretations warring not violently with each other even with this new Jefferson that we’re trying to imagine. Because in the New York Times’ review of the exhibition, the young people who are responsible for setting up the exhibition, who want to invoke the issue of rape basically want to say on the museum or the exhibition placards, “Jefferson raped Sally Hemings.” And yet there are other historians now retired from Monticello who are obviously taking umbrage, but they don’t want to say that in so many words. So, someone for example like Cinder Stanton says “Well, how do you talk about a person raping another person for thirty plus years?” That that’s unimaginable. We don’t think of that as rape. If there are sexual relations between people over the span of thirty-five years, we aren’t inclined to view that as rape. And so all of that is a long way into saying that these narratives die hard even when people think that they are open to rethinking them.
Interpretations of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings' Relationship
DM: The iconic figure of Jefferson dies hard. Not only that, and I must say myself as not a person who is not worshipping at the shrine of Jefferson, I too kind of bristle at the thought that Jefferson is being represented as having raped Sally Hemings and it all got me thinking about the extreme interpretations that all of us have been, in a way, in the grip of for quite a while. That there is [5:00] not much room for nuance. Either he raped her or he didn’t.
RF: The thing though is that because of the racism, extreme racism of the period because of slavery, whatever Jefferson did to a slave could not be rape because it was a thing. So, the idea even if he did in fact rape her, in his eyes, it’s not rape because it’s a thing that is out there, it’s an object, it’s not a full human being. And when you read Jefferson’s writings about the sexual desires of black men and black women it is absolutely horrific. In The Notes on Virginia [sic], I mean when he talks about, you know, the orangutan, it’s really, it’s terrorizing for someone who is not white and not a slave owner because that’s the way he sees it. So, in his eyes, whatever he did to any slave couldn’t be seen as some sort of relation between two different human beings because one was not quite a human being.
DM: Yeah two different orders of species, right?
RF: And Jefferson went back and forth because he does say at some points that maybe they are inferior. But other points he doesn’t seem to say so. He was conflicted about whether there was a real biological difference that would essentially say that one race was completely superior over the other. At other points he does seem to say so and that’s very clear.
DM: And he equivocates. He constantly equivocates.
A Republic of Cannibals
RF: Yeah, absolutely. And at that period, Jefferson was probably one of the most reactionary individuals who had read about the Enlightenment among whites. You know, there are plenty of whites who were abolitionists and his relation with Haiti it’s very clear that he comes, well, he called, you know, the Haitians the republic of cannibals. So, that is the way he saw it. But on the other hand, at certain moments because of geopolitical and economic interest he would curb his racism because you wanted to weaken, on the one hand, the French which meant that you could, you know, in a very duplicitous way allow American merchants to give weapons to the Haitian Revolution, the slave revolutionaries, and you could continue commerce that was good for the merchant and the bankers of the United States, but on the other hand you would tell the French, “No we are with you and we are going to starve Toussaint.” So, for a while the US’s merchant relationship, economic relationship with Haiti and it probably would have continued if Adams had stayed in power. But once the revolution is over, once Haiti becomes independent, then there’s a complete change of policy. It is an embargo, he doesn’t want to have anything to do with Haiti, Haitians, the Haitian leader at the time, Dessalines, sent him a letter telling him “I’m not going to do anything in terms of exporting my revolution, but we need to have relations” and he never answers.
DM: So, everything for Jefferson is expedient from your description. Everything is expedient.
RF: Well, yes, and no. Because there is the issue of race, which is always in the background because when he’s talking about Haiti under Toussaint [L’Ouverture] which was kind of an autonomous state not yet independent, this is also the potential to give independence to Haiti, so Haiti could be a colony for black people. Send them there. But he says at the same time it has to be contained. And he says, when he uses the word, the pest has to be contained on the island. So, that’s kind of a colony for black people, to export black people from the United States. So, he has at one moment the idea the independence might not be such a bad thing provided on the other hand that Haitians would not have a navy and would not have any weapons. So, he wanted a completely pacified island for his colonial purposes.
DM: I’m really interested in the last few minutes you’ve made reference to Jefferson’s [10:00] description of Haiti as “a republic of cannibals” and then Haitian people are pests. This language of, you’re right, it’s not, it does not place Haitian citizens in the realm of humanity, right?
RF: But on the other hand, he looked at Toussaint as somewhat, “what a weird guy,” you know? He’s defying some of the things I’m thinking about black people but he’s still…
DM: He’s still a pest.
Haitian Independence versus U.S. Independence
RF: Yeah, he’s still a pest. And he looks also at Haiti as… and it’s not just Jefferson. Madison says the same thing that they need a despot at the head of Haiti because that’s the only way you can contain people who were slaves who’ve become free. There is a vision that if you give freedom to the slaves, that is going to be horrific because they are going to kill, kill, and kill. So, there is that vision. Now, I’ve just read an article, which is kind of peculiar article, saying that Jefferson when he talked about Haiti as the republic of cannibals, he was not really referring to Haitians, per se, he was referring to the Jacobins. The French Jacobins. But that is kind of a weird thing. A lot of the American leaders at the time thought that the French Revolution went too far in terms of the killings under Robespierre. But, I read the letter that where he uses Haiti as the republic of cannibals, a letter to Aaron Burr, and I don’t see how you can explain that expression without looking at the direct connection to Haiti. But there is that thing that in fact he may have also wanted to talk about the Jacobins. But we know that Jefferson was a Francophile and he was more sympathetic to the revolution than Adams, I mean they were really terrified about the excesses of the revolution. So, I think that that description is still the one that should hold. That he sees that and when he talks about the pests contained, that’s also about Haiti. So, and he wants to embargo and he wants to quarantine the island if it gets independent and when it got its independence, that’s exactly what he did.
James Perla: So, the comment about that a despot should rule over Haiti, that comes after independence?
RF: That comes before and after. That if there is to be independence, in any case it’s going to be a despot because that’s the only way those people can be ruled. They are not yet ready for our kind of democracy, as it were, but that’s part also of the way American leaders are the vision of America’s exceptional place in the world because when you look at the United States it was hardly a democracy. First, you had slavery obviously, but most people didn’t have the vote. It’s about 5% of the population which had the vote and they were all whites who owned property and all male. So, the idea there was a democracy is really a far-fetched idea. It’s kind of, you know, the building of founding, foundational myth about democracy because there was no democracy at the time even though that you talk about, you know, the equality of people, etc, etc. But there was no such thing even in terms of the French eyes. So, and this is, all countries do the same thing among the Haitians when they created Haiti. You know, whether it be [Jean-Jacques] Dessalines or Toussaint, the other vision of Haiti was exceptional, the most radical revolution of all places, which it was actually at that time, but they were despots all of them without exception. When they took power they ran the show like messianic leaders and you can you know Toussaint was declared governor for life in his own Constitution, Dessalines became the first leader of Haiti after independence in 1804 and in the very first speech he gives he says you people you’d better watch out and you should never disobey me. He says that. And that’s the way they ran the show and they became emperors, so you have that kind of vision that we are doing something completely new, very different but the structures of inequality, the structures of domination are all there. And those are founding myths and this is very difficult. I don’t want American or Haitian to look at it and say well they were, those people were really despots.
JP: So, you’re saying the two were almost competing…
RF: They’re kind of two competing for, obviously the United States is much more powerful. So, therefore [15:00] the exception is of the United States does matter not just what United States but for the rest of the world because the exceptional idea of the United States is that this is “the city on the hill” and that it’s exporting democracy all over and that if you don’t follow our way, well, it’s going to be our way or else. Especially if you’re in the Caribbean. Whereas Haiti could say whatever they wanted, but it had no impact because we didn’t have the power. And essentially Haiti relinquishes any revolutionary vision the very day that it becomes independent because they are fearful that if they spread the revolution elsewhere, I mean in terms of slaves getting their freedom, that they will be destroyed and they would have been destroyed by the United States or by the French or by the British or a combination of all of them. So, there is a difference between exceptionalism that is for national consumption, but has no real power and one that is for not only national consumption, but that is for also international consumption backed by the power of the most powerful nations. So, those are different kinds of exceptionalism, but the myths are very similar.
DM: One is much more rhetorical, and one is rhetorical with a lot of back, of force of ammunition.
RF: Of force of power. Absolutely. And that’s very clear.
DM: You know, it’s been a while since I read C.L.R. James’, The Black Jacobins. Does he talk at all about Jefferson in Haiti?
Who is French? The Black and French Jacobins
RF: He doesn’t talk much about it because he looks obviously the title of the book is The Black Jacobins. So, it’s much more vision of the Haitian revolutionaries as espousing, if you wish, the bourgeois democratic revolution of 1789 than the American Revolution. So, it’s a continuity between the Jacobins and… the French Jacobins and the so-called Black Jacobin. And Toussaint was a Francophile. So, it was very clear and he used to send letters to the French leaders, especially to Napoleon saying “du premier de noir au premier de blanc”, “to the first white from the first black.” That’s the way he saw himself. And he was a Francophile and he was in some ways very radical in other ways very conservative and I think the idea of France and the French Revolution, even when Napoleon became the main leader in France, led him to trust the French. And he was, you know, trapped in Haiti and he was captured and sent to France and he died in France and the letters that he writes, a letter saying “What are you doing to me? I’m a French general.” And “what about my family? I can’t see them. How can you treat the French general, someone who’s been…” and Napoleon doesn’t even bother to answer it.1
DM: So, there is French and there is French? Who’s French?
RF: Yeah that and this is one of the things with after, Toussaint, once he is sent into exile in jail in France, Dessalines decides we are not going to have anything to do with the French, we’re going to kill them. And he says this very clearly, you know, and he takes the French flag and the white part of the French flag he destroys. And he puts the red and the blue which is the Haitian flag. So, that is also very… Dessalines is not a Francophile. I mean, he hates the French. He doesn’t trust them, he thinks they are slave owners and that they are killing slaves. There is no place for friends and he doesn’t want them and the first constitution says no single inch of the Haitian territory can be owned by whites and he really means the French.
DM: It’s very interesting when you start looking at people who are apostles of freedom, who are freedom fighters, who give their lives for the cause of freedom and for many people that means some kind of unqualified investment in the countries they seek to liberate, right? That, this is an imperfect analogy, but as you were just talking about, Toussaint as Francophile, I was thinking about [Frederick] Douglass because my niece and nephew went to the museum and came back with lots of questions about Douglass and you know Douglass is one of the leading abolitionists. He’s clearly the premiere [20:00] speaker on the abolition circuit throughout the 19th century. And yeah, he was really quite identified with interests that many people would consider quite conservative and at the end of his life, is very much somebody who was a supplicant on the day of [Abraham] Lincoln’s second election or inauguration…. [cough] he’s… no, it wouldn’t have been [his second inauguration]…. I need to verify this, in any case, he has become something of a supplicant: “Don’t you know who I am? I am Frederick Douglass” And everybody’s saying well, you may think that means something but it doesn’t mean anything to us. So, he becomes very much a person who was trying to claim his own black exceptionalism before people who, I mean even if Lincoln is going to sign the Emancipation Proclamation, we know all the complications of that. That it’s black people who really fought for and rested their own freedom, that Lincoln was not their great emancipator, but it is Douglass who keeps thinking that he can somehow mediate between black people and those in power and that those in power could actually find him a more palatable black person to deal with.
RF: The thing with Toussaint is that, as you know, Toussaint was a slave then he became a slave owner and then he became someone who fought against slavery and he was not one of the first ones. But then he became the leader because he was truly a military genius. But he… during the, there were several powers in Haiti: the Spaniards, the British, the French, and he was in the mid-1790s, he was with the Spaniards. But the French Assembly declared that slavery was abolished and there was a French commissioner who was a Jacobin and an abolitionist and he introduced a proclamation in Haiti in 1794, I think, or 1793, I would need to check on that but saying that the slaves were freed in the north of the country in particular there was some ambiguity. So, once he heard that, he shifted and he trusted the French because he thought that the Jacobin, and this is again to go back to James’ book, that is why he had the conviction “well the French are different, maybe” because they are abolishing slavery. “The Jacobins are different people.” They are not like, you know, the Spaniards they are doing it and they are proclaiming it, this a real break with the past. So, there is that kind of affinity with the Jacobin but Toussaint was a conservative guy. And it was also a conservatism that was brought about by the Haitian economy.
Code Noir: France's Regulation of Slave Trade
RF: The Haitian economy functioned on slavery and on sugar. So, once you abolish slavery, you had a real problem because how are you going to get the economy going when it’s completely dependent on sugar? So, what all the Haitian leaders, not just Toussaint, up until the 1820s, they impose really a nasty what is called a “Code Noir” and it’s essentially forced labor on the plantations. It’s not slavery, but it is forced labor and it’s really very a tough thing, even kids are involved. So, the idea was that the only way that Haiti could survive is by having flourishing plantations. The only way that the plantation economy at that particular time could be beneficial was if you had forced labor, not necessary slavery, but forced labor. And there is even some writings of Toussaint saying well, we may even import some slaves from Africa to do the dirty work. So, it was a complicated period after 1804, slavery is abolished but the Code Noir, Toussaint wants, [Alexandre] Pétion wants it, but I mean all of the successive leaders, [Henri] Christophe wants it, because that’s the only way you can survive. The problem though is that the slaves would have none of it. I mean, they fought for slavery and they were essentially people, as we say in Haiti, they were involved in marronage continuously. The state could say something that we would evade and we would get a little plot of land and that would be that so they could never impose [25:00] the Code Noir effectively. And the other problem was that there was, the United States was not in the business of doing business with Haiti, which was the real problem and the French were not in that business either. So, once Haiti gets its independence, it is kind of cordoned off as kind of a rogue state.
JP: And so what’s “marronage?”
RF: Marronage is essentially the idea that slaves would escape slavery and do their own thing. But it’s a much more complicated issue. But in Haiti and in Jamaica marronage became a significant phenomenon, whereby slaves would escape and create their communities outside of the plantations and there was some compromise between the leaders of the maroons and the slave owners. So, it’s a complicated…
JP: And it enters into the language as a term of resisting?
RF: It’s kind of resisting by escaping, moving around the issues, you know, the government tells you to do something, you say yes, but you do the opposite.
DM: It’s associated with the former fugitivity. You see, unlike escape say for blacks escaping from slavery on various plantations on the US mainland, because when you escaped from slavery under those conditions, you are escaping that plantation, you were removing yourself from that environment, from that land. But maroons are living in contiguous physical relationship to the country. Just separate and apart. In a different social universe.
RF: Yes, in a different community. And there were tensions at the beginning of the Haitian Revolution between maroons and slaves because they were not necessarily on the same side. They have different interests and then you have the conflict also between the slaves who had just arrived, which were called in Haiti, boussole. And the slaves who had been in Haiti for a long time who were born in Haiti. The significant number of the slaves who were born in Haiti were the leaders of you see of the revolution and that created a stratification between the local indigenous, if you wish, population and those who have just arrived. And the term boussole in Creole means that you’re kind of inferior. So, that remains as something, you know, that you’re not quite educated etc., etc. So, but there was a tension and then you have obviously in Haiti you at the racial tension between the mulattoes and the blacks and that was a real, I mean, there were civil wars between the different camps here.
Suppressing the Spread of Revolutionary Ideals
DM: So if you were, Robert, to talk to any general community of readers and generally educated people about Jefferson’s relationship to Haiti, what would it be? What would be the philosophical takeaways? What would be the political takeaways when we think about Jefferson and Haiti?
RF: Well, he clearly, his sympathies were not with the slaves and with the slaves who had revolted. Once they revolted on the same geopolitical and economic interest, you could reach a compromise which they, which he did. In spite of his racist convictions. But once Haiti became independent, that was a different matter because one of the things that Jefferson was really concerned about was the spread of the ideas of the Haitian Revolution and this is a very important phenomenon. I mean this is, you can sense it, you read it, it’s there. There is a very famous Haitian anthropologist by the name of [Michel] Rolph Trouillot who said that Haiti was not thinkable. That is wrong. That is simply wrong. Haiti was so thinkable. That’s why they were so terrified about Haiti. And even before the Revolution, the French were thinking about the possibility of a slave revolution. During, obviously, it was there and when you read this stuff that they write about Haiti, it’s not that it was not thinkable, it was too thinkable. They were terrified and once Haiti becomes independent, then you want, you don’t want to talk about it. So, if you wanted silence. But it’s the silence [30:00] that exists because you are so terrified about the existence of the very phenomenon that you are denying.
DM: And clearly when you read other aspects of Jefferson’s writings, I mean that is a completely imaginable claim in proposition because he is saying pretty much if there is the emancipation of slaves in the US, then these people who were formerly enslaved must be sent off shore. You need to get these people out of here. And you need to get them out of here because the tensions that have arisen and been allowed to flourish for generations will create, he talks about these “boisterous passions,” so he has even imagined this himself.
RF: But there’s a debate about the so-called the Toussaint Clause. This is about Toussaint L’Ouverture and that’s under Adams and it’s called the Toussaint Clause because it was to impose an economic embargo on France except essentially on Haiti which was in the hands Toussaint at that point. And the debate is very clear. I mean even people who are abolitionists, they are terrified of Haiti. I mean I just read some of the debate, there is a fellow Albert Gallatin who was Swiss-born statesman from the United States who was a Congressman and a statesman and abolitionist and he goes on and on about Haiti and how terrifying it would be if they got their independence because they would spread disease elsewhere and he’s an abolitionist. So, this is very present in their mind, but there is the geopolitical interests of the United States. They want the French armies to be weakened. And when Napoleon comes to power it’s even more of a problem than the Haiti problem or the black slavery revolution because they see Napoleon as using Haiti, crushing the revolution in Haiti, and going to Louisiana and controlling the western part of what is now the United States. And one of the ironies of the whole thing is that it’s precisely because Napoleon’s armies were defeated in Haiti that Napoleon came to the negotiating table with Jefferson for the Louisiana Purchase. So, in a weird way, the irony that black slaves revolting, defeating Napoleon allow the negotiations and allow Jefferson to accomplish what some people think is one of the biggest things of his presidency, the expansion of the United States, doubling essentially the territory of the United States. That to a large degree, not all of it, but to a large degree is a consequence of Napoleon’s defeat in Haiti. Because Napoleon sent 50,000 people and he thought “We’re just going to stop there. We crushed the, you know, the slaves then we send them to the western parts.” Louisiana, exactly. That was, Jefferson knows that. Not only Jefferson but all of the statesmen in the United States. And this is why they are plotting so that you can weaken the French while you say at the same time, “We are going to starve Toussaint, we’re going to starve…” what they were doing, they were very duplicitous.
JP: So, at that time, the US was plotting to….
RF: Covertly, not the government, but merchants, bankers, it was kind of piratry. They were sending weapons, they were sending, exchanging goods, they didn’t want the French to win. It would it would be a problem for them. They were terrified of Napoleon’s imperialism in what is now the United States, the western part of the United States.
DM: Well you see this is what I meant a few minutes ago. When I asked, you know, whether Jefferson is ultimately expedient where these calculations I mean we know these calculations are entirely for his own benefit. And the benefit of…
RF: Yeah, there’s a very complex game there. But but on the other hand, I think, you know, if he was not worried above all about the model of Haiti after independence, he could have had a much more relaxed policy. Not to say even recognized but tolerated. Now, he doesn’t want, he wants an embargo. And that’s immediately after in spite of the Haitians begging ultimately, it’s not begging but saying we are not going to send anything on Jamaica or the other islands, don’t worry about it. This is just Haiti. Let’s talk. Let’s re-establish good… No, he doesn’t answer that. [35:00] And Haiti recognized the idea only in 1862, I think.
Reverberations of Haiti and the United States' History
DM: So, in what ways are we really dealing with the reverberations of that history?
RF: Well, I think the relation between the United States and Haiti is still very much part of that past. The existing relations, not only that but then United States occupies Haiti too, you know, from 1915 to 1934. And then you know it occupies Haiti again, you know, on a shorter basis but in the ‘90s and in 2004, which is the bicentennial of the Haitian Revolution. Then the UN replaces them. So, you have a story that has a certain amount of continuity because clearly the occupation from the nineteen teens to 1934 is full of racism. I mean, the language is absolutely horrible. I mean the way they look at Haitians. And it’s part of that past that Haitians are savages essentially they can’t run their show. We are going to run it for them and we are going to do it whether they like it or not. And if we have to occupy the country we’ll do so and they did. And if we have to suppress the areas we will and they did. So, that is the story. And even in 2004 you have those kind of that legacy of looking at Haitians as weird, maybe not quite savages but almost savages, practicing voodoo and being incomprehensible and we don’t know how to deal with them, but we should impose something on them. I mean there were reports in 2004 about some Christian leaders in the United States saying that the problem of Haiti was voodoo and that they are savages. That’s basically what they said and we can’t deal with them until voodoo has disappeared. Voodoo is part of the Haitian culture, you’re not going to do anything but really nurture it if you attack it. So, you have that then the vision of Haitians are different. Trump! I mean recently. What does he say?
DM: Haiti is a shithole country.
RF: Yeah. So, it’s no longer the cannibals but they are the shithole country. So. It’s very much part of that that history and Haitians on the other hand, they have love and hate for the United States because Haitians want to come to the United States because the situation in Haiti is so bad, but on the other hand, they resent the United States because the United States is you know, the big power that tells them what to do. And comes in whenever they feel like it, tell them who should be their president, etc. etc. So, you have that tension that has not disappeared but we have probably two million Haitians in the United States, Haitian Americans. And without them the country would fall apart because the remittances are actually much more significant in terms of quantity, amount of money than foreign assistance. So, without them, Haiti would be in deep deep trouble. So, and also, the United States has a way of solving some of the political problems in Haiti because Haitians exit. Former president [René] Préval in 2010 said very bluntly in Creole: “sais nager pour une sortie”, if you want to survive. And that means essentially you have to swim which means you have to cross the sea and go to the United States if you want to survive. So, there’s an acknowledgement of that dependence and that economic necessity of exiting the country.
DM: Exiting the country to keep the country alive.
RF: Yeah, going to the United States because that’s where the money is. Or go to Canada. So, you have that… but the whole story really starts with the Haitian Revolution and that the tension exists but on the other hand you have many even whites in the United States at the time of the Revolution who admired Toussaint and who admired what slaves could do and it was proof in their view that slavery in the United States should be abolished which also means that it was a great danger to people like Jefferson. Because if whites could, and this is one of the things, Jefferson was not [40:00] just like all the whites. That’s not true. You know, your abolitionists, there were people even when they had slaves, when they died they freed them. Jefferson never did that. And Jefferson would, I just read something about Jefferson saying when he was young that it was for the elder statesmen to decide the issue of slavery. When he becomes a statesmen he said it’s a new generation that should deal with slavery. So, there’s equivocation at all times. It’s complex. Ultimately I think he knew that it was wrong, but he could not…
DM: He couldn’t disentangle himself from it. And he couldn’t disentangle himself from it for a variety of reasons including those deeply personal. I mean, there’s a good bit of self-interest here in the fact slaves were sold to take care of his debts.
RF: Yep absolutely. I mean slaves were capital. And it was a huge amount in the American economy. So, the idea that slavery was just racism is also wrong. There’s a lot of economic interest behind slavery. Slavery was capital.
DM: Yeah, and it’s so it actually that history is now or historiography is coming to not so much settle in this place but to basically in the last eight to ten years in particular to focus on capitalism and slavery. It’s not that it had not been a topic broached before because it had but in recent years with Sven Beckert’s and a whole range of other recent books talking about slavery and capitalism. It’s just an unavoidable conversation.
Slavery, Abolitionism, and the Birth of Liberalism
RF: The two arms join at birth. And liberalism is also born with slavery because you know in a fundamental way liberalism was very exclusionary. The idea of liberalism embrace, that’s nonsense. Liberalism was really part of this history of slavery too.
DM: And it remains.
RF: Yes, and the people from the Enlightenment which supposedly were so visionary, they couldn’t deal with slavery. Either they were silent on it or they would be very much like Jefferson; equivocate. I mean [John] Locke was against slavery, but he was a member of the I think one of the major trading companies in slavery. [G.W.F.] Hegel, you know he can’t deal with slavery either. Slavery is bad, but we have to keep it. The Africans are not inferior but yes, they are inferior. There is a complete confusion whether it’s intentional, whether it’s related to economic interest, but it’s there that the Enlightenment has a deep problem when it addresses slavery. It doesn’t resolve it. It pushes it, postponed the day of reckoning, a lot of gymnastics around the problem and many of the great philosophers are fundamentally racist.
DM: That is among the most indisputable points that could be raised and even people I mean in the course of this conversation, we’ve been talking about abolitionism and who is an abolitionist and where abolitionists come down, really. It’s clear where they come down on slavery but where they come down on slavery is logically inconsistent with where they come down on race. Where they come down on slavery is it’s a moral wrong. We need to get rid of it. The Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society is among the most prominent of anti-slavery societies and why should we get rid of it? All kinds of apparatus, all kinds of arguments about slavery is a moral wrong, it completely disrespects the fundamental unit of humanity that being the family, separating mothers from their children, fathers from their children, fathers i.e. slaveholders selling their children for their own gains that all of this is morally reprehensible. But that did not lead them to the next logical step that these people who are being held captive are like us, they are humans just like us. Abolitionists didn’t believe that for a moment. [45:00] No, we can get rid of slavery, but people whom we have held captive are not like us, they are not equal to us, and we are not compelled to think of them as being equal to us.
JP: Which is why I think it’s truncation example that if you give is very instructive in the sense of abolitionists actually being advocates for censuring and sort of closing off trade with Haiti for that exact reason. So, what are a few…
RF: They are essentially afraid of the consequences of their beliefs because they can’t go to the logical conclusion. And I think it’s deeply related to the kind of visceral racism that existed and economic interests. The two are deeply connected. One reinforces the other. Because if you’re going to put people into slavery, you need to dehumanize them to such an extent that you come to be convinced that they are inferior, that they are not quite human beings. So, then you can put them in the position where you can exploit their labor and you feel, you don’t feel bad about it. And clearly many of those people didn’t feel bad about it because the punishments that were given to slaves were absolutely horrific. I mean, it’s mind-boggling to think about what went on during slavery. As examples, cutting hands, cutting legs, you know, there are even stories of putting people in holes and putting honey on their heads and letting them be eaten by ants. And there were even worse stories about where you put dynamite in a slave etc. So, it’s a horrible story and the only way you can do that is I think by believing that they are not full human beings that they’re actually not human beings. And anyone who defied that stereotype became a problem and how do you deal with people? How do you deal with someone like Toussaint? Clearly a genius, and it’s a complicated thing, but then there were some Jacobins who were prepared to deal as equal and this is one of the reasons that Toussaint abandons the Spanish because [Léger-Félicité] Sonthonax is more than an abolitionist. He’s convinced that there is ultimately maybe equality between the two but how do you generate the end of slavery? It’s a complicated economic interest, you know, you have to deal with franchise. So, it’s problematic but not all abolitionists are the same either.
JP: In thinking about the Haitian Revolution as a critique and counter to some American ideals about freedom or independence, but I wonder if you can talk more about to what extent against challenge about the added component of, you know, the equation of slavery and race in a predominantly black country. I wonder if you could speak more about kind of competing dynamics between American freedom and this revolutionary ideals and what was going on in Haiti at the time as a potential critique or alternative to America?
RF: Yeah, well the Haitian Revolution probably is the logical conclusion of a conjuncture of events. First, you have the French Revolution which opens in Saint Domingue the possibility of thinking about abolishing slavery. But you can’t think about abolishing slavery if you don’t have slaves in the process of revolting. And that is quite important because I don’t think you needed to tell the slaves that there was the French Revolution and that slavery had to be abolished. I think they knew that. But the French opens up, you know, a window because there is a moment where the French say that slavery should be abandoned and there’s a proclamation in 1794 that is the end of slavery. So, it becomes legitimate and the Haitians seize it. The slaves seize that opportunity to violently overthrow slavery. But it’s not a gift of friends of 1789. It’s something that had to be conquered by the slaves themselves, but on the other hand, there’s a conjuncture that allows for that movement to crystallize because if it had not happened, if 1789 that not happened, the rebellion initiative would have been completely crushed. And its because the French gave that opening that the slaves could seize it and by the time they want to reestablish slavery under Napoleon, it’s too late. The slaves are not going [50:00] to put up with it. So, in some ways the French Revolution is the ultimate bourgeois liberal revolution. The American Revolution is the… really the first bourgeois conquest of creation of a nation out of imperialism, the British imperialism. But it’s not a radical break in terms of establishing equality. That revolution is not about really equality, it’s about property. And property means also slavery. The French Revolution is a little bit more radical. And the Haitian Revolution is more radical in the sense that race is part… that race should not be part of exclusions. So, you have… but all of those revolutions have their limits. I mean the Haitian Revolution led to old forms of authoritarian leadership. You know Haitians like the Americans they like to think, “Well, we created that republic where everyone was equal.” That is nonsensical. It’s really a myth. There is no equality in Haiti, there’s no equality in the United States, and clearly there is no equality in France either. It’s really the kind of stuff that you invent in some ways to build a nation. You create something that becomes a very powerful myth. But it is not reality, but it doesn’t matter that it’s not reality because even the people who are within that community believe in the myth, even if they are not equal, but they believe in it. I mean, I’m always puzzled when I said… How can you say that, you know, you had equality? Five percent of the people who voted and then you had slavery, women were excluded, a lot of white men were excluded, the vast majority of the population was excluded from power. How can you talk about democracy? Makes no sense. Same thing in France, Napoleon is restored and it’s over. In Haiti, you have that revolution but the former slaves, they are forced into course labor. They have to escape again that thing. And the leaders are messianic authoritarian figures. There is no equality there. But those are very powerful things that I think people transmit from one generation to the other in terms of educational systems, etc, etc. And then you come to believe in it. And if you say no then people look at you as if you must be crazy. But the reality is that those myths are just that. They are myths. Important to create a nation but nonetheless the idea that those revolutions generated what you learn in the books is nonsensical.
JP: Yeah. I wonder… It’s suggested that its not all about Jefferson in really important ways which I think is important for our project to think about his cross cultural contexts and his broader implications but I think bringing it, slightly if I may, back to Jefferson briefly I wonder if you could reflect maybe personally about this particular history and maybe thinking of places to enter into that?
RF: Well, it’s, I have an anecdote actually. I arrived here in 1981 and I went to a lecture on Jefferson and there was, I forget his name, he was at the time the biographer of Jefferson. What’s his name?
DM: Dumas Malone?
RF: Exactly, and I’m listening to him and I’m just an assistant professor, but he was saying all kinds of things that wouldn’t even add up, some of them true. But then someone asked him the question would Jefferson have a relation with a slave? He said, “No, because he was a man of honor.” So, I was so puzzled. I wasn’t even angry because to me that made no sense. I mean coming from Haiti, I’m a descendent of precisely that very kind of union between you know, slave owners and slaves. So, how can you say that? I literally said, “How can you say that that didn’t happen?” Slaves were objects. So, if the master wanted that object for his sexual satisfaction, that was that! It was not a moral question even for…because it was an object. And he looked at me really like this man is crazy. And he didn’t answer it. They said well Jefferson was an honorable man [55:00] so that told me that it was a very bizarre story and then eventually we realized that through scientific things obviously… what was obvious to me started to become obvious to many people.
JP: But that also tells you something about the States. So, was that your first experience in the States or just as an assistant professor?
RF: No, in that setting about Jefferson and…because I never really thought about the matter because coming from Haiti, we knew that slaves had relations, sexual relations with the slave owners. I mean, this was taken, it was not even an object of discussion. It was part of the reality of slavery. So, to tell me that didn’t happen made no sense. I could not, and I think it’s part of the mythical vision that people came to accept, even people who studied and they denied it. Even when you see it black and white, you’re going to deny it. And for a long time they denied it and even people with the DNA, some people still deny it.
DM: Oh you know, I was at… it wasn’t Monticello but the building down the hill. I’m not going to remember the exact name of that building but it’s where a lot of the educational programming comes out of pertaining to Monticello. And so it was at that that place where the avuncular Dr. [Eugene] Foster first revealed what were ultimately modest conclusions in the scientific sense and I sat in the room. It was a Sunday afternoon. Maybe I’d say 40-50 people were there, half of them journalists and the…Dr. Foster said if the man alleged to be Jefferson’s father was his father, then science can verify that Jefferson fathered at least one of Sally Hemings’ children. So, it’s a very modest proposition. He is letting the scientific data, he’s letting the DNA lead him where he needs to go. He isn’t even claiming that he’s the father of all the children. I found it utterly fascinating that there were people in that room who were really prepared to suggest, “Well, maybe the man who was said to be Jefferson’s father wasn’t his father. Maybe Jefferson’s mother was over here cavorting and carrying on.” That it was so utterly unthinkable that the honorable Thomas Jefferson could have fathered children with a slave woman despite what, as you say, despite what we know this is completely ordinary in the period in which Jefferson lived. But people were better prepared to suggest or to speculate that perhaps Jefferson’s father was not his father in order to deny that he could have fathered children with Sally Hemings and the whole question of honor, and the whole question of basically when you talk about the mythologization of democracy, the mythologization of Jefferson is as this person who because he is associated with the Enlightenment, because he is associated with the egalitarianism, because he is associated with the idea of independence and democracy, that everything else that follows from that, including in his personal life, is logically consistent with all of that and it is not. It is absolutely not. And that is ideological. That has to do, because if you can imagine that Thomas Jefferson not only had sexual relations with Sally Hemings, that is not hard to imagine, because Jefferson was a slaveholder and she was his property. So, if you have trouble imagining that though let’s say Jefferson may have had sexual relationships with her, but he could not have been emotionally connected to her, then you can reinforce this age old fiction or reinforce this age old idea that these people who were being held captive are less than human because if they are less than human than they are outside the domain of all those things that make us human, including the capacity to love. And so this is the thing that is so unimaginable [1:00:00] that Jefferson could actually love a person who was his property because if Jefferson could love a person who was his property, then Jefferson could regard her as something other than a sexual object, that she could be something else for him and it is that something else that people find unimaginable and they find it unimaginable whether they are die hard Jeffersonians or whether they are die hard supporters of Sally Hemings. It’s something on both sides of this ideological divide that makes it unthinkable, alright? Unimaginable that anything could have obtained between a slaveholder and his property. Anything that could have could have obtained that would even get us close to thinking about an emotional connection that it could only be physical even if we imagine that he did this thing, physical, as an honorable man. Well if he could do that, that’s all he was doing. That is all he was doing. He could not have cared for her. It was Garry Wills in the great debate after the DNA findings who said well, okay. So, let’s imagine that Jefferson did sleep with her. Let us imagine that he had sex with her with some frequency, but he could not love her. He did not love her. I think, so, how do you know that Garry Wills? We don’t know what obtained between these two people that much of what people say about that relationship is highly speculative.
RF: No, we can’t know.
DM: We really simply don’t know and so if we consider that we can’t know, then why are people so invested in reproducing a narrative that says there could not have been anything that obtained between these two people that would lead us to the conclusion that to him, she was human and to her, he was human even though he was her slave owner. So, these complications about emotional connections I find so so deeply fascinating that no side can imagine that we can talk about, which may kind of bring our… return us to the initial… the launch of the conversation, that this contemporary exhibition wants to invoke the terminology of rape, right? Because it wants to invoke the terminology of rape as some means of vindicating Sally Hemings. That Sally Hemings was simply an object, Sally Hemings was simply a victim, that it is a refusal that Sally Hemings could have been engaged in that which many women were engaged in in the institution of slavery. If we only want to talk about it as being expedient, if I have a relationship of whatever kind with the person who owns me, then I may have some leverage here.
Negotiating Agency within an Imbalanced System
RF: Yeah, there is agency.
DM: Yeah, there is leverage, there is agency, and we clearly have precedents for this. The same people who teach say for example, The Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, where Harriet Jacobs whose genealogy and biography has been documented has been traced to South Carolina that when she is saying, “I consider it the better part of freedom and independence to be able to choose the person with whom I will enter into a sexual relationship.” So, rather than submit to the unwanted advances of the person who owns her, she does submit to another white man. Why does she submit to another white man? Because she says this is her choice. This is her choice. And I think Robert… Walter Johnson rather has given us all kinds of reasons to complicate the idea of the agency of enslaved people. But even given that, I think however tentative we have to be able to suggest that even under conditions of enslavement, there may not have been agency in the term that the law recognizes agency, right? But there is in the minds of some of these people, agency nonetheless. So, these are as you say very very complicated relationships very complicated entanglements and I don’t think we do ourselves any good to remain locked in these ideological positions [1:05:00] that make the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings so neat and bifurcated as owner to property, as slaveholder to slave, as dominator to victim, that there is a lot more nuance.
RF: There are negotiations going on.
DM: There are negotiations… and we have to believe, when I talk to my students all the time, “Well, he had all the power.” I go, “in what relationship have you ever known, can you think of any relationship in which there are not power asymmetries?” I submit to you that if you are the parent of a newborn baby and at three o’clock in the morning that baby won’t stop screaming and you have to get up out of your bed and walk the floor with that baby, that baby has in these moments some power over you, your movements, your choices, your sleep. So, if we then suggest that power asymmetries in that relationship render it an impossibility, then we’re saying no relationships are possible even in the most loving relationships there are power asymmetries. And so I think that it again it is this investment in ideology, it is investment in particular positions about race, on all sides of the divide where as long as we can see Jefferson as ipso facto a person who dominated and raped Sally Hemings, then there is no other discussion we need to have, right? That he then allows us to condemn this god-awful institution. We can condemn this god-awful institution while at the same time we can leave open the possibility because again, I want to constantly say we don’t know what passed between these people. We simply don’t know. We don’t know. Everything is speculation. This is not truth. This cannot be verified. There is no archive at least not now. Nothing that we have extant to tell us what happened between these people. Nothing.
What's Love Got To Do With It?
RF: The difference though, it must have been a peculiar form of love if it did exist. Because slavery is not just relation of asymmetrical parts. It’s really an absolute relation of differences of power.
RF: So, the interesting question is if in spite of that, you can have love even if it’s complicated by the existence of slavery. Then that to some extent gives us a lot of hope because slavery is such an awful institution and that you could transcend it in very imperfect ways, but you could transcend it and you could stop loving someone, that indicates the artificiality to some extent of the institution itself because there is a bond of humanity that transcends the most awful institution. So, but, on the other hand that bond…slavery can also deform that. When you see people, the separation from their families, white master has a kid and you can’t stay on the plantation he has to be sent somewhere else, and sometimes sent anywhere and other times sent with some money and some protection wherever he goes. So, so, it’s a complicated thing but it’s like any love story.
DM: Like any love story, it’s complicated. That is absolutely the case. And yes, slavery deformed all relationships. By definition it deformed them. So, to me, I’m pretty pretty clear on this. I am also not inclined necessarily to want to talk about say even a love relationship in the terms that we think about love today because love is something that lives in history. Our ideas about love live in history. Romantic love is a recent construct. Romantic love is in the historical spectrum rather new and so I’m not talking about ideas of romantic love. I’m thinking of something that is just much more complex than simply this is the person who owns me and therefore my only emotional response to this person is hate, alright? My only response [1:10:00] to this person is rejection, right? And then that works conversely, alright? This is my property and thus my only relationship to this property is one of exploitation. This is just someone I can say, “Here. Come.” You know [William] Faulkner has this wonderful moment in Go Down Moses, I’ve written about it. In Go Down Moses, in the long novella in that collection called, The Bear, the central character, Ike McCaslin, is in the commissary going over his grandfather’s ledger’s because, this is one thing that I’ve always found so utterly fascinating about slaveholders, the meticulous records they kept. Spent this money for this. So, Ike McCaslin comes across his grandfather having indicated that he gave $1,000 to Eunice, his slave, on the birth of her child. And so Ike is sitting in the commissary with these ledger’s going, “Huh? Must have been love. Must have been some kind of love. Maybe something akin to love?”, I’m paraphrasing here, but I’m not paraphrasing when he gets to the point where he says “not just some afternoon spittoon, right?” that for my grandfather to have given this woman $1,000 upon the birth of her child, right? Something had to obtain between these two people that is far more complex than merely slave owner and slave and that he doesn’t know what it is so it’s, everything is in the realm of the interrogative in that scene in the book: must have been, could it have been, it’s all speculative. But he is speculating. Why else? Is the implication. Why else would he have given her $1,000?
JP: I mean with Jefferson, just a brief comment before maybe one final question, is that he was very attentive too to the power of love in family structures as a way of controlling labor. So, on the plantation he kept families together because it made them a more productive worker unit. And so again to presume that Jefferson is in some ways not able to think about love in a productive sense, what it would mean for workers, I think is an important detail that he’s obviously capable of seeing slaves loving one another in terms of family structures and so, you know, that relationship to Hemings adds a potential to be involved in that, in some way, as the sort of master, because you know he liked to say he was the father of Monticello or whatever. And so in many ways if he’s this great fatherly leader of this plantation that is ultimately a big family unit. That is some kind of love.
DM: That is such an important point, James. And especially the notion that Jefferson understood that to keep enslaved people together on the same plantation actually facilitated and enabled their work as laborers. Again, it’s a kind of deformed…it’s a recognition of love being manipulated for self-interested purposes.
RF: Economic interest.
DM: Yeah, self-interest and economic interest, yeah.
JP: But I wonder, we’ve been asking everyone – oh sorry.
RF: But the idea of the father is obviously something that is pervasive in the creation of all nations. And it’s not just love but it’s also punishment because the father does both. And in every country you have so far, they are all males and they are all father…the founding fathers. Not just the United States. It’s everywhere. You have a founding father and it’s both to inspire love but it’s to inspire fear because the father can punish and he has the authority to punish. So, it is a combination of fear, love, loyalty, the family unit, but obviously the father at the head of the family unit so he can control the family unit. So, it’s a metaphor that is extremely powerful, not just on the plantation, but for the nation itself. And in the United States, the founding fathers: Jefferson, [George] Washington, all of them [1:15:00]
DM: [James] Madison.
RF: You know, they are both power, love, loyalty and also hierarchy. So, it’s a complicated metaphor.
DM: Absolutely. And I think that’s a really useful way to think and from which to extrapolate an understanding of relationships in general. That we tend to want to think of the father figure, think of the patriarch, and even for that matter, the mother in some one-dimensional way in that these are largely sentimental characterizations, right? But you’re absolutely right it is impossible to talk about a father, particularly a founding father, without talking about a person who inspires perhaps more fear than love.
Engaging Critically with Jefferson
JP: So, we’ve been briefly asking everyone that we’re speaking with if they teach Jefferson and how they might use Jefferson in the classroom?
RF: I don’t really teach Jefferson. On the other hand, I’ve learned a lot about Jefferson simply because I’m at the University of Virginia. You cannot escape Jefferson.
DM: Not even if you wanted to.
RF: Yeah, but Jefferson is fascinating because we’ve been talking about him critically, but he’s also, in a fundamental way, a genius. I mean the vision that he has is a compelling vision. Now what he does with it is a different matter, but the Declaration of Independence is an extraordinary document and it’s something that anyone reading it should really say, “My goodness, those people were really onto something fundamental.” A historical rupture with a certain past. So, that is quite important. But where I’m critical is that you read the document and then you take the document as if it didn’t exist with the contradictions of the time. It’s as if you abstract it. You know, it’s a beautiful vision, it’s a beautiful commitment, but it’s one that even in its own terms has yet to be accomplished after more than 200 years. But it’s an important document. No one can deny that the Declaration of Independence and the founding of the United States is a massive event and a progressive event in spite of all the deformities of the event. It’s the same thing with the French Revolution of 1789, same thing with the Haitian Revolution. They are really fundamental historical moments but once you say that, you need to look at them critically because they have not fulfilled the promises that they contain. And this is where they have to be taken to task. Not to idealize what has been created because it’s not yet there. It gives you a guide on how you may want to continue but the historical rupture… It would be too easy to say, “Well, that’s it.” We need to engage those texts, those father figures, if you wish, critically without necessarily saying that they were all evil or they were all self-interested, they are complicated people like any other human being. You look at Toussaint, you know, you look at Jefferson, you look at Washington, you look at Hamilton, you look at Robespierre. I mean those were real historical figures. And clearly there were deformities in the project. The vision may have been compelling but the vision has yet to materialize and this is one of the things that we need to really study, I think, as intellectuals to look at the contradictions of those important figures and those important moments in history.
DM: The contradictions and our investments in really wanting to preserve…because that I doubt that there are very few people even at the university who would not freely acknowledge that Jefferson is fraught with contradictions. He is fraught with contradictions as a person, there are deep and explicit contradictions in his work and yet at the same time we keep returning as it were to the… I’m not getting the term I want. We keep returning to the idea as if you know, you know [Sigmund] Freud talked about the repetition compulsion. And in part of what [1:20:00 ] is underneath the repetition compulsion is you want to keep replaying something, often in relationships, that has not worked because you think okay I’ll try it this way this time and this time I’ll get it right. It’s in part, of course this is a bastardization of a complex theory, but that is it fundamentally the idea of the repetition compulsion. So, I find it interesting that last year the BOV [Board of Visitors] allocated literally millions of dollars to the university, to the College, in particular, for something called the Democracy Project. That’s a lucrative phenomenon for departments and scholars. One department received 2.3 million dollars to do what? I don’t know. But it’s all under the umbrella of the Democracy Project. So, we are still invested despite what we know to be the flaws, despite what we know to be the imperfections, what we know to be the deformities. It’s as if we will come at it and if we know, if we study, if we look at it from this angle, this angle, this angle, and this angle, perhaps we will get it right. And so I find it deeply ironic that at this moment in the university’s history, we have allocated all this money to study democracy. What are your thoughts about that?
The Pursuit of Democracy
RF: Well, I think it’s cyclical. I mean, you know, and it depends on the historical moment because in the ‘60’s you had the same thing with the Cold War. I think in the late ‘80’s, early 1990’s you had an explosion about democracy. It was going to flourish everywhere and anywhere. You just needed to send people who could write good liberal constitutions and the trick was done. Or you would need to send what I would call missionaries literally and their vision of democracy was fundamental in American democracy and export it and people should like it, love it because there is nothing better than that. And that’s part also of the American myth. The problem is that American democracy is very unique. It’s a very incomplete form of democracy and the fundamental problem for those we see on the receiving end is that they don’t quite see it the same way because they see it as an imposition and in many ways as full of hypocrisy. That this is in the interest of the United States, we’re going to give you a democracy, but if it doesn’t work, if we like someone, that person is going to be the democrat. People who are opposed to the person we support is automatically anti-democratic and you can see that in what happened in Russia after the Cold War. Initially, it was [Boris] Yeltsin who was going to be the greatest democrat which was a joke. Then when [Vladimir] Putin came into power he was supposed to be that great young man and [George] Bush saying, “I’ve looked at him in his eyes, and he’s a great guy” and now he’s evil, everything he does is evil and the world is much more complicated than that. You can’t impose on a big country like Russia American democracy. That is not going to work. You can’t do that even in small countries like Haiti. It’s not going to work because there are too many contradictions. If you don’t like the result of democracy, then it becomes anti-democratic. If someone is elected, who has the different vision than that espoused by the United States, it can’t be a democracy. It’s a real problem because it’s a very narrow definition of what is democratic. And the election doesn’t make a democracy.
DM: No, no.
RF: And there are so many other issues related to the kind of democracy even in the United States about the level of inequalities, who votes, who has the capacity to actually be a candidate, and who controls the candidates, the amount of money that is spent on any election in the United States now is really so incredibly high that it’s difficult to see that as an exercise in real democracy. If you have money, you can probably be elected. You get the money, you get the ads, you control the message etc. So, it’s a very interesting thing that we are talking about democracy. I think it comes [1:25:00] because in Europe there is a crisis. I think there is a crisis also in the United States. And that leads to some sort of questioning about whether democracy is sustainable, whatever that means, because it’s not clear what we mean by democracy either but the idea that elections and whomever is elected is legitimate, those things have come under fire now. And we are trying to recover some sort of commitment to democracy because it seems that the population has lost it. And Jefferson talked about democracy so what better thing to do at University of Virginia then go back to Jefferson and try to invent some new thing to have a notion of democracy? But I think it’s a project that is very complicated because it’s a project that is confined, to a large degree, to Americans and their view about democracy. There is no real exchange between different cultures, different parts of the world about what democracy means. When you have elections in many Latin American countries or African countries, even when they are more or less legitimate. We’re not talking about structures of power, structures of inequality, etc. We are talking about a figurehead who becomes president and who is very dependent on the West, and in many ways in the, on the United States and that’s what democracy is in election, but that doesn’t change relations of power. Those things have to be talked about, the question of economic privilege, economic inequality, and obviously the issues about ethnicity, race, gender that are part of an emancipatory kind of project and that is complicated and I don’t know if they’re going to get democracy by going back in history and looking again at the key Western philosophers and extracting from that something new which I don’t think you can get. Or if you’re going to try to have a much more comprehensive view of democracy by talking to so many different intellectual heritages. I mean whether it be in China, in Latin America, in Africa, wherever. We seem to think that democracy is something that only we have in the United States and we can teach it and that’s very problematic.
DM: We can teach it and we can export it despite its own failings here in the United States. And one of the other things I find just really deliciously suggestive is that at the same time that we are mounting this huge overview or exploration of democracy and allowing people to compete for lucrative sums of money in order to pursue these explorations, we are at the same time investing in understanding slavery and understanding our slave past. So, as near as I can tell, these questions of inequality and race and ethnicity don’t seem to be front and center of this whole new Democracy Project. But race is taken up on the slavery side of things. So, we have these two pillars certainly central to the former administration of President [Teresa] Sullivan’s in bridging into the incoming administration with [James] Ryan. Ryan was not the architect of this Democracy Project. But supposedly, it is his administration that is going to be in large part helping to oversee or implement it. So, democracy, it well, it’s a new, a project very much in its infancy.
The Rise of the Right Wing
RF: Yeah, it may also be I think it it’s also the product, inevitable product of what happened last August that the university was really in the middle of a very nasty historical moment in terms of race, in terms of neo-Nazis, in terms of the recognition that slavery was really a significant event in the creation of American democracy. So, those things came all together and Charlottesville became kind of the center of that maelstrom, if you wish, and I think that led the university to start thinking [1:30:00] about race again, start thinking about slavery, start thinking about democracy. When you have a bunch of neo-Nazis walking on the Lawn and, to some extent, claiming that the Lawn is theirs and that is connected to the heritage of this university, then that creates a problem for the university and the problem has to be dealt with in the beginning of the 21st century, which supposedly was no longer existing. I mean we’re supposed to be in a post-racial society and democracy inside of the United States had already been resolved. So, those problems come back with a vengeance and at the core of the University of Virginia which is Jefferson’s creation. So, issues of democracy, slavery, and race come back and the university has to deal with it. And I think this is why we have so much talk about slavery about talking about race, about healing, etc. because it’s the legacy.
DM: But you know, it’s interesting that in terms of the actual chronology, this project on democracy was underway before August 11th and 12th. It was actually underway beforehand. In fact, some of the first projects were funded in the late fall and early new year, which meant the project had been there and applications had been made in advance, but that does not alter the fact that August 11th forced a crisis about race into our eyes once again. I mean, much like, I don’t know why Freud is on my mind this evening, but you know much like the return of the repressed, because in a way we really have the idea that we’re in a post-racial society. That is something that people thought that they could achieve through verbal fiat. We just keep saying it and it will be so. It will be a reality that we create through the force of repetition. We’re in a post-racial society, we’re in a post-racial society. If we say it enough we’ll believe it. You know, I’m not afraid of the dark, I’m not afraid of the dark, we’re in a post-racial society, we’re in a post-racial society, and yet last summer, it was clear, made really abundantly and violently clear that not only are we not in a post-racial society that actually we have trained the very people who have given the lie or the very people who reinforce the point that we are not in a post-racial society. We trained them here.
RF: And you’re right about democracy because I think the issue of democracy came to the fore again after the 1990’s because the 1990’s were supposed to be the moment when history had ended. As [Francis] Fukuyama said, where liberal democracy was going, was going to be all over the map. And by the end of the 1990’s, it’s very clear that that’s not the case and by the mid 2000’s, even in Europe, you have really the growth of extreme right-wing groups. And you have now in Italy, in Austria, in Hungary, you have essentially neo-fascist governments who have been elected and I think this generates a crisis of democracy. And there is a fear that this is spreading all over. That liberalism, as it were, is under assault and that the dreams of the ‘90s entertained by many liberals… those dreams have ended. The Brexit is a phenomenon that most liberals can’t stomach and it is something that is interesting because I think it’s part of the problems of globalization. It’s part of the problem of the spread of neoliberalism which create, you know, a world market but the world market which is so unequal, whether it be in what used to be called the third world or the industrialized world, that people are really fed up with that system, but there is no alternative. The alternative that is provided are neo-fascist alternatives. And there is very little else and whenever you elect a government, it does essentially the same thing where it’s the right, the left so why not vote for the right, the extreme right? Maybe they’ll do something differently? And it’s the same thing [1:35:00] with Brexit. So, I think there are losers and I would venture to say the majority of people are losers in the process of globalization. But there is an elite which is very cosmopolitan which believes that it has transcended nationalism, race, class, which is really a myth because when you look at the inequalities that have been created, those things are very much part of the global structure, but there is that vision that, you know, we are cosmopolitan and that’s that. And we know that this is not the case because when you look at the crisis with immigration, cosmopolitanism ends at the frontiers.
DM: Or we should say at particular frontiers. It doesn’t end at all the frontiers.
RF: Well, in Europe its ending at many frontiers. In the United States, its ending at the Southern frontier and at the same time it’s open to people who have degrees and money. Because you can buy, you literally can buy your visa into any of those countries if you’re a millionaire or if you are you’re educated and they need that particular type of educated individual. So, it’s a very exclusionary form of cosmopolitanism.
DM: Absolutely. At the very time that Donald Trump is decrying birthright citizenship, Apparently people, women are coming in to give birth in his hotels and giving birth to US citizens. If you have money you have money you can do it. And his objection to immigration, as you say, seems to be an objection to immigration at the Southern border of the United States.
RF: People who are not educated and who are poor, he doesn’t want them.
DM: But his wives, he never had a wife who wasn’t an immigrant. His mother was an immigrant. So, yeah.
RF: Again the contradictions of…
DM: Yeah, yeah. I mean that that just goes, It goes without saying. I suspect James, I don’t know, I think maybe we have exhausted.
JP: We’re getting a little off topic.
DM: Yeah. Yeah, that’s alright.
Haiti is Very Thinkable
DM: And somewhere in there as a bridge or just another layer of the discussion, you know Haiti as unthinkable, but Haiti is very thinkable. Haiti is only unthinkable in some kind of wishful thinking.
RF: Yeah, it’s always there.
DM: It’s really always there.
RF: You know, it’s like the slaves, you know, they are, that you build walls around them, the architecture of Monticello. They are hidden in order to see them but they’re always there and they’re essential. It’s not that they are unthinkable, they are too thinkable so you want to try to erase them.
DM: Yeah, all too thinkable. All too thinkable. And I mean somehow we didn’t really elaborate, but maybe there will be a space if only just briefly in a future conversation to talk about the kind of discourse of disease in humanity. Independence as a disease. The idea of cannibals and pests because.
JP: And the idea of, Jefferson’s conversation about degeneracy.
DM: Yeah, exactly.
The U.S. Abolitionist Movement
JP: Or the abolitionist rhetoric of slaves being unable to understand morals and guides. The question of the humanity…
RF: Yeah, they are not quite.
JP: Yeah, the question of their ability to fathom certain things.
DM: Yeah and you know In the U.S. abolitionist movement, which was really, had many many layers which included instructing children, you know, school manuals and all and so there would be like [1:45:00] these kind of primers with questions: What must the abolitionist do? Think for the slave. Because the slave obviously can’t think for themselves.
JP: Our conversations about schooling and sort of that Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison debate about literacy. Capacities of even slaves advocating for abolition as in some ways unable to claim equal footing and be on the same playing field as white abolitionists.
DM: No, they’re not because that is the reason as I’ve discussed with you lots of times to that is why Garrison and Douglass came to a parting of the ways because Douglass was too educated for Garrison and Douglass is this kind of rock star on the abolitionist circuit in Garrison wants to contain him. You know, “if you keep speaking like this who is going to ever believe that you were a slave, you need to restore some of the plantation to your speech.” So, when Garrison is telling him to restore some of the plantation to his speech, Garrison is actually in the same logic as Mrs. Auld who was the first person who attempted to teach Douglass to read and her husband came in to find her giving him instructions and he says to her, “you give a nigger an inch, he’ll take an ell.” I mean this interdiction of literacy, right? Because that’s what Garrison was engaged in. That you, what we need, what the abolitionist movement needs one thing from you Frederick Douglass and that is for you to mount the podium and at optimal moments remove your shirt, show the scars on your back, You are just a body. For the abolitionist movement, the abolition movement only needs you to tell a story it does not need you to theorize, it does not need you to think, it does not need you to analyze, and you know. And then when Jefferson fled the US and was the rock star in the British Isles, Garrison was completely apoplectic because again Douglass was not playing the role that the abolitionist movement had scripted for him. His role was, “I was worked in all weathers. I barely had enough food to eat.”
RF: Of your scars.
DM: But to be actually be able to think about, theorize about, and analyze the institution of slavery, you know, in the domestic and world order, No, that’s not what we want you doing, and the real blow was when Douglass started his own newspaper. How dare you?
RF: Well it’s the same thing in Haiti when the US occupied Haiti in the 1910’s and up to 1940, There is a very famous quote by the Secretary of State, think it was [William] Jennings [Bryan], he says, “Oh dear, niggers speaking French!”
DM: Yes! Right!
RF: That that is unthinkable.
DM: You know, it’s like…
RF: That can’t be, I mean, they almost look civilized.
DB: You know and it’s like, you know, the Samuel Johnson because you know, you look at these things operating on, you know, the racial plane, the gender plane, you know, when Johnson is saying I mean the idea of a woman being a writer, I mean it’s easier to imagine a dancing dog. And you know, I have continued to maintain, people don’t understand why I feel insulted when people say, “Oh Deborah, you’re so articulate” and I go, you know, and people ask “Why are you insulted about that” and I go, “You know, I am, doggone, I am a university professor. I mean to say that I’m articulate is just like really unremarkable. If I am, if I cannot be articulate as a university professor, I should hand in my badge, I don’t find this a compliment at all, and I put it in the logic of you know, “Ah, a black person who can actually get out a simple declarative sentence without falling on her face.” Anyway, now, do you think this is something you’d be interested in doing hanging with us on, Robert?
RF: Yeah, that’s fine. Yeah, it’s interesting!