Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Monticello, Jefferson, Contested Memories & Hate Speech

It’s a phrase I heard some time ago in an NPR interview about the southern United States and the fact that our Civil War has created a host of “contested memories”.  The phrase has stayed with me and leaves me bemused and troubled and unsettled.

Yesterday I visited (again) Monticello (Jefferson’s home) here in central Virginia, taking a guest for the umpteenth time (yes, Max, you guessed correctly) to this shrine to I know not what – interesting architecture?  I really do not mind as the grounds are lovely, but each time, I am reminded how divided we are as a nation in so many, many ways.

And I hear all our voices in my head, so that I am left hardly knowing what to do with myself:

Enjoy the feast of interesting things, say the Jefferson enthusiasts.

Learn the checkered history of a famous man, including his ‘relationship’ (she don’t know what to call it, so settle on ‘relationship’) with slave Sally Hemings, says the earnest historical guide.

The DNA doesn’t prove it was Thomas Jefferson, so claim the apologists who simply cannot bear that an icon might have feet of clay.

“My industries”; “my boys”; “my nails”; “my land”; “my legacies”, so read the many Jeffersonian quotes attesting to his own greatness, leaving out, of course, that there is none of this, not even the time to read and study and pen a universal Declaration of Independence for the select few, without the slave labor that makes his life possible.

I hate it.  I hate it all.  I hate the way it makes me feel, co-opted somehow into the conspiracy by enjoying the fruits of this ill-gotten labor – the same way I felt beholding the Sistine Chapel and then remembering the many sales of indulgences that made it possible.

Is Monticello beautiful?  Yes.  Is it filled with clever and interesting artifacts?  Yes.  Is there a vision there to be beheld even today?  Yes.

But what do I do with the contested memories that are paid mere lip service here?  With the placard that insists that Jefferson the keeper of enslaved peoples, strived to treat ‘his’ slaves ‘well’ (by sparing the whip as much as possible as if that were a grace rather than the travesty to human dignity that a whip would be used at all)?  With the many unremarked ironies and fissures in the integrity narrative (like how there are so few slave ‘houses’ because most of them ‘lived’ where they worked, with perhaps a room beside the kitchen or being relegated to the kitchen floor)?

And why am I to be thankful for a man who almost single-handedly set this nation up for the inevitable Civil War we had by failing and refusing to confront the issue in his own time and shoving the debacle down the road a few decades?  Am I to be thankful that he thought nationhood was more important than the lives of those thousands and thousands of people he believed could be owned like a chair?  That he and others participated in a constitutional convention that held that emancipation could not, must not, would not happen (continuing the lie that those held as slaves were not people) while insisting that they be counted as 2/3 a person for representation purposes (the irony of that one never fails to stab)?

There is no contested memory.  What there is is wide-scale denial of reality.  It’s easier that way and sometimes (not often, but sometimes) I am envious of those living in the land of denial.  It really is easier to simply insist we were the ones wronged than to grapple with the long-term consequences, benefits and disadvantages of claiming the right to own another human being.

It was wrong then and we (white folk) knew it, pretending not to.  And we did it anyway.  And it wasn’t that long ago.  And I hate it (yes, this is my own hate speech).  I hate the lasting legacy.  I hate that I still benefit from it.  I hate that my own people work so hard to deny it.  I hate what it cost us all.  I hate the injustice of it.  I hate that the very foundation of my own nation rests upon it.

And I hate that I pay money to go to a place that celebrates one of the main people here that made it happen by institutionalizing and ensconcing it in our (claimed to be sacred) founding documents.  I hate that the folks who try to deal with that reality at Monticello still describe Sally Hemings as somehow in a relationship with her claimed owner.  I hate that the word ‘rape’ is not used to describe the reality of a man who holds absolute power of life and death and all in between over a woman and engages her in sexual intercourse.  I hate that the docents are careful to point out that Jefferson’s wife was long dead by the time of his sexual congress with Hemings, as if infidelity were really the elephant in the room, as if fidelity in marriage were the issue.

And I hate that the people who love Monticello and Jefferson and American history will likely hate me for having said these things, for having felt them at all.  I hate that they can so easily adjust their thinking and make the ownership of other human beings a footnote of not much import in the life of this supposedly great man.  I hate that the Enlightenment was reduced to self-serving self-interest in this one person.  I hate the lack of moral imagination that we collectively hail as evidence of greatness.

And truthfully, there are days when I hate that I hate it.  For who am I to judge?  Who am I do demand more from history and its keepers than it or they are willing or able to give?  Who am I, a white woman, to feel these things at all?  For the fact is that Thomas Jefferson gave me much (with some help from some Suffragettes along the way, let us not forget).  But truthfully, I do not thank him for it.  And I hate that too, for I know in the eyes of many, it makes me ungrateful.

So be it.  Because I also believe with all my heart the God that I know that Jefferson could scarce abide forgives it all – Jefferson’s hubris and blindness and failures – and mine too.

Just today, however, that forgiveness feels like shifting sand beneath my feet.  And yes, I hate that too.


  1. Oh, dear Beth, why am I not surprised that you think on these things. I am often kept awake at night over the same issues. I, too, condemn myself for my judgement of those -- both then and now -- who are in such denial of the truth about our country when it comes to race. However, we cannot change the past, but we can refuse to allow the indignities of the present to continue without - at the very least - speaking out! Like you have just done. I do think that is what God expects from us. Bless you for your courage.
    Peace and love,

    1. Oh Marilyn, Thank you so much - yours is a grounding, blessed voice. Peace and hugs, Beth