Sunday, September 17, 2023

The New Monticello

Book banning. Forbidding truth in history classes. Trash-talking wokeness. The Repugnantins are showing their terror that their unearned privilege is in danger when people finally learn the real story of what’s gone down in this country. They’re backpedaling toward ignorance as fast as they can and not enough of us are putting up the barricades to halt their hurtful actions.


And yet, I’m happy to report that there is a sizable momentum pushing the moral arc towards truth and justice. The Monticello tour, for example. When I took this tour some 12 years ago, the entire focus was on Jefferson’s impressive Renaissance-man qualities— not only President and the one who so eloquently articulated the inspired words of The Declaration of Independence, but an inventor, a scientist, an architect, a voracious reader of philosophy and history, a farmer and a prime force in creating the separation of church and state. I remember leaving the tour inspired by his accomplishments.


The story on yesterday’s tour did not belittle those qualities, but included the larger story. Owner of 607 human beings who allowed him to pursue his interests on a large estate by working for free, cruel punisher of any who transgressed, someone who used his power and privilege to have relations with Sally Hemmings, a 14-year old enslaved girl (who happened to be his wife’s half-sister—it’s a complicated story), father of four children by her whom he “freed” according to an agreement he made to coerce her to return from France with him back to Monticello, but never spent time with any of them, someone who publicly professed slavery as “an abomination” but failed to include black people in his notion of “all people are created equal and endowed with certain unalienable rights.” And yes, he was a product of his time, but story after story, I couldn’t help but feel, “Tom, you could have done better. Didn’t you ever lie in bed sometime and think, ‘What am I doing here?’ And while you probably justified it all as necessary for upkeep of this large estate you inherited, why didn’t you build a more modest house that you and a few paid laborers could keep up while you pursued your worthy interests? (Turns out that even with 600 people working for free, Jefferson was still always in debt.)


I was so pleased that the tour finally was dealing with these questions and I particularly loved one perky elder guide who engaged us with her questions, getting us to reflect deeper on the contradictions and not so easily excuse him. And equally impressed with the 30 people on the tour who didn’t seem defensive or offended by having to consider some of the truths DeSantis and his ilk are trying to suppress. This guide confided that when she first started giving tours in the 1970’s, she was expressly forbidden to talk about Sally Hemmings. Yes, my friends, the moral arc is leaning in the right direction.


And again when visiting the University of Virginia campus where there’s a beautifully grassy area enclosed by a wall telling how enslaved human beings built this campus and were the property of many of the professors. I hope a little walk around it is required for freshman orientation. 


So, friends, we should be alarmed at the number of states trying to legislate the suppression of truth, but also encouraged by the signs that people are ready to hear the real story and begin to change the white supremacy narrative by understanding what it is and how it works and why it shouldn’t work. It’s up to us to carry forth Jefferson’s words into the realities he was incapable of realizing. 

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