Sunday, August 15, 2010


Thomas Jefferson had it good. Monticello, the Charlottesville, Virginia home that he designed and lived in for the last 17 years of his life, is beautiful. Granted, today we have much better roads, climate control, and lighting -- not to mention way better TV programs! -- but even back in the day, I'll bet it was a pretty cool place to while away your time. If you were Thomas Jefferson, that is. Not so much for his slaves, including Sally Hemings, by whom Jefferson fathered at least one and quite possibly several children after the death of his wife (Hemings' half-sister, interestingly).

According to the tour guide at Monticello, the most common questions from visitors are about Hemings, and about how Jefferson could reconcile his authorship of the Declaration of Independence with the fact that he owned slaves. I imagine the short answer to be, "with difficulty." He was a complicated man, of course, and one who personally benefited from slavery even as he condemned it. For him, as for some other people of the era, the choice was between justice and Union. He famously wrote of slavery, "We have the wolf by the ears; and we can neither hold him nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other." 

This quote and other of Jefferson's writings on liberty were presented in the tour and exhibits at the site. And yet somehow I felt as if the only way to adequately deal with slavery at this, one of the nation's most significant and popular historic sites, would be to openly admit that the nation was built on notions of liberty, yes, but also on a gross and centuries-long injustice.  What I got instead was a pleasant tour of the house and grounds that did not shy away from slavery, but hardly plumbed its depths, either. I guess you can only cover so much in less than an hour! Still, plenty of the contradictions were there to see, hear, or read.

Jefferson had an ample library (large parts of which he had to sell off in his impecunious periods), and yet slaves were not nearly so well equipped with books or reading skills. (In 1831, just five years after Jefferson's death, Nat Turner's Revolt in Virginia led to restrictive laws against the education of slaves.) Jefferson and other relatives are neatly buried in a well-tended cemetery, but the African-American cemetery past the parking lot was poorly marked and, in its day, probably even more poorly tended. And even now, the Monticello Association (of Jefferson's descendants) does not officially recognize the heirs of the Hemings-Jefferson line, in spite of DNA evidence uncovered in 1998. That this was not deeply and openly explored at Monticello is unsurprising, I suppose, but a shame nonetheless. After all, in this place come together such deep-rooted questions as: Who is American? Who gets to tell their story? And how do these stories establish one as a person and a citizen? A slave's story was an assertion of humanity, power, and even American citizenship and birthrights. No wonder slave literacy and communications could provoke such violence. To its credit, Monticello sells a goodly number of books on slavery for adults and kids alike, and has "Getting Word," a project that locates and records the oral histories of descendants of Monticello's enslaved families. 

While I was in Virginia, I spent some time with a group called Thousand Kites, a national dialogue project addressing the criminal justice system. (Last year, I podcasted about them here.) More to the point, Thousand Kites was training prison reform groups to record on video stories of people affected by the criminal justice system -- not least of all, prisoners, former prisoners, and their families. 

It is at once shocking and totally predictable that their experiences should so little inform public knowledge and public policy on prisons. Prisoners' stories can't get out for various reasons: high rates of illiteracy, restrictions on writing implements, the scrutiny and (some would say) censorship of letters coming out of prison, exorbitant charges for phone calls from prisons, and their geographical isolation.

For many people on the outside, such privations are reasonable; after all, incarceration is supposed to be a punishment, and there are legitimate security concerns that necessitate these regulations. And yet, prison reform activists point out, the prisons are stuffed with people in on nonviolent drug offenses, a disproportionate number of them African American. 

It's hard not to draw a historical line: Slaves were denied education and access to reading and writing materials, and now a disproportionate number of their descendants are subject to the same limitations. It's this connection that led at least one activist I met to say that prisons are the new Jim Crow. (And Jim Crow was, in its time and way, the new slavery.) All of this made the questions about today's prisoners feel painfully reminiscent of the questions about yesterday's slaves. Who gets to tell their story, who goes down in history, and who gets to be an American?

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