Friday, May 28, 2021

A rapist and slaver who did other things


 
     Thomas Jefferson had six children with Sally Hemings. At least. Quite a lot, really.
     How that fact eluded me through a lifetime of reading history speaks to the sort of history I’ve been reading. I knew about Hemings, but not the half-dozen kids.
     If they’re old news to you, apologies. Nothing is duller than being told what you already know. I’m genuinely uncertain whether I need to further identify Hemings as Jefferson’s property. Or ID Jefferson as the third president. It’s true, he was.
     The Hemings story, once a whispered calumny, has been embraced, even celebrated by those running Jefferson’s planation home of Monticello. I visited there last Friday while hanging around Charlottesville, Virginia, waiting for my youngest to receive his law degree. We travelled 800 miles to watch him walk across the stage and be handed his diploma.
      Or so I believed, until reality intruded, as reality will do, eventually.
      I’d been to Monticello several times, and every time the history of the enslaved persons who worked there becomes more prominent, as does scrutiny, given the evil that Jefferson tried and failed to ban at our nation’s founding. Decades ago, the 600 Black people owned by Jefferson were called “servants.” Then they became “slaves,” but that was seen as ... what? Too reductive, perhaps. “Enslaved persons” is now their preferred term, perhaps to finally work “person” into the description.
     Touring Jefferson’s home, I felt as if I were myself two different people admiring the gardens and staring into the wine cellar. One who went to grade school at a time when Blacks show up only fleetingly in American history in the form of Crispus Attucks, who arrives just in time to be gunned down at the Boston Massacre, then submerge until John Brown and the origins of the Civil War.

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6 comments:

  1. their aren't any enslaved people to prefer a term . its many of the currently alive people who have thankfully finally begun to use a descriptive that acknowledges the humanity of the millions of people who's lives were stolen from them for profit by whites. not a trivial matter.

    living in a nation founded on the premise of liberty and justice for all,,, white men. its not hard to see how many , many people, republican and democrat alike can have a problem with the Black Lives Matter movement. as you well know there are bigots in every walk of life. then there are people who believe we have a finite pie and that if someone move from crumbs to a slice there slice gets smaller. these people are selfish and greedy. just like Thomas Jefferson. Im grateful he did other things too but owning people and raping them should be an equally prominent part of the narrative.

    the slave diaries should be required reading in high school.

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  2. Are there really only 2 kinds of people in this world: those who would for the sport of it shoot down helpless natives as shown in Conrad's Heart of Darkness; and those who like his narrator are appalled by that behavior? The unmasking of Jefferson and his ilk demonstrates, to me at least, that the best of us are not that much better than the worst of us and in some cases, such as this one, it's difficult to tell them apart.

    john

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    1. I'm sure that there are more than two types of people in the world but there are two types those who treat everyone equally and those that would treat some people like they're less than human even to the point of owning them or killing them for running away when told to stop.

      Jefferson and other owners of human beings owned their children.

      Some of us rever these men.


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    2. Two types of people? If only it were that simple, but the truth is that good people do bad things and vice versa. And circumstances are important. As the Inspector in Crime and Punishment put it, "Men can get used to anything, the scoundrels." Or in the words of Herr Kant, "out of the crocked timber of mankind nothing straight was ever made."

      Tom

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  3. I went to a supposedly elite prep school that prided itself on its history department. But looking back, Black Americans were as absent from my historical education as from Neil's. And the Civil Rights movement was a good 10 years in the rearview -- no reason not to consider it as part of modern history.

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    1. A quibble, but readers of your sentence on Crispus Attucks might mistakenly assume that John Brown was African American

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