I’ve recently seen a number of things on the social media with this quote of Jefferson’s:
“I cannot live without books”
The quote is from a letter to John Adams, and I can understand why it appeals to people. I love books so much that I am dragging a shocking number of them halfway across the country, but I don’t own or want any of the myriad items floating around with this quote on them.
Jefferson was a brilliant man who played a pivotal role in the founding of this nation. He also owned thousands of human beings throughout his life, despite his extensive writings on liberty, and repeatedly rapedSally Hemings from the time she was 14 (he was 44). Jefferson’s lifestyle was possible because of the labor of enslaved people, and he periodically struggled with bankruptcy because of the instability of agriculture and because he consistently lived above his means, in part because of his compulsive purchasing of books. In order to fund this lifestyle, Jefferson often mortgaged his property, including his human property.
Jefferson mortgaged human beings to pay for his lifestyle. He only ever freed two enslaved men during his lifetime. He claimed that black people were not suited to freedom, and that they should be sent back to Africa rather than permitted to live in the land of their birth. He claimed that they could not be integrated into white society. These beliefs were convenient for a man who wished to justify keeping human beings as property and capital, able to be mortgaged or sold to cover his debts when it suited him.
Yes, Jefferson loved books, but he purchased his books with the lives of the people he owned, and that is worth keeping in mind when you see that brief quote stitched on a pillow or emblazoned on a tshirt.
I recently read an article entitled, “Will History Only Remember the Founding Fathers as Slaveowners?” The author is Suzanne Sherman, a lawyer who took her homeschooled children on a road trip from Utah to East Coast to visit sites associated with the some of the great men in U.S. history. She describes her visits to a number of historic sites (Monticello, Poplar Forest, Montpelier, John C. Calhoun’s home, and the Peyton Randolph House). Sherman is unimpressed with how many of these sites work to include the narratives of the enslaved people who lived and worked in these spaces, and harries the docents about their apparent insistence on interpreting the lives of enslaved people (except at Poplar Forest, where she found an ally against the scourge of “revisionist-style” history.
The author of the article makes two points in particular that I would like to discuss. First, this paragraph:
“Movies from both Monticello and Montpelier featured images of Barack Obama and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, as well as quotations about “freedom and equality.” Freedom for whom? Slaves? What about our precious liberty? It struck me that promoting the progressive goal of equality is the end of all these presentations; the slaves, over a century-and-a-half postmortem, are still being used as the means to further a political agenda.”
Aside from the pearl-clutching (but apparently sincere) tone of “What about our precious liberty?,”that final line is telling, “…the slaves… are still being used as the means to further a political agenda.” What strikes me about this sentiment is that the author does not consider that enslaved people have always been used as the means to further a politicalagenda. For a very long time, (white) historians have used the idea of the so-called benevolentmaster who took care of his slaves, who were child-like and ill-prepared to live in the world without their white master’s guidance. The author herself states that, “had Madison simply freed his slaves, they likely would have starved.”
That’s obviously not the case; thousands of enslaved people fled captivity and did not starve, nor did the many freedmen who lived throughout the country at a time when there was no real place for free people of color in many parts of white society. Beyond that, in many plantation settings, enslaved people were responsible for growing their own gardens to supplement whatever rations they received from white masters. Sherman positions herself as an expert on slavery relative to the docents she encountered, yet she cannot see past her own impressions of what slaves were like. In her view, they were helpless and unintelligent, an attitude that slave-owners used to justify their own actions and one that was perpetuated after Emancipation to legitimize the denial of civil rights and full citizenship to African Americans. Sherman refuses to acknowledge the implications of her attitude, and would no doubt disagree vehemently with my assessment.
The other issue I’d like to bring up is the question of interpretation at house museums. Sherman is at pains to point out that these sites neglect to interpret “the ideals, philosophies and political goals upon which the American republic was founded.” I wonder if she ever visited any of these sites before they began openly interpreting the lives of enslaved people? I certainly did. I grew up in Virginia, and I lived in Williamsburg for three years in the 1990s. I remember hearing enslaved workers referred to as “servants” with little or no reference to the fact that they were engaged in forced labor. I knew that Jefferson owned slaves, but I knew it in an abstract way that allowed me to retain a sense of awe at his achievements. For what it’s worth, I’m still impressed by his achievements, but my awe is tempered by my awareness of him as a deeply flawed human being. His lauded efficiency, for example, was facilitated by the fact that he had dozens of enslaved workers who took care of the mundane tasks of daily life like cooking, cleaning, and laundry.
The real point is that in my (admittedly flawed) memory, these sites never focused on “the ideals, philosophies and political goals upon which the American republic was founded.” They instead described the daily lives of the white people who inhabited these spaces using the landscape, building, and material culture (furniture, art, artifacts). If you wanted to learn about Peyton Randolph’s historical contributions, you could read a book. Being the physical space was an opportunity to imagine daily life in this setting.
This is why so many of these sites have worked to include the stories of enslaved workers. Thomas Jefferson lived at Monticello and Poplar Forest intermittently during his adult life. During that same time, hundreds of enslaved people lived at those sites for their entire lives. Their forced labor made Jefferson’s lifestyle possible, and their lives literally shaped the landscape and built environment.
This is obvious to me as a public historian and preservationist, but it’s clearly not obvious to visitors. So what is the solution? Do we take Sherman up on her suggestion and return to hagiographic interpretations of great white men that obliterate the lives and contributions of thousands of human beings whose enslavement was justified by the color of their skin? There are, first of all, plenty of sites that still do that. I would argue that we need to take our educational initiative further. Let’s talk to visitors about why interpret what we do. Let’s explain that these sites were never used to explore Madison’s political philosophy, but rather his daily life, which was informed by his status as a man who owned enslaved workers. And let’s talk about how we are trying to give them a more authentic sense of his life, one that explores the contradictions and hypocrisies that make lives challenging and interesting.
And in the meanwhile, let’s all take a minute to thank the docents for being on the front line of these tough conversations.
When you tell people that you’re going to South Africa*, everyone wants to know if you’re planning to go on safari. A lot of well-meaning people chimed suggesting that I go to Kruger National Park, not realizing that Kruger is about an eight-hour drive from Johannesburg or that it’s the sort of place you need to visit for weeks. It’s definitely one of my dreams to visit Kruger, but it was never going to happen in the amount of time or budget I had for this trip. I did, however, manage to squeeze in a trip to Pilanesburg National Park and Game Reserve, which is less well-known but only a two-hour drive from Joburg.
Pilanesburg is a beautiful park. It is situated on an ecological transition zone, which means that it is home to a broad array of African wildlife. We saw lots of impala, elephants, zebra, hippo, wildebeest/gnu, giraffes, and warthogs, along with some harder-to-spot animals like ostrich, a white rhino, and even a leopard. Though I’m no photographer and of course I forgot my camera in the US (typical), I got some nice shots on my rented iPhone, especially when I held it up to the binoculars, because I am nothing if not resourceful.
Although I had a great time enjoying the natural landscape and seeing the animals, the heritage preservationist in me kept wondering about the history of the park. A few years ago, a friend sent me an old (but excellent) article on the formation of Serengeti National Park.** The article described how the formation of the park included the removal of evidence of human life, except for tribes that were deemed sufficiently “primitive” to not disturb visitor’s chance to see the “real” Africa. The author describes the impact of this decision not only on the displaced people, but on those who were forced to remain “primitive” so they would not lose their homes and land. Beyond this, he describes how this affected the way visitors see the park and their ideas about what Africa really is. This last idea in particular is something that has stayed with me, though of course it’s hardly unique to Africa–Frederick Jackson Turner conveniently erased Native Americans from the landscape for his frontier thesis, and scores of people were evicted from their homes in Appalachia to make way for national parks. This idea was brought home quite strongly for me when my tour guide mentioned that she thought of this place as the “real South Africa.”
The problem with this idea is that the landscape at Pilanesburg, just as at Serengeti, is manufactured. Before it became a park, this land was home to Zulu warriors, Boer farmers, and later the re-settled Bakgatla tribe during apartheid. The land has been inhabited by humans and hominids for millions of years, and these people evolved alongside the animals in the park. When it was converted into a game reserve, much of the evidence of human habitation was erased, barring one remaining official building which has been converted into a visitor center. The animals that live in the park were reintroduced as part of Operation Genesis in the 1980s.
The thing is, for all its natural splendor, this place is no less a managed landscape than a city. It is stunning, but is it anymore the “real South Africa” than Johannesburg or Soweto or Cape Town? So much of South African history is fraught and intense, and the specter of apartheid lingers because for half a century it dominated people’s lives and the landscape. A place like Pilanesburg can seem like an oasis from these hard truths; after all, there are no people here. But apartheid was here, too. It’s why the Boer farmers are no longer here; they sold their land to the apartheid government, which used it to create a homeland for the Bakubung tribe where they would be racially and ethnically segregated. Pilanesburg is not what South Africa used to look like–it’s what it looks like now, with all of the layers of meaning that exist in any cultural landscape, and that’s worth keeping in mind whether you are walking through an informal settlement or staring in awe at a leopard casually surveying his territory.
*After they ask about Ebola, of course.
**Neumann, Roderick P. “Ways of Seeing Africa: Colonial Recasting of African Society and Landscape in Serengeti National Park.” Cultural Geographies 2, no. 2 (April 1995): 149-169. (I cannot recommend this article highly enough.)
The thing about researching and working on difficult heritage is that it is difficult for a reason. Part of why I planned such a lengthy research trip to South Africa was that I knew I’d be confronting a lot of serious, emotional topics and sites, and I wanted to have time in between these more intense experiences to recover. I wanted to be sure that when I visited a site, I wasn’t emotionally exhausted from an earlier visit elsewhere. I want to be a thoughtful, engaged visitor, and that means not shutting down because I’ve spent the last three days confronting the horror that human beings inflict on each other. With that in mind, I made a visit to the Cape Medical Museum in Cape Town.
The Cape Medical Museum does not have a website, and they are actually a bit tricky to find. I happened to see it when I rode past in a taxi, and knew that I absolutely HAD to visit. I have a pet interest in medical history, and I enjoy learning about the past through the lens of disease and medical practices. I love a good medical history book, especially when the writer explores the intersection between disease, science, culture, social history, and race. I listen to a lot of medical histories when I’m driving (not always the best idea if you don’t feel well), and right now I’ve been listening to Rabid: A Cultural History of Rabies, which I recommend highly.
Anyway! The museum is in an attractive but unassuming historic house in the Old Hospital Complex in Green Point, Cape Town. There is no admission fee (though I made a donation), and there are no guided tours. In addition to an extensive collection of medical machines and equipment, the museum includes a fantastic exhibit on various diseases that have invaded the region. The multilingual panels connect the facts of diseases like typhus and yellow fever to their impact on society. In a panel on the bubonic plague, for example, one section describes how the practice of quarantining Africans suspected of having plague in camps helped create the idea for townships under apartheid. One of these camps later became the site of the Nyanga township. Unfortunately, there was no photography in the museum, so you’ll just have to take my word for it.
The disease room also had a display case with small windows where visitors could look in and see some of the medical models physicians in training used to learn how to identify diseases like diphtheria and gonorrhea. Though these were not as elaborate as the casts and preserved parts I saw earlier this year at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia, they still conveyed the horrifying commonness of these types of conditions.
There were several rooms dedicated to particular types of medical equipment, like dentistry and ophthalmology, and a few period rooms set up as an operating room, a dispensary, and a delivery room. These rooms also included display cases full of medical equipment from different time periods, which was both fascinating and a little disturbing. One of my favorite displays was a series of respirators/ventilators showing the evolution of that technology, and culminating with a 1960s-era Bird respirator.
If you do happen to find yourself in Cape Town, this little gem is well worth a visit. It’s an easy walk in Green Point or from the V&A Waterfront, and I spent about an hour and a half, which included reading all of the panels because that is how I roll.
On June 16, 1976, some 20,000 students in Soweto (a township southwest of Johannesburg, South Africa) gathered to march in peaceful protest against the implementation of Afrikaans as the medium of instruction. The decree represented a significant attack from the apartheid regime on the already struggling education system available to students labeled “non-white.” Unlike white students, who received a free and mandatory education, parents of children classified as “non-white” had to pay tuition and for books send their children to non-compulsory schools where they were taught by teachers who were paid a pittance in appallingly poor conditions. The majority of students did not speak Afrikaans, nor did many of the teachers, so the transition to this new language would make it virtually impossible for many students to learn.
The students planned to march from the Orlando West suburb of Soweto to Shap Stadium for a rally, but they encountered police led by Colonel Kleingeld. Kleingeld fired the first shot, and violence erupted as students fled or threw rocks at police, who in turn loosed dogs and fired tear gas canister and bullets at the students. A young man, Hector Pieterson, was shot, and photographer Sam Nzima snapped what would become the iconic image of the uprising, in which Hector’s body is carried by Mbuyisa Makhubo as his sister, Antoinette Sithole, runs alongside.** The violence led to more than 150 deaths, and in the following days students across the city and notably from the University of Witswatersrand joined in the protest. The decree was eventually repealed in 1979, but the student uprising is credited with reinvigorating the anti-apartheid campaign by organizing youth against the regime. If you want to know more, Helena Pohldant-McCormick has an amazing digital book project on the student uprising that is well worth checking out.
I went to the Hector Pieterson Museum and Memorial twice during my visit to Johannesburg, both times as part of township tours of Soweto. I had no idea what to expect because the museum does not have a website or much of an online presence, at least not that I’ve been able to find beyond a few short blurbs on wikipedia and travel websites. I was impressed with the museum, which interprets the events of 1976 and contextualizes against both what happened before and after, and most impressively, includes discussion of lasting impact of the events and their interpretation and commemoration.
The museum constructs its narrative using extensive oral history testimony from many sides of the conflict; students, parents, and police. One of the things that stood out most to me was that there was a real effort to convey what happened in all its confusion and nuance. Contrasting interpretations are offered, as is testimony that complicated ideas about innocence in guilt. In particular, I was struck by the inclusion of the story of a young man who took part in the looting of a shop, probably because of how such reports in the US have been used to discredit the acts of rioters in Ferguson. The museum presents the participants as human beings with agency, and there is no effort to cast them as passive victims in order to make it clear that the violence committed against them was criminal.
For me, this was the most important aspect of the museum. In the US, we have a tendency to want to paint our conflicts in the most black and white terms possible; we like our heroes to be paragons of virtue and our villains to be flawed and malevolent. The problem is that history is made up of the acts of human beings who are inherently flawed and rarely all good or all evil. When we perpetuate these ideas in our presentations of history, we encourage the spread of these ideas in our larger culture. It perpetuates the idea that the only real victim is one who is totally innocent, not just in the context of the crime committed against him or her, but of anything ever. It’s why Trayvon Martin was labeled a thug. It’s why the Ferguson Police felt the need to inform the public that Michael Brown was suspected in the theft of a box of cigars on the day he was shot by Officer Darren Wilson. It’s the reason people wonder what rape victims were wearing.
Our cultural institutions are often reflections of the values we hold as a society. While they cannot single-handedly reform attitudes, they are uniquely placed to encourage dialogue about the past and the issues of race, class, gender, and justice that we still deal with today. When we visit these types of sites, we bring with us values and ideas that can be upheld or challenged by what we see. These sites should be places where we are encouraged to embrace complicated ideas and stories, and then carry that willingness to be uncomfortable and uncertain into the rest of our lives.
*South Africa had a number of racial classifications under apartheid, each of which conveyed a different level of privilege (all subordinate to white, of course). I place “non-white” in quotations because it is the language of the regime; I only use it here to refer to the laws of that period, as I recognize that it is no longer acceptable, and to convey the arbitrary nature of racial classification under apartheid.
**This photograph is widely available online, but I have chosen not to show it here because I do not have the permission of Sam Nzima. The image has a long history of incorrect attribution and appropriation of which I do not want to be a part. You can easily find it by clicking the link above or simply typing “Hector Pieterson” into the search engine of your choice.