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.
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.
The struggle to remember King’s radicalism is particularly salient in the wake of the death of Nelson Mandela. NPR used the occasion to discuss what happens when media outlets agree to agree, calling up the examples of King and Mandela. Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote an excellent piece over at The Atlantic on Mandela’s rejection of nonviolence that also cites comments on the topic by King and Malcolm X, a reminder that while King embraced nonviolence, the story was more complex than Kumbaya.
While it may seem tiresome to some audiences to continually speak to King’s radicalism and fight back against the sanitization (whitewashing?) of his image, the cost of not speaking out is higher. Just yesterday, former Alaskan governor and reality TV star Sarah Palin used King’s words to accuse President Obama of “playing the race card.” Palin’s remarks immediately drew fire from most circles, including her supporters. While most comments have focused on contextualizing her statements and arguing about whether Obama has played “the race card,” fewer looked at her misappropriation of King’s words and legacy.
The reason I bring up Palin’s remark is that it is a perfect example of the impact of white privilege on society and how we talk about the past. I can basically guarantee that whatever Palin was thinking when she posted that comment, it had almost nothing to do with Dr. King and his work and everything to do with her whitewashed ideas about him. When we don’t talk about the parts of King’s legacy, and the Civil Rights Movement as a whole, that make us uncomfortable, that remind us that he was a human being instead of a saint, we lose the significance of his contribution. He becomes the comfort food version of history; empty calories that feel good without providing any nourishment.
I was attracted to public history because it seemed like a way to make history useful and relevant. As I have worked on civil rights history, and more importantly talked with people who were involved in the Civil Rights Movement, I have to come to believe that as a public historian, I have an obligation to facilitate a discussion about social justice, especially when the injustices of the past connect with the injustices of the present. The way forward, from my perspective, is finding ways to talk about complicated topics that are respectful both of those engaged in the conversations and the facts themselves.
So let’s start talking about Dr. King’s radicalism. Let’s talk about Mandela’s rejection of nonviolence. And in the meantime, white people, before we say anything at all, we need to ask ourselves, Yo, Is This Racist?
*This post was originally developed for another project, and as such is cross-posted elsewhere.