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’ve been thinking a lot lately about interpreting uncomfortable history. It’s something I’m engaging with in my dissertation, and it’s something that seems to be popping up a lot.
On Wednesday night, I made the trek up to Nashville to see a documentary, Freedom Summer, being shown as part of the Nashville Film Festival. As you might have guessed from the title, the film focuses on the Mississippi “Freedom Summer” Project of 1964, during which hundreds of college students from around the country poured into Mississippi under the auspices of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to assist and encourage black Mississippians in attempting to register to vote. The registration effort led to the establishment of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, an alternative integrated delegation of Mississippians who unsuccessfully attempted to replace the all-white official delegation. Freedom Summer gained national attention when three civil rights workers (James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner) disappeared while investigating a church burning in Neshoba County. Their bodies were later found buried 12 feet beneath an earthen dam. The story was dramatized for the 1988 movie Mississippi Burning.*
Thursday night, I went up to Nashville again for a curator-led tour and roundtable discussion of the Tennessee State Museum’s new exhibit, Slaves and Slaveholders of Wessyngton Plantation.** The exhibit, which was two years in the making, is a close study of life and relationships on a 13,000-acre Robertson County tobacco plantation. It’s a great (and free) exhibit, and if you find yourself in Nashville before August 31, you should make a point of visiting. The event was organized by the Inter-museum Council of Nashville, so attendees included museum professionals, historians, and people in related fields, and we had a great conversation about the evolution of the exhibit and some of the challenges of interpreting the painful past. The Wessyngton Plantation story is unique in that nearly all of the plantation’s records from the antebellum period survive, including farm records that detail the involvement of the plantation mistress in both industry and punishment of slaves. The exhibit also features a math workbook that belonged to one of the Washington men, which includes word problems that talk about dividing workloads among overseers and slaves, showing how the institution of slavery shaped every aspect of the antebellum plantation world.
At the same time that these conversations were taking place, a friend sent me a link to this great video describing what’s going on in the Central African Republic. I love the vlogbrothers, and if you’re not familiar with them, you should remedy that maybe right now. Anyway, aside from the content, what really grabbed me about the video was the point John makes about how as Americans, we’re very attached to good vs. evil in our narratives, and that this is something that we both deliberately and subconsciously project onto our history. I also came across a good piece on History@Work (NCPH’s blog) about finding a balance between the need to tell a story that won’t put visitors off without backing away from hard truths.
The thread that pulled these various moments/experiences together for me was that tension between the need to be good historians who confront the truth in all its ugliness and good storytellers who can engage and entertain visitors. Sometimes we do this well, and other times we do it less well. For me, the success of the Wessyngton Plantation exhibit in presenting the lives of the enslaved people is that alongside accounts of punishments and a display case with neck shackles is the story of individuals who created their own lives and families within bondage. The exhibit does not fetishize the violence and brutality of slavery, nor does it try to paint a picture of happy slaves under a “good” master. It simply describes what was and leaves it to the visitor to make what he or she will of it.
I had more mixed feelings about Freedom Summer. While it was an excellent documentary, I found myself a little frustrated by the ending, which on the one hand connected rejection of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party with the rise of black separatism (yes!), but then on the other hand tied it to the success of the Voting Rights Act. Now, I agree that the Freedom Summer Project had an important impact on that legislation, but the connection with the material presented in the film felt like an afterthought–a need to tie a bow and put a “happily ever after” on a story that frankly didn’t need one. So much of the film focused on how the experience of Freedom Summer changed the way both the civil rights workers and the black Mississippians thought about themselves that tacking that connection on at the end felt awkward in an otherwise beautifully made film. The film would have been stronger overall if the creators had simply let the work speak for itself and left viewers to decide for themselves whether the ending was happy or not.
I think that sometimes as public historians we can fall victim to that desire to create a neat, tidy narrative arc with a clear beginning, middle, and end, and in particular, we want to end on an optimistic note. There’s nothing wrong with at impulse, and a huge part of our job is presenting content in accessible ways that encourage people to think critically. While I don’t have any great magic trick for solving that problem, I think it’s worth looking at pop culture for ideas. I think we’re at a really good moment in pop culture for engaging with complicated stories that go beyond the epic good vs. evil grand narrative of say, Lord of the Rings.*** There are popular shows with much more complicated stories that engage in much more complex narratives, shows like Mad Men where the characters do terrible things to each other and themselves and yet we still care about them, or Game of Thrones where good guys die, bad guys live, and it’s hard to find a hero(ine). While I’m not suggesting we pattern the history we present after these programs (both of those shows have serious issues with representations of people of color, for one thing, and we have enough trouble with that already), they point to a willingness of the public, or at least parts of it, to be entertained by and engaged with complicated stories and multidimensional characters. If people can (and do) follow along and be fascinated by complex characters like Don Draper and Varys, surely they can do the same for figures like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X.
The way we think about and understand the past has a tremendous impact on how we think about and understand the present. Is emancipation a happy ending for enslaved people? Does the civil rights movement have a happy ending? Does it have an ending at all?
*Mississippi Burning is a problematic film in a lot of ways, not least of which is the passivity that characterizes all of its African American characters and the heroic role it assigns the FBI.
**Much of the research for this exhibit is based on the work of John F. Baker, Jr., who has published a book on the topic. Full disclosure: I have purchased the book, but not yet read it.
I saw 12 Years a Slave on November 29, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.
I don’t quite know how to talk about how the film made me feel, but I can tell you that it was the opposite of a clinical, academic reaction. I went to an evening show, and I was glad that I could leave the theater in the dark and did not have to go about my business for the rest of the day.
I went to see the film on the heels of a week-long trip to Selma to conduct interviews, and as I watched the film, pieces of those narratives flashed through my mind. The use of the n-word. The contrast between Ford and Epps, two points on a spectrum of evil, one complicit the other openly sadistic. The destructive toll on the humanity of all involved. More than anything, Northrup’s struggle against and within a system designed to strip the enslaved of all agency. As I watched, I thought about the stories my narrators had shared, and I saw Jim Crow in the attitudes and relationships on screen.
Part of why I wanted to see 12 Years so badly was that I was still angry about Django Unchained, the Tarantino revenge flick about a white man who frees an enslaved man and teaches him how to wreak vengeance on his former oppressors. Django bothered me on a lot of levels; beyond its obvious function as a statement piece so that Tarantino could prove how not racist he is by using the n-word liberally, I hated the way the movie bought into all of the stereotypes we have about the mid-19th century without challenging them. I hated the way Tarantino underdeveloped his female characters. I hated the way he played along with the made-up sport of mandingo fighting, when the true sadism of slavery, I thought, was in a thousand more mundane and horrifying moments. The excessive violence and Tarantino’s self-congratulatory smugness sickened me–and I generally like Tarantino’s work.
The problem at the core of Django, for me, is agency. Both films depict slavery as a state where agency is largely stripped from black (male) character. Django is given his agency by the protagonist of the film, the bounty hunter Dr. Schultz, and he uses it to go on the offensive and rescue his wife–after, of course, he fulfills his bargain with Schultz, who freed Django because Django could identify Schultz’s quarry, the Brittle brothers. The problem, from my perspective at least, is that Tarantino repeatedly implies that the enslaved men could be free if only they stood up to their oppressors. As others have pointed out, this entire premise implies that enslaved people did not engage in resistance and that if they had, slavery would have ended.
12 Years also engages in questions of agency, and part of what makes the film so gut-wrenching is how hard McQueen drives home that sense of powerlessness and the arbitrary nature of the justice meted out. There is a scene where Northrup stands up for himself against the plantation’s carpenter. Several members of the audience openly cheered when this moment took place, and I even laughed once because while it was as unexpected as it was welcome. At the same time, though, my chest clenched in anxiety because this act of rebellion, this moment of seizing agency, would only bring more violence on Northrup–and it did. When Northrup ultimately regains his agency, like Django, it is at the hands of white men, although the context is far more complex as we see Northrup leave behind his fellow enslaved workers who will be no doubt bear the brunt of Epps’ wrath at losing Northrup.
Unlike in Django, where white slave owners and their minions are treated as uniformly evil, 12 Years presents a much more nuanced picture. McQueen lets us see the spectrum of complicity, as well as the toll the entire system takes on those who are a part of it. The “good” plantation owner Ford remains a slave owner, and for all of his apparent compassion for Northrup, the human being he owns along with many others, it is he who sells Northrup to Epps who is known for his cruelty. Ford only seems good in the sense that he lacks Epps’ sadisim, but he is still a willing and conscious participant in the system. Epps, meanwhile, is indeed a sadist, but seems also to be tormented by a mania that disrupts his wife’s life as well.
The women in 12 Years are more than the two-dimensional characters presented by Django. The relationship between Mistress Epps and Patsey, and their relationships to Epps is complex (and there’s a fantastic discussion of it here). McQueen allows us to see the intersections between race and gender and how these relationships play out in the omnipresent violence of white (male) supremacy. This tension continued well beyond emancipation; the defense of white Southern womanhood prompted lynchings and rioting well into the 20th century. To me, this is the most profound contribution of 12 Years; not its depiction of slavery per se, but the way the film shows the complex racial and gender-based relationships rooted in slavery that have continued on well past emancipation.
The end of the 12 Years is ambiguous. Our protagonist Northrup has been reunited with his family, but he never receives anything approaching justice for his years in bondage, nor are the men responsible for his capture held liable. The circumstances of his death are unknown. We never learn Patsey’s fate–she is always standing in the dusty road, scarred visage fading while Northrup begins his long-awaited journey home. This ambiguity parallels much of the historical experience; emancipation did not beget equality, the desegregation of schools has not closed the achievement gap, the successes of the Civil Rights Movement have not resolved institutionalized racism, the election of President Obama did not usher in a post-racial society.
Our role as historians is not to shy away from these ambiguities, but to bring them to the fore and discuss them. The (admittedly idealistic and possibly naive) reason I decided to pursue public history was to find ways to use my interest and skills as an historian to make some sort of contribution to society. I am deeply optimistic that despite the ambiguity of our victories and distance we have left to travel, that by engaging with our past we can find solutions to the challenges of the present and even hope for a better tomorrow.
Hope springs eternal in the human breast; Man never is, but always to be blessed: The soul, uneasy and confined from home, Rests and expatiates in a life to come.
–Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man
*This post was originally developed for another project, and as such is cross-posted elsewhere.