This week, I briefly toured Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello in Virginia. Although this estate was built in the 18th and 19th centuries, it would make an impressive home, even today. On the tour of the manor, our excellent guide, Judy, offered insight into Jefferson and his tendency to tinker with things. She said (paraphrasing) that he ‘liked to always be tearing things down to rebuild…’ something he did with Monticello when he returned from serving as Minister to France in 1789. Of course it was much easier for him to do with hundreds of enslaved people around him to do his bidding. I greatly appreciated how Judy lifted up the violent discrepancy between a man who could write the words “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” while living a lifestyle that was entirely dependent upon enslaved labor, most notably enslaved women and children of color.
It is painful to visit a place like Monticello at a time when the current President of the United States (who also owns windswept property in Charlottesville, VA*) and the political party and allies around him, are literally telling non-white American citizen members of Congress to “go back where they came from”, calling them “communists” who “hate America.” But, I imagine that for Rep. Ilhan Omar, Rep. Rashida Tlaib, Rep. Ayanna Pressley and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez the words of Trump (and now Sen. Lindsay Graham) actually don’t hurt or surprise them. Like me, these women grew up in brown skin, in the United States (Rep. Omar came to the US when she was 10) and that skin was pretty thick by the time we were adults. This is not the first time they are hearing these words. But the silence and hesitation of Republicans, moderates and even some Democrats who are just letting this pass, burns like acid. It is a sickening sensation that happens when I listen to Nancy Pelosi dither on impeachment. It is the heart drop that comes from hearing journalists declare that telling a non-white person to “go back where they came from” is not racist but rather about heritage, region and class. It is the gut punch that happens when you stand in front of a copy of the Declaration of Independence at the palatial manse of Monticello and hear that Jefferson only freed a handful of the people he enslaved upon his death. It is the rage that comes when you read that he never recognized his physical offspring with his slave Sally Hemings as anything other than property during his lifetime.
“…that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,…”
Reps. Omar, Tlaib, Pressley and Ocasio-Cortez cannot fix this problem of bald faced racism and nor should they. They didn’t cause it, it isn’t their responsibility. The privilege exercised by the President of the United States to be able to uniquely put brown women in a place outside of the “American Dream” (without repercussion) is something that is entirely owned and created by the concept of American whiteness, white entitlement, and white power. This is a white problem. As we now see Republican support for the president grow in the wake of his statements, one must wonder if this what it actually means to be white in America? Being able to talk about freedom, but only defend it for yourself; taking the opportunity to decry racism…but only when it is convenient; splitting hairs about what we call race, ethnicity and cultural identity so that one’s “conflict” (read: bigotry) doesn’t show too much; worrying about whether you will offend someone for naming their bigotry. The non-response from the nearly all white Republican Congress gives me no sense of confidence that our government will every be capable of having the interests of anyone who is not white (or male) at heart. But then white men in the government of the United States have been doing exactly this same thing to women of color for centuries. After all, Thomas Jefferson did not have Sally Hemings interests at heart when he went to her bed.
The conflict between whiteness and an inability to take racialization and ethnocentricism as an urgent and fatal flaw of our government and society is embodied in the legacy of Thomas Jefferson. I will not make excuses for him just as I make no excuses for Theodore Parker or Ralph Waldo Emerson, both of whom I follow in the tradition of Unitarian (Universalist) ministry. You can say they were men of their times but “their times” have apparently never ended and the selective promise of their words continues to do harm to this day.
We would do well to follow Jefferson’s architectural impulse and tear this racist house down and build something new; and do so on land that wasn’t stolen in the first place.
“…that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”