The Case for History

The Mississippi Delta
Was shining like a national guitar
I am following the river
Down the highway
Through the cradle of the Civil War

Paul Simon, Graceland

We didn’t follow the Mississippi, but in early May I drove with my wife and some friends through the cradle of the Civil War, first passing through eastern Maryland before heading to Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. Following a visit to the Harriet Tubman Museum in Cambridge, Maryland, located a few miles from where Tubman grew up, we headed to Jefferson’s hill-top plantation in Monticello, Virginia. There, besides the standard “house” visit, we joined the “Slavery at Monticello” tour. We had read about this particular opportunity in Clint Smith’s excellent book, How The Word Is Passed, and looked forward to the chance to experience it for ourselves. We were not disappointed.

Our visit was led by a superb guide, Ariel, who was well read in the latest historical research on Monticello, Jefferson, Sally Hemings, and the history of many of the 607 enslaved people who worked on, or passed through, the plantation. The tour was disturbing and illuminating, as it needed to be. With care, Ariel walked us through Jefferson’s many contradictions. Here was a man who could at the same time proclaim the equality of all men while selling enslaved people to pay off his mounting debts; a man who wrote, in Notes on the State of Virginia, that “blacks [were] inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind,” while living a life utterly dependent on the labor and intelligence of his enslaved laborers at Monticello. Ariel’s presentation was deeply informed and historically accurate. Unfortunately, as we commented to each other while heading to our cars, teachers in dozens of states are probably thinking twice about raising similar questions in their classrooms, that is if they want to keep their jobs. Republican-initiated legislation in those states, intended to quash such discussions, is already having its intended chilling effect.

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