It’s been a big week for Hamilton lyrics. When ACHA was pulled from a vote, my timelines were filled with “You don’t have the VOTES” memes. The day before my visit to Thomas Jefferson’s famous estate in Virginia last Wednesday, I tweeted, “On a scale of 1 to excessively rude, where would suggesting to Monticello docents they play exclusively, ‘What Did I Miss?’ fall?”
What’s funny is that, walking through the rooms of the house, I no longer saw Daveed prancing about. I saw an old white dude taking an insufferable volume of notes on EVERYTHING as the silent footsteps of his slaves pattered in and out, filling water glasses, opening doors, turning down beds, stoking fires.
Before last week, the farthest I’d ever gone into Virginia was Vienna, a stopover on the way to D.C., but after a long day spent trying to reconcile American history, a group of people I met by chance kept me around another 24 hours.
On Wednesday, I wandered the grounds of Monticello, trying to understand how Jefferson’s prolific work in politics and philosophy could jive with the fact that he owned a fuck ton of slaves (and only ever set 10 free), and fathered children with one of those slaves. And when thinking about how strongly he’s revered as a founding father, to know that he sloughed off accountability as a slaveowner by leaving the “slavery question” to the next generation is fucking enraging. Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today, Tommy! Isn’t that one of your friend Ben’s aphorisms? TAKE SOME ADVICE.
I wonder, if he knew what we deal with today, whether Jefferson still would’ve left that to us. The man who is praised as being one of the most brilliant philosophical and political minds of any time didn’t have enough creativity to imagine something like the Klan coming into existence? Guess he didn’t have time while designing his entire house and then redesigning it, and then redesigning it again, to stop and think that “separate but equal” could be a thing. Or redlining. Or voter ID laws. Or extreme gerrymandering. Sounds to me like he lived in a bubble. One of them “coastal elites.”
An almost throwaway account in one of the exhibits described how poor whites were treated by the American gentry and I raised an eyebrow: it mentioned that slaves (being the property of the landed white folks) were often regarded with more importance than poor whites, and the latter were considered the lowest of the low. That harkens to a discussion a close friend and I have had over and over through the years, that where racism is hands-down the scourge of the nation — period — the classism built into the fabric of the country isn’t much better, and exacerbates most of the racial problems.
So, Monticello was heavy, and left my mind running in circles. The Jefferson Foundation is doing pretty extensive restoration of Mulberry Row, where many of Jefferson’s slaves lived and worked, and the optional (but included in ticket price) slavery tour was well-attended, respectfully engaged with, and well-guided. Although the day was sunny and clear, the wind was cutting and cold, and most of us were bundled against the elements. Not one of the 20 or so people on the tour dropped out partway through, though. One of the dwellings that has been reconstructed had a placard inside bearing the question, “Not that bad?” as though the guides and docents had grown tired of hearing people look around the small room and declare the place decent-enough in a quest to invalidate the horrors of slavery (or perhaps cling to an idea of Jefferson as a benevolent, generous owner). I appreciated the head-on way in which the Foundation presents Jefferson’s history.
You know what else I’d appreciate? If the Foundation started a fund for reparations. Monticello was built atop 10,000 acres. The expanse of land Jefferson owned was difficult to wrap my head around. And, more, driving through Virginia’s rolling green fields and seeing grazing horses and relaxing heads of cattle peppered among the opulent farmhouses and rural manors emphasizes how much money is here, how much money is in land. I wonder how many of these people bought that land outright, and for how many it was an inheritance.
Preserving history to prevent forgetting is important — without a doubt. We’re doomed to repeat what we forget (or refuse to accept). But the idealist in me wonders what would happen if we (white people) took even a fraction of the money that goes toward preservation and distributed it to the generation of people at whom firehoses were shot, and dogs were let loose? What would happen if we (again, white people) tried to alleviate generational trauma by paying for mental health services for millennials? If private, white, backers (you and me) funded Black-owned businesses? The government isn’t going to do it, and Jefferson’s brushoff has gone on for too many generations.
I’ve been kicking that idea around in my mind for awhile — the idea of a private, anonymous fund for uses such as those I mentioned above. A thing I keep running up against is receipts — how to prove to people who donate that their money isn’t filling my accounts. And how distribution would work. Surely there are ways to validate reparations claims but there are likely plenty for whom there are unknowns. It would stay anonymous because once the media took hold of the Reparation Fund story it’d become all about the white people and jfc, it’s not about that. It’s not about pity, or white guilt or white tears. It’s about trying to put our money where our mouths are when we talk about making things right. Yes, we need to do so through local, state and federal policy. Yes, we need to do so through activism and intervention (ONE example: taking the burden of emotional race work off of Black men and women). There are myriad ways we can show solidarity. But, uh, reparations was about physical property of value: 40 acres and a mule. I don’t have any land, and I wouldn’t wish a mule on anyone anymore, but money that can help make someone’s life easier in the long-term? I can pitch in for that.
I’m interested in your thoughts on this. Would you personally support such a fund? Why (or why not)? How could that idea above be better?