Saturday, June 27, 2009

Marginalizing Thomas Jefferson's reliance on slavery

On Thursday, I wrote about how Michael Jackson’s failings should be a part of his legacy. Since then, there has been a great deal more discussion of his misdeeds – I particularly liked Renee Martin’s and Feministing’s takes, which provide a good balance. However, this scrutiny should not be only applied to abused and abusive superstars, but to our flawed cultural gods.

Thomas Jefferson’s identity as a slave owner has been accepted into our cultural impression/definition of him, but it’s often shunted to the side, given a nod without little critical thought. It was just one bad part of an awesome life – one has nothing to do with the other. "Time Wastes Too Fast", an illustrated trip through Monticello from writer/illustrator Maria Kahlman (whose work in the New York Times I often admire), falls into this trap.

Initially there is a nod towards his being wrong. But it’s quickly swept aside so that his accomplishments can be gloried. His flaws are segrated into a small, insulting section of the story, in which:

  • no black persons are pictured (granted, no persons are pictured in action, but there are many portraits of white men and women).

  • This framing of Hemings solely in terms of her connection to Jefferson’s wife erases the rich and full life of Sally and other Hemingses, only serving to underscore the sappy romaniticism of the piece’s focus on Martha, Martha, Martha.
  • Using the catchphrase of Bart Simpson to dismiss this complicated union is trivializing and dismissive.

And finally, the hallmark of every piece on Jefferson :

He was kind. How lovely.

The art in this piece is beautiful, and I don't think that author intended ill - it's an example of privilege blinding someone to the realities of the situation. Jefferson’s life was dependent on and integrated into the construct of slavery. If this focused on his public life that would be one thing: Jefferson’s public life was not built upon the idea of slavery, but in opposition to it. In that, an aside describing his hypocrisy and contradiction would bring an accurate window into the context of his admirable acts.

But this is about his home, his personal and family life specifically. Jefferson’s life was necessarily built upon slavery, and his home, in construction, decoration, and social activity, reflected that. It’s integrated into his personal story, but this author chooses to ignore that.

Slavery did not stay in those tiny, lamentable rooms. They cooked his food, gave him advice, read his works, slept in his bed, designed and built that magnificent house. Perhaps it wasn’t the whole story, but it wasn’t just a clearly defined and labeled part of the story. It was the “what else” of Jefferson.

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