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A rapist and slaver who did other things

Touring Monticello one year into the George Floyd era.

Thomas Jefferson’s home of Monticello in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Thomas Jefferson’s home of Monticello in Charlottesville, Virginia. What visitors now are told about the 600 enslaved persons who worked there reflects changing perceptions of Black lives in American history.
Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

Thomas Jefferson had six children with Sally Hemings. At least. Quite a lot, really.

How that fact eluded me through a lifetime of reading history speaks to the sort of history I’ve been reading. I knew about Hemings, but not the half-dozen kids.

If they’re old news to you, apologies. Nothing is duller than being told what you already know. I’m genuinely uncertain whether I need to further identify Hemings as Jefferson’s property. Or ID Jefferson as the third president. It’s true, he was.

The Hemings story, once a whispered calumny, has been embraced, even celebrated by those running Jefferson’s planation home of Monticello. I visited there last Friday while hanging around Charlottesville, Virginia, waiting for my youngest to receive his law degree. We travelled 800 miles to watch him walk across the stage and be handed his diploma.

Or so I believed, until reality intruded, as reality will do, eventually.

I’d been to Monticello several times, and every time the history of the enslaved persons who worked there becomes more prominent, as does scrutiny, given the evil that Jefferson tried and failed to ban at our nation’s founding. Decades ago, the 600 Black people owned by Jefferson were called “servants.” Then they became “slaves,” but that was seen as ... what? Too reductive, perhaps. “Enslaved persons” is now their preferred term, perhaps to finally work “person” into the description.

Touring Jefferson’s home, I felt as if I were myself two different people admiring the gardens and staring into the wine cellar. One who went to grade school at a time when Blacks show up only fleetingly in American history in the form of Crispus Attucks, who arrives just in time to be gunned down at the Boston Massacre, then submerge until John Brown and the origins of the Civil War.

The story of Sally Hemings and her family, who were owned by Thomas Jefferson, has taken on a more prominent position at his home of Monticello.
The story of Sally Hemings and her family, who were owned by Thomas Jefferson, has taken on a more prominent position at his home of Monticello.
Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

And the other, an adult who long ago accepted that the White-Men-Making-Big-Decisions model of history has fallen into disrepute except, of course, among Republicans.

As we approached Jefferson’s home, part of me braced for what was coming.

“Someday he’s going to be known as a rapist and slave owner who also did other things,” the first part of me said flatly.

“Dad, I think we’re already there,” my son replied.

We drove home Tuesday on the first anniversary of the George Floyd killing, and it struck me that Monticello had been an apt — if inadvertent — way to prepare. It’s impossible to celebrate progress when voting rights are being eroded across the nation. But it’s also impossible to deny something big is happening. History is not really about the past — which is unaffected by what we do or say. It’s about the present, and how we view our world now, what we do and think. That’s the genius of “Black Lives Matter.” It’s so simple and direct. You’d think it would be impossible for anybody to object.

But object they do, closet bigots flushing themselves out into the open with their various complaints and blue stripe flags and howls of false outrage. “How can you say your lives matter when OUR lives are the only ones that matter?!”

Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian spoke in a recorded message to all eight 2021 University of Virginia graduation ceremonies. He brought out his 3-year-old daughter Olympia to give the UVA “Wahoo Wah” cheer, and students were disappointed he didn’t also produce his wife, tennis star Serena Williams.

Which itself, along with the shifting narrative at Monticello, is evidence of actual change. That sort of union not so long ago would have been a deal-breaker for a commencement speaker at the University of Virginia, a place once filleted in Karl Shapiro’s famous 1948 poem that begins, “To hurt the Negro and avoid the Jew/Is the curriculum.”

Twenty five years ago, most Americans disapproved of mixed marriage. Now few care. The scandalous liaison that haunted Jefferson has become commonplace. Ten percent of children born in the United States are from mixed couples. So some Americans are obviously finding a way to, ah, reach across the racial divide, at least briefly.

Oh, and my kid didn’t cross the stage and receive a diploma. None of the graduates did. “Too many,” my wife shrugged, when I asked her why. It seemed everybody knew this wasn’t going to occur except for me. Sometimes, what you think is the most important part turns out to be not important at all.