Desiree H. Melton is a philosophy professor at Notre Dame of Maryland University and specializes in critical race theory, feminist philosophy and social and political philosophy.
The day was overcast and humid on a recent visit to Virginia wine country. After visiting a couple of wineries, my partner and I decided it was time to visit Monticello. I had planned our short getaway with a visit to the slave sites at Monticello in mind, but still I had to steady myself before I could stomach seeing the plantation. We would not take the guided tour because I did not want to share the experience with strangers, so we took a self-guided walking tour and shared earbuds as we listened to narration about the slave sites.
To my surprise, I was not saddened by the experience. I did, however, get angry. I was angry at the utter lack of reverence and solemnity. There was no somber reflection in the place where President Thomas Jefferson kept his people. Instead, visitors were ducking in and out of the slave cabins to escape the gentle rain, handling the artifacts like items in a store. One preteen white boy bounded into one of the cabins and exclaimed to his father, “This isn’t so bad!” The father looked around and agreed. I was stunned. But I should not have been.
Reverence and solemnity among its white visitors were missing from Monticello because it did not demand it of them. A comparison is often made between American slavery and the Holocaust, but I could not help but think of the emotional demands the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum places on its visitors and notice that Monticello does not do the same. Visitors to the Holocaust Museum speak in hushed tones, and reflection and contemplation are encouraged. Not at Monticello. It is always easier for a nation to recognize atrocities committed elsewhere than to claim its own, especially when its reverberations are still being felt.
Why does Monticello allow visitors to tour the house and then skip over its related slave sites? Why does Monticello not demand that its visitors consider that Jefferson was so exacting that he rubbed his horses with a white cloth to check that their grooming met his standards? How does Monticello reconcile its claim that Jefferson was “kind” to his slaves with the fact that his favorite overseer was the most brutal? How can “kind” ever be an adjective used to describe a slave owner? Doesn’t owning people, raping women, selling children and destroying families preclude kindness?
Whitewashing our history of slavery is not only dishonest but also allows for a disconnect between the horrors of slavery and the current entrenchment of inequality. If white people cannot accept the awful truth that one of the nation’s cherished founders held people as property, and that slavery was indeed horrific, why would they acknowledge the covert ways in which blacks are still oppressed? Remaining willfully ignorant of racism and its grip on our institutions is a challenge if one acknowledges the horror of captivity and being forced to bear the children of one’s captors, or of the fact that one’s children can be sold at auction at any time or given as gifts to white children, or of families being split, or of losing one’s culture.
Acknowledging black oppression involves taking stock of how this nation enslaved a people, marked them as subhuman and closed off opportunities in obvious and not-so-obvious ways. The nation must demand that whites confront the fact that this country was built on chattel slavery that set the stage for generation upon generation of black inequality. Yes, progress has been made, but current conditions are still unacceptable.
I was one of only a few black people at Monticello that day. Whites made way for me as I walked the grounds. This was a first for me. Perhaps the greater the distance between them and me, the easier it was to keep up the pretense of slavery being my history and not theirs, too. They kept their distance the way Monticello has kept its distance from its history. Displaying Monticello for what it was — a slave plantation owned by a founder and president who supposedly believed in freedom for all — will not solve racism. But at the very least, it would be one small step on the way toward facing the truth.