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.
There was an overwhelming response to my Aug. 16 Sunday Opinion commentary, “Monticello’s whitewashed history.” There were many positive responses, and I appreciated them. The negative responses fell into five broad categories, and I would like to address them.
Some people commented that I should have taken the house tour because then I would have seen that the tour guides do talk about slavery. Visitors can choose to tour the house or the slave sites, or both. The point I make is that visitors should not be able to choose not to tour the slave sites. I do not suggest that guides who lead the house tour do not talk about slavery. But by creating separate tours — and by charging visitors $25 per person to tour the house while letting people visit the slave sites for free — Monticello suggests that the main house can be separated from slavery. It suggests that one can marvel at its architecture without reflecting on the living conditions of the slaves who helped build it. In addition, taking the house tour does not change the fact that the language used in the narrated self-guided tour is notably euphemistic. Yes, Monticello is privately owned, but since it is the home of one of our nation’s founders, there is a responsibility in how its history is presented to its visitors.
Others did not like the comparison I made to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and accused me of prioritizing one atrocity over another. I do not claim that one atrocity is worse than another. My point is that the United States is selective about what atrocities it will respect and memorialize and those it largely ignores. The United States mandated the creation of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1980 next to the Mall, 35 years after the Holocaust in Europe ended. A monument to slavery — an institution that was alive here in the United States for centuries — is still in the “proposal” stages 150 years after Emancipation. That should give all of us pause.
Still others expressed fatigue at yet another black person talking about the past. Yes, chattel slavery in the United States is over, but the legacy of it is not. Marking a people as inferior creates long-lasting effects. Jim Crow laws, past and current housing and school segregation, and continuing discrimination in the justice system further entrench black inequality and reflect the fact that our institutions have internalized the false belief that blacks are intellectually inferior and prone to criminality. James Horton, Benjamin Banneker professor emeritus of American studies and history at George Washington University, has asserted that “If America had just looked the world in the eye and said, ‘We hold these people in slavery cause we need their labor, and we’ve got the power to do it’ . . . then when the power was gone, when slavery was over, it’s over. But what we said was, ‘There is something about these people.’ By doing that it means, that when slavery is over, that rationalization for slavery remains.” This is precisely the point I make in the article. Slavery is over, but the rationalization remains and continues to feed a cycle of black inequality that has, and likely will, continue for generations.
Yet another group defended Jefferson as a founder of democracy and a product of his time. Critical thinking requires us to ask what sets Jefferson apart from the world leaders we vilify on the basis of abhorrent things they did to their people. If the difference lies in the fact that he was not a ruthless, murderous dictator such as Pol Pot, Benito Mussolini, Idi Amin and others, but a founder of democracy, then should we not perhaps be more horrified that he held people as property? Should we not be stunned by the incongruity? Moreover, if Jefferson was exceptional in his time period because of the revolutionary claim of equality for all, then should we not have expected him to hold the exceptional view that black people ought not be enslaved? After all, white abolitionists held this view, and they were a product of the same time period. We celebrate these average Americans who were against slavery because of their courageous views and actions that conflicted with the ones held by many of their fellow Americans. Should we not ask why this supposedly exceptional man did not share the exceptional views of some courageous, average white Americans? Jefferson cannot be both revolutionary by bucking the standard of his time in declaring equality for all and simultaneously excused as an unfortunate product of his time for holding people as property. Unfortunately, there is unjustifiable bias and willful ignorance in the figures many white Americans select to celebrate and whom they single out as disgraceful.
Finally, some people pointed out that slavery existed elsewhere, too, so why single out the United States as unique in this regard? Yes, slavery existed in antiquity and in Africa, but my focus was chattel slavery in the United States. I cannot help but wonder whether these same people would have felt compelled to remind me about slavery in the United States if I had written about slavery in Africa. My only response to this obvious deflection is to ask: Why change the topic?