This past weekend, my husband and I took a trip to Monticello. Before I tell you much about my experience, I must confess that I am not a Thomas Jefferson scholar by any means. I knew his role as a founding father, how revered he is – especially in this part of the country, and more recently, that he was likely the father of several children through a slave he owned. Though my knowledge was admittedly superficial, that combination of information left me wanting to know more about this prominent man in American history.
Knowing the role Jefferson played in history and his relationship to Sally Hemings, I was surprised to learn Jefferson had written quite a bit about the immorality of slavery. He found the practice of slavery and the slave trade to be an abomination; and yet, he also found extracting himself from the institution to be insurmountable in his generation. As I listened to Jefferson’s revolutionary words, I felt myself becoming angry. If Jefferson was so incensed by the system, feeling morally convicted, why didn’t he do something about it? Why didn’t he work for change?
Now, I know the counterarguments. Of slave owners, Jefferson was one of the less brutal ones. Jefferson was a product of his day – an entire nation and economy caught up in and dependent upon the institution of slavery. But despite those acknowledgments, I felt frustrated. Of all the amazing legacies Jefferson left, and with the brilliant mind he had, why not more action against slavery? And if he could not affect systemic change, why not at least change the system at Monticello, freeing and hiring the slaves he owned?
Luckily, my righteous indignation only lasted a few minutes. In the midst of my anger at Jefferson, a deeper truth hit me like a ton of bricks. I realized I am leaving a legacy around the issue of race too. When relatives look back at my life hundreds of years from now, what will they say about my inaction around racial reconciliation? Will they look at the violence against and degradation of African-Americans in the twenty-first century and say, “Why didn’t she do more? If she believed in the dignity of every human being, why didn’t affect change?” It would be easy to leave Monticello or any discussion about slavery feeling a sense of moral superiority. Instead, I invite you to join me in reflecting upon our complicity with the sin of racism in our own day, considering how we might change our own legacy.