Reflections from Monticello

Monticello is a place with a complex history, but parts of that history are being ignored. (Photo by Will Payne.)

Monticello is a place with a complex history, but parts of that history are being ignored. (Photo by Will Payne.)

On a grey, blustery day during late December, my dad and I visited Monticello.

Thomas Jefferson, who resided at Monticello for most of his life, was a walking enigma. In the same lifetime, he paved the way for civil rights with the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom and still owned more than six hundred slaves. It’s difficult to sort through such a legacy, but my dad and I were eager to learn about the full breadth of Jefferson’s life. So, while we were at Monticello, we went on two different tours: the main tour of the house and a separate tour of the slave quarters, entitled “Slavery at Monticello.” Something, however, was very awry.

During our tour of the house, we were joined by about twenty other white people. Other tour groups also passing through the house were similarly constituted. Yet, when we arrived at the start of the tour of the slave quarters, an astonishing change in demographics had taken place.

Every single white person on top of Jefferson’s little mountain appeared to have evaporated. We were joined, once again, by about twenty people. This time, however, we were the only white Americans on the tour — indeed, the only other caucasian people present were an older couple from Israel. The rest of the group consisted of African American families who had filtered through the house over the course of the last several dozen tour groups; some had been waiting for the start of this second tour for more than an hour.

This turn of circumstances provoked some serious questions in my mind. Where had all those hundreds of other white people gone? What part of this other tour caused it to seem less appealing to them? And conversely, what caused it to be so much more interesting to the black families who were visiting? The answers are, of course, pretty obvious. White people don’t often think slavery is relevant to their history, while black people consider it a central part of their heritage. But are these common white assumptions based on any sort of fact?

Let’s look at some statistics. At the 1860 census, 8 percent of white American households owned slaves (in Virginia, where Monticello is located, the figure was 26 percent). Thanks to the six generations that have passed since 1860, we can come to a striking conclusion: even accounting for white immigration, probably more than ninety-five percent of white Americans had slaveholding ancestors. Similarly, close to one hundred percent of black Americans had ancestors who were slaves.

So where did all those white people run away to? It’s not a very legitimate excuse to claim one’s ancestors weren’t involved in the slave trade — if your family does not consist of recent immigrants, there are very high chances they were involved. Yet, for some reason, white people are clearly uncomfortable about the history of slavery and its modern implications. This is a conclusion we can draw from a thousand other sources, but for me, standing atop that cold, contradictory little mountain, the injustice of this dichotomy seemed a lot more real than it ever had before.

I’d like to challenge you, fellow white people. To be honest with you, I’m also challenging myself. We all know, deep down, there are unresolved issues in this country’s racial attitudes. We all know we are complicit in the perpetuation of casual, insidious injustice. Yet we often refuse to learn or to listen. It took me eighteen years to reach a recognition of what racial injustice looks like in modern America. Arriving at Covenant as a freshman, I had little comprehension of the fact inequality still exists. I was comfortable with my white bubble then, but I thank God that it has since disintegrated. Has yours? Or will you live a Jeffersonian life, preaching freedom, yet practicing basic oppression?