De-romanticizing America’s Past
Upon learning that Supreme Court Justice William H. Rehnquist recently led hundreds of his judicial peers in a boisterous sing-along of “Dixie” during a 4th Circuit judicial conference, all I could do was suck my teeth in disgust.
My utter revulsion to episodes such as this – which play out in various venues throughout the country at any given time – are a reminder of just how deep the wounds of slavery still are in my African American consciousness, even as the third millennium is about to dawn.
It is this sensitivity that has always made touring museums and exhibitions of American history a quagmire of emotions for me. I’m not sure which makes me the queasiest: to visit these repositories and discover gross misrepresentations of African American life during slavery, or to visit these venues and find that neither the experiences nor the presence of my ancestors is mentioned. It is as if the contributions and suffering of enslaved Africans are irrelevant.
So, you can imagine how I felt about visiting Monticello a few weeks ago to supervise the photo shoot for this edition’s cover story. I had been to Charlottesville several times before, but never once in those trips had I visited Thomas Jefferson’s historic estate. I simply did not want to be disturbed by whatever I might see, or not see.
Nothing, therefore, could have prepared me for the rush of pride and pain I felt as I strolled along the historic site’s Mulberry Row. It was there that I found “public historians” Leni Ashmore Sorenson and Robert Watson Jr. dressed in period costumes and carefully demonstrating the work that early African Americans did on the estate. They described in surprising detail the types of knowledge these enslaved workers must have possessed in order to excel at their work, and also shared other facts about the ancestors’ daily lives and how they related to the overall community at Monticello. Sorenson and Watson worked calmly beneath a blazing sun; swatting insects and wiping sweat from their brows, all while talking and answering questions from curious tourists.
As I observed them, my own impressions of the early Monticello community took on a much richer hue. I learned things that day that I had never even considered about what it must have been like for the Black and White people who lived through slavery. I also was reminded of how integral Black folks’ contributions were to the overall management and well-being of early America.
The work of Watson, Sorenson, Dianne Swann Wright – who created the Mulberry Row program – and the other scholars featured in this edition, is essential to filling in the vast gaps in our knowledge about American history. In many ways, this is painful stuff, for Black folks and White folks to revisit. Nevertheless, amassing this new knowledge and passing it on to future generations is a must if Americans can ever hope to overcome the emotional, socio-economic, and psychological effects that the sins and the wounds of our ancestors have left on our people and our national culture.
Cheryl D. Fields,
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