My ghost in conversation with yours:

History might look black and white, but it's only us being human

vol. 1 issue 34


This is a riff. I hope it sings, even if it doesn’t fully resolve. Let me know, please.

Last week I lost three and a half days of my life to a cluster/migraine attack. I tried to push through the skull eating pain, but after 35 years of these attacks, I am out of reserves. In the gloaming of it all, I have tremors of fear that it will return and dissolve my will, so I try not to think too hard. It makes me cry.

Is grief too strong a word to say is what I felt when came Friday and I had not been able to publish all the things I had wanted to share here in my online journal of American thoughts?

Well, that is what I felt.

Three days of lost thoughts is three days of meaninglessness. I hope my words matter. If they don’t then it’s possible I don’t. It is mattering that we all come here for. It’s mattering that we want to leave behind. The older I get, and the less I seem to produce, the more this truth looms.

Over the weekend, the head pain mostly gone, I had reason to travel to central Virginia. There were several hours I had to myself on Saturday, so I spent them by returning to Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home on the outskirts of Charlottesville. I had been once before, when I was a young adult. I couldn’t remember the circumstances. Maybe it had been while on a college admissions tour. It was before Sally Hemings’ name had entered our national discourse. I wanted to know more about her story; that was why I was going. That and the view.

Waiting at the stop light to turn left on the road up the mountain, I had a panic attack. A sudden stark terror washed out my mind. Not from the pain that had encased my entire face and head in the preceding days, but pain from the past. My past. Maybe my entire family’s past. I actually thought those thoughts as I breathed through the chaos enough to drive on. By the time I had parked in the lot near the visitor’s center, I felt in control again.

I could ask myself: What on earth was that?

The answer presented itself in my mind: my body’s recollection of abject failure, an experience I had long ago while living in the state of Virginia.

I got out of the car. Bought my ticket. Kept walking. Got on the tour bus. Up the mountain, chug-chug.

While I had been in the throes of my headache, I had tried to write about some on the Left’s call for triggering the 25th Amendment rather than impeaching the president, while also addressing what I view as the demented antics of the Republicans who “stormed the Capitol” in order to disrupt the current impeachment proceedings.

Watching replays of the spectacle on television, I thought: Someone is going to get badly, physically hurt.

Based on a course I had taken in college, “Freud in America”, and the text I had read, The Heart of Man, Eric Fromm’s excellent post-Hitler exploration of the nature of good and evil, I had wanted to express my thoughts about the narcissism I see fueling the fistful of older white men acting badly, and to explain why creating an exit for the chief bad actor by way of the 25th Amendment is such a partial solution as to not be a solution at all, given how many of these death cultists surround him. By that I mean, those for whom the advent of death and destruction to accommodate their righteous superiority is increasingly becoming their only option.

Burning down the house, utter destruction of what these men cannot abide if it questions their self-image of superiority, is what they secretly desire. No matter how splendidly they enrobe themselves in patriotism, it’s all just cynical rhetoric.

But in my pathetic and painful state, I couldn’t write persuasively, only emote about my conviction that impeachment was preferable to the 25th Amendment, since declaring the president mentally unfit to lead would not address the root causes of all this narcissistic insanity: primarily, that we have in power not one, but a cabal of self-absorbed men who think they have all the answers.

If we think impeachment proceedings will rip us apart, meddling with medical definitions of madness and to whom they apply would be worse.

Better to see it as there being too much arrested development, immaturity en masse. Generations of it, and one generation in particular. There is no need for a diagnosis of, “I know you are, but what am I?”

But there is a clear response: don’t let children have power they can’t handle without harming others, even their own kind. Impeachment is all we have for that, even if in the end, it might still not be enough.

Well, that is what I think.

I took the tour of Jefferson’s house.

He had a lot of books.

Next, I took the slavery tour.

He had a lot of slaves, too.

One of them was Sally Hemings. She was the daughter of Virginia plantation owner John Wayles and Wayles’s slave, Elizabeth Hemings. Wayles was Jefferson’s father-in-law. This made Sally, the slave, the half-sister of Martha Jefferson.

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Martha and Thomas Jefferson were, so the story goes, passionately in love. Shortly before Martha died due to complications from childbirth, Martha implored Thomas to never re-marry, since to think of him with someone else was unbearable to her.

He promised this to her, so we are told.

After her death, he burned all their correspondence so that no one living knows for sure what they said or thought. His grief for having lost her was well-known, however.

Four of six of his children with Martha had died. When one of the surviving daughters, Maria “Mary” Jefferson became ill, her father sent for her to come live with him in Paris where he was acting as minister to France. She needed a chamber maid. Sally Hemings was it. She was 14.

By the time Sally was 16, she was fairly fluent in French. She was also free because in France there might have been a revolution brewing, but there was no slavery.

Jefferson was recalled home, soon to be secretary of state. Sally, who in addition to having been young and capable, is said to have been very pretty. She was intelligent. How could she have not known she had options, better ones, if she stayed in France?

She did not want to return to her birthland. But Jefferson persuaded her. They made a deal: she would be his chamber maid, she would not be in the fields, would enjoy “extraordinary privileges”, and her children would be free.

She could have borne French children who would have been free, no contract required.

I sat looking over the piedmont of the Rivanna River. The horizon stretched out fifty miles to Farmville, and beyond. Places where after the Civil War, so many freed slaves and their succeeding generations came to live and to whatever extent, prosper. Despite the gray sky, the ochres and rust of Fall colored the scene.

When Sally Hemings arrived back in the states at just barely 17, she gave birth. It was Jefferson’s. The child died soon after it was born.

If the free young woman Sally had not been pregnant when asked to return to the States, would she still have chosen enslavement? Had she seen her choice as one of expedience, not passion?

Was she in love with Jefferson, her baby’s father? Was love a luxury to which she did not pretend?

Did she think she was sacrificing something important in order to do something else important? Did she regret her decision after her child died? Was she relieved, or did she grieve?

Was she ever depressed?

I, you, any of us can only conjecture.

Sally’s brother, James, whom Jefferson had trained as a chef in Paris, also returned to the States. He eventually committed suicide.

Sally went on to have a total of six children by Thomas Jefferson. It is thought that despite their son Madison’s account of how Jefferson was never “fatherly” toward any of them, Jefferson’s only partner after Martha was Sally, her half-sister. Did he view them all as his family?

Was he Sally’s only partner ever?

Jefferson lived up to his “word”. Did Sally ever doubt that he would?

Jefferson once wrote that negroes were inferior to whites. I asked my black tour guide about this. She said he was ignorant. He’d been trained to think by luminaries of the Enlightenment, most if not all of whom had never met a black person. She also said he evolved over time. That he wished he’d not ever had that thought of his printed and made public.

In all things Jefferson, I found my tour guide to be sympathetic.

“It was about the humanity,” she said, describing several other incidents where blacks and whites quietly loved and mated during that time. Other surprising arrangements, too, like Jefferson lending his clothes to his slaves if they fit.

“Humans find a way around the things humans do,” she said.

How did the father of the Declaration of Independence, one of our nation’s greatest thinkers and innovators, the man who made the Louisiana Purchase, square his relationship to his wife’s half-sister after having promised his wife on her death bed never to take another wife? Did he consider that because Sally was part black, she was not actually a wife, not fully a woman? Was he persuaded by the shared bloodline?

I, you, none of us can know for sure. But these are good questions, don’t you agree?

Jefferson, my black tour guide told me, feared it would fall upon his children’s children to account for slavery, which he said was wrong. “He was a prophet. He knew that the reckoning would come,” said my guide.

True to his word, Jefferson’s children, all of them, black and white, grew up to live as free adults. Sally Hemings also lived free, after Jefferson’s death, although not officially. She never negotiated freedom for herself. Was enslavement more expedient, even preferable somehow?

Or, did she never want to re-visit the past again?

Historians like to say that Sally Hemings, though a slave, though just a young woman, managed to negotiate with one of the world’s most powerful men, resulting in an almost 50-year head start on emancipation.

“Whatever we may feel about it today, this was important to her,” wrote historian Annette Gordon-Reed.

I don’t know how Gordon-Reed knows this.

Jefferson owned more than 600 persons in his lifetime.

“It was either that or not survive, not be able to live the life-style expected of him as a diplomat and statesman,” said my guide of the necessitudes of industrial farming in the late 1700s and early 1800s.

I’m no historian. That’s part of my failure: I had come to a Virginia college in the 80s to study American history, to be an American studies scholar. The 1800s, the American Indian wars – Jefferson’s legacy, in essence, was what I wanted to understand. What polite society would not allow me to tell you then, but I unabashedly tell you now is that years of depression finally succeeded in storming down the door to my life, and after a brief rest, I finished school elsewhere, up north, and with an entirely different degree and a different body of knowledge in my head — the head that often hurts.

It is a good degree, one I am proud of, but the choice I made in earning it was simply one of expedience.

So, when I stood on the ridge that Jefferson named Mulberry Row, asking these questions of history, I asked from where I stood not as a scholar, but as an American, looking across the flat land between Jefferson’s little mountain and the rest of the terrible, beautiful South.

And the panic returned: the reckoning is not over.

When Sally Hemings also stood looking across the South from Mulberry Row, as she undoubtedly would have done, since it was the view from her home, did she think the heroic thoughts attributed to her by Gordon-Reed?

Or did she just think: “I did what I had to do.”

Or, later, “I did what I thought I had to do.

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Plenty of historians have offered solutions, theories, proof of what Jefferson, and the other Founding Fathers thought and intended for this nation.

That they were ignorant was novel to me.

Should it have been?

Our failures never go away. They stretch out into the distance, waiting for us to meet them again. Others might see what we could not and so they warn us, or enlighten us in hopes that when we meet those moments again in the future, we greet them with wisdom, let them teach us.

I thought of that this morning while reading a book by my friend, the poet and “literary activist” as he likes to say, E. Ethelbert Miller. He gave me a copy of The 5th Inning last year when he saw I was at a loss for what direction to take after a heavy year of big things. The book is his second memoir. The first was, Fathering Words: The Making of an African American Writer.

It is interesting to me, although perhaps not significant, that Ethel wrote his second memoir during a creative arts residency with a community that has roots in Charlottesville.

Ethel likes to conjure ghosts in his writing: Martin Luther King, James Baldwin, August Wilson. Others. He is in conversation with them, with their legacies. I will have to ask Ethel: When you gave me a copy of your book, did you see my ghost on the horizon, telling you to tell me, Stay the course. Grow up, get real.

In The Fifth Inning, Ethel evokes what it is like to arrive in one’s late middle age questioning the deeds done, the decisions made, the painful inheritances borne out.

“You turn around, looking for someone to help you. You have an apology in one hand and a confession in the other,” he concludes in Chapter One.

But which are the words on one’s lips, I wonder: are they shaped around contrition or something else?

If I can meet the ghosts of those men storming Capitol Hill now, if I can presume to know anything, it is that there will be a reckoning for what they think they know but do not. Their children’s children will know their sins, even if they do not.

“Humans find their way around the things humans do,” she said.

But, I ask through my tears, for how long can we bear the ignorance?


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(ing backwards at his life: Portrait of Thomas Jefferson depicted at age 33, but painted by artist John Trumbull when Jefferson was 45. Image courtesy of Monticello.)