Language and Race: Mr. Jefferson’s Forced Labor Camp

It’s still the case that the majority of Americans, as I’ve written over and over for years, would rather talk about anything—anything—but race.  But more are talking about it seriously and deeply than ever before.  Let’s hope this talking, and the anti-racist actions that might come of it,  keeps up for a long, long time.  Maybe if it does, in 40 to 100 years we might see a more equal and just America.

It also matters how we talk about race, what words and terms we use, for we usually talk in ways that already pre-dispose us towards racism, not away from it. We still live the Civil War in romance terms, calling Confederate soldiers “rebels” instead of “insurrectionists.”  We refer to the South’s defeat as “The Lost Cause,” and maintain some 1800 statues and other memorials to the Confederacy, while in Germany there are zero monuments to the Nazis.  We speak of “master and slave” instead of “enslaver and enslaved.”  We continue to call slaves who escaped, or tried to, “runaways,” not “freedom seekers.”  And we speak of “plantations,” replete with mansions and live oaks and vast lawns, instead of, for example, “forced labor camps,” which was certainly what was going on there.

I’m a Ph.D. graduate from the University of Virginia, “Mr. Jefferson’s University,” so am somewhat gratified that it seems to be taking slavery somewhat seriously, as witness the UVA magazine Virginia, many of whose latest cover stories highlight issues of slavery and discrimination.  As I write now, I’m glancing at the Summer 2021 issue, where white words standing out from a dark background read: “SAFE HOUSE. A place where UVA’s first Black students could feel at home.”  Even more, Monticello itself, Mr. Jefferson’s “plantation”—or “forced labor camp”—seems to be taking the paradox and language of slavery seriously as well.  Below, this post shows several pictures taken from the Monticello website itself, which I encourage you to visit.  Click on the Menu, then the link to a large section on Slavery. It calls the “slaves” “enslaved individuals,” “enslaved people.”  It acknowledges “the paradox of the American Revolution—the fight for liberty in an era of pervasive slavery.”  I especially like the ironies of one of its main pages, which says that “Thomas Jefferson enslaved over 600 people throughout his life,” but still retains the usual tabs so that you can click to “Buy Tickets,” access “Livestreams,” check the “Calendar,” “Donate,” and “Shop.”   Another item, whose ironies are heavier and more  bitter, is the newspaper ad announcing the auction of  “130 Valuable Negroes,” held at  Jefferson’s death to help settle his enormous debts.

In this era of cancel culture and statue removal, it’s important for me to say that I don’t support it in all cases.  My friend, Professor Stephen Maynard Caliendo, says this near the beginning of his book  Inequality in America: Race, Poverty, and Fulfilling Democracy’s Promise.  “The men who designed the US system of government in the latter part of the eighteenth century present a frustrating paradox to current students of American politics.  The Founding Fathers brilliantly devised a structure of government that would last, relatively unchanged, for well over two hundred years (and counting).  They were deeply flawed, however, with respect to their inability to reconcile the sweeping promises they articulated in the founding documents with the reality of widespread and brutal inequality that characterized the nation at that time. We celebrate the Founding Fathers by honoring their birthdays, displaying them on our currency, and studying them in our classrooms. But we need to qualify our admiration because their personal lives and public actions did not fully reflect their rhetoric and broader beliefs.  In short, American democracy is at once vibrant because of their vision and imperfect because of their blind spots.”

It’s not a matter of cancelling the “Founding Fathers” but telling the whole story. Language matters.  Whole stories matter.  We cling to American Exceptionalism, to America as that City on a Hill illuminating the world with its light.  We could become more “exceptional” if we faced the whole story and acknowledged that a staggering amount of our exceptional culture and prosperity was built on the back of enslaved people, people who also literally built most of that City on a Hill:  Monticello, The University of Virginia, the White House itself….

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The VIDEO below is a 7:07 minute edit of a 15:21 report from Bloomberg News in its Quicktakes series.  The episode is “History Has Been Made: Reparations Are Here,” highlighting one of the more controversial topics of the day.  The controversy is evidenced by the comments left by those who’ve watched the full episode on YouTube (follow link above).  Of the 80,287 views so far, 1.8k approve but 1.7k disapprove. The disapprovals are particularly instructive, running virtually the full gamut from picking at the exact figures to broader issues like reparations feeding into “victim mentality.”  There are several forms of the “my ancestors didn’t own slaves” argument, including some inversions, like asking why England and the African tribes that sold their own people into slavery aren’t also being held accountable.  And, of course, slippery slope arguments: what next, is Italy going to have to pay reparations because of the Roman Empire?

Some objections are important, and some contain elements of truth, and it’s important to note, as the report does, that 70% of blacks support reparations for slavery—which means that 30% don’t, and the report does show, briefly, some blacks arguing against it.  Support, though, seems to be growing even among whites, and President Biden does support a bill proposing to study the idea of reparations.  “Let’s see where it takes us,” he’s said.

The first large movement demanding reparations for slavery occurred in the 1890’s.  It was led by Callie House (on the right in the graphic above), an ex-slave, who founded the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty & Pension Association. At its peak the association had over 300,000 dues-paying members.  The government’s response was to accuse her of mail fraud, of which she was convicted by an all-white jury, and spent a year in jail for.  There have been reparations paid in the past: to Native Americans, for example, though that record has been infamously negative and spotty from the beginning.  In 1988 President Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act, which provided $20,000 of reparations to the surviving detainees of the Japanese American internment camps.  In 1995 Florida began paying reparations to descendants of the Rosewood massacre which began on January 1, 1923.  And, as the Bloomberg reports points out, it was quite normal and non-controversial to pay reparations to slave owners who lost slaves for whatever reason.  Reparations mainly become controversial when the proposed recipients are black.  Most objections simply ignore, or are woefully unaware, of the overwhelming presence of discriminations against American Blacks that continue in full force every single day in virtually every aspect of American life.

The Video below focuses on the most recent move towards reparations in the city of Evanston, IL.  On November 25, 2019, it passed a resolution by Alderwoman Robin Rue Simmons establishing a fund and program of reparations, providing up to $25,000 to around 16 families to help them build wealth through home equity by either buying or improving property.  Lack of good home ownership is the single greatest driver of this nation’s astonishing wealth gap and even more astonishing racial wealth gap Evanston’s effort is a modest step.  We should note, too, that this amount is only $5,000 more than what Japanese Americans who had been interned received—a fact amplified when we consider that $20k in 1988 is worth $45k today.  A conservative estimate of the debt we owe Black Americans for their unpaid labor is $20.3 trillion (see video below), and according to a recent Citi Corp Study racism continues to cost us big:  well over $16 trillion lost in just the last 20 years, again conservatively estimated.

“Americans have been punched in the face with its racism,” says Simmons, and that’s one reason support for reparations is growing, though many, many Americans have suddenly become skillful boxers who can dodge that punch.  A growing number, however, are also beginning to come to terms with how horrifying American racism has been and continues to be.  It’s been called the most oppressive system of slavery that’s ever existed.  “In 1928—five years before he came to power and over a decade before the outbreak of World War II,” writes Lynn Burnett, “Hitler praised the United States for establishing its dominance through the genocide of Native Americans.”  Then as preparation for the Holocaust, Hitler turned to studying American race law as a model for constructing his own.  Several Nazi intellectuals who led the study had stunned initial reactions: they felt Americans had gone overboard in legally segregating its black population.* Moreover, racism is still part of the “romance” of America, a significant part of the nation still living the myth of the “Lost Cause” of the Civil War.  In Germany there are zero monuments to the Nazis, but in the U.S. over 1800 monuments and memorials to the Confederacy.

Systemic racism—upheld and nourished by lots of legal, cultural, and financial infrastructure—has been absolutely relentless in denying blacks equal opportunity in America.   It needs repeating that in most instances that targeting remains as forceful, and often more so, today.  Note, for example, the avalanche of new and newly-proposed voting laws clearly aimed at restricting black voters, all these laws disguised in the name of reducing voter fraud, though there is no credible evidence that significant fraud exists.**  More Americans than ever before may actually be beginning to understand the entrenched power of systemic racism, and that, too, is making them take another look at reparations.  “We are entering an era of repair,” says Simmons.  We can only hope she’s even a little bit right.

* The first consolidated study of the influence of American race law on Hitler’s Germany was 2017’s Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law by James Q. Whitman, the American lawyer and Ford Foundation Professor of Comparative and Foreign Law at Yale. Read the transcript of Whitman’s interview with Bill Moyers.

** For more background on voter suppression, go to my “Voter Suppression 21st Century Style” (also includes Video).

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(Not) Climbing Bryan’s Mountain – 2021

Every summer I post an excerpt of a journal I keep called Climbing Bryan’s Mountain.  But climbing the mountain most people call Bell Rock has been harder the last three years.  My first climb was delayed by weeks because of, in 2019, a hard re-hab job, then, in 2020, because of our pandemic and my wife Linda breaking her ankle.  But this year I didn’t climb it at all.  Not once.

The Video below compresses our eight-day stay in Sedona, AZ, this summer down to about 2 minutes/15 seconds, but the picture that stays on the screen longest is a white board we found at the Ranger Station just two miles south of our place.  This year Mike and his boys and his girlfriend Zoe joined us (Josh did, too, later), and the Ranger Station is a beautiful introduction to the Sedona area.  I also wanted to buy a Red Rock Pass so we could park at the various spots we wanted all of us to visit.  “Can’t buy one,” the woman at the reception desk said.  “What?” “Everything’s closed.” “What? Can’t go to Bell Rock? Red Rock Crossing?” “No, I’m afraid not. It’s the drought and the extreme wildfire danger.  There’s thousands of acres burning just over there and there and there,” she said, gesturing almost 360 degrees. “You can come back here behind the counter and take a picture of this board telling what’s open and what’s not.” I did, it’s above, and all the time I just kept thinking, “What?”  We’d kept track of the weather, which had kept the high country in extreme heat for days, almost rivalling Phoenix’s valley heat.  But that heat wave had just broken the day before we arrived on Saturday.  However, at 6:00 p.m. Friday the wildfire danger had increased so much that much Federal Land, including all of the Coconino National Forest, had been shut down.  The beautiful picture I took of Aaron and Grace at Red Rock Crossing kept flashing through my mind, and Linda and I grew sad that we’d been shut out of all that beauty.

There was plenty to do, though.  The video shows our first stop at an In-N-Out burger where Maddy pasted their sheet of stickers all over his face.  The Ranger Station with its white sign board. Catching lizards, which run everywhere at our place.  (We were in the pool lots, too.)  A visit to Tuzigoot National Monument. The Out of Africa wildlife park, where it’s always a treat when the giraffes come by your open-air trolley. Hiking at one of the only two State Parks still open, Red Rock State Park.  Pulling over at one of the area’s great overlooks on our way to hitting The Canyon, and hiking down Bright Angel Trail a ways.  Then Jerome, the arts city clinging to a mountainside, where, watching a potter do his thing, Maddy said, “I didn’t know you could do this for a job!”  The video ends with us going down Highway 17 back to Phoenix—and seeing a wildfire break out right in front of us.  Mike and Zoe had a flight out early next morning, so we hoped the wildfire wouldn’t jump the highway, as one had done last year.  Shortly after we got to the airport ourselves, Mike sent a video of it RAINING in Sedona.  “You’re part of a huge celebration,” I texted back.  July and August is monsoon season, but things probably won’t open up til September 1st, even if it’s a great monsoon.

Not being able to take all of us up to Bryan’s Tree on Bryan’s Mountain was a deep loss for me.  In Part One of my 2019 excerpt, I put a picture that Mike had taken of Bryan when they had climbed the mountain nearly 20 years ago. I wrote in a recent piece about the increasing politicization of climate change.  We wrangle now more than ever, when, as more and more people are saying, we need to stop arguing so much about what causes climate change and just deal with the effects right in front of our face: colds that are colder, hots that are hotter, droughts that are drier for longer, rains that pour down more floods, California and Arizona burning, while Louisiana and the Gulf drown.  It’s that cliche: the new normal.  Will the wilderness, the great hikes, the great vistas all around Sedona and the West just have to be closed more and more often?

In my 2020 excerpt I focused on the bumper crop of pine cones Bryan’s Tree had produced that year, but wondered if it was a sign of distress, not health.  This year there were trees and bushes dying all around us in the heat and drought.  I wonder if his tree has survived at all.  I’ll have to wait and see.

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“Lift Every Voice:” Juneteenth, 2021

The VIDEO below shows the singing of “Lift Every Voice and Sing”—the Black national anthem—at this year’s celebration of Juneteenth in Aurora, Illinois, June 19th, 2021.

It took more than 2 ½ years after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, for it to be fully enforced, dependent as it was on the progress of Union troops.  On June 19th, 1865, Union Army major general Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston to announce General Order No. 3, enforcing freedom of enslaved people in Texas, the last state of the Confederacy with institutional slavery.  June and 19th = Juneteenth, which has been celebrated here and there across the United States, especially in the Black community since 1865.  It took nearly 156 years longer for it to become a national holiday, when, on June 17, 2021, President Joe Biden signed it into being.

I had never been to Aurora, Illinois’ Juneteenth celebration, so was anxious to go this year, the first year Juneteenth went national, so to speak.  A reporter who knew my son Rick stopped us as we approached MLK, Jr. Park and asked us why we were there and if we knew what Juneteenth was.  Nine-year-old granddaughter Josie acquitted herself pretty well, telling what she knew of it, but none of us knew exactly how long Aurora’s celebration had been going on.  At least five years, we were sure, maybe even ten.  But it turns out that it’s been 20 years, and probably one of the oldest celebrations in Illinois. Ricky Rodgers, now executive director of African American Men of Unity (AAMOU), was one of the founders those decades ago, and when we arrived under the main tent he was doing DJ duties.

Son & grandkids with Bill Foster and Ricky Rodgers, who helped found Aurora’s Juneteenth celebration 20 years ago.

Earlier in an ABC7 news interview he had said, in part, “The way we celebrate Juneteenth in Aurora, it’s not to shame whites but to gather the whole community together to have a good time and embrace the heritage. It’s in the spirit of Sankofa.” Sankofa is most often symbolized by a bird whose feet face forward but whose head turns back to retrieve a precious egg.  “Se wo were fi na wosankofa a yenkyi,” goes a Ghanaian proverb: “It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten.”

Aurora is one of the most diverse large cities in the U.S., and a diverse crowd showed up, along with some dignitaries Rodgers announced an hour after we got there: the mayor (Richard Irvin), our Congressman (Bill Foster), some aldermen, and others associated with AAMOU. Then he introduced Barnetta Mills, “our songbird,” he said, who asked us to stand for “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

The Sankofa bird

James Weldon Johnson’s words and his brother J. Rosamond Johnson’s music make “Lift Every Voice” the deepest, most unsparing anthem ever, I believe.  (I’ve been honored to sing and play it several times.)  It should be one of our signal guides as we enter our current discussions on race.  We need long, sustained discussions, ones that don’t cop out, claiming race fatigue.  Because, really, it’s taken us this long to begin understanding as a nation the things the Civil Rights Movement of the 50’s and 60’s  was saying to us.  We haven’t been discussing race and racism at the depth we now seem to be for that long: 3-4 years at the most.  If we’re tired of talking about it, think how tired people are who have had to suffer under racism for the 156 years it took for Juneteenth to become a national holiday, plus the 300 some years before that when the first enslaved people began their horrific Atlantic crossings.*  One of the deepest aspects of “Lift Every Voice” is its emphasis on endurance and what has been endured: “We have come over the way that with tears have been watered / We have come treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered.”  In early February 2020, just before the pandemic shut us down, I spoke on a panel on race, saying that IF we worked really hard we might see some significant progress in 40 to 100 years.  40 years is perhaps too hopeful.  100 years seems a minimum number that we ourselves must endure to be true.  True to what?  “Lift Every Voice” gives us the answer in its final two lines: “Shadowed beneath Thy hand, may we forever stand / True to our God, true to our native land.”

*  See Michael Guasco’s article in Smithsonian Magazine, “The Misguided Focus on 1619 as the Beginning of Slavery in the U.S. Damages Our Understanding of American History,” with it’s subhead: “The year the first enslaved Africans were brought to Jamestown is drilled into students’ memories, but overemphasizing this date distorts history.”

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