As I stood in my hometown of Charlottesville, not 25 miles from Montpelier, earlier this month and witnessed firsthand the horrific events, then listened to President Trump’s subsequent comments, it made me wonder just what is next for our national discussion around race and human rights.
Through my work at James Madison’s Montpelier, I’ve seen the story of race and slavery’s legacy unfold through the eyes of those descended directly from the slaves that served James Madison – the “Father of the Constitution” – his wife Dolley, and other estates in the Virginia area.
Today, the only thing that seems certain is that we can’t begin to address race issues in our nation until we have an honest conversation about slavery. Make no mistake, the idea of white supremacy has been entrenched in our society since the beginning and it is our duty and our mission today to shed light on the truth about American freedom.
As I stood in Charlottesville, I thought of Margaret Jordan, one of those descendants of the enslaved community, who said to me, “This country wouldn't be what it is without the blood, sweat and tears of my ancestors.” Like so many Americans, Margaret’s family lineage includes men and women who endured moments that shaped our American identity. Notably, she is a descendant of Paul Jennings, an enslaved man who served James Madison while he was writing the U.S. Constitution and living in the White House. I thought about what Paul Jennings would think about the division and chants to “take our country back.”
I also thought about the humility, energy and optimism I felt when I stood with Margaret and more than 100 people from this descendant community, to dedicate the opening of Montpelier’s new exhibition, The Mere Distinction of Colour. The exhibition allows visitors to learn about slavery’s origins, and hear directly from Margaret and other descendants about their ancestors and how slavery still affects them, and society at-large, today.
Throughout my work at Montpelier, I’ve heard critical feedback about the work we are doing to accurately represent this history. The criticism we’ve gotten, combined with the events in Charlottesville, are evidence that the “mere distinction of colour” is still being used as a reason from some to dislike, disrespect and mistreat others. Slavery as we knew it may be gone, but we are still seeing vestiges of inequality today. So, while our fourth President may not have determined how to overcome this unfair system, it’s our mission at his former home to understand the complete past, to change the present and future.
As a leader of this cultural institution engaged in the interpretation of slavery, I believe to truly move forward, our first solution is to listen to each other. Even today, slavery is still a source of pain and shame that’s hard to discuss for many people, no matter their race. For some of us, we see slavery and feel its effects in deeply personal ways. Others only know of it historically or academically, as part of the distant, long-ago past.
And that can make it incredibly difficult to engage in worthwhile discussions with each other. However, we must have a positive and more holistic conversation about freedom, equality and justice. And in these conversations, it’s essential to engage the descendants of enslaved people to help us interpret slavery in real terms. Illuminate their ancestors’ stories. Without acknowledging the dichotomy that while our country was based on the value of freedom, so many people did not and still do not have those rights.
The second solution is to understand. Montpelier, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, and many others have recently launched new exhibitions and venues to help you do just that. Visit them, listen to those stories, and engage in real conversations with friends and family, as well as people whose experiences are different from your own. Share the insights you learn with others.
Speak out is the third solution. Don’t be afraid to interrupt a conversation going on around you that makes you uncomfortable. Recognize and call out instances of injustice and discrimination in your school, work, or personal life. Find a group, gathering or event near you to productively discuss how to strive toward a more inclusive America. This is the most difficult action, but institutions like Montpelier, others mentioned above, as well as academic institutions, civil rights and religious organizations can all be a great resource.
If we want to ultimately emancipate ourselves from the shame and anger surrounding slavery and race, all of us – from an individual, to an institutional level – need to reflect on America’s past to work towards building a better future guided by the ideals of freedom for all. The disturbing events in Charlottesville may be labeled as breaking news, but they’re nothing new. It’s never been more important to shift our divisions.
It’s time to strive toward a real pursuit and actualization of equal human rights for all in America as the Constitution intended. It’s time to shift the narrative into a powerful new American story about freedom, equality, justice – and hope.