Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty

Review

of an Exhibition

by Devora Liss

Published on April 05, 2012, Modified on April 07, 2012

  • Description:

    Thomas Jefferson is a complex figure in American history. This mostly stems from the fact that he drafted the Declaration of Independence while owning slaves. The plot only thickens with Sally Hemings, a slave with whom he bore children.

    This exhibition has three sections. The first, A Society Dependent on Slavery, introduces Jefferson as a curious lad who grew into an esteemed man of letters. Artifacts include ceramics (indicating his parents’ wealth) and his desk, pen, books, and inkwell (tools of enlightenment). This section is interspersed with panels that provide historical context on the scope of slavery and Jefferson’s schooling. Some of these seem extraneous and draw the focus away from Jefferson’s formative years.

    The second section, The Enslaved Families at Monticello, features six families. The objects associated with each family brilliantly convey a subtle message: these people had personal lives beyond their enslavement. For example, George Granger Jr and his wife Ursula are represented by blacksmith tools used in the Nailery, along with cowrie shells, pierced coins, and game pieces, which are “evidence that African cultural and spiritual traditions survived at Monticello.” The Gillette family is represented with a horse saddle and stirrups, alongside ceramic doll parts, dominoes, and a jaw harp.

    This section also personalizes slavery through hands-on components. A weighted bucket of nails and examples of how nails were made provide the visitor with a glimpse into the life of George Granger Jr. A flipboard asks the visitor whether they’d try to escape Monticello (Yes/No), with a followup question that probes the visitor to reconsider their choice.

    The third section, , covers Jefferson’s death, the sale of his slaves to cover his debt, and the involvement of some Monticello slaves’ descendents in the Underground Railroad and Civil Rights movement. Here the exhibition becomes a bit muddled and, in fact, disappointing. Two tensions emerge: first, what is the temporal focus of the exhibition? Second, what role do the slaves play in the “big idea”? Let’s tackle one question at a time.

    Temporality. Is the exhibition focusing on Jefferson’s years as slave owner, or is it telling the much broader story of African Americans? The first two sections place the visitor squarely within Jefferson’s lifetime, but the third section races through 200 years of subsequent history. Reconciling Jefferson as slave owner is a great challenge, but this exhibition does not rise to the occasion. Instead, it uses hindsight as a crutch to revert to telling a much broader, and oft-told, African Americans exposing America’s hypocrisy and demanding full rights. Perhaps the exhibition’s location—the National Museum of African American Culture and History gallery—can explain the impetus to relate the slaves’ stories to the African American narrative.

    The slaves. The temporal focus affects the how the exhibition uses the slaves and their stories. If the exhibition is a retrospective, any slaves could suffice. But instead, the exhibition specifically personalizes Jefferson and his slaves, yet fails to delve into the “paradox of liberty.” The exhibition could have concluded by exploring Jefferson’s justification of slave ownership, or showing how slaves perceived or experienced this paradox. In fact, a paradox, by definition, involves a contradiction. The exhibition attempts to (falsely) settle this paradox, which results in a less enriching experience.

    This exhibition is far from being what Ed Rothstein calls an identity museum (although NMAACH, when completed, definitely will be). But perhaps I am being too harsh. It took decades, if not centuries, to openly talk of the Founding Fathers as slave owners. Acknowledging Sally Hemings was another hurdle that has been overcome; perhaps this exhibition is one more step towards openly discussing America’s slavery-ridden past. Yet compared with another exhibition I recently visited, NMAH has a long, long way to go before can claim to look slavery square in the eye.

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