Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Monticello and the Jefferson Paradox

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal… -- Declaration of Independence
The Christmas break last week afforded a family escapade to western North Carolina, where Andrea, the girls and I visited with my parents and their new dog, Sassy. This year I opted to drive, and thus we embarked on a 650-mile trek across six states and a vast expanse of the American landscape. It is on these trips that I am reminded of the physical beauty of America; of the rugged grandeur of the Shenandoah Valley, the majesty of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and the lush greenery of the Virginia countryside. We ventured through old industrial cities, past small towns that haven’t changed for 50 years, and beside countless farms, valleys and rolling hillsides that seem straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting. On these drives, one becomes rooted to a deeply American story, a pathway of time and history that connects us all as one nation.

At the week’s end, we chanced a stop in Charlottesville, Virginia, to walk the historic grounds of the University of Virginia, designed and founded by Thomas Jefferson. A genuine intellectual, the man who would write the Declaration of Independence and become the third president of the United States believed education essential to a vibrant citizenry, a building block for a modern democracy. “I think by far the most important bill in our whole code,” Jefferson wrote George Wythe in 1786, “is that for the diffusion of knowledge among the people. No other sure foundation can be devised for the preservation of freedom and happiness.”

Following lunch at a local produce market, we headed to Monticello, the grand and impressive setting from which much of Jefferson’s inspiration was born. It was a beautiful December day, unseasonably warm with a bright sunshine glistening from the high, blue sky above. Upon arrival, one finds the plantation situated atop an 850-foot mountain in Virginia’s Piedmont region, which in Jefferson’s time encompassed 5,000 acres of surrounding land. As I stood in front of his elegant mansion, I sensed the spirit of Jefferson on these grounds and understood immediately why he chose this setting for his magnificent house, working farms and gardens.

The view from Monticello is spectacular, the entire countryside visible from all points. Standing atop the South Terrace, I envied Jefferson who, as much as anyone, embodied the notion of a meaningful life. He recognized politics as a public duty, an obligation of citizenship, and he possessed a broad and expansive view of an intellectually engaging life. A lover of books, a prolific writer and public philosopher, an architect, scientist, and lifelong student of literature and the arts, Jefferson was a true renaissance man. And he was a rational thinker and voice of reason when America most needed one. It was an age of revolution and radical change.

Walking the grounds of Monticello, I could almost experience the daily rhythm of his life; waking at sunrise, reading and writing until noon; long afternoon walks and rides on horseback exploring and surveying his vast property. In the evening, he entertained distinguished guests with French cuisine and the finest wines inspired by his years in Paris. And through it all, he attended to the affairs of a young nation.

Jefferson envisioned and articulated the high ideals of the newly formed United States, and put into words the principles to which we as a people have aspired in our best and brightest moments. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” These are the most uniquely American of aspirations and embody to this day the promise that is America. Through his written words, he bequeathed to the nation a lasting legacy, a progressive vision of equality and liberty for all.

To examine the life and accomplishments of Thomas Jefferson is to be impressed. Author of the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, founder of the University of Virginia (the three accomplishments he permitted on his tombstone), thoughtful writer and thinker on politics, philosophy, religion, and science, a man of refined tastes, Jefferson was a true national leader and admired public figure. He was all of these things and more.

And yet…there is always “and yet” is there not? To visit Monticello today requires one to reconcile the many contradictions and hypocrisies of Jefferson’s life, and to reflect on another, darker side of Jefferson’s character. This becomes immediately apparent when one discovers that the mansion he designed and built sits atop a long tunnel through which dozens of slaves, unseen, labored all day in tight quarters preparing meals, cleaning linens and tableware, and serving the needs of Jefferson and his guests. Dozens of others toiled in the tobacco fields and, later, wheat farms spread across the plantation’s acreage. The same man who wrote of equality and the natural rights of mankind owned over 600 enslaved African Americans in his lifetime. 

As he began to craft the words that became the Declaration of Independence on his way to Philadelphia in 1776, he was accompanied by some of his personal slaves. In later years, when many of his contemporaries, inspired in part by the words of the Declaration, freed their slaves during and after the American Revolution, Jefferson by the time of his death freed just nine. Through his inaction, Jefferson effectively condemned to the auction block another 200 human beings.

Like all other southern plantations, violence was used at Monticello to enforce productivity and to discipline Jefferson’s human property. It was a necessity of the slave trade. And though as a young man he denounced the morality of slavery and occasionally advocated for its abolition, in his lifetime he did nothing personally to end the institution and benefited profitably from its existence.

As president, when Jefferson acquired the Louisiana Territory and thereby doubled in one stroke of the pen the entire landmass of the United States, he did nothing to prevent the spread of slavery into what he called the vast “empire of Liberty.” In one ten-year period, Jefferson sold 85 of his slaves as chattel so that he could raise cash to buy wine, art, and other luxury goods. And he carried on a 40-year sexual liaison with his slave mistress, Sally Hemings, with whom he fathered six children. Defender of liberty. Proponent of religious freedom. Slave owner. This is the great paradox of Jefferson and Monticello.

The view from Monticello approaches the perfection of Jefferson’s high ideals, but his life and times are a stark reminder of the imperfection of man. Jefferson was a paragon of virtue in his public life and written testaments. But history and time have exposed him also as a man of enormous vice. As Jon Meacham, author of Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power (Random House, 2012), has explained, Jefferson “allowed himself to be trapped by the economic, political and cultural circumstances into which he was born.” It was a trap that the great Thomas Jefferson, a man of enlightened idealism, the founder of a nation and a great university, and a leading proponent of individual liberty, was unable to overcome. Whether a product of pure hypocrisy or selfish aggrandizement, it is a complexity with which we must contend, as Americans and as human beings.

Walking the grounds of Monticello, I thought of the many complexities, the shades of gray that so often permeate the human condition. Is anyone really ever the embodiment of pure goodness, or pure evil? So often, we place people and nations in black-and-white boxes, for it is easier to justify our actions when we do so. It is how nations build support for warfare and organized violence. It allows us to place on pedestals our own designated heroes. But rarely are the people who occupy the nations with whom we disagree full of pure evil, or the people who inspire us made of pure goodness. Criminals and prostitutes, businessmen and thieves, generals and inspiring leaders – all are at one time infants and children; all at some point in life long for the loving embrace of a mother or the prideful moments of a child’s accomplishments; and all are imperfect.

Jefferson was a complex man. His greatness remains, as does his legacy to America. But just as it does a disservice to our ideals to ignore the blemishes of American history and the shortcomings of our democratic tradition, so too does it ill-serve us as a people to ignore the sins of Jefferson’s past. We can never know how Jefferson’s thinking may have evolved over time. I would like to believe that, had he lived another half century, Jefferson would have been horrified by the contradictions between his spoken ideals and his lived reality. It is a testament to those who run Monticello today that we are blessed with a complete picture of Jefferson the man, Jefferson the public servant, and Jefferson the slaveholder. It is the blessing and the curse of America, and a legacy we must continue to address.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

A Time to Forgive

Words, like nature, half reveal and half conceal the soul within. – Alfred Lord Tennyson
Life is a series of one act plays. Strung together, they accumulate into days and months; then seasons, years, and decades. What we learn along the way, how we respond and react to the many experiences and people we encounter, determines how valuable are the lessons learned. The paths we choose and moments we remember are connected and intertwined with our lives in ways we do not often realize until many years later. There are people we remember fondly and those with which we must come to terms.

When I was a sophomore in high school, Charlie Galbraith, the varsity basketball coach approached me one afternoon and asked me to suit up for that night’s varsity game. With a decent jump shot and agile feet, I was then a starting forward on the junior varsity team. But I was not a star and, in my mind, not yet varsity material. The varsity team played in prime time before the largest crowds, which partially filled the wooden stands of the rectangular gymnasiums in which we appeared. The high school band played rowdy, spirit-building music that infused the gym with energy and heightened intensity. The varsity cheerleaders were more mature and attractive. Unlike the mismatched hand-me-downs worn by the freshman and JV teams, the varsity uniforms were a crisp white with solid numbers and blue trim. And, most of all, the warm-up sweats, which only the varsity players could wear, were bright and colorful and made the players who donned them feel like part of a special and select group.

It was a significant step up from JV ball and an honor to be asked. I would become one of only a handful of young men in Hightstown High School history to play on the varsity squad as a sophomore. And yet, I was filled with unease. 

As that night’s game approached, the butterflies in my stomach intensified. My anxiety was not so much about the game, for I was not likely to get much playing time. The starting five was a formidable group of juniors and seniors. But I did not know how I would be accepted by my new teammates, which for a 15 year-old kid is all that really matters. I do not recall if we won or lost that night or if I even got in the game. But the memories I did retain haunt me still 40 years later.

*     *     *     *

The players dressed in the small varsity locker room that was set apart from the main lockers. As we changed into our uniforms and engaged in last-minute preparations before the pre-game warm ups, some of the more senior players joked and carried-on among themselves. I quietly went about my business and maintained a low profile. Everyone seemed oblivious to my presence. I could hear the band playing in the muffled background, the noise level increasing whenever someone opened the locker room door that led to the main stage.

As the time to take the court approached, I tied the laces on my Converse All-Stars and pulled up my socks. A pile of freshly laundered warm-up sweats were neatly folded and placed on top of a bench in the middle of the room. Uncertain of the proper protocol, I watched a few players grab a pair and slip into them. Should I simply take a pair, any pair? Were they one-size-fits-all, or was there some pre-arranged assignment of who is entitled to which pair? I had received no orientation, no instructions, on the proper etiquette of the varsity basketball locker room.

Standing near me were two of the friendlier players on the team – Tyrone Riley, a junior with a large 70’s Afro, and Kevin Doyle, a backup forward better known for his football skills. Trying not to draw attention to myself, I asked in a polite, soft-spoken tone, “Do we just take one?”

No one answered. Riley and Doyle may not have heard me. I asked again, this time in a slightly louder voice. Before anyone else could answer, Michael Johnson, a junior guard who never liked me for reasons I never understood, looked at me disdainfully and snarled for all to hear, “WE DON'T WANT YOU!”

The locker room went uneasily silent. Several players stopped what they were doing and turned their gaze towards Michael and me. I felt the blood rush to my head and I am certain my face turned bright red. I laughed in embarrassment, desperately hoping that Michael was simply attempting humor at my expense. But the look on his face said otherwise. It was no joke. “We don’t want you, man,” he repeated in a high-pitched voice of contempt accompanied by a sarcastic snicker. “You sorry ass….”

I was embarrassed and humiliated, and maybe a little in shock, as my worst fears and intuition became reality. I was never good with fast reprisals and quick-witted responses. Truth is, I did not know how to react when caught off-guard to such an unkind and unexpected assault. I stood there mute.

Coach Galbraith stormed into the locker room, his face stern and serious. Galbraith was 6’9” and a former player for Hightstown High. A lanky, socially awkward white guy, only five years removed from high school ball, he never developed the level of respect he deserved from this crop of brash, racially mixed players. The locker room again turned silent. The rest is a blur to me. Galbraith said something about “team” and “no place for that” and other well-intentioned statements that made me even more isolated and self-conscious.

But then it was over. I grabbed a pair of sweats and slipped them on and followed the other players onto the court for the start of pre-game drills – layups, rotations, and jump shots. Although it was my varsity debut, I could not enjoy the moment. In truth, I had never felt so alone. I was an outsider; an impersonal non-human “other”. Worst of all, not one teammate came to my defense or said a kind or encouraging word.

*     *     *     *

This was not my first run-in with Michael. Three years earlier, when I was in the seventh grade, we played together on the middle school soccer team. One day, during afternoon practice, there was a brief pause in the action as several players gathered mid-field. Michael stood a few feet from me with a soccer ball resting under his arm. He was apparently upset because the coach had announced that I would start at center halfback, an important position with key offensive and defensive responsibilities. It was the position Michael believed he was entitled to, since he was a year older and, in his opinion, the best player on the team.

Michael went on one of many tirades against me that year, proclaiming I was “sorry” and a “pussy” and “sucked.” When I responded with a weak rebuttal, Michael stared me down contemptuously. From three feet way and without warning, he flipped the soccer ball at me, hitting me in the groin. The ball fell limply to the grass below. The other players looked at me, anticipating a sharp rebuke, or the start of a fight. Instead, I just stood there, red-faced and in shock. I thought about punching him, but I did nothing.

*     *     *     *

I do not suggest that these were life-altering events. I understand it is part of growing up. All of us can point to bad experiences when we must confront ugly behavior in our fellow human beings. I remain uncertain of what response to Michael’s outbursts against me would have been appropriate. And I have often wondered why Michael did not like me, or what he had against me.

“We cannot be kind to each other here for even an hour,” wrote Alfred Lord Tennyson. “We whisper, and hint, and chuckle and grin at our brother’s shame; however you take it we men are a little breed.” I do not know how Michael’s life turned out. We had few interactions after the high school locker room incident (much to my relief, I only suited up for a few more varsity games and was back on the JV team the remainder of my sophomore and junior seasons). Two years later, my family moved away from Hightstown. I never saw or heard from Michael again.

I have always hoped that, in later years, Michael matured as a man and overcame his anger and resentment. I would like to believe that he came to regret his actions towards me. But I realize now that these incidents, as painful and hurtful as they were, had little to do with me. They were instead a likely reflection of Michael’s pain, his hidden demons, with which he was too young and unguided to contend.  What sort of life had he led? Perhaps I failed to see the larger picture, the full context of his life. The racism and perpetual humiliations he had endured as a black man in a white man's world. I know now that I could not have possibly assessed his life or circumstances fairly and accurately. I had never really tried. I never knew the real Michael and he never knew me. We did not know each other or our individual stories, our hopes and dreams and shared goals. Perhaps this was the root of our troubled co-existence.

I sense that Michael was as lonely in his life as I felt that night in the locker room. After all, I still had a loving and supportive family to which to go home; perhaps he did not. Maybe Michael had an undiagnosed chemical imbalance, or was simply an insecure, scared, anxious kid who did not know how to control his unkind impulses.

I realize now that Michael, too, was just a kid with a steep road to climb. Perhaps he saw the obstacles in his way more clearly than did I. By his junior year in high school, when he lashed out at me in the locker room, it was clear to all that his dream of NBA glory and fame, of the life he had envisioned, was not to be. I had no such illusions. Maybe at that moment Michael had no backup plan; and that he feared the best and most glorious years of his life were finished at 17.

As the years pass and the insecurities of adolescence fade, I have entered into a separate peace with Michael Johnson. I hope that he, too, has found peace and fulfillment in life. It has taken me a long time. But today I think I understand him and can finally forgive him. And for that, I am grateful.
No man ever got very high by pulling other people down. The intelligent merchant does not knock his competitors. The sensible worker does not work those who work with him. Don’t knock your friends. Don’t knock your enemies. Don’t knock yourself. – Alfred Lord Tennyson