Wednesday, July 24, 2013

What I learned on Mr. Jefferson's mountain

Last week I took a trip back in time and visited Thomas Jefferson's magnificent mountaintop home, Monticello. During a lovely tour of the house I become viscerally aware of Jefferson's great appetite for learning as I passed through his collection of books, art and artifacts. Here lived a man who adapted the best of everything he ever saw to his "retirement" home in Virginia. The downstairs "dependencies" --which would be out-buildings at other plantations--demonstrate, perhaps even more clearly, his genius at synthesizing what he learned in his travels. The multi-burner cooktop that his cooks used to make a variety of French sauces was amazing!

But one other thing that jumped out at me: in all the signage around Monticello, in the stories told by all three of our tour guides (in the house, on the grounds and gardens, around the plantation community) "slaves" were referred to as ''enslaved persons." A quick look at the Monticello website, as well as that of the website accompanying the Smithsonian exhibit "Slavery at Jefferson's Monticello: Paradox of Liberty" shows few remaining references to "slaves." That demeaning term has mostly been replaced with the more accurate "enslaved men, women and children," or "the enslaved butler," etc.

And just like that there is a perceptual shift. The words change and something in our minds changes. We become more aware of the fact that these were people--fundamentally like all of us touring the grounds on a 93 degree day in July, 2013. But when they were forced into slavery, they became enslaved people. An adjective, not a noun.

Thomas Jefferson would have appreciated this, I think. He knew the power of words. Indeed, he requested that his gravestone refer not to what offices he held, what territories he purchased, even to what state capitols he designed. He wanted to be remembered as a writer and a lifelong learner:
Here was buried
Thomas Jefferson
Author of the Declaration of American Independence
of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom
Father of the University of Virginia

Words--what they teach us, where they lead us--can shift our perspective and change the world. We would do well to respect their power.

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