“Thomas Jefferson believed in equality for all people.” I actually read those words out loud to my son last fall. He was only a month or so into first grade. His class had already finished their first unit in social studies on Benjamin Franklin and moved on to their second unit, which was on Thomas Jefferson. Those words were printed on the study sheet which his teacher sent home so the students could prepare for their upcoming test to conclude that unit. The line under the word “equality” meant that this was one of the facts which our son had to know. The study sheet was clear: Thomas Jefferson should unequivocally be associated with the virtue of equality.
My wife and I looked at each other and rolled our eyes. I might have let a quiet yet exasperated “ugh” slip from my throat. We both learned to think critically at our liberal arts colleges. We both have graduate training and spend our professional lives working with religious things. We recognize hagiography when we see it, whether it is in the curriculum of the church or the curriculum of civic religion. People deemed important in American history are treated no differently than saints of the Bible and our faith: the stories told about them are selective. Their virtues are lifted up, but too often, their flaws are not mentioned.
We know, too, about the problems with putting people on pedestals and calling them saints. When folks find out what King David did to Bathsheba, not to mention Uriah the Hittite, or when they find out that Mother Teresa’s faith involved intellectual and spiritual wrestling that was never resolved, they find themselves confused, they seek the comfort of denial, and they feel betrayed by the teachers and institutions which taught them so poorly. Truth can be traumatic, especially when it contradicts stories you have always been told. And here we were watching, and even participating, as our child was being set up for the trauma of confusion, denial, betrayal, and distrust. Ugh, indeed.
Since nothing escapes our child, he asked what was wrong, and we told him. We told him that Thomas Jefferson said and did some great things which promoted equality. But, we explained, Thomas Jefferson also owned people who served him and his plantation as slaves, and we defined slavery as simply and clearly as we could. Then, we encouraged him to ask his questions, so he did. Was Thomas Jefferson really a bad guy? No, but he lived in a time and place that accepted slavery as part of normal life. Had his teacher lied to him? No, we said; she was just following the curriculum and getting him ready for the test he had to take. Was the curriculum dishonest? Well, maybe not on purpose; some people think that children his age are not able to understand complicated things like slavery.
There was a lot we didn’t cover, but that was enough for that night; he knew how to answer the questions on the test, he knew that we love him and we would be honest with him, and he was not ready for more new information. And frankly, we were all tired by that time. He aced the test, and the class has gone on to deal with such figures as Harriet Tubman and Abraham Lincoln in their social studies classes.
But we all remember that conversation, and it has led us to have more conversations about history, about slavery, about fairness, and about truth. Some time after that conversation, but with it still in our minds, we decided to take a Spring Break trip to Washington, DC, to learn more about the stories he was hearing in school. And yesterday, as we were on our way home from our trip, we gave our son some choices, and he said he wanted to go to Monticello to learn more about Thomas Jefferson.
We took two guided tours at Monticello. One was the house tour. Early on that tour, almost as if she was anticipating what was really on our family’s minds, the guide did an excellent job of explaining Thomas Jefferson’s complicated feelings about slavery. On one hand she said, raising her right hand palm upward about as high as her shoulder, mimicking the action of an old-fashioned scale, Jefferson admitted in his writings and other communication that slavery was unjust. On the other hand, she said, raising her left hand in a similar way, he did not see how it could be abolished without destroying the stability of the young country and the prosperity of its (white) citizens. The tour guide made it clear that her job was not to pass judgment, but only to present information. Our son stood right in front of her as she spoke. The other tour we took was called the Slave Tour. The guide on that tour showed us where the slaves worked and lived on the plantation’s farms. Although the cabins are long gone, she described the kind of work they did, the age at which they started working, the conditions of their living, and other details of the lives of the enslaved men, women, and children owned by Thomas Jefferson. She also went into great detail about the story of Sally Hemmings and her children. She ended her talk by describing a ledger Jefferson wrote assigning a monetary value to each of the people he owned, noting with a special poignancy that a 67-year-old woman was described as having “no value.” Again, our son was in the front row as she spoke, absorbing the information.
I will leave it to our son to reflect on his feelings as he participated in those tours; it is not my place to speak for him. And I will not pretend that he understood every bit of information he was given on the tours. However, I am more certain than ever that, when the curriculum said that “Thomas Jefferson believed in equality for all people,” it not only set my son up for confusion, denial, betrayal, and distrust. It also showed it does not respect a seven-year-old’s ability to understand something as complex as slavery, and it was unfair in its disrespect. It was not easy for our family to go through those tours, just like it was not easy to go through the exhibit on the Emancipation Proclamation and the March on Washington at the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History the day before. We had to explain a lot of details. We had to encourage him to ask questions, and we had to take a break after a while and get some ice cream.
But he got it. He got that the world cannot be neatly divided into heroes and villains. He got that people can think something is unfair but have no idea how to stop it. He got that values and virtues look different now than they did in other times and other places. He got that it is o.k. that he has complicated feelings and ideas and questions rattling around inside of him. And I think he even got that, if the curriculum writers are going to tell the story of Thomas Jefferson, they really ought to respect the children and teachers enough to trust them with truth.
The daffodils are blooming right now at Monticello. I find the shape of daffodils fascinating; instead of blooming upward like daisies, they have those strange cups facing out from their petals, making them look almost like they have faces. However, their faces rarely look you straight in the eye. They always seem to have their gazes shifted toward the leaves rustling on the ground around their feet. When someone doesn’t look you straight in the eye, it is not always because she or he is telling you a lie. Sometimes, it is because that person knows that the truth is a very complicated thing: that justice is an ideal which is not easily reconciled with reality, that righteousness is like a stream in that it is never static but keeps flowing, and that even heroes can have a hard time reconciling their beliefs with their behaviors. I took some photos of those daffodils because I thought they would be fitting souvenirs from our day at Monticello, so full of complicated truth. That, and my son has always liked daffodils.