NPR : Tell Me More

What Enslaves Us That We Won't Give Up?

Play associated audio

I was thinking about a conversation I had with a friend of mine who teaches very low-income kids. He talks about his kids a lot, as teachers I know often do. And he was telling me about a discussion he had with the wife of another friend.

My teacher friend was describing, in general terms, some of the things his kids and their parents deal with, like getting safely to and from school, or trying to get time off from work to attend school meetings, or just having to navigate a world of academic demands that may be completely unfamiliar to those who haven't been to college, and so on.

At this point, the woman actually said to my teacher friend, "Well, but do their parents know how to invest their money?"

"Really?" I asked. Really.

But then my teacher friend said something that made me think. He said her comment made him wonder what he might be clueless about.

Can I just tell you? That is the reaction I had when I stopped by the new exhibit, Slavery at Jefferson's Monticello, currently on view at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. We told you about it on Monday's program, but just to review, it's the exhibition sponsored by the new National Museum of African American History and Culture, for which ground is being broken Wednesday on the National Mall.

I had recently reread Annette Gordon Reed's important work documenting the intimate relationships Thomas Jefferson had with those whom he enslaved, and the lives of those who made his life possible — the people who raised and cooked food, built his exquisite furniture, tended his gardens, and hand-forged the nails he sold at market. So I thought I was prepared.

But it was still painful to come face-to-face with the reality that the author of our nation's most significant works about freedom owned more than 600 human beings. Their names were all listed on the wall of the exhibition, and it was painful to note that even children the age of my own worked all day every day, doing hard dirty jobs to make it possible for our third president to think his fine thoughts in comfort and luxury.

It was also painful to realize that despite Jefferson's understanding that slavery was evil, upon his death, he freed only a handful of people. Some of them were almost certainly his own kin, and that was a mercy he did not extend to their loved ones.

For example, Jefferson freed Joseph Fossett, a talented blacksmith, but left his wife and at least seven children to the auction block.

All of that made my mind swirl. How could a man who so loved freedom be such a rank hypocrite?

But it also made me wonder what I might be clueless about today. It made me think, "What am I willing to overlook, to accommodate, just so I might be more comfortable?"

I know there are those who think those questions are a sign of weakness, that certitude is synonymous with strength. But I disagree.

Jefferson was a brilliant and thoughtful man, often a kind one, certainly not evil. And of course, he was a man of his time. Slavery was a fact of life at his birth and death, and for decades afterward.

But I cannot help but wonder how this country would be different if he had had the courage to align his wants with his values, and to free the people he held in bondage.

And I wonder to what I am enslaved, and what or whom is it my duty to set free.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

NPR

Barbershop: UofL Basketball Ban, Football Concussions And The NFL Women's Summit

ESPN contributor Kevin Blackistone, Bloomberg View's Kavitha Davidson and The Washington Post's Wesley Lowery talk about the UofL basketball team, public opinion of the NFL, and women in sports.
NPR

After Introducing Changes, Keurig Sales Continue To Fall

Despite America's high coffee consumption, Keurig reported disappointing sales this week. Even during its popular holiday selling period, the numbers haven't perked up in recent years.
NPR

WATCH: Republican Presidential Debate

After skipping the last GOP debate and coming second in Iowa, Donald Trump will be center stage once again Saturday night.
NPR

How Limited Internet Access Can Subtract From Kids' Education

Smartphones are often credited with helping bridge the "digital divide" between people who do and don't have Internet access at home. But is mobile Internet enough for a family with a kid in school?

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.