Saturday, December 12, 2009

Teaching Thomas Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia

One of the staples of the U.S. History survey course is a selection from Thomas Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia, which he wrote around 1781, after the American Revolution was mostly over (at any rate, after most of the fighting in America had ended, but before the peace treaty in 1783).

In Notes, Jefferson discusses everything he knows about his home state, Virginia, including its nature, laws, and customs. The most curious part of Notes, and the reason it is taught so often in survey courses, is Jefferson's chapter on slavery and, sometimes, his chapter on Indians. The purpose of teaching these chapters is to illustrate his thoughts on slavery and the rights of man(kind). In particular, the point is to demonstrate Jefferson's racism and his opposition to slavery, and his attempts to reconcile the two and reconcile the continued existence of slavery with his opposition to it.

I have taught the slavery chapter (click here for the link, and start with page 264)--actually a chapter about the laws in Virginia, in which Jefferson discusses what he claims was a proposed bill to abolish slavery--several times, both as a TA and as an instructor. In discussions of the text, I usually find myself pointing out this passage to my students (ellipses supplied by me):
They [black people] secrete less by the kidnies, and more by the glands of the skin, which gives them a very strong and disagreeable odour....They seem to require less sleep. A black, after hard labour through the day, will be induced by the slightest amusements to sit up till midnight, or later, though knowing he must be out with the first dawn of the morning. They are at least as brave, and more adventuresome. But this may perhaps proceed from a want of forethought, which prevents their seeing a danger till it be present. When present, they do not go through it with more coolness or steadiness than the whites. They are more ardent after their female: but love seems with them to be more an eager desire, than a tender delicate mixture of sentiment and sensation. Their griefs are transient. Those numberless afflictions, which render it doubtful whether heaven has given life to us in mercy or in wrath, are less felt, and sooner forgotten with them. In general, their existence appears to participate more of sensation than reflection.
The point of calling my students' attention to this passage is to underscore Jefferson's racism. It's as blatant here as anywhere. I also read this passage aloud.

What bothers me about teaching this document is that when I read this passage aloud, I feel that I am "performing" Jefferson's racism. I am the white instructor, standing before the class, re-saying Jefferson's words. True, I am not endorsing his words, and I think the students are smart enough to know that, but I am partaking of enough of the racism in order to repeat it.

(I also, by the way, point my students to a later point in the chapter in which he says that despite his racist views, he believes slaves have the human right to the property in their own labor and that therefore he believes slavery to be unjust. His reluctance to end slavery came more from his belief that doing so would be well-nigh impossible without starting a race war.)

Perhaps the solution to this is to have the students read it over silently and ask them to comment on it. Presumably they would have read it overnight as I usually assign it as homework. I do find, however, that students sometimes don't do the homework (and that the earth is round and that death and taxes are certainties) and when they do, many are not so used to reading older writings that they may not always understand what's written. Jefferson is a good writer, but his writing is more dense than what, in my experience, average freshman-level students are used to.

At any rate, I don't know what the solution is. I do fear that I cannot excise the performative aspect of racism entirely.

No comments: