This country must confront its demons

Thomas Jefferson owned slaves at Monticello, his home in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Thomas Jefferson owned slaves at Monticello, his home in Charlottesville, Virginia. OBSERVER FILE PHOTO

From George Friday of Concord, in response to “Monticello’s whitewashed history” (Aug. 18 Viewpoint):

Desiree H. Melton’s column brought back a moment of déjà vu for me. I visited Monticello a number of years ago. The University of Virginia student conducting the tour narrated how well the slaves were treated and how happy they were at Monticello. When I challenged her on such rose-colored narration of the condition of slavery, she compared the local treatment to other more egregious plantations.

I have concluded that America will never resolve this mental interpretation of its history of shame. We look at distant shores and are repulsed by man’s inhumanity to man. Quick to judge others, this country never confronts its own demons head-on. To heal a wound, one must expose all of its impurity to the cleansing light. We are afraid to conduct such cleansing, because to do so would turn our view of some of America’s revered historical leadership upside down.

American historians define Thomas Jefferson’s interaction with Sally Heming as a long-term relationship, as if a slave woman had options. What irony, a nation supposedly founded on freedom could have its founding leaders owning other human beings. Twelve presidents of the United States owned slaves, eight while serving as president.

We politely define slavery in this country as that “Peculiar Institution.” The Germans defined the holocaust as “The Final Solution.” Soft words to describe horrific acts. We avoid words such as rapist, terrorist, traffickers, and performers of sadistic acts of cruelty.

These are harsh words that we do not want to hear. Monticello is a microcosm, as is the Hermitage and Montpelier, of a much larger hypocritical view of American history. Professor Melton’s excellent article is a timely reminder that we continue to avoid painful dialogue on race and history. Until we as a country recognize the true dehumanizing nature of slavery and its resulting outcome, we will never exorcise our demons on racial issues.