Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You? NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues

What Enslaves Us That We Won't Give Up?

Nineteenth century bilboes typically found on slave ships are displayed at the Smithsonian's new exhibit: "Slavery at Jefferson's Monticello: Paradox of Liberty." i i

Nineteenth century bilboes typically found on slave ships are displayed at the Smithsonian's new exhibit: "Slavery at Jefferson's Monticello: Paradox of Liberty." Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
Nineteenth century bilboes typically found on slave ships are displayed at the Smithsonian's new exhibit: "Slavery at Jefferson's Monticello: Paradox of Liberty."

Nineteenth century bilboes typically found on slave ships are displayed at the Smithsonian's new exhibit: "Slavery at Jefferson's Monticello: Paradox of Liberty."

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

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.

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Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You? NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues