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What do Mexico and Virginia have in common?  Slavery.  The first known Africans in British North America were 20 or so men and women that were on a ship bound for Mexico; the ship was seized and the Africans were taken to Jamestown where they were traded.  The year was 1619.  By 1700, there were “27,817 enslaved Africans in British North America. In 1740, there were 150,024. By 1770, the number of slaves had grown to 462,000, about one-fifth of the total colonial population.” (source: National Museum of African American History and Culture)

These are not startling facts, sadly, but I’ve been reviewing them and figuring out ways that my students can make connections with these facts and ways that they can see beyond the numbers to the actual lives of those early slaves.  This year, I conclude my Smithsonian Faculty Fellowship, which has the theme “American Experience: The Quest for Identity.”  My students will visit the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History (NMAH)  which currently has an exhibit called “Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty.

Our faculty cohort of fellows visited this exhibit last semester.  One of the most memorable visuals of the exhibit are the family trees of the the Hemings, the Gillettes, the Herns, the Fossetts, the Grangers and the Hubbards, six families that lived on Monticello and owned by Jefferson.  One of the curators reminded us that, despite his repugnance for slavery, slavery was what Jefferson knew; he was nursed by an enslaved wet nurse and he died with a slave at his bedside.  What then are we to make of the man that called for “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”?

I’ve been thinking about this exhibit a lot as I work to create an assignment or series of assignments that asks my students to visit the NMAH and experience the exhibit in relation to their own identities as Americans.  As usual, when I think about an assignment for them, I think about how I might approach the assignment myself.  It’s not easy.  What do Jefferson and his slaves have to do with my identity as an American?  How do I define my own American identity in consideration of Jefferson, his writings, and his slaves?

The startling realization is that I have lived in Washington, D.C. for nine years.  It is where I attended two graduate programs, where I started forming a sense of my adult-self, and intriguingly, when I visit my home state of Arizona, it’s the rowhouses, traffic noise, trees, parks, and monuments I miss when I think of coming “home”.  Before I moved to D.C. from Philadelphia, my boss, a black woman named Tawny, said, “You’re moving to Chocolate City!”  At the time, my mouth dropped; I was aghast.  How could she label a city by the race of people that live there?  Then, I had associated Washington with politics, politicians, ambition, and change.  Those elements are still here, but they don’t make up the full colorful tapestry that is D.C.’s identity.  Indeed, the black community is at the heart of the capital.  Without even noticing, my eye has taken on the palette of the shades of black I see around me, and my ear has grown accustomed to the varying sounds of the D.C. accents I hear everyday.  Without noticing, my identity has been sweetened and soured by this city and her people.

Where does this leave me with regards to Jefferson and his slaves?  It’s a fact that slaves built the White House and the U.S. Capitol building; it’s also a fact that the now mostly-white, affluent neighborhood of Georgetown was originally settled by “a mix of slaves and free Blacks” (see “Is This Georgetown?” at the Georgetown Metropolitan blog).  It’s likely that Jefferson’s own slaves weren’t the slaves that built the city of Washington, but many like them did; it is not a far reach to say that Washingtonians dwell among the spirits of black slave labor.  My very existence in this city, my ability to walk the streets, my love for visiting many of the fine architecture represented in our many historical houses, are made possible because of slavery.  Therefore, if I, as an American, would call Thomas Jefferson a founding father, finding in him the roots of the definition for what it means to be an American, then I also owe obeisance to those black brethren that raised him, those black brethren that raised the buildings around him, those black brethren that raised the earth to make way for the streets I walk on everyday.  His slaves are as much our country’s founders, quite literally, as Jefferson and his white contemporaries are, ideologically.  And in them, I can find roots to what it means to be an American.

Sometimes we forget the whole story of where America and our American identity began.  It includes so many more strands beyond those of the men whose temples line the Washington mall.  In our amnesia, we create other, more convenient stories that fit our biases and prejudices, biases and prejudices that began before Jefferson inherited his first slaves, perhaps even long before those Africans were seized on that ship to Mexico and traded in Virginia.  These biases and prejudices are deeply rooted and require continuous unearthing, though we may be afraid of what we might find when we finally reach the tap.  Washington, D.C. poet, Essex Hemphill’s poem,”Family Jewels,” (below) illustrates what it can sometimes be like for a person of color to live in Washington (experience as identity-formation).  His poem paints a vivid picture of what our founding fathers planted for us.  Ever the optimist, I believe strongly that our nation’s ideological soil is rich and it can inspire entirely new directions in which all of us can grow.

“Family Jewels”
for Washington D.C.

I live in a town
where pretense and bone structure
prevail as credentials
of status and beauty–
a town bewitched
by mirrors, horoscopes
and corruption.

I intrude on this nightmare,
arm outstretched from curbside.
I’m not pointing to Zimbabwe.
I want a cab to take me to Southeast
so I can visit my mother.
I’m not ashamed to cross
the bridge that takes me there.

No matter where I live
or what I wear
the cabs speed by.
Or they suddenly brake
a few feet away
spewing fumes in my face
to serve a fair-skinned fare.

I live in a town
where everyone is afraid
of the dark.
I stand my ground unarmed
facing a mounting disrespect,
a diminishing patience,
a need for defense.

In passing headlights
I appear to be a criminal
I’m a weird-looking
muthafucka.
Shaggy green hair sprouts all over me.
My shoulders hunch and bulge. I growl
as blood drips from my glinting fangs.

My mother’s flowers are wilting
while I wait.
Our dinner
is cold by now.

I live in a town
where pretense and structure
are devices of cruelty–
a town bewitched
by mirrors, horoscopes,
and blood.

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