This has been a hard couple of weeks to be in Charlottesville, and studying slavery. White supremacists descended on a city I love and killed a woman. Many were injured. One of my friend was too worried for her safety to return to her own home that night, because of the people parading directly in front of it. I am sad, I am ashamed, but mostly I am angry, and determined that as a country, we do better. It seems I'm in good company.
I gave my project presentation last week, and it mostly just made clear to me that I have only just scratched the surface of what I've laid out for myself. A graphic novel history, depicting the lives of the enslaved people on Thomas Jefferson's plantation. Material culture and object history, represented graphically, attempting to get as close as possible to something like that truth. Oh, ok. What coffee-fueled bender made that sound simple?
I keep wondering, who am I? They could certainly find more accomplished historians, or illustrators. But none of them have stepped up, so here I am. And it's become increasingly clear to me what the epilogue needs to be. I could not leave Cville this month and not acknowledge - our country is still figuring out what the legacy of slavery and institutionalized racism is going to be. And there are a lot of good people fighting like hell to make sure that's in the past - hopefully that's the direction we're headed.
There was a really thoughtful piece in the Guardian you should check out. They had the privilege to interview a brilliant friend of mine. Read it here:
Presentation slides. Isaac Granger Jefferson, left, in an 1847ish daguerrotype, and a much later photo of Peter Fossett.
Youtube video of my process - digital painting in Photoshop with layers.
A couple of us went to the memorial service for Heather Heyer to stand guard, because we were told the white supremacists were planning to protest it. It was scary, not knowing who had what intentions, going in with my northern assumption that every angry southerner would be carrying a gun. I saw a few. It turned out fine, my friend even got to shake Tim Kane's hand, but my heart was heavy that day, and will be for a while. The town of Charlottesville has been very vocal about saying "not in my town" and "this is not the city I love," but I've heard a few people say that the black experience of Charlottesville can be very different. Some people could totally believe the riot and aftermath happened here. I wish I had words of wisdom, I would hope that we have come farther than that, but apparently not. I wish I had something to share other than my profound sadness.
After my presentation I got truly phenomenal feedback about resources, people to speak to, things to go see. One lady even joked with me that I had laid out about 12 books for myself. Hurt me worse! One of the best resources I've encountered has been my ever growing book list. (Starting to add these in slowly on Goodreads if you want to take a look - my name is listed there as Kathy Schnurr!). There is so much to learn. Maybe reading and protesting and getting educated can be a good start to an active resistance to the news cycle these past few weeks.
My project has become more and more important to me intellectually - if I can try to help high school aged kids understand the lives of enslaved people just a little bit better, maybe that's a good start. Engage with these difficult questions - how do we reconcile a vision of Thomas Jefferson, Founding Father with Thomas Jefferson, slave owner?
You can't, of course. You can sit with the conflict, and stay uncomfortable.
Jefferson was a brilliant thinker, a truly impressive writer, and his intellectual legacy and celebration of education is something I proudly took part in. However, he owned over 600 human beings in his lifetime. He enslaved four of his own children. He does not get a pass for being "a man of his time." He was one of the largest slaveowners in the colony, and then state, of Virginia. Jefferson thought he was on a great civilizing mission, but eventually lost his interest in trying to abolish slavery. He was content to try to ameliorate its conditions, all the while doing the mental pretzel work of ignoring the complete violation of human dignity and personal autonomy he was imposing on hundreds of souls. If I can try to present these problems and this giant divide without completely demonizing our third president, I will consider it a great personal victory. That's a lot to ask from a glorified comic book, but I'll see what I can do.
Last week, a great new graphic novel on the life of Alexander Hamilton came out. It tries to address different aspects of his life than Lin Manuel Miranda does, and so far I love it. Further review once I finish. It's written by Jonathan Hennessy, the same guy who wrote the Gettysburg Address graphic novel, this time working with a different illustrator. (Unrelated: he also wrote a graphic novel history of beer, and one of the history of video games. I do think he and I could be best friends.)
Selfishly: hey look! There's a market for this kind of thing!
I gleefully brought my new toy in to show the people up the hill, trained historians, all brilliant in their own regard. They thought it was so funny, and were kind of delighted to see it. One woman has studied the history of costumes (and theater design, and all that loveliness), and she was completely irritated by the fashion in the book. "This waist coast is mid 19th century! But this is supposed to be from the Revolution!" She seemed to be getting more worked up every time she turned the page. My eyes got wider and happier, and I'm meeting with her later today to try to avoid some of those mistakes.
Yesterday, I got to go visit the archaeology lab. Cool on so many fronts, but I think any place you can walk in the front door, announce you know nothing, and have them be excited to teach you? Pretty cool in my book. (Hey get it - in my book!)
Toothbrush heads, shoe buckles, and functional buckles from the excavated sites on Mulberry Row + the field houses
So what are my goals from all of this? Somebody had asked me last week, and the word I lingered on was engagement. [Everything is about being engaged to me lately - I just had my first wedding stress dream last night. More about this later, of course.] I'd like my kids to engage with the hard questions, the conflicting ideas, and maybe understand that these are more three dimensional people and ideas than they had given thought to before. High school kids are smarter than anybody gives them credit for, they can handle it.
I think that has shifted somewhat. I want you to open up the book and see somebody sitting with a cup of coffee, a book on their table, maybe some mismatched creamware, and a vegetable garden next to their cabin. I want whoever ends up reading this to open up the book and just see PEOPLE, and some of their stories. And some of their stories exist, in letters and documents and their own accounts. People who had marbles, and buckles, and toothbrushes, and work days that were too long, and had their autonomy completely taken away from them. I think if you look at the artifacts of somebody's life, and get to look at the spaces where they lived, you understand the way they lived a little better. Room Raiders, 18th-19th century edition. It remains, of course, just a story, but I'll do the best I can do sneak some truth in there.
Page 3-4, possibly. Text not finalized yet, so I left it out.
I am wrapping up my second week at Monticello. I am much more comfortable here, it feels much more real at this point - for example, I even slept in until 7 this morning. How very un-Jeffersonian, the sun was up before I was.
This week has been humbling and mind-blowing in the most phenomenal ways, and it is clear to me that I have much, much more work to do.
Monday and Tuesday were rainy, so I got to close myself up in the library and do some good reading. I got some more storyboarding done, and some good primary resources.
Pages 6-7, possibly, again without text.
Tuesday was a really moving day - one of the other fellows gave his forum talk on the oral history project Getting Word. I can't help but feel lucky that all of these things are happening at the same time I'm here. Several of the other descendants came to the project, one guy I met last week, Calvin (who is quickly becoming one of my favorite people,) and his grandson, an artist immediately identifiable by his Basquiat t-shirt. After Andrew recounted the research and project he's been working on, which was wonderful, he asked one older lady (75ish?) what her experience has been, and what this descendants project means to her. "Everything." She said simply, and as she began to elaborate, there was a single tear rolling down her cheek. She had told Cinder [the woman who started the project] that she was related to the Gillettes, and Cinder began to list off her family members one by one. The history of the enslaved community at Monticello hasn't been something the foundation always celebrated, and it really wasn't until the late 1990s that this started to be recognized and gain momentum. So, long past due, but gratifying, and so important.
Andrew reminded us that the importance of Getting Word and its impact on the future really can't be quantified, particularly during a week when the "Alt-Right" is holding a rally in Charlottesville. He stressed the importance of reunion, recovery, and resistance, saying that the intrinsic human value of people who lived here is immeasurable - and their artistry and love was reflected in some of the faces (and Basquiat tshirts) of people sitting at the table with us.
I wish I had a better word than profound.
Wednesday I spent about an hour chatting with the lovely Niya Bates, who answered every question I had (and THEN some) on the lives of the enslaved people at Monticello. I also have about 30 new books to read. A story I can't get out of my head - there was a particularly skilled young enslaved craftsman, James, son to Critta Hemings. Some time between 1801 and 1805 he was too sick to go to work at the nailery, and the overseer Gabriel Lilly whipped him three times that day, so badly he nearly died. Lilly was known for his brutality and violence, but Jefferson once said it was impossible to find "a man who fulfills my purposes better." That man (and I do hesitate to use that word) stayed at Monticello after this event (and certainly others like it) until his required salary became too high. That day I did not want to hear another word about the noble founding father Thomas Jefferson.
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal," Jefferson wrote. "That they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
And yet, he had the second largest holdings of enslaved people of any Virginian during his lifetime. This was not normal. Plantations where more than 100 people at a time were kept enslaved was NOT common. I have no resolution here, words of wisdom or conclusion. Just have to sit with it.
Something that really amazed me this week was the account of Isaac Granger Jefferson. He was an enslaved tradesman on the plantation who worked as a blacksmith and tinsmith. He did an interview in 1847 that was dictated and kept. There's also a daguerrotype of him from this time (maybe one of the oldest remaining images of an enslaved person?), but you can read the whole account here:
Yesterday I got to meet with somebody in curatorial up at TJ's house before it opened, go poke at things and get references for my panels. Here are some images from outside (because I can't share the others!)
The most important part of the whole trip was a sign on the wall in the reconstructed Hemings cabin (there were quite a few Hemingses enslaved at Monticello). "NOT SO BAD?" It reads. Lest you forget, even for a moment. GOOD. Don't.
I got to meet with another curator who talked to me about how they choose objects, great places for me to look at their collections and other 18th century furniture, and the acute problem of representation that I've set up for myself. How do you depict someone when you don't know what they looked like? What is the best way to do that respectfully? She mentioned how Montpelier and Mount Vernon address the issue of representing people whose faces we do not have records of - one by depicting them from the neck down, just bodies. Another is by showing silhouettes of a person. Identity politics and representation could NOT matter more, particularly with such an important subject matter. I agreed it's something I am honestly not sure how to handle yet.
Every inch of my skin crawls at the idea of not giving the enslaved people faces. I mean, this is a graphic novel, it will be a cartoon. Giving them the wrong face must surely be better than denying them their humanity or literally beheading them. These people had enough of their autonomy stripped from them, they should get to have faces. I think I will keep struggling with this. And here I thought I was going to have trouble finding proper furniture and fashion references.
Aside from some of the heaviness of this week, there have been absolutely delightful social excursions. We went to Kings Family Vineyard, and to go see sunset at Carter Mountain Orchard. It's been a beautiful and enlightening week, and I think that's all I could ask for.
Off to do more drawing, then. Apparently one of the fellows they had here last month was a chief curator at the Frick. What am I doing here? Oh goodness, back to the library.
On Thursday afternoon, we got to get on a tour of Monticello. I had been a couple of times during grad school, but they've done a TON with the restorations, and it was really cool to get to see the progress they've made. They have a lot more curated rooms, and a lot more in terms of the history of slavery on the plantation (including a full app called Slavery at Monticello).
Thing that may end up being trouble for me - you aren't allowed to take photos inside. There are probably insane numbers of sources for images, though, so I'll see what I can do for now. I also found a fabulous book with HABS drawings of it, so I think I'll be just fine.
They took us around, and a fellow Fellow and I got to go upstairs and look at all the new rooms. The question I keep coming back to - how do you curate a space when you're not actually sure what was REALLY there? I think you just do the best you can and pick some cool stuff to teach people things, but be as transparent as possible about that process.
I am beginning to realize quite what a problem I've set up for myself - illustrating a graphic novel history. While on a tour, the docent mentioned that they had recently restored the dining room to a bright bright yellow, because paint analysis showed that it was that specific hue in 1815. I raised my hand, "Do they know what color it was before 1815?" And nope, this particular guide didn't. And nothing has been published on it yet. So my 1809 dining room scene will have to sit tight for a bit (at least the coloring phase!!). Trying to breathe through my nose.
I also want to be careful I'm not taking the curated layouts of the rooms to be gospel - this is the talented curatorial staff's best interpretation. But it seems like a long, question-filled conversation with them and whoever works on restoration (and paint!) might be in order. (What's better than watching paint dry? Talking about paint that dried like 200 years ago!)
I ran into one of the other fellows in the kitchen at Kenwood, Andrew who invited me to go with him to Poplar Forest the next morning. He and his cousin Calvin were going, he told me. Cool!
So the next morning I met them both and we drove the 70ish miles down to TJ's secluded retreat house. [We were told it was very specifically NOT a summer house, bc TJ went 3-4 times a year. This was a smaller place, still Palladian and fabulous, where he went to "be alone," when all of the activity at Monticello got to be too much for him. His version of "alone" meant he was still accompanied by at least 10 enslaved people, and greeted by several dozen more enslaved people that lived on that estate.]
Both people I had the pleasure of accompanying on this trip are wildly intelligent, and working on Getting Word, Monticello's oral history project that looks at the descendants of their enslaved population. They both also happen to be descendants.
We got a private tour with the director of Collections and somebody else very important (whose title I have since forgotten, oops?) that were super knowledgable and excited that we were visiting. I keep thinking I'm going to wake up, but.. they were just as excited to have us as I was to be there.
Andrew and Calvin know SO much about the genealogy it's astounding. And I think I was profoundly lucky to get to go with them, getting delightfully biting commentary along with 12 pages worth of notes of information. I'm learning a lot. Much like Neo in the Matrix, plugged in, coming up for air and saying, "Go again."
Burwell Colbert was an enslaved worker who worked as Jefferson's personal servant, and the only worker in the nailery "absolutely exempted from the whip." According to Calvin, he was also Jefferson's nephew. There is an illustration / artist's rendering of him in the cellar at Poplar Forest that Calvin said wasn't correct. Why? Because Burwell would most likely not have been very dark skinned in appearance, as the son of Randolph Jefferson (TJ's brother). However, he would have worn probably fine clothing that would have stayed clean, as he worked in the house.
Representation is hard. Several renderings of Mulberry Row and others of plantation life at Monticello don't take heritage into account- like those of Sally Hemings and her descendants, for example. Sally's grandmother was African, her grandfather was an English Captain. Her mother was Elizabeth Hemings, her father was John Wayles, a Virginia planter and slave trader. Her children were fathered by Thomas Jefferson, and were 7/8 white and 1/8 African by descent. Calvin said a big problem he has with the representations he's seen is that those things aren't necessarily taken into account, and most of the time people are depicted with the wrong skin tones.
Madison and Eston Hemings, sons of Sally and Thomas Jefferson, were enslaved at Monticello until 1826 when they were freed in TJ's will. They spent a lot of time at Poplar Forest, doing carpentry and woodworking with John Hemmings, who was by all accounts an unbelievable craftsman. Most of what he built there was destroyed in a fire later in the 19th century, but they have recreations of tables and things that are absolutely phenomenal.
Poplar Forest is more of a raw space than Monticello, many of the rooms are empty, and they show the restoration process and everything as they go, with open beams and half-plastered walls to show how things would have been constructed. It was really cool to get to see two places SO different in terms of restoration and curated works.
They have a copy of a letter written by Harriet, an enslaved cook there. She wrote to TJ when he wasn't feeling well and wasn't going to make a scheduled visit there. She wrote that she hoped he felt better, quoted the bible and a hymnal psalm, and signed the letter Adieu. She had beautiful handwriting. I learned that a number of the enslaved people there and at Monticello were literate.
I got to see this on the same day I read about the White House putting forth legislation to investigate discrimination against white people getting into college. Sometimes I wonder if this 5'4 body can contain all the rage I get from reading the news these days.
Modern reconstruction showing dimensions of slave quarters at Poplar Forest
When I got back to the library, I discovered two more gems. 1) a delightful little gazebo to read in and 2) the Sources of Patriarchal Rage. Oh good, I'd been wondering where that came from.
This morning I went to the Downtown Mall to work at coffee shop for a while, and stopped at the coolest. freaking. comic. book. store. ever. I reserved my copy of the Alexander Hamilton graphic novel coming out on Tuesday, and bought one on Robert Moses (LOL). The woman behind the counter was awesome, and I'm starting to think a life fueled by comic books and coffee is just the thing for me. I also discovered this book - where was THIS when I was in grad school? Hah.
After that I went to Grounds to go look at things. I didn't take into account that the libraries wouldn't be open when I got there - because their summer session just ended! So I walked around a bit anyway, visiting all my old haunts. I think I'll head back Monday to go work from one of the libraries.
I am thinking my next step is starting to put all of this together. Keep reading, keep visiting, keep learning, but also start drawing. Let's see what I can come up with.
Here are two bits of art so far.
So now - off to work. I'm of the personal philosophy - the messier the hair, the more productive you can be. And so, without further ado, off to work.
I left New York on Tuesday, spent the night in Baltimore with my lovely roommate from grad school (and her amazing pup), and arrived at Monticello Wednesday morning. For the first time in my life, I was early! I got to stop at Shenandoah Joe's for coffee, which was fabulous.
I rolled up to the front of the place singing Hamilton at the top of my lungs, and I imagined somewhere that Jefferson was flipping me off from beyond the grave. New York had arrived.
"I am not throwing away my shot. Ay yo, I'm just like my country - I'm young, scrappy, and hungry,
and I'm not throwing away my shot." -Alexander Hamilton by way of Lin Manuel Miranda
I arrived at the International Center for Jefferson Studies, and met with some of the friendliest human beings on the planet. They told me how excited they were to have me, how cool they thought my project was (please forgive my weeping), and then apologized for their enthusiasm. I think I must have been dumb struck by how cool this all was, because never before in my life has anybody apologized to ME for THEIR enthusiasm. Not even one time.
Then they showed me to my COTTAGE. I get a cottage. I could throw something and hit the ICJS, no joke. I don't feel inclined to, but I think the frame of reference is important.
I also get an office in the library, which I think may be among the coolest things that has ever happened in my life. By this point, I had had more coffee than was probably a good idea, and my bones were vibrating, and I got to see the inside of a gorgeous building that I get to basically live in for the next month. So I set up my computer and my drawing tablet, and yeah, it was off to a good start.
Then we got a tour of the library and its resources.
With my fellow's badge, I can be in the library from 7 AM - 9 PM, when it's only open to the public from 9 - 5. ACCESS TO AN EMPTY LIBRARY? OH, OK. This day is already amazing, but there's the tiniest part of me that keeps assuming I'll wake up in a few minutes.
The library gatekeeper is funny, and she showed me where the children's books and graphic novel - type books are. She said some of them are awesome, some of them are ... less awesome. They don't get a lot of historians writing these kinds of things, so she thought my project was great. Again, I could have hugged her right there, but we'd just met so I settled for an awkward too-grateful smile. This made me wonder a lot about audience for my project. Children's book wasn't a goal, but I think having visual references looking at some of the same material could be very helpful. So I checked it out.
I was not disappointed. Among other highlights, they had little Beanie baby style stuffed Jefferson and Adams? Hilarious.
I picked up a couple of books and got to work. (IN MY OFFICE.)
One that I gravitated towards immediately was Thomas Jefferson: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Everything by Maira Kalman. It has these beautifully expressive illustrations, great vibrant colors, and I was super intrigued. And then I started reading it.
A little more than halfway through, the book gets to slavery on the plantation at Monticello. For a kids book, this is really important, but also should be approached delicately, I think.
The photographed page reads "Jefferson would visit the kitchen each week and wind the grandfather clock. He probably said a few kind words to the cooks. / In the fancy dining room, they had the best of everything. Even vanilla ice cream!! And so many kinds of pudding - apple, bread, huckleberry, lemon, macaroni, orange, plum, quince and tapioca pudding, all produced by the endless labor of slaves. Jefferson may have been a kind master, but it was still a horror."
I think my forehead will have visible abs by the end of this month, with the workout my eyebrows are getting.
So the book is sort of taking a roundabout approach to touring the house (almost), and then... a few kind words to the cook while making people work endlessly makes TJ a kind master. Because there was pudding! And ice cream! While I was kind of fascinated to think of the food they would have been eating in the early 19th century in rural Virginia, my entire face hurts. The rest of the book followed suit.
I read through the rest of it with equal parts horror and fascination before coming across the last page. And I think this is really important:
"If you want to understand this country and its people and what it means to be optimistic and complex and tragic and wrong and courageous, you need to go to Monticello."
I sat there for a minute. Yes. Yes to this. And so here I am, and here I go.