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.