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.