English subtitles

← Why we must confront the painful parts of US history

Get Embed Code
33 Languages

Showing Revision 6 created 09/30/2020 by Erin Gregory.

  1. Not that long ago,
  2. I received an invitation
  3. to spend a few days at the historic
    home of James Madison.
  4. James Madison, of course,
  5. was the fourth president
    of the United States,
  6. the father of the Constitution,
  7. the architect of the Bill of Rights.
  8. And as a historian,
  9. I was really excited
    to go to this historic site,
  10. because I understand and appreciate
    the power of place.
  11. Now, Madison called his estate Montpelier.

  12. And Montpelier is absolutely beautiful.
  13. It's several thousand acres
    of rolling hills,
  14. farmland and forest,
  15. with absolutely breathtaking views
    of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
  16. But it's a haunting beauty,
  17. because Montpelier
    was also a slave labor camp.
  18. You see, James Madison enslaved
    more than 100 people

  19. over the course of his lifetime.
  20. And he never freed a single soul,
  21. not even upon his death.
  22. The centerpiece of Montpelier
    is Madison's mansion.
  23. Now this is where James Madison grew up,
  24. this is where he returned to
    after his presidency,
  25. this is where he eventually died.
  26. And the centerpiece
    of Madison's mansion is his library.
  27. This room on the second floor,
  28. where Madison conceived
    and conceptualized the Bill of Rights.
  29. When I visited for the first time,

  30. the director of education,
    Christian Cotz --
  31. cool white dude --
  32. (Laughter)

  33. took me almost immediately to the library.

  34. And it was amazing,
    being able to stand in this place
  35. where such an important moment
    in American history happened.
  36. But then after a little while there,

  37. Christian actually took me downstairs
    to the cellars of the mansion.
  38. Now, in the cellars of the mansion,
  39. that's where the enslaved
    African Americans who managed the house
  40. spent most of their time.
  41. It's also where they were installing
    a new exhibition on slavery in America.
  42. And while we were there,
  43. Christian instructed me to do something
    I thought was a little bit strange.
  44. He told me to take my hand
  45. and place it on the brick walls
    of the cellar and to slide it along,
  46. until I felt these impressions or ridges
    in the face of the brick.
  47. Now look,

  48. I was going to be staying on-site
    on this former slave plantation
  49. for a couple of days,
  50. so I wasn't trying
    to upset any white people.
  51. (Laughter)

  52. Because when this was over,

  53. I wanted to make sure
    that I could get out.
  54. (Laughter)

  55. But as I'm actually sliding my hand
    along the cellar wall,

  56. I couldn't help but think
    about my daughters,
  57. and my youngest one in particular,
  58. who was only about two
    or three years old at the time,
  59. because every time
    she hopped out of our car,
  60. she would take her hand
    and slide it along the outside,
  61. which is absolutely disgusting.
  62. And then --
  63. and then, if I couldn't get
    to her in time,
  64. she would take her fingers
    and pop them in her mouth,
  65. which would drive me absolutely crazy.
  66. So this is what I'm thinking about
    while I'm supposed to be a historian.
  67. (Laughter)

  68. But then, I actually do feel
    these impressions in the brick.

  69. I feel these ridges in the brick.
  70. And it takes a second
    to realize what they are.
  71. What they are
  72. are tiny hand prints.
  73. Because all of the bricks
    at James Madison's estate
  74. were made by the children
    that he enslaved.
  75. And that's when it hit me
  76. that the library
  77. in which James Madison conceives
    and conceptualizes the Bill of Rights
  78. rests on a foundation of bricks
  79. made by the children that he enslaved.
  80. And this is hard history.
  81. It's hard history,
    because it's difficult to imagine

  82. the kind of inhumanity
  83. that leads one to enslave children
  84. to make bricks for your comfort
    and convenience.
  85. It's hard history,
  86. because it's hard to talk
    about the violence of slavery,
  87. the beatings, the whippings,
    the kidnappings,
  88. the forced family separations.
  89. It's hard history, because it's hard
    to teach white supremacy,
  90. which is the ideology
    that justified slavery.
  91. And so rather than confront hard history,
  92. we tend to avoid it.
  93. Now, sometimes that means
    just making stuff up.

  94. I can't tell you how many times
    I've heard people say
  95. that "states' rights" was the primary
    cause of the Civil War.
  96. That would actually come as a surprise
  97. to the people who fought in the Civil War.
  98. (Laughter)

  99. Sometimes, we try
    to rationalize hard history.

  100. When people visit Montpelier --
  101. and by "people," in this instance,
    I mean white people --
  102. when they visit Montpelier
  103. and learn about Madison enslaving people,
  104. they often ask,
  105. "But wasn't he a good master?"
  106. A "good master?"
  107. There is no such thing as a good master.
  108. There is only worse and worser.
  109. And sometimes,

  110. we just pretend the past didn't happen.
  111. I can't tell you how many times
    I've heard people say,
  112. "It's hard to imagine slavery
    existing outside of the plantation South."
  113. No, it ain't.
  114. Slavery existed in every American colony,
  115. slavery existed in my home
    state of New York
  116. for 50 years after
    the American Revolution.
  117. So why do we do this?

  118. Why do we avoid confronting hard history?
  119. Literary performer
    and educator Regie Gibson
  120. had the truth of it when he said
  121. that our problem as Americans
    is we actually hate history.
  122. What we love
  123. is nostalgia.
  124. Nostalgia.
  125. We love stories about the past
  126. that make us feel comfortable
    about the present.
  127. But we can't keep doing this.
  128. George Santayana, the Spanish
    writer and philosopher,

  129. said that those who cannot
    remember the past
  130. are condemned to repeat it.
  131. Now as a historian, I spend a lot of time
    thinking about this very statement,
  132. and in a sense,
    it applies to us in America.
  133. But in a way, it doesn't.
  134. Because, inherent in this statement,
  135. is the notion that at some point,
  136. we stopped doing the things
  137. that have created inequality
    in the first place.
  138. And a harsh reality is,
  139. we haven't.
  140. Consider the racial wealth gap.

  141. Wealth is generated by accumulating
    resources in one generation
  142. and transferring them
    to subsequent generations.
  143. Median white household wealth
  144. is 147,000 dollars.
  145. Median Black household wealth
  146. is four thousand dollars.
  147. How do you explain this growing gap?
  148. Hard history.
  149. My great-great-grandfather
    was born enslaved

  150. in Jasper County, Georgia, in the 1850s.
  151. While enslaved, he was never allowed
    to accumulate anything,
  152. and he was emancipated with nothing.
  153. He was never compensated
    for the bricks that he made.
  154. My great-grandfather was also born
    in Jasper County, Georgia, in the 1870s,
  155. and he actually managed
    to accumulate a fair bit of land.
  156. But then, in nineteen-teens,
    Jim Crow took that land from him.
  157. And then Jim Crow took his life.
  158. My grandfather, Leonard Jeffries Senior,

  159. was born in Georgia,
  160. but there was nothing left for him there,
  161. so he actually grew up
    in Newark, New Jersey.
  162. And he spent most of his life
    working as a custodian.
  163. Job discrimination,
    segregated education and redlining
  164. kept him from ever breaking
    into the middle class.
  165. And so when he passed away
    in the early 1990s,
  166. he left to his two sons
  167. nothing more than a life-insurance policy
  168. that was barely enough
    to cover his funeral expenses.
  169. Now my parents, both social workers,

  170. they actually managed to purchase a home
  171. in the Crown Heights section
    of Brooklyn, New York, in 1980,
  172. for 55,000 dollars.
  173. Now Crown Heights, at the time,
    was an all-Black neighborhood,
  174. and it was kind of rough.
  175. My brother and I often went to sleep,
  176. by the mid-1980s,
  177. hearing gunshots.
  178. But my parents protected us,
  179. and my parents also held onto that home.
  180. For 40 years.
  181. And they're still there.
  182. But something quintessentially
    American happened

  183. about 20 years ago.
  184. About 20 years ago,
  185. they went to sleep one night
    in an all-Black neighborhood,
  186. and they woke up the next morning
  187. in an all-white neighborhood.
  188. (Laughter)

  189. And as a result of gentrification,

  190. not only did all their neighbors
    mysteriously disappear,
  191. but the value of their home
  192. skyrocketed.
  193. So that home that they purchased
    for 55,000 dollars --
  194. at 29 percent interest, by the way --
  195. that home is now worth
    30 times what they paid it for.
  196. Thirty times.
  197. Do the math with me.
  198. That's 55,000 times 30, carry the zeros --
  199. That's a lot of money.
  200. (Laughter)

  201. So that means,

  202. as their single and sole asset,
  203. when the time comes for them
    to pass that asset on to my brother and I,
  204. that will be the first time
    in my family's history,
  205. more than 150 years
    after the end of slavery,
  206. that there will be a meaningful
    transfer of wealth in my family.
  207. And it's not because family
    members haven't saved,
  208. haven't worked hard,
  209. haven't valued education.
  210. It's because of hard history.
  211. So when I think about the past,

  212. my concern about not remembering it
  213. is not that we will repeat it
    if we don't remember it.
  214. My concern, my fear
    is that if we don't remember the past,
  215. we will continue it.
  216. We will continue to do the things
  217. that created inequality and injustice
    in the first place.
  218. So what we must do
  219. is we must disrupt
    the continuum of hard history.
  220. And we can do this by seeking truth.

  221. By confronting hard history directly.
  222. By magnifying hard history
    for all the world to see.
  223. We can do this by speaking truth.
  224. Teachers teaching hard history
    to their students.
  225. To do anything else is to commit
    educational malpractice.
  226. And parents have to speak truth
    to their children,
  227. so that they understand
  228. where we have come from as a nation.
  229. And finally, we must all act on truth.
  230. Individually and collectively,
  231. publicly and privately,
  232. in small ways and in large ways.
  233. We must do the things that will bend
    the arc of the moral universe
  234. towards justice.
  235. To do nothing is to be complicit
  236. in inequality.
  237. History reminds us

  238. that we, as a nation,
  239. stand on the shoulders of political giants
  240. like James Madison.
  241. But hard history reminds us
    that we, as a nation,
  242. also stand on the shoulders
    of enslaved African American children.
  243. Little Black boys and little Black girls
  244. who, with their bare hands,
    made the bricks
  245. that serve as the foundation
    for this nation.
  246. And if we are serious
    about creating a fair and just society,
  247. then we would do well to remember that,
  248. and we would do well to remember them.
  249. Thank you.

  250. (Applause)