- Excavating the Roots Beneath Our Feet in the Early American Survey Course
On August 11, 2017, a group of white supremacists wielding torches marched to show their opposition to Charlottesville, Virginia's plans to remove a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. Under the gaze of a statute of the University of Virginia's founder, Thomas Jefferson, the group shouted racist and nationalist epithets as they moved in the darkness of night. The next day, counterprotestors met the group and violence ensued, leading to numerous injuries and the murder of Heather Heyer. The violence that erupted in Charlottesville has deep roots seeping through the history of this nation, and the plant sprung from these roots continues to bear fruit. Thinking about this deep-seeded history, the conflicts that shape us today coalesce within the writings and responses to Thomas Jefferson, whom Ibram X. Kendi calls "a defender of the freedom to oppress and the freedom from oppression."
Jefferson had a major hand in constructing the foundation of this nation, and as a southerner, he relied on the labor of enslaved individuals to construct both his own estate and the country. Thus, discussions about the South as a space of contention have been going on long before the twenty-first century and the unrest in Ferguson and Charleston and Charlottesville. In fact, they have not been solely centered in the South; they encompass the entire nation. Teaching in the South, these are aspects that I want my students to understand. Taking cues from Kenneth Burke and Gerald Graff, I organize my course around conversations and conflicts. [End Page 203] Writing about conflicts in curriculum, Graff notes that "when students are exposed to disparate assumptions that never engage one another, they may not even recognize that these assumptions are in conflict" (67–68). Structuring the American literature survey course through 1865 around conversations and conflicts, specifically between authors such as Jefferson and David Walker, helps students to grasp that we can, and should, draw from the literature of the period to help us better understand the historical underpinnings of white supremacy. These underpinnings buttress the systemic systems of oppression that encompass our nation, not just the geographic boundaries of the South, as we see in the murders of Stephon Clark in Sacramento, Antwon Rose in Pittsburgh, and Tamir Rice in Cleveland. The conversations and conflicts that students encounter in my course illuminate for students how the past has led to the construction of our own cultural moment when racial incidents appear on our news feeds daily.
When I ask students, at the beginning of the semester, whom they look forward to reading and learning more about, the majority of them say Jefferson. Partly for this reason, I always begin by having students read sections of David Walker's Appeal … to the Coloured Citizens of the World (1829) alongside excerpts from Thomas Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia (1784). I do this because throughout his Appeal Walker directly confronts the racist rhetoric of Jefferson, specifically the thoughts that Jefferson espoused in Notes. Jefferson writes, for example, "I advance it, therefore, as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to whites in the endowments of both body and mind" (155). Walker takes Jefferson's "suspicion" to task, asking, "Has Mr. Jefferson declared to the world, that we are inferior to the whites, both in the endowments of our bodies and of minds?" (12).
Walker's argument is more significant than merely refuting Jefferson's ideas because Jefferson's ideas influenced others as well. Walker makes a note of this later in "Article I" when he solicits his readers "to buy a copy of Mr. Jefferson's 'Notes on Virginia,' and put it in the hand of [their] son[s]" (17). By stating this, Walker does not say that Jefferson's ideas are valid and correct; instead, he asserts that in order to refute claims like those made by Jefferson about the supposed inferiority of blacks, one must know what the other side says. Walker also indicates the power of the printed word and its ability...