The “Others”



~Oh let us turn our thoughts today to Martin Luther King…

James Taylor’s “Shed a Little Light” looped in my mind on MLK Day as we drove through the Smoky’s and into the Blue Ridge Mountains and later as the full moon rose over the Shenandoah Valley, it’s crimson glow creating a silhouette of the mountains and the farms and the fences.

~And recognize that there are ties between us
All men and women, living on the earth…

Mid-day, we turned off the highway to visit a place I’d always wanted to see–Monticello–home of this nation’s 3rd president, he who authored the Declaration of Independence and the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, two of three things he had inscribed on his tombstone.

~Ties of hope and love, sister and brotherhood…

I hadn’t realized until we arrived at the sign at the foot of Monticello that it been designated a United Nations World Heritage Site (the only presidential home to be so) and I hadn’t realized how excited I was to visit the site, pressed into the back of the nickel, until we wound up the road and I began to make the sound of a horse, as if I was arriving in the 1700s (and who knows, maybe one of my ancestors did given that my great-grandmother’s people were early settlers in the mid-Atlantic, from Virginia to Delaware, and shared the surname: Jefferson.)

~That we are bound together
With a desire to see the world become
A place in which our children can grow free and strong…

“Are there any questions?” said our tour guide, as we moved from the front steps and into the foyer where above us hung a set of elk antlers–a gift from none other than Lewis and Clark–who Jefferson sent across this continent.

I raised my hand.

“Do you feel any different leading this tour on Martin Luther King Day than you would on any other day?”

Our tour guide was an elder white man, and I was giving voice to my own reservations, even while I was encouraged to see people of color among us in a group of law students, mostly female, from Richmond University.

~We are bound together by the task that stands before us
And the road that lies ahead, we are bound then we are bound…

Among the students was the spouse of their professor, who herself had been a professor at the University of Virginia, founded by Jefferson (the third item to be inscribed on his tombstone.) She once served on the African-American Advisory Committee at Monticello so that it might better represent the realities and lives at the plantation that had long been ignored.

~Oh let us turn our thoughts today to Martin Luther King…

Jefferson was one of the largest slave owners in the area. He bought, sold, inherited, bequeathed and “gave away” 607 human beings–men, women and children–including those auctioned off after his death to pay his debts—husbands, wives, children & grandchildren scattered among 8 different purchasers–across the nation he lead and helped form.

~And recognize that there are ties between us
All men and women, living on the earth

Ties of hope and love, sister and brotherhood…

Our tour continued into Jefferson’s study and into his bedroom and parlor, each space offering another glimpse into his astounding capacity.

~That we are bound together
With a desire to see the world become
A place in which our children can grow free and strong…

The painful contradictions of Jefferson and Monticello reminded me of our nation, while my unexpected tears spoke to the gift of my own vulnerability made transparent by the current president and the #metoo movement that gave voice what it is to be female, to be “other,” in this great nation.

~We are bound together by the task that stands before us
And the road that lies ahead, we are bound then we are bound…

Turning to face the contradictions of our nation’s past and present, sheds light on the path forward.

~Can’t get no light from a dollar bill.
Don’t give me no light from a tv screen.
When I open my eyes,
I want to drink my fill
From the well on the hill.

In the end, visiting Monticello on Martin Luther King Day was a potent exploration of this nation’s strengths and contradictions particularly as we spent a good chunk of our visit beneath the house in the corridors where the slaves labored on Jefferson’s behalf.

~And recognize that there are ties between us
All men and women, living on the earth…

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