Undoing Jefferson: Moral Education and Theological Formation

Undoing Jefferson: Moral Education and Theological Formation

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This summer I went through a rite of passage for many parents, I took my child on several college tours. My oldest daughter, Njeri, is a rising senior at Jordan High School in Durham, North Carolina. We decided to travel across part of the country making stops at several colleges.

Dr. Willie James Jennings
Associate Professor of Theology and
Black Church Studies
Duke Divinity School

This summer I went through a rite of passage for many parents, I took my child on several college tours. My oldest daughter, Njeri, is a rising senior at Jordan High School in Durham, North Carolina. We decided to travel across part of the country making stops at several colleges. The first stop we made on our educational pilgrimage was William and Mary, a beautiful school nestled on lush grounds in the historic town of Williamsburg, Virginia. The admissions presentation was excellent and the tour guide was wonderful. As we were taking the tour the tour guide brought us to a statue of Thomas Jefferson placed near the center of the campus. I have seen pictures and statues of Jefferson before (I have been on the campus of University of Virginia), but I was stunned by this statue.

This summer I went through a rite of passage for many parents, I took my child on several college tours. My oldest daughter, Njeri, is a rising senior at Jordan High School in Durham, North Carolina. We decided to travel across part of the country making stops at several colleges. The first stop we made on our educational pilgrimage was William and Mary, a beautiful school nestled on lush grounds in the historic town of Williamsburg, Virginia. The admissions presentation was excellent and the tour guide was wonderful. As we were taking the tour the tour guide brought us to a statue of Thomas Jefferson placed near the center of the campus. I have seen pictures and statues of Jefferson before (I have been on the campus of University of Virginia), but I was stunned by this statue.

What I found striking in this pose was not the classic stance, but the sense of animation it expresses. This is Jefferson full of youthful energy, abounding in confidence and self assurance, looking out on the world as though it holds only possessive possibilities for him. The tour guide told us the story of this statue, its relation to the University of Virginia and the significance of its direction. Jefferson is looking in the opposite direction of the University of Virginia (the school he founded) and toward what is now the Sir Christopher Wren Building and William and Mary (the school that formed him). This statue is set perfectly at the height of onlookers. It is just slightly higher than the average height so that only fairly tall people would look Jefferson in the eyes as they stand next to him. But to stand next to the statue is both inspiring and a bit intimidating, calling its observers to rise to the sight of Jefferson and look out on the world with him, like him.

The statue is an example of pedagogical genius. Here students have a young version of a founding father, one who is like them but not like them, one who they know very well in terms of what he became but there in the statue captured in his becoming. Jefferson in this moment is a possibility, just like the students are possibilities, for growth, for significance, for greatness.

But as I stood there looking at this perfect statue of Jefferson, I kept thinking about a brilliant book I have been reading by Annette Gordon-Reed, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family. (New York: W.W. Norton, 2008) This fabulous book builds on her earlier fine work, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (University of Virginia Press, 1998) which gives a powerful account of the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and his slave concubine, Sally Hemings. Gordon-Reed in The Hemingses of Monticello gives us not only a full picture of the Hemings family living, breathing, moving inside the colonial world, but she also gives us a glimpse of what it might have been like for Sally Hemings to be caught inside the life of Thomas Jefferson. What must life have been like for this woman whose life of bondage encompassed the complexities of love and desire, personal agency and social control, hope and longing, chattel dependence and familial belonging? Gordon-Reed gently explores this question with satisfying results but what I find so intriguing about this treatment of the Sally Heming-Thomas Jefferson relationship within the wider context of their familial network is the way the subjective reality of Jefferson the man shapes so much of Sally’s life and that of her family. Gordon-Reed notes this.

The personal Jefferson had dominated the lives of the Hemingses. Their family connections to him, first through his wife and John Wayles and then the connections he created on his own with Sally Hemings, shaped the course of the family’s existence. (Hemingses of Monticello, 654)

Jefferson’s life, as Gordon-Reed shows, is not merely the controlling center of Sally Hemings’ life, but is far more the house inside of which she explores her own identity, measures her own life span, and gauges her own significance. This would not be a unique feature of mulatto slave concubines, because in many ways such one-sidedness marked the lives of many married colonial women, although with arguably far less intensity than a female slave. What I wondered about as I stood looking at the Jefferson statue on the grounds of William and Mary was the connection between an educational process shaped in privilege and performed under the legacy of colonial power and the capacity to live a life that swallows up the lives of others. I wondered about the connection between intellectual prowess and ambition and a consuming narcissism that unrelentingly turns peoples into objects for self-edification, or actors in the play of a single life. Gordon-Reed notes the trajectory bound to Jefferson’s education.

Unlike some other sons of the planter class, Jefferson was not sent to study in England, but received the best education that Virginia could offer, and he made the most of it. Ambitious, brilliant, and hardworking a young man as he was, he could not have foreseen the heights to which he would rise, because those ‘heights’ did not exist. Although it was clear by the time he fixed his eye on Marth Wayles Skelton [his future wife] that trouble between Virginia and the mother country loomed on the horizon, he could not have imagined how the struggle would turn out and the role that he would play in it. Even without knowing that, he had every reason to believe in the brightness of his future. (Hemingses of Monticello, 95)

She lists characteristics sought for in every would-be college or graduate student and coupled with a sincere belief in a purposeful future makes such a student absolutely attractive. Yet when played out against the backdrop of a colonial world in which the trajectory of Jefferson’s greatness included the natural order of slavery, then the question of connection becomes acute. It is not a simple question of whether ambition breeds conceit, arrogance, chauvinism, and so forth. The question in America is much deeper than such a facile moral query. The question is whether we have in place educational ecologies strong enough, discerning enough, humble enough to turn ambition, brilliance, and industry toward not simply that nebulous idea of “the common good” but toward ways of life that resist using people for our self-edification or as utilities for our life-projects.

This is an urgent question given our lives in an America that consumes vast quantities of the world’s natural resources, pollutes on a massive scale, and facilitates a global financial system that can and often does adversely affected multiple economies and societies by our consumptive and economic practices. The issue here is how we overcome an imaginative practice to see the world from within a center-periphery, top-bottom frame such that the peoples of the world become simply responding subjects and objects for consumption. As a theologian and a seminary professor I have marvelous historic and contemporary voices that press me to see this problem and equally important that stands as a gracious stumbling block toward recreating the Jeffersonian trajectory – from great student to great leader and slave master. The fact that slavery ended does not mean that the Jeffersonian trajectory has ended, indeed, the truth is we are in a struggle in theological institutions, in colleges, and in universities to resists patterns of intellectual framing that deposits peoples of color, and indigenous peoples inside visions of utility for the privileged.

The way I know to undo the Jeffersonian trajectory, that is, to undo the easy slide from youthful power, privilege, and promise to educated and refined narcissist is to turn the sights of young people toward another image, of a suffering servant whose pedagogy for greatness announced a troubling reversal.

Mark 10:42-45 42 So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

This gospel text provides no easy answer. It does however open up a space inside of which we can bring a whole new set of questions not only to the politics of admission to institutions of higher education but also curriculums old and revered or new and celebrated regarding the aim of their education. Equally crucial, this text with its radical placement of greatness inside of service and service itself now defined by the body of Jesus presses on us in theological education the serious demand that we display how our educational ecologies tightly bind ambition, talent, and productivity to servant life in Jesus’s name. I fear that too many theological institutions yet live comfortably inside pedagogical trajectories more suited to create slave masters.

All educational programs are subject to their times. So Jefferson’s formation would inevitably reflect the sensibilities of slaveholding society. But the more decisive formation at stake here are the residual echoes of the slave master class yet at work in our educational formation processes, especially theological education. You can hear such echoes in perspectives that look out on the world paternalistically and in constant evaluation of other peoples’ abilities to express what we perceive as “the signs of civilization.” Jefferson himself shows us this sensibility in his comments on African intellectual ability in his Notes on the State of Virginia, where he exposes this evaluative imperialism:

Religion indeed has produced a Phyllis Whately [sic]; but it could not produce a poet…” “[Ignatius Sancho] has approached nearer to merit in composition… [T]hough we admit him to the first place among those of his own colour who have presented themselves to the public judgment, yet when we compare him with writers of the race among whom he lived, and particularly with the epistolary class, in which he has taken his own stand, we are compelled to enroll him at the bottom of the column.*

Yet more comprehensively, the residual of the slave master class shows itself in the insensitivity to the asymmetrical social order of things. For so many Christians in the world, Western Christianity forms the house they must live in and negotiate. Like the Hemingses with Jefferson, so too they must find a way forward, shaping their lives with some sense of integrity and independence, even though so much of their lives are profoundly determined by what happens in America and the other G8 countries.

How can an educational process woven inside western privilege, power, and promise thwart the affects of our asymmetrical social order and the insensitivity to the voices of those who have little leverage to affect any aspect of our ways of life, those who in fact more often than not stand in relation to us as servants? The gospel passage opens up to us a basic reversal that might guide our pedagogy. It suggests we form servants. Indeed if the insight of the passage where taken seriously then the statue that might adorn a campus like William and Mary, or maybe more appropriately, a seminary campus, would not be a statue of Jefferson, important though he be for the formation of America, but a statue of Sally Hemings.

A statue of Sally Hemings would say something very different to a talented, ambitious, industrious first year student whether coming to college or seminary. It would be an invitation to begin discerning the complex life of a servant. It would open up the possibility of asking what does it mean to be in a world that you did not create but in which you must find love, joy, peace, and most importantly a sense of calling? It would immediately raise the thorny question of what does it mean to be in service to others, not by force, but by choice. Clearly, such a question would yield good healthy conversations about race, class, gender, sexuality, power, intimacy and so forth. Only with such an image in front of us and the questions it might generate may we actually have the kind of educational process that sets our sights beyond Thomas Jefferson.

*Cited in Vincent Carretta, ed., Unchained Voices: An Anthology of Black Authors in the English-Speaking Word of the 18th Century (Kentucky: University of Kentucky Press, 2004), 12.

**Painting: Sally Hemings (Thomas Jefferson) All the Presidents’ Girls 2009, Oil on paper 50 x 40 cm

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