I owe all my readers an apology. The Port Rail from last week, Sunday, Jan. 7, 2018, “Breaking News: Thomas Jefferson Expelled from American History,” was composed in the spirit of Southern humorist Lewis Grizzard, and by that I meant that I made up much of it to entertain us with a bit of Grizzard-inspired humor.
I also love to read Dave Barry, Will Rogers, and Mark Twain, to name three of America’s great essayists, writers, and humorists, and I thought I’d invoke some of their spirits. In doing so, I convinced many of you that my “fake news” was indeed real, not invented.
Please rest at ease. Thomas Jefferson has not been removed from American history textbooks. Washington, D. C. is not going to be renamed. And Christopher Columbus’s statue on Columbus Circle in New York City is still there as far as I know.
What I didn’t anticipate is that with so much “fake news” floating around one can hardly tell what is true and what is not any more.
So, I apologize. I threw in enough truth, about reparations, about tearing down Robert E. Lee statues–that episode did happen at Duke University, for example–, that I threw off many of you. As far as I know, the descendants of Thomas Jefferson’s families—those born to Jefferson and his wife Martha and those born to Jefferson and Sally Hemings—still get together occasionally at Monticello, his home estate, to celebrate their common ancestry.
And Jefferson freed all his six children born to Sally Hemings as they came of age, and she too was freed the last nine years of her life, living in Charlottesville, Virginia with her two younger sons. One can certainly label Jefferson anything you want, but it seems to me he enjoyed a warm, and certainly productive, family with Sally.
Rewriting or even erasing one’s history is always a dangerous business. Removing Robert E. Lee’s statues from Southern towns and cities might satisfy some urge to “get even,” but it doesn’t change what happened. If you don’t like what happened, then at least come to grips with it. Who could possibly like the terrible institution that plantation slavery became in the Americas, from the cotton fields of Alabama to the sugar plantations of Brazil? But it happened. Removing statues is not going to change it. Even more important, learn from the past. If we don’t we are apt to repeat it.
Let’s look at some other example of truly ugly history. How about the German people under Nazi leadership—think Adolph Hitler—from the 1920s through the end of World War II in 1945. Hitler ordered the extermination of the Jewish people in Germany, and, as the Nazi military juggernaut strode through Europe, among all the captured nations as well. Six million Jews were killed, either gassed in the extermination rooms (disguised as decontamination rooms) of concentration camps, starved to death, or simply shot. This was the “final solution.”
At the end of the war, the Allies (England, France, the Soviet Union, and the U. S.) held war criminal trials and executed a few German leaders as war criminals.
This is ugly stuff. One would think the Germans of today would want to push this history down into obscurity, forget it ever happened. And some rabid defenders of German nationalism have even claimed the Holocaust is a fabrication to besmirch the German people and edify Jews.
But, it happened. It was an example of genocide—the attempt to destroy a people—that still goes on today in places like the Balkans and Africa. And the Arab states, especially Iran, pledge to destroy Israel if they can ever get their nuclear weapons in the air on missiles.
Returning to us, we cannot simply erase our past and claim it was all too ugly, filled with all the “ists” and “obes” that we hate, from racists to misogynists to homophobes. And you can add white supremacists, black panthers and their modern descendants, and dozens of others defending their principles and attacking those who oppose them. They exist now, and they existed in the past.
Can we ever move beyond the “realities” of the human condition? Yes, but that for another day. I write today as an historian, whose job is to tell the truth about the past, and I apologize for misleading you in my attempt to write with the wit and wisdom of such American greats like Mark Twain and Will Rogers. George and Thomas are well in Washington, D.C. Promise, at least for now.
Pubished as “I Apologize: Last Week’s Column was ‘Fake News‘” in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday, Jan. 14, 2018.