I know, I know, some of us love that movie and some hate it. I’m not going to write about the film. The 20-year anniversary documentary is playing, but either way, you are safe to read on.

Truth, fact, history. Lies, fiction, invention. Racism. Yes, I went down a rabbit hole of investigation and research.

The day started with a woman furious that I’d pointed out that Thomas Jefferson did not betray his living wife when he began his notorious relationship (and I will defend the use of that term “relationship” shortly) because his wife was already dead.

Sally Hemings was a teenager and a free wage-earning adult when she agreed to return from France with Thomas Jefferson as his sexual partner and a slave. Her brother was one of those who chose to remain in France where slavery did not exist and therefore Jefferson was not his owner. Sally Hemings made a verbal contract, and it is nearly impossible to overestimate the precarious position she faced because she was female, Black, young, and raised a slave in the US. Her powerlessness as a woman was typical in most of the world at that time, and that is true even today. 

American women in the nineteenth century could be legally beaten. They could be beaten bloody, locked up, raped, stolen from, or sent to work in deplorable conditions by their families without having legal recourse. Women were “jural minors” (legally children at a time when children were basically possessions, not people) unable to control property or their own bodies. (Unless a woman was rich and blessed with supportive men who might ensure kinder treatment. In that case it was a father or brother or husband who had the power to ensure decency.) American women did not have to right to divorce or to have custody of their own children if their husband divorced them. They could not vote, of course, but also they could not serve on a jury or testify in court or sign a contract. They could not register a patent in the new US or attend college. They had no more rights than a child, and children could also be legally beaten, sold into labor, used, and abandoned. Children were property more than people. 

It is likely that Sally Hemings’ grandmother, her mother, and her sisters all had children fathered by white men who did not care whether they agreed or not to have sex with them. “Hemings’s mother Elizabeth (Betty) was bi-racial, the child of Susannah, an African woman and Captain John Hemings. Sally’s father was John Wayles who was the father of Jefferson’s deceased wife Martha. Therefore, she was half-sister to Jefferson’s deceased wife and approximately three quarters white.” This is not to excuse Jefferson. No, he does not get a pass. Hemings was clearly in a no-win situation. Stay in France and be “free” but not speaking the language and poor, or return home to the promise of decent treatment but a slave? Was she groomed, as we would say today? Of course. So were most girls and women of her time and location. There were few places in the world where women were regarded as fully people by men in power two hundred years ago. Preachers argued about whether women had souls into the nineteenth century. Abigail Adams urged her husband to “consider the ladies” in 1775 but he did not. Women actually had the right to vote in some places before the Constitution. Landed, moneyed white women could vote, that is, but they lost that right. Yes, we went backwards with our “We the People.” [Review the voting rights of western states, and you will find that many offered the vote to women decades before the nation.]

Further, Jefferson was a bad plantation manager which is the most likely reason his children were not freed during his lifetime. Legally, he could not afford to do it. [Fine for George Washington to free slaves after he died—he had all that money from his wife, Martha. And don’t get me started on Hamilton.] Jefferson was too often away from home and heavily in debt when he died. But at least one of Hemings’ sons ran and was not pursued … It was illegal for Jefferson to fail to track his son. He allowed property to flee to another state, value he owed his creditors. [All this mess from a “father of our country” but Social Studies teachers should be assigning Thomas Paine’s writing, though almost no one does anymore. Paine was regarded at the time as our nation’s parent, and he never owned slaves.] Our history is messy; people are complicated.

“I long to hear that you have declared an independency. And, by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. … Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands.”


How about Margaret Garner? Hers was the case that triggered Toni Morrison to write her novel Beloved. In order to try a mother for murdering her child, she would have to be a person under the law and her child would be a person, and the courts of that time refused to grant even that. Margaret Garner killed as the only way to protect her child from the abuses of slavery, while the courts refused to call her a person or her child’s murder more than destruction of property in 1856. Slavery was a grotesque, egregious, unwarrantable usurpation of our most basic humanity. Plenty of people understood that. Nevertheless, while living as a poor child or woman was better than slavery, it was not enough better.

Plenty of people recognized this even while Garner was dying in prison.

And then this morning I read a review of a lesser-known Kipling children’s book. The illustrations of the original were by Arthur Rackham, and as I was commenting on a review that I hoped the reader had seen those illustrations, I noted “White Man’s Burden” off to the side of my Goodreads page. Oh, dear. I knew. Kipling, at best, could be said to share the typical issues of an upper class white British male. That’s what’s called “euphemism.”

Because really, it’s worse than that. So I went there too.

One review of that awful poem insisted that people who defend the poem by claiming it’s sarcasm, are absolutely wrong. I’d agree. But it’s not sarcasm the defenders should claim, it’s satire—social criticism. Still absolutely wrong. We could only wish. It really is as racist as it sounds.

The blurb at the the top of “The White Man’s Burden” page: “In recent years, it has garnered a reputation as controversial due to changing perspectives on colonialism and British imperialism.” “Controversial”? “Changing”? No, it’s not that complicated. Clearly racist and an example of entitled upperclass white-guy thinking. Claiming this appalling abusive language as merely a recent observation is particularly offensive, since many people would have recognized Kipling’s thesis for the offensive diatribe it is, even at the time it was written. The “changing perspectives” would have to be from those entitled white-guys. 

Another review found “[t]he racism and imperialism is nauseating to my modern sensibilities but I don’t think this makes Kipling a monster or evil. Tolerant, non-imperialists were the oddity of the times so it’s a bit unfair to hold historical persons to modern morals.” [Okay, we’ll agree not “monster.” Evil? Just wrong?] Nevertheless it would have been and was “nauseating” to the sensibilities of most of the world at the time it was written. Most of the world not being white and capitalist, wealthy and male, not even then.

But I can still love most of The Jungle Book, okay? Kipling did not overcome the bigotry of his time, but to be fair, few do. I only wish he hadn’t been so effective at promoting that bigotry.

Can we judge historical works by current standards? Of course we can, and we should.

[I understand I am not supposed to “judge” but then the people who urge that I not judge are judging, aren’t they?]

As another example, I do not fail to notice nor do I forgive the racism and sexism in Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It. If you’ve only seen the film, be certain those issues are only a whisper. Richard Friedenberg cleaned the bigotry (mostly) from his screenplay, presumedly with the support of Director Robert Redford. In his memoir, Norman and his brother throw a naked woman from their car in the middle of nowhere and kick her because they cannot kick the white man about to marry into the family and the woman is a Native person. Or not a person, but someone they are allowed to kick. Yes, disgusting. Yes, appalling, and I will defend any person’s right to refuse to read Maclean’s work for that reason. But, I will tell you, the novella is still beautiful in places. The fly fishing, the lines on the last page used in a voice-over by Maclean himself in the film. I do not have to pretend, not even to myself, that the author was not blindly bigoted and still struggling to come to grips with unacknowledged guilt about the death of his brother, while I admire what beauty he witnessed and put down on the page for readers to share. I can see all of it.

The next time you read someone saying we should not apply today’s moral judgement on people of the past, consider whose judgement we’re talking about now and then. Jefferson was within his legal rights to rape and otherwise abuse his property but chose to ask for permission and contract and do his best to make a fair exchange. In his day, surely slaves had other notions about what was fair. Surely women did too. Maclean’s racism was typical among white Montanans in his day. Ask Native peoples what they thought of it then. The antisemitism and virulent anti-Catholicism and misogyny in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn goes right over the heads of most young readers even today. The stereotypes in One Flew Over the Cook’s Nest [dear Lord, a wooden Indian?] were, according to the author, deliberate. I wonder how I am supposed to forgive that.

You know how they say no one is perfect? No one is. [Unless you agree with Gary, who quotes Stabler in Law and Order, “except Jesus.]”

We are not perfect, but we can be better. We can recognize the failures of the past, the lies and deceit we practice on one another. Right now we can face the certainty of treason and climate change while recognizing how lies deny both and result in potential catastrophe for our country and for our species on this planet.

We can do better, I think, than close a blind eye to truth while swaddling ourselves in self-interest, outrage, paranoia, and comfortable lies. As if past mistakes do not continue to haunt.

We can try to find justice, by any standard, and for all.

The rain and wind were (mostly) on pause for a few minutes this morning. But even my eyebrows are windblown! I had to put this photo up because Gary almost never willingly smiles in photos.

My hair generally curves neatly under without more than a good brushing after my shower. I cut it myself, have not worn make-up much in the last twenty or thirty years. The money I have saved not buying mascara or lipstick and not paying for haircuts went to yarn. 😉

Did I share our good news? We tested negative again yesterday, five and six days after exposure to covid. We will test again at least once.

13 thoughts on “LOVE ACTUALLY

  1. Wow, that’s a lot to swallow without chewing as we wait for December to lower the boom. But I know where the spark came from that burns this fire at least. These saids being said must be thought of and said and shared for, not to, we be doomed. The pit of hell for as long as the wrongs matter as wrong and the difference all too painfully obvious.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Aren’t you sweet! Thank you. Saying nice things about a haircut was on a list of personal rules from a fictional character that I used to share with students when I assigned a creed to my class. It included things to do, things you would never do, ridiculous things you nevertheless believe, and things you don’t believe. I always wrote/modeled that I would never eat raw chicken as one thing I would never do. my students always said, Eeuw! It made them laugh and got them started.

      Liked by 1 person

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