If you visit the Tower of London, the great fortress first built by William the Conqueror as a means to impose his rule on the city, you’ll see the glittering Crown Jewels that symbolize the British monarchy.
You’ll see the Yeoman Warders, popularly known as the Beefeaters, the guards in their bright uniforms. You’ll see the ravens that are kept at the Tower because tradition holds if there is no raven present, the kingdom will fall.
These are all colorful things that no tourist would want to miss. But you’ll also see — and hear guides talk at length about — Tower Hill. That’s the spot of greenery that once ran red with blood and gore. That’s where the executions took place. The youngest person decapitated there was a 16-year-old girl whose only crime was to be caught up in the politics of grasping, scheming men. Lady Jane Grey was proclaimed queen for nine tumultuous days in 1553 until the politics turned against her. Instead, she was condemned to be burned alive or beheaded “as the queen pleases.” By then, the queen was Queen Mary and Queen Mary was pleased to have a teenage girl’s head chopped off with an axe.
There’s a reason one entrance is called Traitor’s Gate. People were tortured in the Tower. People died here. The teenaged Lady Jane Grey might have been the youngest to be formally executed, but she was not the youngest to die here. That dubious distinction likely belongs to the nephews of Richard III, who were just 12 and 9 when their uncle dispatched them to the tower — supposedly for their safekeeping but more likely to safeguard his dubious claim to the throne.
You’ll hear about all this if you visit the Tower. Why are we telling you this? The point is that Great Britain does not shy away from the darker parts of its own history — the bloody religious conflicts that animated its politics for centuries. So what then are we to make of Americans who visit Southern plantations and are offended — yes, offended — that the tour guides dare to talk about slavery?
The Washington Post recently reported about this phenomenon. It began:
A Monticello tour guide was explaining how enslaved people built, planted and tended a terrace of vegetables at Thomas Jefferson’s estate earlier this summer when a woman interrupted to share her annoyance.
”Why are you talking about that?” she demanded, according to Gary Sandling, vice president of Monticello’s visitor programs and services. “You should be talking about the plants.”
We suggest this hyper-sensitive visitor steer clear of the musical “Hamilton” then because there’s one scene where the Hamilton character confronts Thomas Jefferson:
A civics lesson from a slaver, hey neighbor
Your debts are paid ‘cause you don’t pay for labor
“We plant seeds in the South. We create.” Yeah, keep ranting
We know who’s really doing the planting
Why are some visitors visiting these grand Southern houses so upset to hear about slavery? Those houses didn’t exactly build themselves.
The tourists who get upset at the mention of slavery — at Monticello, at Colonial Williamsburg, at lots of other Southern historic sites —are a new thing only because mention of slavery is relatively new. Once tour guides only talked obliquely about “Mr. Jefferson’s people.” Now they call the practice by its actual name. And for some reason people are getting upset. The Post reports: “Visitor reviews of Monticello on travel site TripAdvisor are overwhelmingly positive. But the negative comments are increasingly likely to blast the amount of time devoted to slavery, decrying ‘political correctness’ and the bashing of a giant of American history. Two years ago, only a couple of the poor reviews mentioned slavery. This year, almost all of them do.”
To be fair, slavery — and its legacy — is a lot more recent to the United States than medieval torture chambers are to Great Britain. Still, why are some people so touchy? Aren’t Americans supposed to be tough? Some are apparently not tough enough to deal with their own nation’s history. Do we need to set aside a “safe space” out in the garden for those who are triggered by mention of slavery? Sorry —doesn’t sound like the garden at Monticello is a good place for that. Or anyplace at Monticello, actually.
Reality check, people: Slavery happened. Imagine hearing about Jefferson without mention of his role in writing the Declaration of Independence. That would certainly give you an incomplete picture of the man, right? So does not hearing about his enslavement of fellow human beings. Some people like their politics delivered in neat, short sound bites. Unfortunately, history is a lot more complicated.
Deal with it.
Unfortunately, most of our formal history lessons have not. Those of us who grew up in Virginia were, quite frankly, taught propaganda and sometimes outright lies about our history. One of the many things that Linwood Holton should get credit for during his governorship (1970-1974) is banishing the 1950s-era textbooks that whitewashed the more uncomfortable parts of Virginia’s racial history. If some Virginians of a certain age are upset by what they’re learning now at Monticello and Colonial Williamsburg and elsewhere, they really should be upset at why they didn’t learn those things in school. More specifically, they should be upset with the state’s political establishment of the ’40s and ’50s that made a deliberate point of trying to brainwash them. Of course, it’s hard to go back now and demand accountability from politicians who are long since gone, but it’s useful to know what really happened.
Slavery happened; so did this 20th century political indoctrination that wasn’t really that much different than the types of political indoctrination that took place behind the Iron Curtain. The people of Eastern Europe eventually threw off communism. They understand exactly what had been done to them. Why are Americans so slow in understanding that we were also indoctrinated? Don’t believe us? Then turn to Chapter 29 of the seventh grade Virginia history textbook that was taught into the early ’70s. It’s the chapter on slavery. The lead illustration shows a well-dressed white man shaking hands with a well-dressed black man, who is smiling as if he’s being welcomed into the firm as a junior partner.
If you believe that’s how things were, then we highly recommend a trip to Monticello because you need to learn a lot more than just about the plants.