In September we had the good fortune to attend the national Human Ties conference in Charlottesville, Virginia, an impressive event with a dazzling array of talented speakers including Sir Salman Rushdie, Nikki Giovanni, Junot Diaz, Henry Louis Gates, Alice Waters, and many more. The event was an exploration of the humanities from all sides through the theme of Human Ties, in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
I have attended many conferences, but none quite like this one. Two events in particular stood out to me, the film screening of Six Months That Changed America: Freedom Riders, a documentary on the brave young men and women that traveled to the south on buses and trains to protest racial injustice. The second event was a trip to the Monticello home of President Thomas Jefferson. Both events challenged me to view and think about history in ways that I had not done so before, and underscored the importance of history in shaping the present, for better or worse.
It was shocking to see the full frontal ugliness of racial hatred in the Freedom Riders film, young college students, beaten, spit upon and screamed at by local citizens for riding a bus or sitting at a segregated lunch counter. Their bravery was unparalleled, and sent a message to the highest office in the land, President Kennedy. We were graced with the presence of three freedom riders that evening. They made us laugh and cry as they recounted leaving home, unsure that they would return. They knew that they would likely be beaten, jailed or even killed. It was astonishing to hear that 19 year olds completed their last will and testaments the night before getting on the bus. How is it that a nation could so easily discount the value of human lives because their skin was a different hue? How is it that the youngest of us, could risk all, in pursuit of equality for brothers they knew to be equal in the eyes of god and humanity. There was no way to view this dark past, without making connections to the present. We have come too far to turn back. It gave me new found appreciation for young people brave enough to protest injustice today, undeterred by critics who do not experience the degradation and fear that they experience daily.
The trip to Monticello and tour of the plantation of Thomas Jefferson was equally unsettling to say the least. It embodied the tension between creed and deed, espoused values reflected in our constitution of liberty, freedom and justice, by a man who owned 600 slaves. Descendants of Jefferson were present at the event and stood to be recognized. They were the product of rape and incarceration. It was hard to revere and respect Jefferson after seeing the slave quarters and the unmarked graves of those who labored for 25 years to feed, dress and support his family, but did not merit a head stone. The history of Jefferson and his legacy are being revisited, through the lens of those not spoken for, and by talented scholars who recognize that the complete history of our nation has not yet been told. For this I am truly grateful, the power of the humanities to hold up a light, so that the full breadth of the human experience can be seen and not forgotten.
Brenda Thomson, Executive Director
Photo is of Junot Diaz at the Human Ties Conference September 2016.