I've long avoided saying those words exactly that way -- most recently I caught myself saying, "having sex with" to refer to what Jefferson did to Sally Hemings -- for the sake of white people.
My impulse to euphemize is symptomatic of a broader struggle the country is having with the tendency to speak less than truthfully for fear of offending those unwilling, or incapable, of facing realities that make them uncomfortable.
That's why there is a cacophony of calls for "peace" and "unity" and "can we all just get along," even if it means untruths -- or partial truths -- prevail.
That's why Dr. Ben Carson
could proclaim that slaves were "immigrants" and Betsy DeVos
could claim that Historically Black Colleges and Universities were pioneers of "school choice." These moments are evidence of our tendency to paper over the ugly in our history -- especially when that ugly made black people the victims, not the perpetrators, of violence and oppression.
Carson and DeVos left out the most important context for their claims, but so did I, even though I did it for what felt like a good reason at the time. I didn't want to offend white people by calling an American hero a hypocrite, or a slave-owning serial rapist, even though there is no other accurate way to describe what happened between Sally Hemings and Jefferson.
Jefferson (legally) owned her. He had final say over if she would be whipped, the manner in which she could worship the god of her choosing -- and the bed where she laid her head. Those are not alternative facts. That's the truth. And yet I couldn't bring myself to say it plainly until two things converged recently, a story
in The Washington Post about how the fuller story about Hemings will be included in tours at Monticello, and the a political think piece, this time in The New York Times
, wondering if liberals' angry resistance to President Trump might be alienating potential allies.
I was taken aback seeing Hemings initially described in a headline
as Jefferson's mistress (the Post later changed the headline).
Hemings was not Jefferson's sidepiece. She was not his love interest. She was not in a relationship with him. She was a teenager who had lived in slavery for the first decade and a half of her life by the time Jefferson began raping her. To state this plain truth is to invite backlash from those who want their heroes unblemished, their history uncomplicated, challenges to their worldview few.
It's a similar line of thinking that now cautions "liberals" about not resisting Trump too fiercely, for fear that it might turn off fence-sitting Trump supporters.
"The Democratic Party has changed so much that I don't even recognize it," a woman told The New York Times in the piece I read. "These people are destroying our democracy. They are scarier to me than these Islamic terrorists. I feel absolutely disgusted with them and their antics. It strengthens people's resolve in wanting to support Trump. It really does."
She's a registered Democrat who voted for Bill Clinton twice and is among the supposedly persuadable. Tone down the opposition to Trump and tell her that neither she nor Trump is a racist, that her worldview, one which has her convinced Democrats are akin to Islamic terrorists, is not the problem and, poof! -- she'll decide to reconsider her support of a man who once proposed a Muslim ban and gave life to the bigotry of birtherism.
In the real world, things don't work that way, as I found out with my self-censorship about Jefferson. I avoided offense but helped hide a complex truth with which we still haven't fully grappled.
In the real world, people often make decisions for a variety of hard-to-define reasons, then justify those decisions after being challenged. Even if that wasn't the case, at some point truth must be prioritized over an avoidance of discomfort.
Many of those who support Trump happily adhere to that truth when it comes to those they don't like. Some, notably Rudy Giuliani
, are quick to argue the truth of Michael Brown's, Eric Garner's and Freddie Gray's imperfections, and the role those imperfections played in their deaths -- and the movement that sprang up in their wake.
When it comes to the truth of the harm already caused by the man they voted for -- or the Founding Father they love despite his repeated rape of a young slave girl -- it should be relegated to the background, if contended with at all.
Trump supporters spent months telling us they despised political correctness, the soft pedaling of hard reality. Now, if Carson and DeVos are any example, they are doing exactly that -- softening troubling history in order to make it all sound a little bit better.
They pledged allegiance to Trump because of his supposed straight talk. The rest of us should pledge allegiance to truth, even when it's unwelcome.