Boyd Matheson’s recent column was troubling to me (“Poking holes in the past is cowardly. Writing the future requires courage,” July 23). I agree that “confronting the whole of our history, warts and all, is vital.” However, I disagree strongly with his statement that “poking holes in heroes from the past … doesn’t require much moral fiber, rigorous research or even open-mindedness.” In fact, taking a clear-eyed view of our history requires a great deal of rigorous research, moral fiber and courage.
For example, historical and genealogical records and DNA analysis confirm that Thomas Jefferson was the father of at least one and likely all of the children of Sally Hemings, a woman who was enslaved at Monticello. The exploitative nature of this relationship certainly illustrates the contradictions between freedom and oppression that have existed from the very beginning of our republic.
Acknowledging these facts does not cancel Jefferson’s story or his impressive accomplishments. But failing to deal with these facts as they are could cancel our own impact on the future. We cannot hope to progress as a nation if we insist on excusing oppression or papering over past or present messy realities in order to preserve our fragile egos. When oppressed people cry out in pain, we should listen and act, not explain why their pain isn’t our fault and why they really shouldn’t feel that way in the first place. This painful work is what will finally help our nation fulfill the promise of its founding; it is anything but cowardly.