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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
The Art of the Sentence: Thomas Jefferson
I was still a teenager when Thomas Jefferson broke my heart. It happened in a single sentence; a permanent break. The moment came while I was reading Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson’s famous 1781 treatise. In it, the titian-haired founding father holds forth on everything from the varieties of apples cultivated in Virginia orchards to the annual expenses needed to run the general assembly.
Jefferson’s ravenous prose opens all of Virginia to our view, stretching back to prehistoric time. Virginia’s mammoths—of which only skeletal evidence remains—are just as present for Jefferson as the juniper and black oak taking root outside his window. “Such is the economy of nature,” he observes in Query VI, “that no instance can be produced, of her having permitted any one race of her animals to become extinct; of her having formed any link in her great work so weak as to be broken.”
The sentence I’ve taken from Query XIV displays a melodic glitteriness that’s as damning as it is beautiful. Consider the four anapests which govern the central argument of the sentence, i.e., the part concerning “kidnies,” “skin,” and their respective “secretions.” Here, the sentence begins to gallop as Jefferson rolls out the (pseudo) scientific logic that underpins his view that Africans are inferior to whites. Watch how Jefferson grounds his philosophical contention in the body, framing it in terms of the seemingly irrefutable evidence offered “by the kidnies and…by the glands of the skin.”
Here is the poet-naturalist at work. The irresistible rhythm of Jefferson’s language—so like the rolling hills of Virginia—seduces the reader’s body into going along, into agreeing by a kind of accession, even before the mind registers the sinister implications of the words themselves. Black people are different, says Jefferson. The evidence is as plain as your sense of smell.
I’m an American woman of mixed African and European descent. My body confounds and infuriates me on a daily basis. If my feelings were a sentence, it would begin at the moment in early childhood when I stood before the full-length hall mirror and realized that the wide gap between my front teeth made me look like Goofy, the dimwitted cartoon dog. That sentence would continue to unfold through my life, gaining new nouns and predicates, darkening with syntactical complexity. In thirty-three years, I’ve dedicated whole clauses to my wobbly upper arms; the fact that my thighs meet, no matter how much weight I lose, has given rise to multiple interjections (Alas!)
I want to say that, like Jefferson’s Notes, my body-sentence would be a luminous compendium, swollen with rivers and mathematics, with taverns and milk-cows and huge slugs of amethyst hidden in the dirt. But in truth, I’ve lived a rather ugly grammar when it comes to body-image. It didn’t happen the way the media tells it. I didn’t read Tiger Beat magazine, then gaze in the mirror and cry because my body didn’t match up with Tiffany Amber Thiessen’s. I cared more about the teachers who lined us up on school picture day and, if someone’s hair was out of place, would gently swoop it to one side with a plastic comb that was, then, the student’s very own to keep. When that teacher came to me—my hair crescendoing from its pigtails, so that my head resembled a crazed halo of fuzz—she would just sigh and say, “I’m afraid to even touch this.”
In Jefferson’s writings, Virginia emerges as a site of astonishing beauty and promise. From its natural landscape and from its human machinery of magistrates, sheriffs, assemblies, and law-courts, Jefferson extrapolates the character of a new American republic. There are whole sections of his Notes that contain nothing but lists, spare catalogues of birds. The names of hamlets. If it were poetry, Jefferson’s Notes would be a sublime lyric. You can’t read this document and not want to set up a farmstead near some “efficacious” spring. Maybe take walks at night through the timothy-grass. But what kind of body would be OK to walk in?
In the third grade, our school Christmas play was a retelling of the Nativity. Though I desperately wanted to play the Virgin Mary, I ended up as the Narrator. It was, arguably, a larger role, but it distanced me from the main action, and so I was disappointed. Still, I memorized my lines and those of everyone else in the play. When the little girl who’d been cast as Mary came down with the flu, my teacher asked me to fill in. She gave me the box that contained Mary’s beautiful costume; a long white gown to wear over my uniform, and a textured blue cloth for a veil.
My happiness lasted exactly as long as it took for one of my classmates—a swan-limbed, needle-eyed brunette who modeled clothes in our local pennysaver—to pronounce it “ridiculous” that I’d been given the part. “Who ever heard of a black Mary?” she teased, and of course we were all too young to have known about the hundreds of Black Madonnas being venerated that very hour in Europe. Later—could it have been the same day?—another girl cornered me in the cloakroom. “K_____’s parents spent a lot of money on that costume,” she warned. “It’s very expensive. So you’d better not get it dirty. You’d better not ruin it.”
Each time I wore the costume, I made sure to place it back in its box, carefully folding the fabric according to the original creases. I imagined K_____’s parents astonished at the pristine placement, wondering aloud if another child really had worn the costume. It was my body, you see, that was dangerous. It had the potential to make clean things dirty. The very idea of a “black Mary” was laughable because nothing good could reside in such a vessel. Not even my hair—“kinky” and “coarse,” as my mother’s own black hairdresser had called it—could be touched, at least not by white people. Didn’t I know that?
I come from a long line of Virginians. According to family lore, at least one ancestor was enslaved in the central part of the commonwealth. His name was Butler, but whether that was his owner’s surname, a nickname bestowed on him by his community, or something he chose for himself remains his forever secret. Looking through old photographs, it’s clear there were other secrets, too. I may have looked strange to my white classmates in elementary school, but nearly everyone in the Virginian branch of my family—the black branch—was fair-skinned.
As soon as European colonists brought African slaves to North America, the groups began to mix. Babies were born into a complicated new world of exploitation and exchange. Whether by marriage or by force, white people did touch us. Nobody knew this better than Jefferson himself, of course. Despite his own writings, his long relationship with his slave, Sally Hemings, really did happen. He and Sally were alive together in Virginia. And so were my ancestors—perhaps not far from Albemarle County.
In college, I cut off all my hair and became a poet. After a lifetime of chemical relaxers, hot combs, and plastic curlers, I now could pass my hand over my scalp and feel nothing but sharp little pinpricks of growth. Too new, I thought, to describe as “straight” or “curly.” I craved the hard silence that rested between adjectives, like a palm on skin. It shocked me how hot the top of my head was; a kind of furnace.
It was then that I became a Virginian by education, choosing Mr. Jefferson’s University—UVA—for my own alma mater. I spent four whole and happy years there, studying literature in the classrooms he designed for the sons of wealthy planters. He didn’t build it for me. But mostly, this awareness was like knowing the earth’s orbiting the galaxy at hundreds of thousands of miles per hour. I couldn’t metabolize the contradiction, the full miracle of what it meant (still means) for me to love that place.
Let me honor it now: the first African American student, Gregory Swanson, was admitted to UVA’s Law School in 1950; the first class of undergraduate women was admitted in 1970. Born in 1979, I was the first female member of my immediate family to have had a reasonable chance of going there. Because of those civil rights pioneers, and pretty much in spite of Jefferson, I have my own memories of the Blue Ridge. Of poplar, cloudberry, and dogwood.
One evening near the end of my time at UVA, a fellow poet invited me to visit his room on The Lawn, the grassy park where an elite few undergraduates spend their final year. I crossed under the arched columns separating the ten pavilions that line the court. The late sun was spinning a golden wheel of light behind Jefferson’s Rotunda when my friend suddenly stepped from his room to meet me. “I could tell it was you just by the sound of your shoes on the bricks,” he laughed. “Nobody else walks like you.”
I can’t hate a body that insists so vigorously on being present in the world. Without consulting me, my heels had struck their own sharp sentence on Jefferson’s ground: I am here. My joy in this doesn’t make up for the collective absence of all those whom he would have barred from his Lawn; their shadows still press into the plasterwork of the colonnade. They stay with me, like Jefferson’s Notes.
But I still love the man who wrote that book, and my love is a sad and delighted thing. I put my hands on the bare fact of this, grasping it on either side and drawing it toward me like a beloved face. I am grateful, now, for difficulty. As a woman of color, descended from white and afro-Virginians, and as a proud alumna of his University, I take Jefferson’s sentence as balm and warning. I still want him to bless me, to include my family and me in his Book of Good Things. Over the years, I’ve grown into my body, claiming it like land.
Poet Kiki Petrosino is the author of Fort Red Border (Sarabande, 2009). Her second book of poems, Hymn for the Black Terrific, will be released from Sarabande Books in August 2013. She is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Louisville and Co-editor of Transom, an independent on-line poetry journal.