is a professor at Harvard University and the Harold Vyvyan Harmsworth Visiting Professor of American History at Queen's College, University of Oxford
Without question, the best thing that has ever happened to the historiography of American slavery was the realization that slavery was not just about the lives, aspirations, thoughts, and feelings of white slaveholders. The lives, aspirations, thoughts, and feelings of the enslaved matter just as much because they, too, were human beings and essential players in the story of early America. In fact, basic morality suggests that as victims of a great crime, the lives of the enslaved should have been at center stage all along.
Black scholars, among them W.E.B. DuBois and John Hope Franklin, understood early on that the slave experience was at the heart of any accurate rendering of slave plantations. Later, historians such as Nell Painter, Deborah Gray White, and Stephanie Camp broadened the lens to consider the lives of enslaved women. Beginning with Kenneth Stampp in the 1950s, a number of white historians moved away from the "moonlight and magnolias" presentations of the Old South that obsessed about the master class and traded heavily in nostalgia for the mythic plantation where all the slaves were happy, all the slave masters fair, honorable, and chivalrous, and all the Southern belles beautiful.
The changes that this shift in focus wrought in academia were profound, and it is no surprise that reverberations from this transformation should eventually find their way to public history sites, most notably the slave plantations that dot the South. No institution has put more energy into and achieved greater success in telling the story of enslaved people at its site than the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. The foundation runs Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson and, as more and more people are coming to think of it, the home of generations of enslaved families who lived and labored there as well.
Monticello has had an advantage in interpreting slavery because its owner was such an energetic record-keeper. Jefferson's Farm Book, Garden Book, and Memorandum (account) Books, and the thousands of letters he wrote, present useful starting points for asking questions and digging deeper into slavery on the mountain. Cross-referencing these sources often allows pictures to emerge that would remain unclear if one simply consulted each item separately.
It's a tricky business, however, attempting to discover the lives of the enslaved through the eyes of those who enslaved them. We want to see the story of human beings, and if slave owners fully credited the humanity of the enslaved, they would not have enslaved them. One must always read white family members' descriptions of the enslaved with this fact in mind. Because the vast majority of enslaved people in the United States were illiterate, and were not allowed to make contracts or participate in public life in ways that would leave traces of their stories - recording deeds, posting marriage banns, or announcing births - the stories of the lives of most individual slaves will never be recovered. But we must do the best we can with what we have.
Some of the enslaved at Monticello could read and write, and left documents that can be studied. Others kept their family histories alive through the generations, and those stories can often be checked against the documentary record and, in some instances, through the use of science. So we read the Jefferson family documents with our knowledge of the slave system overall, and with whatever contributions from the enslaved we can find, and with stories passed down through the generations by black families at Monticello.
Just as the words Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence on the equality of mankind confound many who consider his life as a slave owner, Monticello holds contradictions, too. There is the grand mansion kept in pristine condition, though Jefferson never saw it that way. There is the spectacular view unobstructed by slave cabins and other sights associated with slaveholding. There is much beauty, but also an ugly reality: The overwhelming majority of people who lived there were forced into lives they did not want, could be sold at will, and could not leave even if they wanted to. No amount of beauty can compensate for that.
The best that can be done is to refuse to let die whatever we can tell of the stories of enslaved families. Through books, plantation tours, museum exhibits - whatever media are available - the lives of those who lived in slavery must never be forgotten.