THE SANTA CLARA
October 27, 2016
Grab a nickel, then flip it. On one side you have Thomas “all men are created equal” Jefferson and on the other his slavery plantation, Monticello. Did you get heads or tails? Jefferson or Monticello?
No matter what side of the nickel you get, Monticello and its torrid history of slavery, rape and abuse remains engraved on American currency.
During Jefferson’s occupation, the Virginian plantation housed over six hundred slaves and only freed a little over ten.
The plantation is a symbol of the decades of institutionalized racism still affecting people today. Somehow, this is a symbol we have chosen to represent America.
Historically, countries use their currency to broadcast who’s in power and what values they hold as a result. The symbols used on currency may not all hold up as faultless ideals but that doesn’t mean we lower our standards on what emblems we recognize as American just because they’re traditional.
Symbols matter. It’s why people get up in arms about burning the American flag. Our currency is a manifestation of the racism in our country’s legacy and how often neglected this part of our story is.
We see Monticello as a great, historical site because of Thomas Jefferson, but we forget—or choose to forget—it was also one of the many sites of pain and torture for African-Americans.
In discussing America’s complicated legacy of freedom, we see a persistent need to either condemn or forget those dark spots in history we are ashamed of.
We constantly fix our own history because we’re ashamed and don’t want our proud nation to be associated with discrimination.
So we brush hate crimes under the rug, like internment of Japanese-Americans or the thousands of acres of land stolen from Native Americans.
Rarely do we talk about that crime, even on a campus as guilty of it as ours.
We acknowledge slavery, then we forget to acknowledge the full implications of it, including the fact that the Founding Fathers were slave owners.
The Founding Fathers were racist. They were a product of their time and their time did not value people of color. That doesn’t make them any less brilliant and that doesn’t mean we erase them from American history.
We don’t forgive them for their racism even as we thank them for the ideological standards they’ve set for each of us here in America.
Part of healing the racial divides in the U.S. is owning up to the mistakes of the past.
Taking an extreme view one way or the other is not a solution. We can’t ignore the hypocrisy, the bigotry, the sexism that all the historical figures we lionize inherently possessed. We also shouldn’t trivialize their contributions to American society because they are problematic figures.
With the recent Treasury announcement that Harriet Tubman will replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill, we can see the beginning of movements and conversations that can capture the multicultural reality of America.
More than 8.5 billion $20 bills were in circulation last year and starting in 2020, a suffragist and freedom fighter will be internationally recognizable as our ideal.
And yet we still have Monticello on the back side of the nickel.
Perla Luna is a sophmore sociology and English double major and is the editor of the Opinion Section