I hope everyone’s 2019 is off to a good start. My gosh, I have not posted since New Year’s Day almost three full weeks ago, the longest stretch with no posts since I began the blog eight years ago. I went on holiday January 3 and have spent the time since my return preparing for the upcoming semester. My co-teacher and I have been discussing the syllabus, narrowing down the reading list, and such. It is always exciting and a little nerve-inducing getting ready for a new term. I’m fortunate to have such a good colleague.
I am here in the DC area for the weekend. Yesterday the Hayfoot and I visited George Washington’s Mount Vernon. The last time I was there was more than forty-five years ago. I wanted to visit before starting the James Thomas Flexner four-volume biography, which I intend to begin when I get back to New York City. I am supposed to give a talk related to Washington at a particular historic site in Manhattan on Presidents Day, but with the government shutdown still ongoing we will see what happens.
A cold January day is an opportune time to visit. They estimated at the information desk that they would receive 500 visitors for the day, as opposed to the 6000-8000 daily tourists they receive on a typical spring or summer day. When we arrived at the mansion itself, we walked right up as the tour was commencing. No lines. Alas photography was not permitted in the house, but my favorite item was the Bastille Key given to George Washington by the Marquise de Lafayette. I made a point to the tour guide that Lafayette gave the key to Washington with the idea that future generations might see and appreciate its significance–and that that was precisely what our little group was doing at that moment. She had clearly never thought of it like that before and lit up when I said it.
A little later in the tour we were in the outdoor kitchen when a visitor asked the guide to explain again why officials at the site refer to Mount Vernon’s enslaved community not as “slaves” but as “enslaved persons.” The reason, the guide explained quite well, is to affirm the humanity of this community and tell their stories with fuller nuance. A few in the group still weren’t getting it. As it happened this came at the end of the tour, after which we all exited into the courtyard area. We joined an informal discussion at this point in which our group was still discussing the terminology about the enslaved community. As she so often does, the Hayfoot stepped up and with clarity and compassion added a few salient points that built on what the guide had said. A few eventually “got it,” with or without necessarily agreeing with the premises being expressed. A smaller number never did get it. If they went home to ponder it, or put it out of their minds entirely right then and there, I will never know.
All in all it was a great day. There was so much to see and so little time to take it all in that we became Mount Vernon members. So come spring we’ll be there again, only this time with the great masses taking in the gardens and all else there is to see and learn at George Washington’s Mount Vernon.