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  • Not that long ago,

  • I received an invitation

  • to spend a few days at the historic home of James Madison.

  • James Madison, of course,

  • was the fourth president of the United States,

  • the father of the Constitution,

  • the architect of the Bill of Rights.

  • And as a historian,

  • I was really excited to go to this historic site,

  • because I understand and appreciate the power of place.

  • Now, Madison called his estate Montpelier.

  • And Montpelier is absolutely beautiful.

  • It's several thousand acres of rolling hills,

  • farmland and forest,

  • with absolutely breathtaking views of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

  • But it's a haunting beauty,

  • because Montpelier was also a slave labor camp.

  • You see, James Madison enslaved more than 100 people

  • over the course of his lifetime.

  • And he never freed a single soul,

  • not even upon his death.

  • The centerpiece of Montpelier is Madison's mansion.

  • Now this is where James Madison grew up,

  • this is where he returned to after his presidency,

  • this is where he eventually died.

  • And the centerpiece of Madison's mansion is his library.

  • This room on the second floor,

  • where Madison conceived and conceptualized the Bill of Rights.

  • When I visited for the first time,

  • the director of education, Christian Cotz --

  • cool white dude --

  • (Laughter)

  • took me almost immediately to the library.

  • And it was amazing, being able to stand in this place

  • where such an important moment in American history happened.

  • But then after a little while there,

  • Christian actually took me downstairs to the cellars of the mansion.

  • Now, in the cellars of the mansion,

  • that's where the enslaved African Americans who managed the house

  • spent most of their time.

  • It's also where they were installing a new exhibition on slavery in America.

  • And while we were there,

  • Christian instructed me to do something I thought was a little bit strange.

  • He told me to take my hand

  • and place it on the brick walls of the cellar and to slide it along,

  • until I felt these impressions or ridges in the face of the brick.

  • Now look,

  • I was going to be staying on-site on this former slave plantation

  • for a couple of days,

  • so I wasn't trying to upset any white people.

  • (Laughter)

  • Because when this was over,

  • I wanted to make sure that I could get out.

  • (Laughter)

  • But as I'm actually sliding my hand along the cellar wall,

  • I couldn't help but think about my daughters,

  • and my youngest one in particular,

  • who was only about two or three years old at the time,

  • because every time she hopped out of our car,

  • she would take her hand and slide it along the outside,

  • which is absolutely disgusting.

  • And then --

  • and then, if I couldn't get to her in time,

  • she would take her fingers and pop them in her mouth,

  • which would drive me absolutely crazy.

  • So this is what I'm thinking about while I'm supposed to be a historian.

  • (Laughter)

  • But then, I actually do feel these impressions in the brick.

  • I feel these ridges in the brick.

  • And it takes a second to realize what they are.

  • What they are

  • are tiny hand prints.

  • Because all of the bricks at James Madison's estate

  • were made by the children that he enslaved.

  • And that's when it hit me

  • that the library

  • in which James Madison conceives and conceptualizes the Bill of Rights

  • rests on a foundation of bricks

  • made by the children that he enslaved.

  • And this is hard history.

  • It's hard history, because it's difficult to imagine

  • the kind of inhumanity

  • that leads one to enslave children

  • to make bricks for your comfort and convenience.

  • It's hard history,

  • because it's hard to talk about the violence of slavery,

  • the beatings, the whippings, the kidnappings,

  • the forced family separations.

  • It's hard history, because it's hard to teach white supremacy,

  • which is the ideology that justified slavery.

  • And so rather than confront hard history,

  • we tend to avoid it.

  • Now, sometimes that means just making stuff up.

  • I can't tell you how many times I've heard people say

  • that "states' rights" was the primary cause of the Civil War.

  • That would actually come as a surprise

  • to the people who fought in the Civil War.

  • (Laughter)

  • Sometimes, we try to rationalize hard history.

  • When people visit Montpelier --

  • and by "people," in this instance, I mean white people --

  • when they visit Montpelier

  • and learn about Madison enslaving people,

  • they often ask,

  • "But wasn't he a good master?"

  • A "good master?"

  • There is no such thing as a good master.

  • There is only worse and worser.

  • And sometimes,

  • we just pretend the past didn't happen.

  • I can't tell you how many times I've heard people say,

  • "It's hard to imagine slavery existing outside of the plantation South."

  • No, it ain't.

  • Slavery existed in every American colony,

  • slavery existed in my home state of New York

  • for 50 years after the American Revolution.

  • So why do we do this?

  • Why do we avoid confronting hard history?

  • Literary performer and educator Regie Gibson

  • had the truth of it when he said

  • that our problem as Americans is we actually hate history.

  • What we love

  • is nostalgia.

  • Nostalgia.

  • We love stories about the past

  • that make us feel comfortable about the present.

  • But we can't keep doing this.

  • George Santayana, the Spanish writer and philosopher,

  • said that those who cannot remember the past

  • are condemned to repeat it.

  • Now as a historian, I spend a lot of time thinking about this very statement,

  • and in a sense, it applies to us in America.

  • But in a way, it doesn't.

  • Because, inherent in this statement,

  • is the notion that at some point,

  • we stopped doing the things

  • that have created inequality in the first place.

  • And a harsh reality is,

  • we haven't.

  • Consider the racial wealth gap.

  • Wealth is generated by accumulating resources in one generation

  • and transferring them to subsequent generations.

  • Median white household wealth

  • is 147,000 dollars.

  • Median Black household wealth

  • is four thousand dollars.

  • How do you explain this growing gap?

  • Hard history.

  • My great-great-grandfather was born enslaved

  • in Jasper County, Georgia, in the 1850s.

  • While enslaved, he was never allowed to accumulate anything,

  • and he was emancipated with nothing.

  • He was never compensated for the bricks that he made.

  • My great-grandfather was also born in Jasper County, Georgia, in the 1870s,

  • and he actually managed to accumulate a fair bit of land.

  • But then, in nineteen-teens, Jim Crow took that land from him.

  • And then Jim Crow took his life.

  • My grandfather, Leonard Jeffries Senior,

  • was born in Georgia,

  • but there was nothing left for him there,

  • so he actually grew up in Newark, New Jersey.

  • And he spent most of his life working as a custodian.

  • Job discrimination, segregated education and redlining

  • kept him from ever breaking into the middle class.

  • And so when he passed away in the early 1990s,

  • he left to his two sons

  • nothing more than a life-insurance policy

  • that was barely enough to cover his funeral expenses.

  • Now my parents, both social workers,

  • they actually managed to purchase a home

  • in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, New York, in 1980,

  • for 55,000 dollars.

  • Now Crown Heights, at the time, was an all-Black neighborhood,

  • and it was kind of rough.

  • My brother and I often went to sleep,

  • by the mid-1980s,

  • hearing gunshots.

  • But my parents protected us,

  • and my parents also held onto that home.

  • For 40 years.

  • And they're still there.

  • But something quintessentially American happened

  • about 20 years ago.

  • About 20 years ago,

  • they went to sleep one night in an all-Black neighborhood,

  • and they woke up the next morning

  • in an all-white neighborhood.

  • (Laughter)

  • And as a result of gentrification,

  • not only did all their neighbors mysteriously disappear,

  • but the value of their home

  • skyrocketed.

  • So that home that they purchased for 55,000 dollars --

  • at 29 percent interest, by the way --

  • that home is now worth 30 times what they paid it for.

  • Thirty times.

  • Do the math with me.

  • That's 55,000 times 30, carry the zeros --

  • That's a lot of money.

  • (Laughter)

  • So that means,

  • as their single and sole asset,

  • when the time comes for them to pass that asset on to my brother and I,

  • that will be the first time in my family's history,

  • more than 150 years after the end of slavery,

  • that there will be a meaningful transfer of wealth in my family.

  • And it's not because family members haven't saved,

  • haven't worked hard,

  • haven't valued education.

  • It's because of hard history.

  • So when I think about the past,

  • my concern about not remembering it

  • is not that we will repeat it if we don't remember it.

  • My concern, my fear is that if we don't remember the past,

  • we will continue it.

  • We will continue to do the things

  • that created inequality and injustice in the first place.

  • So what we must do

  • is we must disrupt the continuum of hard history.

  • And we can do this by seeking truth.

  • By confronting hard history directly.

  • By magnifying hard history for all the world to see.

  • We can do this by speaking truth.

  • Teachers teaching hard history to their students.

  • To do anything else is to commit educational malpractice.

  • And parents have to speak truth to their children,

  • so that they understand

  • where we have come from as a nation.

  • And finally, we must all act on truth.

  • Individually and collectively,

  • publicly and privately,

  • in small ways and in large ways.

  • We must do the things that will bend the arc of the moral universe

  • towards justice.

  • To do nothing is to be complicit

  • in inequality.

  • History reminds us

  • that we, as a nation,

  • stand on the shoulders of political giants

  • like James Madison.

  • But hard history reminds us that we, as a nation,

  • also stand on the shoulders of enslaved African American children.

  • Little Black boys and little Black girls

  • who, with their bare hands, made the bricks

  • that serve as the foundation for this nation.

  • And if we are serious about creating a fair and just society,

  • then we would do well to remember that,

  • and we would do well to remember them.

  • Thank you.

  • (Applause)

Not that long ago,