Woodson Institute releases promo for podcast on Jefferson’s controversial legacy

“Notes on the State” is a self-reflective series that addresses controversial aspects of Jefferson’s life and influence at the University

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According to the Woodson Institute’s website, “Episodes are designed to query Jefferson’s history and to spend time in the contradictions and limitations, the vexing corners and confounding gaps of Jefferson’s thought as a way of exploring what Jefferson can still do for us today.”

Emma Klein | Cavalier Daily

The Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies released a promotional audio podcast Feb. 6 for their podcast series, titled “Notes on the State.” The six-part series produced for the University’s Bicentennial is scheduled to release its first episode on President’s Day — Monday, Feb. 18. 

The 30 to 40 minute episodes will feature Prof. Deborah E. McDowell — host and executive producer and director of the Woodson Institute and Alice Griffin Professor of English — with narration by senior producer James Perla, managing director of the Citizen Justice Initiative. Curated input is from different University community members, scholars from outside the University and officials and docents from Monticello. 

The name for the series stems from Thomas Jefferson’s only book, Notes on the State of Virginia — a text which analyzed the 1785 socio-political and economic status of the state, simultaneously professing some of his more controversial opinions. 

The book — which expressed Jefferson’s beliefs on separation of church and state, constitutional government, checks and balances — also mentioned his views justifying white supremacy, the inability for races to coexist in a free society and the “problem of miscegenation” — interracial marriage or cohabitation.

According to the Woodson Institute’s website, “Episodes are designed to query Jefferson’s history and to spend time in the contradictions and limitations, the vexing corners and confounding gaps of Jefferson’s thought as a way of exploring what Jefferson can still do for us today.”

In particular, “Notes on the State” centers around a few topics with regards to Jefferson, including race, Sally Hemings, who was one of Jefferson’s slaves and mother to multiple of his children, the formation of the carceral state, the built environment at the University and the role of the Haitian Revolution in the Louisiana Purchase. France, under pressure from its revolting colony, sold the territory when approached by Jefferson and the cabinet to buy New Orleans in 1803. These vast swathes of new territory expanded the slave-holding capacity of the United States, increasing the potential for the practice’s employment. 

“This series does not seek to be comprehensive or exhaustive,” Perla said in an email to The Cavalier Daily. “Rather, we want to spend time with the complexities and inconsistencies, using Jefferson’s writings, particularly his book Notes on the State of Virginia, to explore how he helps to illuminate many of the issues with which we are still struggling today, largely because we have continually avoided confronting them honestly and straightforwardly.”

Perla expressed that the series was inspired in part by political activist Angela Davis’ Excellence in Diversity Distinguished Learning Series at the University, which took place in 2017 and 2018. The series was aimed at promoting diversity by having guest speakers of various backgrounds and disciplines come to the University to share their perspectives on current issues and speak about diversity.

“We need to practice the process of straddling contradictions of dwelling within them, even learning how — even in the spirit of Audre Lorde — to identify the spark of creativity that can potentially emanate from these contradictions,” Davis said at her most recent visit to the University. 

Perla touched on other motivations for the subject matter of this series. “Notes on the State” has been in the works for close to a year, drawing motivation from his Citizen Justice Initiative, a digital storytelling and community engagement project focused on creating digital resources for Charlottesville community members. 

“We did some very preliminary community engagement … work, and many of those conversations resulted in the response that UVA should consider doing a bit of turning the mirror — as much as possible — on itself, and its own history,” Perla said. “We thought the opportunity of the Bicentennial would be a good time to think slightly more critically and in more nuanced ways about Jefferson’s history.”

Perla also added that he hopes this series can help address issues at the University beyond those regularly addressed in University conversations — statues and their significance, Jefferson’s story in general and the way the University presents itself through social media. 

“Hopefully a project like this can start talking about more structural issues, beyond the realm of narrative and symbols that I think many of our conversations touch on,” Perla said.

In addition to faculty and expert influence in these conversations, “Notes on the State” will draw conversation from students, such as Hahna Cho, a fourth-year College student and a former undergraduate research assistant with the Woodson Institute’s annual Citizen Justice Initiative Summer Research Program. 

Cho described her work on the podcast and expressed disapproval for still holding Jefferson in such high esteem at the University. 

“We shouldn’t be quoting him on every single one of our emails, we shouldn’t be celebrating him year after year, but I think the whole point of the project and something I’ve come to accept to is that Jefferson was a human being just like each and every one of us,” Cho said. 

When Cho initially became involved with the project, her view on Jefferson was overarchingly negative because of information she learned about him through both her classes and through her involvements at the University but eventually became more nuanced. 

“We can’t really put him on the spectrum of good and bad … but rather process him as a very complicated, complex human being that did have very, very bad ideas but at the same time had very good ones that have benefited all of us,” Cho added.

Cho also commented on the University’s past reluctance to critique Jefferson both as a historical figure and as a human being. This reluctance has caused conflict in recent years — in Nov. 2016, controversy emerged over former President Teresa Sullivan’s use of Jefferson quotes in her emails. When Sullivan received a letter from 469 students, faculty and staff requesting that she stop using Jefferson quotes, Sullivan responded that she agreed with the particular message of the quotes she was using. 

“For so long he has been this huge historical figure that people have refused to critique at all,” Cho said. “So I think the whole point of the podcast, the point of the project, is to critique him in a very intellectual way and also in a very personal way.” 

In addition to the inherent flexibility provided by the podcast format in storytelling and discussion, the medium will provide the Woodson Institute with material to publish on its website, reaching a larger audience.

“Ideally, alongside the audio, viewers will be able to read a full interactive transcript, indexed with key moments,” Perla said. 

For more information on “Notes on the State” as well as content updates, visit their Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the Woodson Institute website. A subscription to the podcast can be done on iTunes

Correction: This article previously incorrectly stated that the promotional podcast was in video form with a release date was Feb. 4, and has been changed to reflect the correct release date of Feb. 6 and the correct audio format. This article also misstated that Hahna Cho was an intern with the Woodson Institute and misnamed the host as Prof. Debra E. McDowell, and has been changed to reflect the correct name of Prof. Deborah E. McDowell and Cho’s correct position as an undergraduate research assistant with the Woodson Institute’s annual Citizen Justice Initiative Summer Research Program.    

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