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Redefine heroism, honor Hemings

IN THE opening lines of his column, "Debate stalls on Hemings Street" (The Cavalier Daily, Sept. 13), Peter Brownfeld wrote "Everyone needs a hero. Everyone wants someone to honor." I will not begin a debate on the validity of these statements. Instead, I will take the opportunity to show that the Jefferson Brownfeld implies as a "hero" did not exist as a person. Otherwise there would be no debate concerning whether or not Jefferson fathered children with Sally Hemings, one of his slaves.

The confusion begins with the word "hero," which defines people only as records of accomplishment. By Brownfeld's definition, I suspect that actions a person takes that result in wealth and fame may be considered "accomplishments." It is not wrong to honor someone's accomplishments, if they are honorable, but it is dangerous to mistake a person's accomplishments for the person. We should not pretend that a person's "accomplishments" ensure his status as an honorable human being; but it is not for me or anyone else to attempt to evaluate the essential worth of a human being.

The implication that Sally Hemings is not worthy of having a street named after her is the most disturbing aspect of Brownfeld's column. The major argument is that "we know very little about Hemings." There are two main flaws with this argument: 1. We know a lot about Thomas Jefferson and still honor him with an all-important street name; 2. We do know about Sally Hemings.

First, let's focus on what we know about Jefferson. It is not necessary, especially at the University, to list Jefferson's several wondrous accomplishments. But as much as the great things were great, judging by modern standards, the bad were worse. The debate that continues about Jefferson's relationship with Sally Hemings, despite DNA evidence, is ridiculous because it comes down to such tedious particulars. The point is that Jefferson's worth as a human neither adds nor detracts from his "accomplishments."

We know that Sally Hemings was a slave owned by Mr. Jefferson. More importantly, we know her name, due to the discovery of her relationship with Jefferson. This is all we need to know because the combination of the two give Sally Hemings a significance beyond her worth as a person. Slavery is, and will continue to be, a huge black mark on the history of the United States. It is an issue we have trouble dealing with and acknowledging. But we must acknowledge it to move past it and learn from it.

All this nonsensical debate does is obscure the real issue - that our time-honored forefathers, great as their ideas may have been, would not be considered heroes today, based on our current concept of worth. Just as Jefferson symbolically represents our forefathers' accomplishments, Hemings represents the undeniable fact of slavery's legacy, one of our forefathers' greatest failings.

Not until this century were blacks officially, lawfully, treated as human beings. And racism continues to be a problem. The treatment of minorities and those who are different by some political and military leaders and individual citizens is despicable. The only good that might come of it is to acknowledge the despicableness, and honor, or at least recognize, those who have been mistreated.

Sally Hemings certainly is representative of such a group. Putting her name on a street sign is only a tiny step toward acknowledging our country's and its forefathers' and present leaders' shortcomings as "heroes."

Beyond crushing many fantasies about how this world works, owning up to our country's and our leaders' past mistakes is a step toward preventing future mistakes. As long as we continue to deny that these instances exist, we will remain unable to deal with shortcomings on any level, resulting in the ultimate sanction of them. We should deal with the fact that Jefferson might have acted in a way that detracts from his accomplishments, and it should help us feel better about our own potential for heroism.

If ideals, not people, are honored, maybe we will begin to see that many of the people deemed "unworthy" in fact deserve recognition. Not because they were tremendous individuals, but because they represent the extraordinary numbers of people who also were judged "unworthy" and consequently mistreated and manipulated for the gain of others.

The tendency of the masses is to honor individuals of privileged existence who have succeeded in accomplishing goals deemed valuable. There needs to be a counterbalancing force that recognizes both our heroes' shortcomings and the achievements of the much larger group of underprivileged individuals who are regarded as unimportant. By doing so, people may reach a more realistic idea of what a hero is or should be. We must question whether it was more heroic to have lived in a mansion on a hill or to have maintained an existence in the slave quarters of that same mansion.

(Josh Perdue is a third-year College student.)