chapter  10
13 Pages

Labor and leisure at Monticello: Or representing race instead of class at an inadvertent white identity shrine


I want to use Monticello, a place whose caretakers refer to as “the home of Thomas Jefferson,” but also Colonial Williamsburg, a reconstructed and restored colonial town, to make some fairly obvious (and therefore perhaps significant) observations about the often paradoxical ways that sites representing the slave era produce national identity in the United States. On the face of it, plantations are not the best places to instill what Benedict Anderson and others stress is the essential fraternity of shared identity in the imagined community of the modern democratic and egalitarian nation-states. They are, after all, places of aristocratic privilege based on the absolute disenfranchisement of one category of people by another. Nowadays you would be hard pressed to find more than a few white Americans, even white Americans whose ancestors may have owned plantations, who want to think of themselves as masters. Instead you would be much more likely to encounter white Americans who express sympathy, even admiration, for slaves. Yet, for over 80 years, plantations in the American South have been, and continue to be, sites of national celebration. This is because they are inadvertent white identity shrines. At these places, and this will hardly surprise anyone, racial identity trumps class identity.