Johns Hopkins University adjunct professor, Dr. Michele Cooley-Strickland, and descendant of Thomas Jefferson, calls for reasoned, balanced dialogue on the founding of this country such as what occurs in history or Ethnic Studies courses mischaracterized today as "wokeness" or indoctrination.
According to Dr. Cooley-Strickland, reasoned dialogue would recognize Jefferson's "'tremendous contributions in America's history' as well as the adverse impact he had on an entire race of people." We should all want to know this history and knowing the founders' flaws makes it more interesting because they become more human and less iconic and thusly, unassailable.
Since, to date, republicans have offered no evidence that Critical Race Theory is actually getting taught in our K-12 schools, we must therefore conclude that the attack is on the teaching of these truths of history and perspectives like CRT—among others—that are so essential to the expansion of our collective awareness and compassion, as well as the healing of our divided nation.
Especially for the educated class, don't we all want to know this history in its complexity? Don't we all want our children and grandchildren to know such things? Why would we not seek to deepen our understanding of race, class, gender, and sexual orientation if it promises to answer important questions that bewilder not just children, but also adolescents and adults?
Do you not know that saying "no" to the study of race and ethnicity in the current political context is the same as saying "no" to the study of gender and sexual orientation?
I ask these questions in light of the recent, anti-CRT tumult by a divided Eanes Independent School District located adjacent to Austin who parents are among the most highly educated in the state. Austin American-Statesman journalists, Luz Moreno-Lozano, but especially Sarah Asch, are is covering this right now, as follows:
I hope that Eanes parents listened last week to the words of General Mark A. Milley who testified in Congress who said that he wants, as a white man, to learn about Critical Race Theory. He extolled the value and virtues of being widely read and informed. Why aren't Eanes parents similarly disposed?
Heck, if the truth of American history is good enough for the U.S. military, it should be good enough for us all.
Instead of letting President Thomas Jefferson's record on race diminish his contributions to America, Michele Cooley-Strickland said people should use her ancestor's imperfections as an inspiration that they can change the country as well.
Jefferson, the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, was an integral part in the founding of America, but his blighted past has called his legacy into question. Students at the University of Virginia, a school he founded, pushed for years to remove him from his pedestal, and in the wake of George Floyd's death in police custody, protesters toppled a statue in Portland, Oregon, while New York City Council members want Mayor Bill de Blasio to remove a statue from City Hall.
Cooley-Strickland, who can trace her lineage back seven generations to Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings, told Newsweek those who make significant contributions to history are not uncomplicated. Therefore, it's up to us to determine the balance of their contribution and decide if it's worthy of celebration.
"It's an assessment in total," Cooley-Strickland said. "So yes, there were significant detractors of Jefferson, but weighing each of those factors in the plus and minus column, the plus column is the larger of the two."
Jefferson's life is marked by contradictions in what he practiced and what he preached. He penned the famous words "All men are created equal," but owned more than 600 slaves. In Notes on the State of Virginia, he wrote about the injustice of racial superiority and the emancipation of slaves but also expressed racist views on what he saw as Black people's' inferior abilities.
Some consider Jefferson ownership of slaves as reason enough to knock him off his pedestal, as it's seen as a symbol of the oppression and degradation of millions of people. But Cooley-Strickland encourages people to use Jefferson's imperfections as an inspiration. Jefferson, she said, worked tirelessly to make America a better place and can be an example that shows all of us have the ability to make more of the world we live in.
"This man who is tremendously flawed helped found our nation," she said. "That should be the inspiration to you to think about what you can do even with your flaws, because none of us are perfect."
A portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale, circa 1805. Michele Cooley-Strickland, who can trace her lineage to Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings, says his imperfections should inspire people to try to change the country despite their own flaws.GETTY/NATIONAL ARCHIVES
Cooley-Strickland, a project scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, and an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University, acknowledged the conflict surrounding Jefferson's legacy, both because he owned slaves, which she said she recognized was not unusual in his era, and because he had the power to make more changes than he did. But, she said, when statues are presented in a balanced way, they can start a dialogue that recognizes Jefferson's "tremendous contributions in America's history" as well as the adverse impact he had on an entire race of people.
Being able to view Jefferson through the necessary complex lens requires education. America, she said, likes things "clean and easy," and the country has approached slavery from the point of view of "that was then, this is now, let's move on." But totally overlooking a person's faults prevents the country from growing. As a clinical psychologist, Cooley-Strickland said, there's no "true moving on" if people don't process the trauma and pain and the cascading results of it.
"There needs to be the recognition that our country treated a whole people egregiously, and there needs to be a recognition and a reparation of the wounds that continue," she said. "When you don't give the weight that each perspective is owed, there's an imbalance that prohibits true growth from that experience."
Jefferson isn't the only historical figure whose place is now being questioned. At least 15 statues and monuments honoring Confederacy figures were taken down in 2020, the Army will rename bases honoring Confederate heroes, and the Mississippi Legislature passed a bill to remove the Confederate emblem from the state flag.