DALLAS – Inside a provocative exhibit about Thomas Jefferson and slavery, Bishop T.D. Jakes was reminded of his own enslaved ancestors.
Jakes, who has visited Africa many times, proudly talked about his Nigerian roots. He said Henry Louis Gates Jr., a professor of African and African-American research at Harvard University, arranged a DNA test which confirmed that Jakes’ ancestors were from Nigeria.
“Going back there recently, I went into an area that was predominantly Ibo and it was kind of emotional to me,” Jakes said. “Because they made presentations to me – my house is decorated with a lot of African art – and they were telling me this is what your language sounds like.”
Jakes said he has a vivid recollection of his great-grandmother, who was once enslaved. He was just 10 years old but said he remembers listening to his great-grandmother talk about slavery and his family’s history.
“And I think of how so many people look at Africa and they talk about poverty but when I looked at it I thought they are so rich in ways that we are poor.” Jakes said. “They know who they are, they know whose they are, they know where they came from, they proudly understand their languages, and in that way we are very poor. And so there needs to be a greater exchange between us as people because for me it was like regaining a part of myself that was lost.”
Jakes is the honorary co-chair of a traveling exhibit, "Slavery at Jefferson's Monticello: Paradox of Liberty," which will run through December 31 at Dallas’ African American Museum (and visited St. Louis at the Missouri History Museum 2013-14). The exhibit, which premiered at Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, breaks new ground by focusing in more detail on the life of Sally Hemings, who was enslaved with an estimated 400 other men, women and children on Jefferson’s 5.000-acre Monticello plantation. The exhibit showcases more than 300 artifacts.
Some of the artifacts that appear in the exhibit include nails made at the nailery, which was run by the enslaved families and became an extremely profitable industry for Jefferson; a tombstone of Priscilla Hemmings that was hand-carved by her husband, Michael Hemmings; and china and pottery purchased by the enslaved families at the market.
Some of Jefferson’s items on display include a finely carved chess set, his eyeglasses and bookstand. Also, a medicine bottle from Paris that may have been brought back by Sally Hemings during her time in France; a portion of a black pot (Jefferson encouraged his slaves to marry and gave them a black pot as a wedding gift) and an arm chair used in the house that is believed to have been made by John Hemings, a gifted furniture maker.
Meanwhile, Jakes reflected on the artifacts, which conjured images of enslaved Africans aboard slave ships heading from West Africa to the Americas.
“All of the people who got on the boat were not the same people but they had to unify in order to survive under stress. It’s an amazing story when you think about it. They didn’t even speak any other’s language so well. There was a certain amount of distrust under the planks of the ship, and there was a huge enemy above and so in that sandwich dimension of history we survive nonetheless,” Jakes said.
“We learned how to communicate with each other. We learned how to become a people. We struggle with what to call ourselves – ‘darkies’ and ‘coloreds’ and ‘niggers’ and negroes’ and all of these names that were thrust upon us is a reflection of trying to identify who am I.”
Jakes said slavery was also about survival – people were forced into a violent life and stripped of everything, including their names. He added that slavery and contemporary issues of race are forever intertwined.
After Jakes completed a tour of the exhibit, he sat inside one of the museum’s upstairs galleries, glanced at a panel about enslaved African people, and spoke philosophically about slavery’s 300-year impact on the world.
“I think that, no matter what the color of the people are, any time we allow one group of people to have that much power, abuse perpetuates itself,” Jakes said, “whether you are talking about some of the atrocities that have happened in the history of the Jews or whether you’re talking about the apartheid in South Africa or whether you’re talking about slavery and Jim Crow in America.”