Rethinking Jefferson’s conundrum

Rethinking Jefferson’s conundrum

JCC U offers talk on the ongoing civil war, civil rights, and the way forward

Dr. Robert Carey
Dr. Robert Carey

The news has made it unavoidably clear that the Civil War, declared over in May 1865, is not really over.

Instead, it looms and thuds behind our shoulders like some ghastly undead being that we cannot bury, because a significant number of people in the country we all share and love wish it to continue above ground.

Dr. Robert Carey, the dean of graduate studies and a professor at Empire State College, part of the State University of New York system, is a historian who has studied the effects of the Civil war, then and now. He teaches what he knows. As the white husband of a black woman who married at a time when interracial marriages were not only scandalous but actively illegal in parts of this country, he has lived through terrible times and triumphed over them.

He will talk about all of this at the JCC U this week. (See box for more information.)

His talk will “try to capture the unrelentingly central reality of the way in which race and racial categories shape our collective life,” Dr. Carey said. “Part of it will be a historical reflection on the Civil War and its consequences, and how it has a sort of shape-shifting quality that I really want to explore.”

When he talks or teaches about this subject, he often introduces two texts, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous and powerful “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and a speech that Frederick Douglass gave in 1842. “One of the things that Douglass does it introduce us to a way the whole American narrative can be addressed and understood, and I’ll be ringing some changes on that,” he said. “I’ll be making it relevant to contemporary issues, which are very much in the forefront of the debate.

“Usually they’re not so much center stage, but they’re always present. Americans have a way of using very heavily coded language when they talk about these things, so I want to peel the onion. I want to see where the core issues are, and take the measure of their continuing strength.

“How can we think conceptually in larger terms, to create a more vibrant and open civil culture? That’s one of the pathways that I’ll be treading.”

What will he peel as he talks? “Again and again, we are told that America is the great nation,” Dr. Carey said. “That kind of self-congratulatory rhetoric has more than a little merit in it, but it just papers over the overall strength of the country and the variety of its people.

“We’re stuck in the middle of Jefferson’s conundrum,” he continued. That’s Thomas Jefferson. “Here he is, a polymath, the author of major documents that shaped our politics — and he is the father of children by a slave woman. When we take Jefferson, we have to take all of it.

“Part of the challenge of the American past is whether we can rethink and reconceptualize to say goodbye to that conundrum and begin to work out a different way of understanding and seeing ourselves and our fellow citizens.

“Can we look beyond slogans to take the full measure of how much race as an exclusionary political force has organized our shared life? We are organized along particularly exclusionary terms. That is one of the things that we have to be aware of as we ask ourselves what is going on here.

“Who is at the table? Who is still not at the table? What is standing in the way?”

And what about the Jews?

“Jews are part of our immigration story,” Dr. Carey said. “We constantly celebrate immigration in terms of people becoming American. When you look at the history of slavery and the realities of race, part of the reality of immigration is how white you have to be to become part of the American fabric. How fast does it happen?

“The Jewish experience is always in a sense not so fast, because of the community’s consistently voting for a more expansive, inclusive community. That has been one of those threads that should be revisited. What are the values at play there? How can we both preserve those threads and continue to work on inclusion?”

Race is in many ways a fiction — on the most obvious level, you cannot always know what race someone is, and definitions of race vary wildly. “It is a fiction,” Dr. Carey said. But one reason it’s so hard to deal with is the American — and probably the purely human — impulse to personalize. “I don’t think many people say ‘I can’t be prejudiced because some of my best friends are black,’ any more, but the reality is that it is easy for people to wake up on third base and think they hit a triple. That’s the structural reality, and we have to be able to see it so we can talk about it.”

He looks forward to the time when “we don’t have authors and black authors — or for that matter authors and women authors. We shouldn’t be colorblind. No. Instead, we should see each person in all their fullness.

“Those are some of those things that we have to unpack.”

America truly is an extraordinary country, he said. “To become an American by affirming that you are going to support the Constitution. That is singular. It pushes back against the notion of blood and soil” — terms that we heard very recently, as the white supremacists and neo-Nazis shouted it, along with “Jews will not replace us,” as they marched with their tiki torches through Charlottesville — “and the idea of citizenship as a zero-sum game,” he said.

The rhetoric we need is the notion of a “more perfect union,” not “blood and soil,” he said.

The country’s founders knew that, Dr. Carey added. “They were a planter elite, for the most part. A colonial elite. But they also subscribed to a whole range of ideas that were coming out of Enlightenment thought and articulating them. They gave us an extraordinary notion of community.”

When he talks at the JCC U, Dr. Carey will give a brief outline of his life; his life and his work are inextricable. “In the 1960s, when I was reading for my degree in theology at Union Theological Seminary, I went to West Africa with Dr. James Robinson.” (Dr. Robinson was the founder of Operation Crossroads Africa, which, the New York Times told us in its 1972 obituary for Dr. Robinson, was a group that “since 1957 has been giving black and white American and Canadian young people an experience of practical work in the independent countries of Africa.” )

At the same time, his future wife, Patricia Morris, who now is the associate dean for student affairs at NYU’s Steinhardt School, was in East Nigeria. They met, and for a few years they “conducted an epistolary relationship as if we were in the 19th century,” Dr. Carey said. He “drew an inside straight,” he said, and “went to Atlanta to work in the Ebenezer Baptist Church. I stayed a year, and then a second year,” and then longer, he said; he did work on civil rights that drew threats from the Ku Klux Klan.

But Bob and Pat were in love, and eventually they married; they had to leave Atlanta because interracial marriage was not legal there then. “We have been married since 1952,” Dr. Carey said; that would be a notable accomplishment even had they not had to overcome impediments that most people do not face and no one ever should face. They have two grown children.

Dr. Carey will talk about all of these things — public issues, public problems, and to some extent private challenges and joys — at the JCC U on Thursday.

Who: Dr. Robert Carey

What: Will explore “When Will The Civil War Be Over?” for the JCC U

When: On Thursday, October 19, at 10:30 a.m.

When: At the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, 411 East Clinton Avenue, in Tenafly


At the afternoon session of the JCC U, Professor Thomas Germano will talk about Judy Chicago’s famous piece, “The Dinner Party.”

For more information: Go to and click on Adults, and then on Lectures and Learning, and then on JCC U.

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