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A Pickaninny Podcast: Cognitive Dissonance

The Pickaninny Papers “Let’s Have That Conversation” is back! We spoke recently about cognitive dissonance--that discomfort we feel when holding two contradictory values at once. We loved Wonder Woman but were dismayed to learn that Steven Mnuchin--Trump supporter and our current U.S. Secretary of the Treasury--was one of the executive producers. We feel some tension in these situations because something we have learned doesn’t align with our values or who we think we are. Thinking about those moments of dissonance, how do they challenge who we think we are? Are we not “woke” or part of the resistance because we gave money to see a film funded by a Trump supporter who is cashing in big on this film? Where do we draw the line?

Listen in as we discuss how we justify continuing to enjoy, value or believe something that does not align with our values and who we think we are as “good people” and “feminists” and how we navigate dealing with cognitive dissonance.


In the portrait of Jefferson that hangs
        at Monticello, he is rendered two-toned: 
his forehead white with illumination —
a lit bulb — the rest of his face in shadow,
        darkened as if the artist meant to contrast 
his bright knowledge, its dark subtext.
By 1805, when Jefferson sat for the portrait,
        he was already linked to an affair 
with his slave. Against a backdrop, blue
and ethereal, a wash of paint that seems
        to hold him in relief, Jefferson gazes out 
across the centuries, his lips fixed as if
he's just uttered some final word.
        The first time I saw the painting, I listened 
as my father explained the contradictions:
how Jefferson hated slavery, though — out 
        of necessity, my father said — had to own 
slaves; that his moral philosophy meant
he could not have fathered those children:
        would have been impossible, my father said. 
For years we debated the distance between
word and deed. I'd follow my father from book
        to book, gathering citations, listening 
as he named — like a field guide to Virginia — 
each flower and tree and bird as if to prove 
        a man's pursuit of knowledge is greater 
than his shortcomings, the limits of his vision.
I did not know then the subtext
        of our story, that my father could imagine 
Jefferson's words made flesh in my flesh —
the improvement of the blacks in body
        and mind, in the first instance of their mixture 
with the whites — or that my father could believe
he'd made me better. When I think of this now,
        I see how the past holds us captive, 
its beautiful ruin etched on the mind's eye:
my young father, a rough outline of the old man
        he's become, needing to show me 
the better measure of his heart, an equation
writ large at Monticello. That was years ago.
        Now, we take in how much has changed: 
talk of Sally Hemings, someone asking,
How white was she? — parsing the fractions
        as if to name what made her worthy 
of Jefferson's attentions: a near-white,
quadroon mistress, not a plain black slave.
        Imagine stepping back into the past, 
our guide tells us then — and I can't resist
whispering to my father: This is where
        we split up. I'll head around to the back. 
When he laughs, I know he's grateful
I've made a joke of it, this history
        that links us — white father, black daughter — 
even as it renders us other to each other.

Natasha Trethewey, "Enlightenment," Thrall (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012)

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