Plain as Your Sense of Smell

Published:May 30, 2013 by Brendan Wolfe

The Rotunda at the University of Virginia

The poet Kiki Petrosino, a descendant of slaves and a graduate of the University of Virginia, has written a short essay on this sentence from Thomas Jefferson‘s Notes on the State of Virginia:

They secrete less by the kidnies, and more by the glands of the skin, which gives them a very strong and disagreeable odor.

“Here is the poet-naturalist at work,” Petrosino writes.

The irresistible rhythm of Jefferson’s language—so like the rolling hills of Virginia—seduces the reader’s body into going along, into agreeing by a kind of accession, even before the mind registers the sinister implications of the words themselves. Black people are different, says Jefferson. The evidence is as plain as your sense of smell.

And so was Petrosino’s experience growing up, a sense that only deepened over time. What was once hate—for her body, for Mister Jefferson—blossomed into something else during her time at U.Va.

I can’t hate a body that insists so vigorously on being present in the world. Without consulting me, my heels had struck their own sharp sentence on Jefferson’s ground: I am here. My joy in this doesn’t make up for the collective absence of all those whom he would have barred from his Lawn; their shadows still press into the plasterwork of the colonnade. They stay with me, like Jefferson’s Notes.

IMAGE: Rotunda during winter