Fittingly, our third post for nonfiction november is for the word third. B.J. Hollars offers his interpretation below. I first became familiar with B.J.’s writing when I wrote a review of his book Thirteen Loops: Race, Violence and the Last Lynching in America. There and here, I appreciate his attentiveness to history, all of history, and the complicated dynamics existing within people in positions of power.
1third (thərd) adj : next after second — third or third·ly adv.
He was the third, but he was also the first.
The first to press ink to parchment and remind men they were equal.
The first to inform a king across a sea of his irrelevance.
Declarations were made, charges levied, but Thomas Jefferson—seemingly so concerned with the future of a democracy—was concerned also with the mysterious bones unearthed in a Virginian cave.
He was the third, but he was also the first to hold those bones and think: I hold in my hands a monster.
And he was the first to build those bones into a pride of giant lions thundering across the American landscape.
He was the first to designate a room in his White House for bones.
The first to fill the hallways with the corpses of unknown creatures.
I will authorize the Louisiana Purchase, he thought, and then I will return to the bones.
He was the first to fight the French on their theory of degeneracy, which claimed Old World creatures superior to the third-ranked runts born of American soil.
And as a result, he was the first to order the slaughter and transportation of a monstrous moose to prove to the French that America’s beasts were born better.
He was also the first to get it wrong.
The first to dream too hard for too long and make a monster out of a megalonyx.
The first to hold those brittle bones in his hands and think he had a beast.
He did not.
(What he had was a giant sloth).
But Jefferson had dreamed a creature into creation he called “Great-claw,” and though the giant lion did not exist, when Jefferson held those bones in the East Room of the White House, he confused a monster for a miracle.
This from the man who once confused “all men are created equal” with “all white men.”
Who wrote of “unalienable Rights” (but only if you were white).
He was the third to overlook these contradictions.
The third to sound the call for liberty, while fitting shackles to feet and fists.
What he needed, Jefferson knew, was a monster bigger than the one he’d helped create.
A giant lion, he thought, will surely eat this wolf.
Slavery, Jefferson once claimed, was like holding a wolf by the ear. And though he held tight to that wolf, he knew not how to release it.
Jefferson also held tight to his giant lion, and though science could not support the stature of the creature, he believed in it all the same.
He believed because he needed to.
Because America needed a giant lion to ensure its dominance. Because trade routes were at stake, and we could not be not be seen as degenerate.
He was not the first or the second to make a mistake, but the third. And his mistake was perpetuated by the fourth and the fifth, and on and on until the sixteenth took Jefferson’s declaration as truth and ordered emancipation.
The sixteenth released the wolf’s ear and the wolf killed many people. Boys in blues and grays poured down hills and soaked into the land as if this, too, was not proof of degeneracy.
The wolf, sometimes, took the form of a gun or a bayonet or dysentery, but mostly it just remained a shadow.
When we speak of the wolf and the giant lion, only one ever existed.
But when America needed a monster, Jefferson held firm—one hand tight on the ear of an impossible wolf, the other on an impossible claw.
B.J. Hollars is the author of two books of nonfiction, Thirteen Loops: Race, Violence and the Last Lynching in America—the 2012 recipient of the Society of Midland Author’s Award—and Opening the Doors: The Desegregation of the University of Alabama and the Fight for Civil Rights in Tuscaloosa forthcoming in 2013. His short story collection, Sightings is forthcoming next year from Indiana University Press. He teaches creative writing at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.
This word and definition was taken from a 2004 copy of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary