February 17, 2018

Q & A: Annette Gordon-Reed

By Thomas J. Davis, Arizona State Univ., Tempe

Annette Gordon-Reed, a professor of law at New York Law School and of history at Rutgers University, has for decades investigated the controversial relations between Thomas Jefferson, primary author of the Declaration of Independence and third U.S. President, and his slave Sally Hemings, with whom he fathered children. In her new book, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (LJ 8/08), Gordon-Reed shifts the historical focus from Jefferson to Hemings, ushering her from the shadows and thus transorming her from a stereotypical slave girl to a substantial woman of considerable experience, family, and personal identity.

What seeded your obvious fascination with and passion for the Sally Hemings saga, centered on allegations of her bearing children for the American icon Thomas Jefferson?

I first became interested in Jefferson as a child in elementary school, after reading a child’s biography of him. That first book, again geared for children, did not mention the Hemingses at all. I first heard about the family when I read my parents’ copy of Winthrop Jordan’s White over Black [subtitled American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550–1812] (1968).

Why has Thomas Jefferson’s reported union with Sally Hemings been such a seemingly forbidden topic in American history?

Well, I think Americans have always had a great discomfort with interracial relations. By the way, I think that is still true today to a great extent. While Americans seem to love interracial buddy stories—two guys palling around or two women girlfriends—we aren’t as supportive of interracial male-female stories. If you will notice, interracial relations between men and women, if shown at all, are often played for laughs, depicted as a form of malady—”jungle fever”—or are almost always portrayed as prurient sex stories. Putting a founder of the nation in an interracial scenario creates problems for many people.

What convinced you of Thomas Jefferson’s union with Sally Hemings—any bit of individual evidence, the weight of the evidence, the totality of the circumstances?

It’s like anything else: the totality of the circumstances: the statements of members of her family, Jefferson’s treatment of the family, his neighbors’ and friends’ statements, the Jefferson family’s cover story that was blown by DNA, the names of the children, the pattern of Hemings’s conceptions—just a host of things.

What does Sally Hemings’s union with Thomas Jefferson tell us about her, him, and the variable substance of what it meant to be enslaved or to be an enslaver in America?

For one thing, this was not a unique circumstance. People respond to this as if this was something unusual. The thing that makes it noteworthy is that Jefferson was the author of the Declaration of Independence, the President of the United States, and a founder of the University of Virginia.

How does understanding the Hemingses’ family history contribute to understanding American race relations?

There is a lot of pain, silence, and denial in our conception of race in this country. Slavery was not just a work system that exploited the labor of one racial group, it was an institution that helped create family and blood ties between the races, ties that both blacks and whites were (and are) often ashamed of. It’s a complex question, but this aspect of the Hemingses story puts a lot of the fear and distrust between blacks and whites, particularly Southern ones, into some perspective. I really don’t think this tells black people things we didn’t know already. I feel this is likely to be more a revelation for whites whose families buried these types of stories to try to get away from them.

What does understanding the Hemingses’ family history contribute to understanding U.S. history?

I think the principal thing is that it makes plain, to those who would doubt it, that the founding era of this country presented a story of blacks and whites—and though I don’t address it much in the book—reds, when we consider the encounter with Native Americans. America was not a “white” country at its inception. Up until the beginning of the 19th century more blacks came to Virginia (okay, were brought there) than whites. In the beginning, America was an interaction between black, white, and red.