A few months ago, WVFC highlighted in Newsmix the achievements of Annette Gordon-Reed,  professor, attorney and historian, whose new book The Hemingses of Monticello comes four years after DNA evidence finally quieted most critics that had claimed that Thomas Jefferson couldn’t possibly be the father of the children of the enslaved Sally Hemings.  (Click the first link for video of her conversation with Charlie Rose.)

WVFC caught up with Gordon-Reed a while back,  to talk about history and women’s sexual power;  how working at Rikers Island prepared her for controversy;  and how it felt to raise a 15-year-old daughter while writing about a teenager who became pregnant by a President.

First of all,  thanks for an incredible book.  I think of it almost like a painting — it has all these layers and layers, and we kind of watch you apply each one. With each, the picture gets clearer and clearer.

It looks from the outside that  you’ve reinvented yourself a few times, like most women at this point in our lives.  On the way to becoming a breakthrough historian, you went from ow did you go from the uptown New York law firm Cahill ,Gordon & Reindel to general counsel for the New York City Board of Corrections?

Starting out at the firm, I learned how to work hard, and how to do the right thing. But then I saw an ad in the newspaper for this small, obscure agency.  What the Board of Corrections does is oversee the Dept of Corrections, and what we did is draw up minimum standards for the treatment of inmates.

In addition to helping set standards for religious observances, and so forth, my main job was to hear inmate appeals, for disciplinary hearings – which meant that I spent a lot of time going to Rikers Island.

That’ll change your life, right there.

Especially then, when we were hovering between 19,000 and 20,000 inmates at Rikers and area jails. It was eye-opening, though  also in many ways frustrating and depressing — to see so many young people behind bars.

No wonder you decided to jump to academia.

Well, I’d always wanted to be  a writer. I tried to do it as a lawyer, but I couldn’t make the time.  Becoming a law professor gave me the chance. I’s  thought about getting a doctorate in history —but I couldnt tell my husband, after he moved here with me from Southern California, thanks, I’m gonna stop working.    Being a law professor, you’re supposed to write and publish. I thought about writing about the law, but then I went back to my first love — history.

Did your skills as a lawyer prepare you to handle the controversies around the Jefferson and Hemings families?

I knew that Jefferson is, will always be, in some ways a contentious figure.

Especially after I decided to take on what people have written abt Sally Hemings. And being an attorney certainly helped me with my first book Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings; An American Controversy, which was about an argument.   But I’ve always liked intellectual debate – I was even on the debate team in high school.

Is it really still a controversy?

I don’t know any historians who continue to deny what happened. I read a lot of history, and most historians talk about this as an accepted fact. There are conservative scholars, and some people associated with Jefferson’s legal family who still can’t accept it, but they’re not in the mainstream.

Speaking of families – Monticello as you describe it feels like  sort of a huge dysfunctional family, with the Hemingses at its center.

The Hemingses’ presence in the family is dysfunctional because they’re out of the law. Virginia law made them property, which leads to some…unusual and yes, dysfunctional situations.

As you explain so well, Sarah (Sally) Hemings and her brothers shared a father with Jefferson’s wife Martha, who died when Sally was nine. Many members of the family helped build and maintain the physical Monticello. And when Sally was sent to Paris in 1786, it was to accompany one of Jefferson’s daughters, who she’d helped care for since they both were children.

So you have a sister owning her half-siblings, family members being given to other members as wedding presents. It all comes from the demands of the slave system. And the rest of the family — there’s a lot of talk about howJefferson ruined his daughter Martha’s marriage, by asking for Martha’s loyalty above that she gave her husband.  But when you look closely at the historical record, which I did  — you can see she was kind of unhappy in her marriage, and trying to get away from him!

But with anyone attached to Jefferson, people think – whatever happened, Jefferson caused it all. But these were grown women, making their own decisions.

That’s also the case you make, very carefully, about Sally Hemings herself, who agreed to return to Virginia with Jefferson rather than remain in Paris, where she could have been free. She was only fifteen when she arrived in Paris, 16 when she became pregnant by Jefferson. But your book makes a strong case for allowing a woman that age to own her own sexuality.

It’s not about sexuality. It’s about not recognizing and honoring a decision she made. In this country, there is a tendency to infantilize black women.

In history, white people have often been enslaved, but they’re not  talked about in the same way.  There’s  a tendency to see Sally Hemings as a powerless person.  Critics keep saying she can’t do this, can’t do that, without offering any evidence why she couldn’t make that decision.

You have a daughter who’s eighteen now; when you started this book, she was the same age as Hemings when she went to Paris, and was already being leered at by ship-captains.

Yeah, my daughter was sixteen, and I certainly thought of her as a child.  But in those days, many were married at  thirteen. Sixteen in the 18th century was not the same.

And Sally wasn’t alone in Paris – her  brother James was there. They were living outside Virginia law. They were livin outside Virginia law. I believe they could have stayed in France. When they got back from France, Jefferson owned her and had control of her, but still: You shouldn’t discount her family’s story, the one they wrote about for years,  their pride in what she did. She got her children out of slavery, and died in in a house her son owned, in the 1830s! That was long before most others were freed.

As women of a certain age, you and I also know the significant if temporary power of a girl that age. It’s not inconceivable that a smart 16-year-old could wrap even such a powerful man around her finger.

It’s a difficult thing, to acknowledge sexual power. We don’t want that – we want real power. But it’s real — and should be honored, especially when you consider that things worked out the way you want them to work out.  Saying Hemings did not have a choice, did not make one, is not to credit her with what she knew about Jefferson.

And I do believe it’s because she was black. If this were an Indian girl, a Chinese girl- any other kind of woman, she would be on a coin!. But our image of enslaved African women has been so debased for so long.

Did working on the book cause you to think about your own sexual feelings as a child?

I thought mainly about my daughter. Not the sex part of it, but seeing the way black women are so often dismissed and ignored.

Thanks in part to your work, the relationship has since entered public consciousness, sort of on your terms;  It’s even the staple of movies like Jefferson in Paris. When I told my mother-in-law about your book, she said “Oh! They were in love!” meaning Jefferson and Sally. But you find Jefferson in Paris particularly problematic because it ignores the fact that Sally and her family could pass as white, spoke French, and didn’t fit American stereotypes about enslaved people.

They didn’t really do any research. As James Hemings they cast someone very dark, and in the flashback they had James Earl Jones as Sally’s son Madison Hemings, who was basically a quadroon [three-quarters white]. They spent all this time figuring out what the wallpaper looked like, but very little on the Hemingses. They did not do the kind of thinking about these people in a way that would bring them to life and respect the choices they made.

And there’s one more book on the Hemingses, for you.

I’ve become really interested in life for African-Americans in the period after Reconstruction and before Roosevelt. Everyone’s trying to put all the pieces back together. So I started following two branches of Sally’s family —  one black and one white. We have John Wayles Hemings, whose  –  his family moves to Wisconsin and he becomes simply John Wayles Jefferson. He joins the Union Army, writes dispatches from Vicksburg, It’s an assumed identity – not false, but self-created.   I want to follow that. And the family of Madison Hemings is equally compelling, on the East Coast and all involved in “racial uplift” [a movement often associated with from W.E.B. du Bois and the Harlem Renaissance].

By now, does this family feel like it’s become your family?

Yes and no. I grew up in Texas. There were white people in our family, but no one made a big deal of it. These families in Virginia and Ohio – their experience is so different. They are foreign to me, in many ways.

You’re from Texas, your husband grew up in Compton, California; you met at Stanford Law School. Now you’re a New York power couple — you teach both at NYLS and at Rutgers University, and he was recently sworn in as a judge in New York State courts.

Funny how that happens.  I’d always wanted to live in New York for a while.  So we moved here, thinking we’d go back in a few years….But then we sort of got swept up in it all. Now he’s a judge, and that’s been a lifelong dream for him.  I guess we’re not moving back to California.  Until we do it for our retirement.

— Chris L.

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  • Wendi December 5, 2008 at 12:14 pm

    Great – and very interesting interview. I’ve visited Montecello before, knew of some of the history at the time, but not this much!
    — Wendi
    Your interview has been added to About the Author – An Author Interview Index!