It would be easy to assume that a desire to document an enslaved woman’s rightful place in history started Annette Gordon-Reed down the path that led to her recent triumph as the winner of the National Book Award for nonfiction.
But it is a fascination with Thomas Jefferson himself, not Sally Hemings or the bonds between them, that has captivated this scholar and writer since her childhood.
Long before she knew about Hemings or her children and what their relationship to Jefferson might be, Gordon-Reed recalls that a biography she read in grade school sparked her interest in America’s third president and founding father. She developed a deep curiosity about the man who owned slaves yet helped to carve a new Democratic nation out of the fractious colonies. Gordon-Reed continued her studies of Jefferson while majoring in history at Dartmouth College.
“I first became interested in Jefferson and what interested me was that he liked books, and I like books,” she recalls. “He was interested in architecture and I was interested in architecture, but what interested me most was he was involved in writing the Declaration of Independence … Here was a person who was involved in the beginning of a country, creating a nation. It is really about the founding of a country.”
Dr. Gordon-Reed, who is a history professor at Rutgers University in Newark, N.J., as well as a professor of law at New York Law School, became the first African-American woman to win the National Book Awards nonfiction prize at a ceremony in New York last month for her book, The Hemingses of Monticello. She is also the first Black author to win the nonfiction prize since 1991 when Orlando Patterson won for Freedom. Other African-Americans have won in other categories.
Her book examines the lives of Sally, her siblings and her children born and reared at Monticello and owned by Jefferson.
Hemings, as Gordon-Reed writes, was also Jefferson’s wife’s half-sister.
“The Hemings question I really didn’t know anything about until several years after I started reading about Jefferson,” she adds, “and that really just deepened for me the sense that here was a person who could write ‘all men are created equal’ and hold slaves.”
It is not the first time Gordon-Reed has written about the Hemingses, nor does she plan for it to be the last. She is also the author of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, which kindled a firestorm of debate when it was published in 1997 because it discussed the intimate relationship between a president and one of the slaves he owned, something that had been missing from previous biographies on Jefferson.
She is planning a second volume on the Hemings family and a new biography of Jefferson. Both are scheduled to be published by W.W. Norton as well. The next one, possibly forthcoming in 2011, on the Hemingses, will look at the lives and families of a descendant who lived as an African-American and one who lived as a White person.
“For most people, slavery was a system in which people were bought and sold, and it was certainly that. But it was also a system in which bloodlines were mixed,” she says. “That created all kinds of problems that people tried to bury.”
“I think White Southerners in particular have always wanted to play that down, but I think color is so much a part of Black peoples’ lives that we can’t pretend that it doesn’t exist the way White Southerners do — not all White Southerners,” she adds. “Many White Southerners are quite open about this, but the prevailing view was that ‘Well, this didn’t happen very much.’”
As a Black woman, did she feel a sort of kinship with Sally Hemings?
“Not really,” she says. “I feel a kinship with her family. The person I feel the most attached to was her big brother James.”
Sent to Paris by Jefferson to train as a chef, James Hemings “got to see the world in a way that few people got to see it,” Gordon-Reed says.
“Having written about her, I feel closer to her than when I started out,” she says of Sally. “I knew some things, but I had never really considered her life in such a serious way.”
“When you are writing a narrative about someone, you have to think about them in a different way, in relationship to other people,” Gordon-Reed says. “She became more clear to me as James’ sister, or someone’s mother … ”
Sally Hemings’ experience as an enslaved woman who had children by a White man, especially at that time in Virginia, was not that unusual, Gordon-Reed says. “The only extraordinary thing is Jefferson. Her story, except for Jefferson, was pretty banal.”
Had he not been a founding father and early U.S. president, Sally might have been forgotten by history. Interest in whether he fathered children with a woman he owned remains high, in part because Americans hold Jefferson to a higher standard than other patriots. He also plays a symbolic role “as the personification of Whiteness,” especially for those who want to see America as a White country, Gordon-Reed says. The Hemings saga “messes with the myth,” she added.
She spent thousands of hours documenting the Jefferson-Hemings family’s life through the exhaustive record books Jefferson maintained about his life, work and expenses; other documents at Monticello, research in England on the slave owner who was the father of Jefferson’s wife and of Sally and her siblings, and documents in various other libraries and archives.
It is this hard work, Gordon-Reed believes led to the prize, which came as something of a surprise since another nominee, The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals by Jane Mayer, was favored to win, Gordon-Reed says.
“I would like to think it is because people recognize the amount of work that went into it and because I think it is a book that does something that is not typically done, writing about enslaved people as individuals and the newness of that, because the other books [that were nominated] were very well received as well and had gotten good reviews,” she says. “It is a different type of book.”
Gordon-Reed, a graduate of Harvard Law School, teaches courses on slavery and law and is the editor of Race On Trial: Law and Justice in American History, and coauthor with Vernon Jordan of Vernon Can Read: A Memoir.
Winning the National Book Awards top prize has generated increased attention from the media and others for her work and brought a flood of requests for speaking engagements and greetings from old acquaintances, but so far has not interfered with her work as an academic, she says. She was wrapping up a semester of classes and planning for finals when Diverse spoke with her last week.
Writing history is an extension of her work as an academic, says Gordon-Reed.
“It fits in naturally to what I do,” she says. “There are three components to an academic life. Teaching students, working in community and the third pillar is scholarship. This is scholarship.”
Annette Gordon-Reed became the first African American woman to win the National Book Award for non-fiction, for The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family. The book begins with Sally’s mother, Elizabeth, born in 1735, and ends with the beginning of the family’s dispersal in 1826 after Jefferson’s death.
Here she talks about the book in a promotional video prior to receiving the book award in November.Click Here to watch
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