It would be easy to assume that a desire to document an enslaved woman’s rightful place in history started Dr. 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.
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 for her book, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family. 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.
“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.”
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 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.
Gordon-Reed 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.’”
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 co-author with Vernon Jordan of Vernon Can Read: A Memoir.
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.”
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